Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing

The Jazz Samba Project: What’s Old is New (Part Two) — Look Back in Delight

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Music that Soothes the Soul

Veronneau: Jazz Samba Project, with Lynn Veronneau and husband Ken Avis (far right)

It was such a pleasure to have met and chatted with musician Ken Avis (albeit briefly) on Saturday, June 7, 2014, after the Jazz Samba Project Symposium. A former organizational development consultant with the World Bank Group, Ken is a sharp and knowledgeable music lover, especially of Brazil’s music. I congratulated him and his co-curator, Georgina Javor, for a most enjoyable and thoroughly professional presentation, which brought a variety of speakers together. Among them were teacher, lecturer, musician and journalist David R. Adler; teacher, composer and bassist Leonardo Lucini; editor, producer and NPR host Tom Cole; multi-Emmy Award-winning sound engineer Ed Greene; and professor and author Charles A. Perrone.

The symposium itself was a huge success, as was my talk the following Sunday afternoon with drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt (see the following link to my interview: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2015/12/28/its-jazz-samba-time-celebrating-the-50th-anniversary-of-the-landmark-bossa-nova-album/). Buddy turned out to be a terrific interview subject: involved, alert and ready with a memorable line or two. It was incredible how he managed to recall events from fifty years back with such facility, and in precise detail. And having Jazz Samba’s original sound engineer Ed Greene on the stage and alongside him was icing on the bossa nova cake.

My only regret was that my wife and I missed the Sunday afternoon performance of Ken’s group Veronneau with German-born harmonicist Hendrik Meurkens. Regrettably, we had to rush back to our hotel to catch the shuttle to Dulles Airport. I also regret not having seen the world premiere of Ken Avis and Bret Primack’s documentary, Bossa Nova — the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World.  I asked Ken afterwards if and when the documentary would be made public, either online or on his group’s Website. He was kind enough to send me the link to Primack’s YouTube channel where I could watch the film “in the raw.” Ken assured me it was chock full of fascinating tidbits that a history maven and pop-music buff such as myself would be thrilled to have at my disposal.

While we’re on the subject, Ken also provided me with a copy of a CD he recorded in 2012. Under the title Jazz Samba Project, it was his group’s homage to the milestone Jazz Samba album from 1962. My initial thought was that it was smooth sounding, suave and sophisticated, as only bossa nova was meant to be. The lilting rhythms and additional percussion effects were added virtues, while his wife Lynn’s easy-going vocals fit in beautifully with what I like to refer to as the “Astrud aesthetic” (named after Astrud Gilberto, the former wife of bossa nova pioneer, João Gilberto, who shot to stardom on the strength of her English-language rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema”).

I did have a few reservations with Lynn’s Portuguese pronunciation, though. Heck, even pop singer Lani Hall, one of two artists featured (the other being Janis Hansen) with Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66 on their many A&M albums, wasn’t all that perfect. Still, it did not detract from the generally relaxed vibes I got from the players. And the recording venue, All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., where the original Jazz Samba sessions took place, was heaven sent. While duplicating three of the selections from the original record (“È Luxo Só,” “One Note Samba,” and “Samba Triste”), Veronneau also covered the Bob Marley tune “Waiting in Vain,” Jorge Ben’s perennial “Más Que Nada,” Jobim-Mendonça-Gimbel’s “Meditation,” one of Baden Powell and Vinicius de Moraes’ afro-sambas, “Samba Saravah,” the Joseph Kosma-Johnny Mercer standard “Autumn Leaves,” and lastly Jobim’s “Wave.”

Getting back to the bossa nova documentary, Ken mentioned to me that “it’s still a work in progress and won’t see the light of day formally until [he and Bret] are able to raise a bit more money for film festival showings, etc.” All the same, Ken urged me to take a gander at it. “I’m sure you will have seen many of the clips before,” he added, “but there’s a lot of new original interview material in there too. There are some things we will change but this is it as of today!”

Bandleader, musician, lecturer, producer and playwright Ken Avis (Photo: Strathmore)

Ken was absolutely spot-on regarding the documentary. There were clips (most of them from second-generation footage) that I had never seen before: a rare showing of composer-guitarist Luiz Bonfá with Perry Como performing “A Day in the Life of a Fool” (known in Brazil as “Manhã de Carnaval”), the persnickety João Gilberto in an extended take on “Desafinado,” glimpses of Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd in concert, Elis Regina with Tom Jobim hamming it up on “Águas de março” (“Waters of March”), Vinicius and Tom in a rendition of “Felicidade,” and an interview with Charlie Byrd’s brother, Joe Byrd. In that one, Joe Byrd claimed, in his elegantly patrician Virginia accent, that brother Charlie called on the services of “two German drummers” — Philadelphia-born Buddy Deppenschmidt and Bill Reichenbach — to man the rhythm section (see the link to the video: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjE3au2p4TXAhVBfiYKHVpiA2EQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fvimeo.com%2F95835648&usg=AOvVaw0ijjbYF5DjAkC6YrGGGL7s ).

As for my talk with the “German drummer” William “Buddy” Deppenschmidt III (who is of Danish ancestry on his mother’s side), Ken had this to say: “I wish I could have caught the Sunday morning session — I heard from a couple of people who had been there, including the [Brazilian] drummer Vanderlei Pereira that it was interesting and entertaining. I [felt that] Buddy and his companions had a really good time at the festival and were delighted at the opportunity to be part of it, which for me is one of the best things we achieved.”

I asked Ken if he had ever heard of David Chesky and his audiophile label, Chesky Records. “I can recommend many of their CDs,” I wrote back, “especially the one called Club de Sol that highlighted composer-musician Chesky on piano with Brazilian percussionist Café, who my wife and I had met when we lived in New York (see the following link to my story, “Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil”: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/jazz-cant-resist-brazil/). “It’s a wonderful album of all original material, very bossa-nova tinged and jazz oriented — plus it swings, man, it swings! I guarantee you will love it if you haven’t heard it yet.

“I also have two of their earlier compilations (they double as sound checks, too), some of which featured singer Ana Caram, guitarist Badi Assad (she is part of an incredibly talented guitar-playing family that includes her two brothers, Sergio and Odair Assad), Livingston Taylor (James Taylor’s brother), Orquesta Nova, and a bunch of others. It’s all very eclectic stuff.”

My suggestion must have caught Ken’s ear. He wrote back to me after about a week: “When you mentioned Chesky I was aware of the label and a couple of days later I pulled out a compilation CD from them which I had bought years ago. It introduced me to [Bahian-born] Rosa Passos, who had a version of “Girl from Ipanema,” a Colombian singer Marta Gomez, who did a beautiful arrangement of “Cielito Lindo,” and included a bunch of other great tracks such as a bass and male vocal version of “Round Midnight.” If we were with a label, that’s the one I’d like to be with!”

With that said, I made up my mind to write to videographer and music journalist Bret Primack directly and introduce myself. Having put in a plug for one of my all-time favorite albums, I decided to pull out a couple of those Chesky CDs I had told Ken about. As I began to peruse the contents, lo and behold, I realized that Bret had written the liner notes himself. No wonder Ken knew about the label!

Call Me, On the Line

Videographer and music journalist Bret Primack (Photo: Optimise, Kathleen Witten-Hannah)

It was no surprise to me that Bret was a Brazilian music lover, as were David and his brother Norman Chesky. They owned (and founded) the Chesky Records label back in the late 1980s and continue to do so today. I quickly answered back: “I love their stuff! I have several excellent CDs of theirs including the two demo discs, which I still use on occasion to get the imaging right on my speakers.”

I felt an inspiration coming. Here is the gist of what I wrote to Bret: “I got your e-mail address from Ken Avis, who I met last weekend at the Strathmore after the Jazz Samba Symposium. Ken was kind enough to send me the video link to your film, Bossa Nova: The Music that Seduced the World, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My congratulations! I know he spoke with you about the making of, and genesis, of the film. I’d like to correspond with you about it, if you have some free time.

“The interesting thing is that I recommended several recordings to Ken of Brazilian music on the Chesky label. He told me he was familiar with the label. The CDs I suggested were a recital by [Brazilian jazz singer] Leny Andrade with pianist Fred Hersch — in particular, her powerful singing of the song “Wave,” which I think is a standout; and David’s Club de Sol. I would have added Herbie Mann’s Caminho de Casa (see the link to my article about this album: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/a-brazilian-at-heart-for-jazz-artist-herbie-mann-brazil-was-home-too/), but his name did not come up in our conversation.

“Coincidently, I pulled out Caminho de Casa and a Luiz Bonfá CD (also on Chesky) called Non-Stop to Brazil, both of which are favorites of mine. As I looked over the liner notes, I noticed that YOU wrote the notes! I knew, by the way you and Ken had discussed bossa nova in your film, that you must love or at least be familiar with Brazilian music. I had no idea you wrote the liner notes to my favorite works!” I also told Bret about my having met the percussionist Café.

“Please let me know if we can discuss your film. I even suggested to Ken a possible avenue for funding your project via the Audiovisual and Rouanet Laws in Brazil (I don’t know if they apply here, but you can most certainly give it a try). Ken told me he was going to check into them as well. Anyway, I look forward to hearing from you.”

After several false starts, I was able to speak to Bret. I had no idea the Chesky brothers were his cousins! We had a most satisfactory conversation, for which I thanked Ken. Bret hailed from the suburbs of New York. He started booking bands while still a teenager. Wherever he went, Bret met up with Brazilians who were passionate jazz and music lovers. After years in the city, Bret moved out West — to Tucson, Arizona, where he set up a jazz video outlet. He became known as the Jazz Video Guy. Some of his YouTube videos include “Miles Davis, the Picasso of Jazz,” and a series about the life and work of saxophonist Sonny Rollins. In our talk, Bret hinted that in order to complete the Bossa Nova film project he would need access to better archival footage as well as additional funding sources. Perhaps a trip to Brazil would be in order.

What really got my attention was that Ken mentioned using the unexplored avenue of the theater, by way of a play about the coming of bossa nova to the U.S. (specifically, the Washington, D.C. area). I took advantage of the opportunity to discuss, via our e-mail correspondence, a ready-made theater piece that many authorities consider to be the first (and, to date, only) bossa nova musical. That would be Pobre Menina Rica or “Poor Little Rich Girl,” a 1964 play (in the form of a cabaret piece) with lyrics and text by none other than Vinicius de Moraes, and songs by Carlos Lyra, a still-living icon of the bossa nova era.

Carlos Lyra, Nara Leao, Vinicius de Moraes (with Aloysio de Oliveira, standing) – Pobre Menina Rica (1964)

I told Ken that I had a CD of the music, as well as the original text (in both Portuguese and English) in my possession. “You can read about the musical in Ruy Castro’s book Chega de Saudade, translated under the title Bossa Nova: The Story of the Brazilian Music that Seduced the World” — a not inconsequential resemblance to Primack and Avis’ film title.

Suffice it to say that the plot line and music for Pobre Menina Rica are definitely of its time. The story is of the “poor-boy-meets-rich-girl” variety, result: love at first sight, the sort of innocent, innocuous fling that prevailed in the mid-1960s. The best examples I could think of were those Frankie Avalon-Annette Funnicello “beach blanket bingo” flicks from the same period. It may not have been what Ken was looking for, but it did touch on themes related to class differences (one of the main characters is a crippled Afro-Brazilian slum dweller, highly reminiscent of Porgy from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). Nara Leão and Elis Regina were originally pegged to star in the show when it premiered. In fact, Lyra wrote the musical with Nara in mind: she’s the titular “Poor Little Rich Girl,” which as we know was the title of a Noël Coward song.

I offered to send Ken the text to read over. “You can probably download some of the songs online as well.  If this perks your interest, I can even reach out to my friends in Brazil, Claudio Botelho and Charles Moëller (of Moëller-Botelho) who I have written about extensively on my blog.” For years, Carlos Lyra had been dying for someone to bring his play either to Broadway or to North American theaters in some capacity. It was another way of approaching Ken’s idea, but from a different angle, outside of writing something from scratch (which is more difficult).

However, Ken decided to give the project his own spin, the result of which was an original play called Bossa Fever! — When Samba met Jazz in 1960s Washington DC, with music by his band Veronneau. The world premiere took place in 2015 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in D.C., as part of the INTERSECTIONS 2015 Festival (here’s the YouTube link to the show: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0ahUKEwjg06GilYTXAhVFWCYKHXQjCRwQtwIIJjAA&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DXadG42P5DuA&usg=AOvVaw13PclTp0Xgyoy_XEBq2EFk).

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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Your Next Musical-Theater Project: Carmen Miranda — An Open Letter to Lin-Manuel Miranda

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The Brazilian Bombshell: Carmen Miranda

Dear Lin-Manuel,

Are you ready for your next musical-theater challenge? Are you willing to hear about the artistic and personal life of the Brazilian Bombshell, Carmen Miranda? I don’t know why this subject hasn’t occurred to you before, but it would be a natural fit for your background and musical-theater abilities. And considering your surname, the (ahem) obvious choice!

Speaking of which, my name is Josmar Lopes, but everyone calls me Joe. You see, I am a former immigrant myself. I came to the United States in 1959 from São Paulo, Brazil. I was five years old at the time. I grew up in the inner city, i.e. the South Bronx, near Fort Apache. You were born in Washington Heights and grew up in the Linwood area. My family and I lived for eight years at the Bronx River Houses — on the 14th floor to be exact — so we were intimately familiar with adversity and difficult times, much like the characters in your first hit play, In the Heights. In that, we share a commonality.

I recently watched a clip from the CBS Sunday Morning program in which both you and author Ron Chernow admitted that Alexander Hamilton’s life story was the ultimate immigrant take on the theme of making it in America.

In view of this, I can say with absolute authority that Carmen Miranda’s story is Hamilton’s twice over: she wasn’t born in Brazil, as many people mistakenly believe, but in Portugal. Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was brought to Rio de Janeiro (the country’s capital at the time) in 1909 by her mother when she was less than a year old.

The young Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, ca. 1920s

Incredibly, Carmen never became a Brazilian citizen, for which she was severely criticized. And despite a successful ten-year stage and recording career in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, Carmen longed for fame in the U.S., especially in Hollywood. Fate would eventually come to tap her on the shoulder.

In 1939, famed theater producer and impresario Lee Shubert was told of this sizzling new attraction by various individuals who had caught her act at the Urca Casino in Rio. He sent advance men to report back and keep an eye on the Brazilian’s progress. Upon his arrival there — and after watching Carmen perform live on stage — Shubert decided to invite Carmen to come to Boston and New York, and eventually make her Broadway debut in the musical revue, The Streets of Paris, in which she sang the number, “South American Way.” From there, it was a motion-picture contract with Darryl Zanuck’s Twentieth Century-Fox Studios.

Carmen stayed in America for a solid year, returning to Brazil in 1940, where she was “greeted” with a cold shoulder by the elite of Brazilian society for having made her fame away from her home country. One could add that her story from this point on was a “rags to riches to more riches” tale. Carmen decided to make America her home, which in return made her the highest paid woman entertainer in the business, only to end up in a miserable, loveless marriage to a minor American producer, an addiction to alcohol and barbiturates, electro-shock therapy, and a premature death at age 46. Whew!

How does all this connect to your personal style of writing and composition? Well, to put it plainly: Carmen was a uniquely gifted talent, in that she carved out her own individual performance style. She was more than just a singer and an entertainer: she was Brazil’s most famous international export. Her rapid-fire delivery and natural flair for language and self-expression came across not only on screen in those colorful Fox musicals of the 1940s, but in her many Brazilian recordings from the period 1929 to 1939, the decade before she immigrated (for the second time in her life) to America.

As evidence of her uniqueness, check out her classic appearance in Greenwich Village, a Fox musical from 1944, in particular two numbers: Nobel Sissle and Eubie Blake’s “I’m Just Wild about Harry”; and “Give Me a Band and a Bandana” by Leo Robin and Nacio Herb Brown.  In both, Carmen interpolates some lines in her native Portuguese that, believe it not, could have been harbingers of rap and hip-hop (Brazilian style, of course!). It’s the kind of thing that Carmen did naturally.

Poster art for Greenwich Village (1944)

If all this intrigues you, Lin-Manuel, then please let me know. I have had wide-ranging experience with Broadway and theater people, for example, Stephen C. Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey of Front Row Productions. I worked closely with them in our efforts to bring the 1959 cult film Black Orpheus to the New York stage. They can vouch for my proficiency in the area of cultural consultant. Not only was I successful in helping to obtain the rights to the original Brazilian play Orfeu da Conceição, but I also introduced Stephen and Alia to the team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho, the most successful producer-director duo in Brazilian musical theater today. In addition, I helped to translate (from the original Portuguese to American English) the team’s version of Black Orpheus, as well as Möeller-Botelho’s original theater piece, 7 – The Musical, a modern interpretation of the Sleeping Beauty-Cinderella fairy tales.

The most fascinating aspect of my association with Claudio Botelho was his challenge to me to write an original stage treatment based on Carmen Miranda’s life. I did so — willingly — and called it Bye-Bye, My Samba (or, in Portuguese, Adeus, batucada, after one of her hit songs). Much as you were inspired by Chernow’s biography to write Hamilton: An American Musical, I too have met the challenge head on of doing justice to my fellow Brazilian compatriot. It took a great deal of research and study, and long hours at home contemplating the best way to present this subject to audiences unfamiliar with Carmen’s history. I can tell you that I learned quite a lot about the real Carmen Miranda.

In spite of his poverty and illegitimacy and lowly station in life, Hamilton developed supreme self-confidence and a built-in reliance on his intelligence and work ethic. As for myself, I can only boast of my dedication and thoroughness to whatever project I work on. With that said, I am confident you will give this pitch of mine the dedication and thoroughness of thought it requires. As I stated at the outset, it’s a natural!

Thank you so much for your time!

In the Heights with Lin-Manuel Miranda (center)

P.S. We LOVED your play In the Heights, along with your Spanish translation of West Side Story. As a matter of fact, Stephen Byrd wanted to develop the Black Orpheus project along similar lines — that is, intersperse some Brazilian-Portuguese dialogue into the English translation. If that isn’t a compliment to the fine job you did with In the Heights, I don’t know what is!

Copyright (c) 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

Her Eyes Were Fixed on Bette Davis (Part Three): The Dating Game, ‘Paulistano’ Style

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Life is What You Make of It

Bette Davis & Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager (1942), with Sugar Loaf in the background
Bette Davis & Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager (1942), with Sugar Loaf in the background

Telling my parents’ life stories, and, at the same time, getting the facts of their courtship straight, haven’t been easy. The main problem is that they have long since departed: my mother died on December 16, 1985, at age sixty-one, from kidney disease; dad left us on October 23, 1993, of congestive heart failure at seventy-one — a mere eight years between deaths.

Even when residing and working in São Paulo as a teacher of English, I was barely able to communicate with relatives from either side of the family during the time I had spent there (September 1996 to January 2001). Hence, you will forgive me if the details of my account must depend primarily on anecdotal evidence.

It’s not enough to claim that Annibal Peres Lopes (or Lopes Peres, as recorded on the marriage certificate) and the former Lourdes Ferreira eventually wound up in each other’s arms. True, it wasn’t anywhere near the way Charlotte Vale and Jerry Durance’s romance blossomed in Now, Voyager.

If you recall, the enamored pair were stranded for days on end after their motorcar crashed near the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Still, I have to admit: in their unique way, mom and dad did have what, in Hollywood parlance, would come to be called a “meet cute.”

In the numerous documents my father left behind, he gave his São Paulo street address as Rua Rio Bonito No. 1293. This was close enough to, if not in the general vicinity of, where my mother had worked and lived (i.e., Rua Dr. Vergilio do Nascimento). Based on who did the actual telling, this is where their stories diverge.

In dad’s version, he had seen my mother several times before they actually met, but had no idea she was related to one his helpers, her adolescent brother Rubens. Dad would see her walking with a group of young women, one of whom, her sister Iracema, happened to be engaged to Agostinho Pires, another of my father’s partners. One day, dad playfully asked Rubens if he had a spare sister for him to date. Just then, mom rounded the corner with her siblings.

“There she is!” shouted Rubens.

“But, I know this lady!” dad answered back. And from that moment on, they hit it off.

As my mother would relate it, she and her sisters were on their way to a church social or similar get-together. They had come upon some friends who, quite by chance, happened to know so-and-so, and/or so-and-so’s brother or sister. That’s how young people in the neighborhood got to meet and greet one another, through mutual acquaintances.

All the same, mom was waiting with her sisters at the local bus stop, called o ponto de onibus — a literal wooden stake, or “point,” shaped like a giant pencil planted in the middle of the block or street corner.

Old-fashioned "ponto de onibus") ("bus stop") in Sao Paulo
Old-fashioned ponto de onibus (“bus stop”) in Sao Paulo, Brazil

In a reversal of mom’s narrative, it was dad who suddenly put in an appearance with his buddies. They were dressed to the nines in their immaculately pressed suits and silk ties. By force of habit, dad would never, ever venture forth from his mother’s residence in anything but a white long-sleeved shirt, starched to the hilt by one of his sisters. With him was his ever-present cigarette in hand.

Having admired my mother from afar and taken a liking to her calm, reticent manner (quite unlike that of most girls he’d been dating), dad started a conversation with her. When he learned she was going to church with her sisters, he asked if he could tag along. Mom nodded in agreement, and they all boarded the bus together as it approached. Dad accompanied my mother inside and waited for her to find a suitable spot. Once she sat down, he dutifully planted himself on the seat next to hers.

In the meantime, his buddies had followed the couple on board the bus, all the while snickering behind their back and cracking loud jokes at my father’s expense: “Hey, Annibal, you bum! Watch those hands! We can see your every move! Oh, will you look at that! He’s making goo-goo eyes at her! Behave yourself, you dog, or we’re calling her parents!”

Dad ignored their crude remarks. He was too busy focusing his gaze on the shy, young woman to his side. For her part, mom was enraptured. In what seemed like no time at all, the chubby, bespectacled second-oldest daughter of Francisco and Ana Ferreira (an early portrait of my mother struck me as a carbon copy of Jerry Durrance’s daughter Tina) was engaged to the handsomest, most charming bachelor of Alto do Pari. “Um pão de homem” (“A hunk of a man”) was how the locals described him, with dark, wavy hair, olive complexion, and chestnut-brown eyes. Not only was he fastidious about his looks and dress, but dad boasted a muscular build, a slender face, and a strong chin, topped with a neatly trimmed mustache.

Oh, he was quite the catch, all right — with one hell of a Latin temper to match. Notwithstanding mom’s Protestant fervor, as a concession to her future mother-in-law the religious ceremony took place in a Catholic parish ministered by the local priest. Mom also agreed to have her firstborn child baptized in the same parish, that of Igreja São João Batista. Wedding pictures from that period bore witness to her miraculous change from a self-professed ugly duckling to that of a gorgeous September bride. Mom looked smashing in her lace bridal gown with matching flower bouquet and crown. She and dad were beaming with delight.

My parents' wedding photograph (September 1953)
My parents’ wedding photograph (September 1953)

And to think their storybook marriage almost failed to come off! About a week before the big day, dad’s partner “Noca,” who was known to take a nip (or more) between trips, crashed their truck into a ditch. There went dad’s sole means of livelihood. Before desperation began to sink in, our relatives came to my father’s aid: they were able to recover the vehicle and bring it back to its former working condition in time for the wedding ceremony.

Immediately after the reception, the couple honeymooned in nearby Santos, which for paulistanos was the seaside equivalent of Rio. When they returned from their trip, the newlyweds moved in with my father’s family. His father, Alfredo, had died years earlier when dad was only nineteen. Since then, his mother had taken up the challenge of running the Lopes household as she saw fit. Grandma Encarnación — La Abuela, as dad pejoratively referred to her — ruled with an iron rod. Charlotte Vale’s bully of a parent was child’s play compared to this formidable grande dame. Dressed all in black, my foreign-born grandmother would don the mantilla, which enveloped her long, gray-streaked hair, held tightly in a bun and comb. Her face was heavily lined, and her speech was spiced with a thick Spanish accent.

Mom suffered at the hands of her in-laws. Because of her total dedication to being a model wife and mother, with one or two exceptions (my aunts Marina and Herminia, for example) the others were uniformly resentful of her presence. Mom’s gentleness and timidity, along with the quiet, nondescript way she went about her business —and in particular, her good nature — were frowned upon in a home where clamor and name-calling were a common way of life.

They were jealous as well of mom’s daily visits to her mother, who lived only a few blocks away. Since Vovó Encarnación had been treated harshly by her alcoholic husband, she regarded everyone around her as worthy of being treated in like manner. In turn, Grandma was callously treated by her own children (including my dad). Now grown up, the harshest of the sisters felt it only fair to take their frustrations out on my mom.

On one of these visits, she expressed to her mother Ana the deep sorrow and profound distress she experienced while staying at her in-laws. Vovó Ana, who was well-schooled on the theme of rude relations, counseled her to carry on in the face of her difficulties; that the good Lord would provide an answer to her seemingly inescapable dilemma.

Shortly thereafter, mom became pregnant with her first child (yours truly). Because of this, my father resolved that mom should have a home of her own. For which he arranged a move to a new apartment above a local real estate office on Rua Pedroso da Silveira, a mere stone’s throw from her mother’s dwelling. Mom was overjoyed at the prospect. Since dad traveled so frequently, she would be better-off living close to her own kin than to her in-laws. They could care for her, too, in the event he was unable to be present for my birth.

It took years for Vovó Encarnación to recognize the precious jewel she had in her daughter-in-law: that hard-working, dedicated, and utterly selfless individual I grew to love and admire was forced to overcome her natural reserve in order to endure almost unrelieved anguish. During the time she spent with her in-laws, mom refused to argue back, but neither did she buckle under from dread. Moreover, she maintained her composure throughout the year-long ordeal, never once offending those who took it upon themselves to offend. Through her example, mom went on to earn their respect, if not their ardor. In time, dad’s relatives came around and softened their approach. There would always be someone that continued to harbor unmerited animosity towards her, but overall mom triumphed through kindness and resilience, and by never giving in to despair.

As for La Abuela, she continued to regard my mother warily, but with a noticeable degree of deference. After all, she was a full-blooded Spaniard. If anything, Vovó Encarnación applauded mom’s ability to care for her children (my brother, Anibal Jr., was born a year and three months after me) and, in all honesty, Grandma treated us kindly. Mom’s diligence in that department would serve her well in the biggest and farthest move of her life: to a home in the South Bronx, in the northeastern part of the United States, far from the familiar surroundings of Alto do Pari.

Mom & Dad as they looked around the time of their marriage
Mom & Dad as they looked around the time of their marriage

Dad paved the way for us in May 1959. With his inherent independent streak, he had wanted to get away from his relatives for some time, to live his own life free from their constant prying and whining. After securing employment at a lamp factory as well as putting a down payment on a three-story house at 942 Stebbens Avenue near Fort Apache in the Bronx, dad sent for his wife and two sons.

Mom had never left the State of São Paulo, nor had she set foot outside her native land, until the day she boarded a six-engine TWA transcontinental airline. It took twenty-four nonstop hours to reach Idlewild Airport in Queens. Mom traveled alone with her two boys, aged five and three-and-a-half. She spoke not a word of English. What courage she must have displayed! What strength and single-minded purpose! One can only imagine the thoughts that had gone through her head, or the hardships that would lie before her.

She once told me that leaving her mother behind was the hardest thing she ever had to do. She would have stayed in Brazil — willingly, at that — if only her mom had asked. The story goes that the wrinkled old woman took mom’s “little hands of gold” in hers. Staring gently but gravely into her searching eyes, Grandma Ana gave my mother this piece of advice: “Filha, seu lugar é com seu marido” (“Daughter, your place is with your husband”). And that settled that.

Mom learned to speak and understand a reasonable amount of English in the twenty-five years she lived and worked in New York. She braved the freezing cold winters and the blisteringly hot and humid summers as best she could. She even managed to get around with facility, taking the subway and the bus to wherever she needed to go. When neither was available, she made it under her own power.

She continued the daily grind almost up until the week she passed away. I had only seen my father cry twice beforehand, once at his mother-in-law Ana Joaquina’s demise, and again when my Aunt Marina’s husband, Uncle Frederico, died suddenly a week after New Year’s. When news reached him that his own mother had passed, I remember him sitting alone in the living room with the lights turned off. No tears were shed that night for Encarnación Peres Leimones, but they poured forth like a tropical rainstorm when our mother breathed her last, much as he had done for his mother-in-law when she had gone.

Dad lived another eight winters. He had suffered three heart attacks up to that point, the second of which, in the summer of ‘79, forced him into early retirement. His years were filled with frequent hospital visits — among them, for a triple bypass graft and carotid-artery endarterectomy — amid various nursing home stays. After experiencing multiple transcient ischemic attacks and strokes, aggravated by anxiety neurosis, a type-A personality, high blood pressure, an elevated cholesterol count, and hardening of the arteries, dad expired in the early morning hours of October 23, 1993.

Lourdes and Annibal Lopes were both cremated, their ashes preserved in solid brass urns that resided side-by-side, for a time, at the famed Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. They were finally buried together, along with their urns, in 1996, at the Cemitério do Tremembé, in the North Zone of São Paulo, Brazil, the city and country of their birth.

Their life together was never an easy one. They might have looked at it as the story of two dissimilar spirits, wandering the earth with a shared purpose: to survive by any means at their disposal, and at any cost — even to their own lives.

They never asked for the Moon. And they never quite got hold of the stars. But for thirty-two consecutive years they were content to have each other, and that’s all that mattered. ☼

Copyright (c) 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016: Brazil’s President ‘Burns’ as the World Watches the Summer Olympic Games (Part One)

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Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics
Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics, held in August 5, 2016

Celebrate Bad Times, Come On!

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. And it most certainly wasn’t part of anyone’s game plan, either.

This was going to be the twin jewels in the crown of Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose personal efforts on behalf of his country’s pitch to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) resulted in a dual victory of sorts.

The first prize was awarded on October 30, 2007, in Zurich, Switzerland, with Brazil being chosen as the site for the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, its first since the contest took place there in 1950 (and we know how that venture turned out). Next up, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, which were formally announced in Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 2, 2009.

That was seven seasons ago, when Lula was at the height of his fame and esteem, with an astounding 75 percent (or more) approval rating among his fellow Brazilians. Lula wept visibly, and uncontrollably, as then-IOC president Jacques Rogge called out the name of “Rio de Janeiro” as the first South American host city in the history of the modern Olympic Games. Time to party!

Brimming with pride and self-confidence, Brazil sauntered forth in preparation for two of the world’s most prestigious sporting events. If anything, Lula and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), or PT for short, had every right to believe that Rio would make itself ready to receive close to half a million visitors, without undue controversy or delays.

If only …. !

When I was a boy, I remember hearing my dad reminisce about the countless times his foolhardy compatriots would brag that Brazil was on its way at last. “Dessa vez vai!”  they would shout at him, in defiant assurance. “This time for sure!”

Over the course of the last two years, however — ever since Brazil suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi-final match — the country has had nothing but uphill battles in its attempts to overcome the odds of mounting a crowd-pleasing, if not financially rewarding, 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Throughout Brazil’s summer and into the fall there was plenty of “trash talk” from news outlets the world over, calling for cancellation of the quadrennial event. At the very least, the games must be postponed, journalists hinted at loudly. If not, they would dissolve into an unqualified catastrophe.

Athletes from around the globe, including those of the host nation, would become infected with the dreaded Zika virus, spreading its harmful effects (i.e., infants born with shrunken heads and severely impaired brain function to women of childbearing age) in a full-blown pandemic. They conveniently overlooked the fact that winter had settled upon the region, which meant the mosquito population carrying the virus would be at its lowest point.

Needless to say, dire warnings of the end of civilization as we know it were foisted upon anyone willing to listen to these modern-day Cassandras, as if Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ introduction of venereal disease to the New World had left a less damaging legacy.

Astonishingly, the organizers of the Rio games, as well as the unruffled IOC members, didn’t see it that way at all. As a matter of fact, they maintained an unwavering Pollyanna-ish outlook on the situation. “Everything is awesome,” they seemed to be spouting. “No Trojan horses here, of that we are certain. So it’s on with the show!”

And what a show it would turn out to be. But before dealing with the main event, South America’s most populous nation would have to wade through a lightning round of preliminaries. With forecasts of a calamity worse than the plagues of Egypt, commentators openly implied that those self-same “preliminaries” would be better by far than the games themselves.

Was it possible they could be right?

Light That Torch

Torch lighting ceremony - Rio 2016
Torch lighting ceremony, with torch bearer Vanderlai Cordeiro de Lima, Rio 2016

On May 3, 2016, the Olympic torch finally arrived in northern Brazil. It made the long, arduous journey through the country’s five major regions, eventually winding up in Rio’s mammoth Maracanã Stadium in time for the opening ceremony.

In many instances, Brazilian runners carrying the renowned sports symbol were met with a bizarre combination of cheers and jeers, and unbounded exuberance mixed in with outright antagonism.

On more than one occasion the torch relay was interrupted by masses of noisy protesters lining the route. Among the demonstrators were striking teachers from Angra dos Reis, in the state of Rio, who were dispersed later on by military forces when tear gas and rubber pellets were haphazardly fired into the crowd.

One such torch bearer, a woman, collapsed on the pavement from sheer exhaustion. Another bearer, surrounded by police jogging alongside and in unison, was sprayed with the contents of an extinguisher. (What part of “light my fire” did they not get?) The police quickly rushed in to tackle the offender.

These and similar incidents continued unabated, up until show time. However, to be fair most foreign viewers and participants were left speechless by the boundless good will and easy camaraderie shown by their Brazilian hosts during the actual games.

All the drama and tension of a two-act theatrical production, with lengthy intermission features and triumphant medal winners, were spaced strategically apart from incidents that took place before and after competition began.

Politics Rule the Day

Brazil's ex-President Dilma Rousseff speaking in Brasilia
Brazil’s ex-President Dilma Rousseff speaking in the capital of Brasilia

To start with, Brazil’s political system had been in virtual freefall. President Dilma Rousseff’s suspension, on May 12, 2016, from the nation’s highest office — nine days after the Olympic torch had landed — along with the Brazilian Senate’s historic vote for her impeachment on August 31 — exactly nine days after the Olympic closing ceremonies on August 22 — had thrown the ruling Workers’ Party into a tailspin.

Dilma had been tried for the crime, such as it was, of falsely propping up the economy in order to cover up the “true” state of the federal government’s deficit-ridden coffers during her 2014 re-election bid — a technical accounting maneuver that past presidents had taken full advantage of.

Only in her case, the implications were indicative of what some critics had foreseen as a personal grudge against an unpopular, uncompromising, and totally unbending head of state, a convenient scapegoat for the country’s economic woes.

Having won a narrow victory in the November 2014 runoff election, Rousseff implemented an array of measures that did little to prevent the country from slipping further into recession. Despite having been Lula’s handpicked successor, and by dint of her carrying on with his policies of lifting the living standards of Brazil’s impoverished under-classes via the enormously effective Bolsa Família (Family Aid) program, Dilma’s mishandling of the coming fiscal crisis had riled the nation’s elites into action.

“I may have committed errors,” Rousseff admitted to her accusers, “but I never committed crimes. It’s the most brutal of things that can happen to a human being — to be condemned for a crime you didn’t commit. There is no more devastating justice.”

After more than a decade of social uplift and federal handouts initiated under Lula and the Workers’ Party, Brazil’s “traditional ruling class,” consisting of influential oligarchs with vast monetary holdings (an eerie nod to the U.S.’s own circumstances re: Citizens United), saw an opportunity to take back the reins of power.

There were those within this select group of career politicians who were more corrupt than the person they were pursuing. Let him who is without sin cast the first impeachment vote.

Some even insisted on going forward with proceedings against Brazil’s first woman president on the grounds of her poor command of the Portuguese language. This wasn’t so much a crime as it was a clear-cut expression of the deplorable state of the Brazilian educational system.

Be that as it may, Dilma’s vice president and sidekick, Michel Temer, from the opposition Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), or PMDB, while temporarily in charge of the government in her absence, has himself been implicated in corruption activities.

Interim President Michel Temer (AFP Photo - Evaristo Sa)
Interim President Michel Temer (AFP Photo – Evaristo Sa)

The charges stem from his alleged solicitation of illegal campaign contributions from the then-head of the transportation unit of the state-owned Petrobras oil conglomerate. The accusations were part of a much larger investigation commonly known as Operação Lava-Jato (Operation Car Wash), in which an ever-widening circle of Brazil’s politicians were caught with unclean hands, including possibly ex-President Lula himself.

In addition to which, Temer’s brand of right-wing politics, his handpicked all-male (and all-white) cabinet members — in a country where 60 or more percent of the population has some kind of black African roots — and austerity measures that plan to cut back the very programs that helped poor Brazilians out of their misery, have infuriated those who deem his efforts as geared primarily towards saving his own party’s skin and the monied interests of the ruling elite. He remains almost as unpopular as Dilma had been.

As of this writing, Temer has been confined to serving out the remainder of Dilma’s term of office through 2018. With all that has transpired in the political arena, the Brazilian people as a whole have been left with little credibility in their leaders to shake the weary nation out of its torpor.

“This time for sure” remains as unfulfilled a slogan as it ever was.

Oh, We’ve Got Trouble, Right Here in Rio City

The escalating violence — over 60,000 or more unsolved murders in the past few years alone — has continued to upend efforts by both government and paramilitary groups to control drug traffickers and their constant turf wars for dominance in Rio’s squalid slum areas, known universally as favelas.

The city’s own fiscal crisis, wherein it spent over $11.9 billion on Olympic facilities as well as expansion of the existing infrastructure — much more than was taken in to make the 2016 Summer Games a profitable endeavor — has only contributed to the once nascent BRIC nation’s problems, leading to a 4 percent drop in average wages and a staggering 11.6 percent increase in the unemployment rate. (Note: The estimated “unofficial” figure has been pegged at nearer the 37 percent mark, which takes into consideration the number of undocumented workers, the so-termed clandestinos, who make their living the unofficial way.)

Brazil’s gross domestic product, or GDP, also fell 3.8 percent in the second quarter of this year. According to the Website Focus Economics, this was considered an “improvement” over the first quarter’s tumbling of nearly 5.4 percent. Didn’t they say there were no Trojan horses?

This unfortunate reversal of fortune, in a country once touted as the most likely to break through to the level of a First World state (the letter “B” in BRIC stands for Brazil), has brought about a massive recession the likes of which has not been seen since Brazil’s military leaders staged a nonviolent coup back in 1964. You would have to go back to the Depression and war years to find a comparable situation.

As if all that weren’t enough, the raw sewage dumped into Rio’s picturesque Guanabara Bay was rumored to have been detrimental to swimmers and rowers’ health. Despite assurances by the IOC and the city’s planners, who continued to claim progress in “cleaning up” the filth and muck, the situation will continue to rankle long after the games have ended. Problems in Rio’s sewage treatment plants were to blame, allowing for a paltry 20 to 30 percent success rate in eliminating the contamination.

Clean up of Rio's Guanabara Bay - Rio 2016
Clean up of Rio’s Guanabara Bay – Rio 2016

Along the same lines, reports of incomplete or faulty construction, involving the accidental deaths of workers on one of the newly built bike paths in the upper-class neighborhood of São Conrado, as well as the use of cheap labor and shoddy materials, renewed concerns over the slipshod working methods employed in building the Olympic Village and other select venues.

Poor or nonexistent accommodations, faulty wiring, intermittent power outages, cost overruns, and related structural issues were an unavoidable nuisance, a constant reminder that problems continued to plague the seaside paradise of Rio de Janeiro.

Added to which the colossal upheaval to the city’s mass transit system has led to constant disruptions in service to a public entirely dependent on its functionality for getting around town. Detours, work stoppages, and miles upon miles of snarled traffic have contributed in many cases to bringing Marvelous City to a marvelous standstill.

All this gloom and doom was projected to bring about a correspondingly Olympic pool-sized fiasco. The opening ceremonies would be a joke. The lighting of the Olympic flame would be doused by Brazil’s inability to meet expectations, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.

On the other hand, the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” to coin a phrase once used by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (and attributed to writer William Safire), would rue the day they badmouthed Rio to a skeptical sports world.

Goodness, gracious me! Has there ever been a more negative view, in anyone’s experience, of a host city’s ills? And we thought the situation with Athens 2004 was bad! If “Greece” is the word, what would Rio 2016 spell in the wake of these impending disasters?

(End of Part One – To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Her Eyes Were Fixed on Bette Davis (Part Two): This is Your Cinematic Life

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Paul Henreid & Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942)
Paul Henreid & Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942)

THE QUEEN “B” OF HOLLYWOOD MADE HERSELF AT HOME IN OUR LIVING ROOM — AND IN MY MOTHER’S HEART

Obviously, my parents were not Boston natives but citizens of São Paulo. They were born in the same neighborhood — that of Alto do Pari, near Brás — and in the same month of September. They also shared the same astrological sign of Virgo. By tradition, those born under this sign are supposed to be exacting, nitpicking perfectionists. I can vouch for that conclusion where my father was concerned. My mother, however, followed the “gentler” attributes of Virgos: that of a loving, sincere, and caring human being.

Dad came first, on September 26, 1922,* with mom following two years later, on September 12. Her parents named her Lourdes, while he was christened Annibal. By sheer coincidence, the civil ceremony took place in September as well, on the first day of the month, in the year 1953, followed by nuptials at Igreja São João Batista on September 3, which remained the officially recognized date. And again, purely by accident, mom immigrated to the U.S. on September 3, 1959, the sixth anniversary of her church wedding.

She was the second of seven siblings, and the second daughter of Francisco Antonio Ferreira and the former Ana Joaquina, who were of Portuguese descent from the province of Trás-os-Montes (Behind the Mountains) in the northeastern corner of the country. My dad’s parents, Alfredo Estanislau Lopes Más and the much younger Encarnación Peres Leimones, came from Spain (Granada and Múrcia, respectively). They too had seven children: three sons and four daughters, with dad the second youngest of the lot.

In the movie Now, Voyager, Bette Davis’s character, Charlotte Vale, is the youngest (and only daughter) of an upper-class Boston family of four. She suffers from low self-esteem, brought on by her sharply critical, brow-beating mother (played by Gladys Cooper). This dowager matron treats Charlotte so harshly, keeping her life under wraps, telling her how to dress, what to eat, when to get up, where and when to go out, and with whom, that in time gives way to her daughter’s breakdown.

Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis ) confronts her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper)
Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis ) confronts her domineering mother (Gladys Cooper)

Realizing she needs professional help, Charlotte’s family members engage the services of a sympathetic shrink named Dr. Jaquith (the dependable Claude Rains), who successfully treats her at his sanitarium. He even arranges a little ocean voyage for Charlotte to romantic Rio de Janeiro, where the former ugly duckling, now transformed into a swanlike vision of loveliness and sophistication, meets the handsome and oh-so-charming Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) — an unhappily married man with a problem child of his own. I’d be giving nothing away if I said that, in due course, these two troubled souls wind up in each other’s arms.

As the story progresses, the lovers decide to part ways, until fate brings them back together. When Charlotte returns home to Boston after breaking off her engagement to another man, she has a bitter quarrel with her mother. Strengthened by her newfound independence (acquired through Jerry’s love, no less), Charlotte stands up to the old biddy, admitting to her that she never asked to be born; that she knew she was unwanted as a child, made to suffer needlessly for having appeared late in her mother’s life. Mrs. Vale is aghast at her behavior; so much so that, unable to accept this boldly assertive position, she has a fatal seizure and dies. Of course, this leads to a dramatic relapse, with the guilt-ridden Charlotte once again seeking Jaquith’s aid.

Upon re-entering the sanitarium, who should she meet but her ex-lover Jerry’s homely teenage daughter, Tina (Janis Wilson). Charlotte recognizes the equally unwanted girl’s situation as close to her own, ergo she allows her motherly instincts to take over. In an effort to bring Tina out of her shell, and with Jerry and Dr. Jaquith’s consent, she takes Tina under her wing, as one might say, and befriends the impressionable youth. Tina now becomes a conduit for the expression of her amorous inclinations, the means by which she and Jerry can maintain a semblance of their earlier relationship, while still keeping up appearances.

Charlotte & Jerry share a smoke together in the iconic final scene of Now, Voyager
Charlotte & Jerry share a smoke together in the iconic final scene of Now, Voyager

In the final scene, Charlotte and Jerry share a moment of repose. It’s another of those classic film sequences: Charlotte offers him a smoke. Jerry reaches into the box, takes out two cigarettes, and places them in his mouth. He then lights both cigarettes with his lighter, giving one of them to Charlotte. She takes the cigarette, gladly, and, with tears welling up in her eyes Charlotte responds to his query as to whether she will be happy with having just a part of him in Tina.

“Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the Moon. We have the stars.”

Reality Bites

In life, my mother was prone to low self-esteem, which had nothing to do with her parents’ treatment of her. In all likelihood, her poor self-image can be attributed to sibling rivalry, what with an older sister and three younger ones to contend with, including two younger-aged brothers. That, and the fact that mom wore glasses, was physically on the “chubby” side (which made her exceedingly self-conscious), and had a more compliant nature than her sisters, may have contributed to how she saw herself with respect to relationships inside and outside the family circle.

Raised as a Methodist in a community dominated by the Catholic Church, mom made up in religious fervor what faith she lacked in herself. No matter what troubles befell her, or her brood, my mother maintained an unwavering commitment to the Golden Rule. She would be forced to rely on that commitment once she had left her mother’s side.

There were few career choices back then for girls her age: either you learned to handle a Singer sewing machine or you mastered the Remington typewriter. Mom chose to sew as a profession. At age eight, she completed primary school; she then spent the next half-dozen years learning to be a seamstress. Mom completed the course and received her diploma in “Garment Making and Sewing” on December 12, 1938, from Escola Santa Clara, located at Rua Rio Bonito No. 26-A, in São Paulo. The document was signed by Elisa Amelia Affonso, the director of the school.

Not only was mom an outstanding dressmaker, but she also designed and sewed her own wedding gown, along with those of her sisters, cousins, and family friends. By virtue of these unique gifts, she was given the pet name mãozinhas de ouro, or “little hands of gold.” Much later in life, mom would be employed by the Calvin Klein Sportswear Company in Manhattan’s fabled Garment District. On occasion, fashion designer and founder Calvin Klein, a Bronx native, would journey down to the showroom (where mom’s “little hands of gold” were at their busiest) to mingle with the predominantly female labor force.

Growing up in a large working-class family, mom was used to self-sacrifice. She saw her sisters Alzira and Deolinda, and brother Manoel, marry and move out of her parents’ house long before she herself started dating. Always willing to lend a helping hand, mom picked up the slack by doing double duty at her father’s butcher shop, catering to customers and making change, plucking the chickens and learning the ropes of how to provide for her family in times of need. When oldest sister Alzira’s husband died prematurely from tuberculosis, mom helped raise her little niece, Martha, through her formative years while the widowed Alzira went out into the working world.

Her weekends were spent in mild recreation. A devoted member of Igreja Metodista do Brás (Methodist Church of Brás), mom praised the Lord in spirit and song as a contralto in her church’s choir. She took a good deal of pleasure, too, in going to the movies, visiting with friends, conversing with relatives, and attending picnic gatherings with her siblings. Because of her inherent modesty, mom rarely, if ever, participated in Carnival celebrations, except as an inquisitive bystander. It goes without saying that she neither drank nor smoked.

Igreja Metodista do Bras (Methodist Church of Bras) in Sao Paulo
Igreja Metodista do Bras (Methodist Church of Bras) in Sao Paulo

It is also no cliché to suggest that my Carnival-loving, opera-going father Annibal was the polar opposite of my mother in outlook and disposition. The drive and self-assurance he exhibited at home, and around others, came early in life. On an impulse, dad left school at a tender age to become a “surveyor” in the Mato Grosso region of south-central Brazil. All told, he spent six months in the jungle brush, where a lifelong smoking habit was acquired so as to ward off the nightly swarm of mosquitoes.

Doing odd jobs for a time, dad eventually landed a position as a stock clerk and correspondent, first with a textile company and later for a German-based paper mill. In spite of his only having a secondary school education, he became proficient in Portuguese and Spanish, reading, speaking, and writing both languages equally well, and would jabber away in Italian, too, when the spirit moved him.

After twelve years inside a stuffy, poorly lit office, dad decided to quit the paper mill to tough it out as a self-employed traveling salesperson — more out of frustration at being passed over for promotion than any latent entrepreneurial skills. He invested what money he had earned in a franchise with the Confiança Company (Indústria de Produtos Alimentícios Confiança), a growing concern that specialized in selling candies and sweets. The company later changed its name to Balas Kid’s (“Kid Candies”), to more accurately reflect the nature of the business.

My dad drove a truck similar to the one pictured above
My dad drove a truck very similar to the one pictured above

With his partner “Noca,” my father would set off on extended road trips, first to the south of Brazil (Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Paranaguá) and an established customer base; then, up to Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte and its environs), and back down again to the interior of São Paulo State. He would be gone for weeks at a time, so mom was left to fend for herself. Upon his return, dad would sport the darkest suntan known to man, one that made him all-but unrecognizable to us kids.

When my parents and I visited dad’s family in Vila Maria, São Paulo, in July 1985, I happened to come across an old photo album that his youngest sister Marina had taken out of storage for our amusement. Leafing through the album’s pages, I spotted the snapshot of a runty-looking lad, aged twelve or thirteen, with spiky jet-black hair, darkly-colored skin, and strong, penetrating eyes. He was staring intently at the camera, his expression telegraphing his innermost thoughts: “Go ahead, start something,” the boy seemed to be saying to gawkers such as myself. “I dare you!”

I asked my aunt who that boy happened to be. Within seconds, dad came over to where I was sitting. He stared briefly at the photograph, and, with a broad grin and a snicker in his voice, blurted out, “Sou eu!” (“That’s me!”).

I was speechless. That unmistakable look of determination, of someone who knew exactly what he wanted out of life, and was willing to do whatever it took to obtain it, was plainly visible in the facial features of this puny child in short pants.

I thought to myself: How did two such disparate individuals as my mom and dad, with varying backgrounds, contrasting personalities, and entirely different priorities and perspectives, manage to come together and make a successful marriage out of so many incompatible elements?

(End of Part Two)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

* The September 26 date meant that dad was technically a Libra. However, for some inexplicable reason he always insisted that his actual birth date was September 18. Perhaps this dichotomy had something to do with his being born on one day and baptized on another. That may well be, but I have been unable to verify this claim or determine the whereabouts of his baptismal certificate – not that it would have mattered, since dad was far from a practicing Catholic.

Julio Mazzei, the Cosmos and the Untold Story of the Man behind the Glasses (Part One)

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Who’s That Guy?

Professor Julio Mazzei (left) & Franz Beckenbauer
Professor Julio Mazzei (left) & Franz Beckenbauer (Photo: Getty Images)

Less than a minute into the 2006 documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos and simultaneous with the opening credits, the figure of an unidentified individual enters the frame.

He approaches from the extreme right-hand side of the screen. Wearing sweatpants, a green-and-white baseball cap, matching green-and-white jacket, and aviator-style glasses, the gentleman joins Cosmos winger Steve Hunt and midfielder Nelsi Morais in congratulating their team’s superstar, the incomparable Pelé. We see him mouth the word “GOAL!” as he moves in for an impromptu group hug of the above-named players.

In the blink of an eye he’s gone, to be replaced by other “golden-age” highlights of the era including familiar voiceovers and more than a few talking heads.

As the film progresses, this anonymous entity continues to put in an appearance at key moments in the story. And not just side-by-side with Pelé, but with the members of the extended Cosmos “family,” most notably Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, German midfielder Franz Beckenbauer, fellow Brazilian Carlos Alberto, Warner Communications chief Steve Ross, and a host of influential others.

He can even be spotted in numerous photographs, snapshots, video clips, and film footage covering the eight-year period from 1974 to 1982. In all, he is shown a grand total of fifteen times during the course of the feature.

Beckenbauer, Pele & Giorgio Chinaglia of the New York Cosmos ca. 1977
Beckenbauer, Pele & Giorgio Chinaglia of the New York Cosmos, ca. 1977

However, the most surprising thing about this person is that he is never labeled or acknowledged in any of the scenes or photos he appears in, not even when serving as Pelé’s interpreter at the legendary 21 Club in Manhattan.

No doubt there is a valid reason why this fellow is pictured so prominently (albeit fleetingly) throughout the documentary. One should add that the bespectacled gentleman in question remains the unsung “hero” of the Cosmos organization, one of several participants who helped legitimize the game of soccer in the U.S. — and who, along with a player named Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pelé, made the sport what it is today.

That fellow is Julio Mazzei. And this is his untold story.

It’s been claimed that Mazzei and Pelé were bonded to each other in a uniquely symbiotic relationship. The Professor, as he was called by those who knew him (by virtue of advanced degrees in physical education, coaching, and sports and recreation), would often make light of his closeness to, and association with, the world’s greatest soccer player: “People assumed we were joined at the hip,” was how he jokingly phrased it.

But the joke was on them, for in ways both inevitable and prophetic it was their mutual participation in the sport that brought these two personable talents together.

Professor with Pele
Professor Mazzei with Pele (Photo: TheOriginalWinger.com)

Born on August 27, 1930 in the town of Guaiçara, in the interior of the state of São Paulo, Brazil, Mazzei came from a large family of Italian extraction. He grew up surrounded by sports, principally the one favored by his ethnic background (calcio in Italian, or futebol as Brazilians like to refer to it). While he was still small, the family moved to the municipality of Araçatuba, and later to Araraquara. It was in both these cities that Mazzei’s life-long passion for group sports and physical activity were cultivated and expanded.

In the early 1950s, Mazzei temporarily left Brazil to study at the Institut National des Sports in Paris. A year later, he and his bride, Maria Helena, traveled to Michigan State University in East Lansing, where Mazzei continued his postgraduate studies in sports education. Learning and speaking English was another of Professor’s principal achievements. In the interim, Dona Helena occupied herself with natural childbirth classes, which she took full advantage of later on in order to assist expectant soccer wives during their labor.

Professor became affiliated with Palmeiras Soccer Club in São Paulo around the year 1962, where his love of coaching and training was first put to the test. In 1965, after expressing dissatisfaction with the Palmeiras organization, Mazzei moved with his young family to the beachfront community of Santos in the capacity of the club’s conditioning coach and assistant trainer. This was also the team where the sixteen-year-old Pelé had gotten his start. In addition to which Mazzei was the assistant coach to the Brazilian national team from 1964 to 1965.

Julio Mazzei (far left) with coach Lula of Palmeiras F.C.
Julio Mazzei (far left) with coach Lula (center with cigarette in mouth) of Palmeiras F.C.

In the years before Professor and Pelé were invited to come to New York, Mazzei had developed the physical conditioning methods (known variously as Interval-Training and Circuit-Training) that would make him a known quantity in his native country. He would go on to guide that “goal-scoring machine” called Santos and, eventually, the New York Cosmos into the championship clubs they eventually became.

Upon leaving Brazil, Mazzei joined the Cosmos organization in 1975 as a fitness instructor and assistant coach, and in 1979 he became the auxiliary coach. He went on to serve on the board of directors from 1980 to 1982, when he was appointed the team’s head coach through November 1983. When he left the team, Mazzei had the highest percentage of wins of any of the North American Soccer League’s coaches.

None of this background is indicated or even hinted at in Once in a Lifetime. To those unfamiliar with Mazzei’s extraordinary contributions to the game, he’s a faintly elusive individual in soccer history, a somewhat shadowy behind-the-scenes figure who occupies the fringes of yesterday’s sports pages. This is a misconception the film inadvertently perpetuates and which this piece will endeavor to correct.

In my mind, the real issue is why a man of Professor’s unquestioned qualifications and repute went unmentioned in the 97-minute retelling of the decade-long rise and precipitous fall of the Cosmos soccer team and the accompanying North American Soccer League.

For that, we must delve into the documentary itself.

No Fat Ladies Allowed, Only Fat Men

1977 Cosmos: Carlos Alberto, Steve Hunt, Bobby Smith & Pele
1977 Cosmos: Carlos Alberto, Steve Hunt, Bobby Smith & Pele

The opening montage of Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos shows a variety of individuals talking about the team, and about the “best and worst of what soccer in America was” back in the mid- to late sixties. Narrated by actor Matt Dillon, directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower, and written by Mark Monroe, with the story credited to Mr. Monroe and Mr. Dower, the documentary is basically a tell-all record of the brief time when soccer first captured the attention of American sports fans.

We learn that soccer was imported to the U.S. by immigrants who came through the gates of Ellis Island. Much like the millions of other ethnicities that over a century ago came to this country, soccer was the property of “hyphenated” Americans: Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, German-Americans, Greek-Americans, and Slavic-Americans (even us Brazilian-Americans). No matter where they came from or what language they spoke, the thing these new arrivals had in common was their love for the game.

By way of comparison, the documentary mentions the copious starts-and-stops in American sports, for example, when seen on television and as demonstrated by those frequent breaks for commercial messages. These are contrasted with soccer’s continuous ebb and flow with no natural breaks — except, of course, for halftime activities and timeouts for unexpected injuries.

Shifting gears, we transition to tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano singing the aria, “Nessun dorma” (“No one sleeps”), from Puccini’s last opera Turandot. “What is opera doing in a documentary about an American soccer team?” you might ask. As near as we can figure, it may have been an unsubtle signal about how the Cosmos players, including their top-drawer goal-scorers, would spend their “off hours” partying into the night. But that was still to come!

Soccer is likened here to a two-act play, whereby the game is concentrated into two action packed halves of 45-minutes duration each, with a 15-minute interval in between. Be that as it may, initially there was no passion for soccer in America during the first half of the twentieth century because, as strange as it may seem (especially with all those new arrivals) there was no soccer at all — certainly not in 1960. We’re told the U.S. was a barren landscape for the sport, which I can personally vouch for.

Enter Mr. Steve Ross, a charismatic, highly successful businessman who went on to develop the media aspects of the game from scratch. Ross did this before those titans of cable-TV land, Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, had begun to make their own mark in the broadcasting field.

Ahmet & Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records fame
Ahmet & Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records fame

There were others beside Ross who actively campaigned to transform the American brand of soccer into something else entirely — specifically, two brothers from Turkey, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who founded the R&B label, Atlantic Records. They brought to the northern hemisphere a fanatical devotion to the sport as well as a knack for spotting latent talent.

Moving on to the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley Stadium between England and West Germany, England won the game in overtime. As an impressionable twelve-year-old boy, I distinctly remember watching the final with my father and younger brother on ABC-TV, the only network that transmitted the live event to our apartment. At the time, football was about to enter its prime, with the Super Bowl and some extremely successful teams flourishing and coming into their own. This made the competition for ratings and TV airtime fiercer than ever.

Four years later, a pivotal matchup occurred between two-time champions Brazil and Italy at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico City where Pelé made his final tournament appearance. Unlike the previous cup, this time there wasn’t a single TV station in the greater metropolitan area that bothered to show either the qualifying matches or the final. For that, our family had to take the IRT subway line to Madison Square Garden to see the games on giant closed-circuit screens.

In the meantime, Ross brought the Atlantic Records division into the Warners fold and with it the Ertegun brothers’ worship of the game. With Brazil’s third World Cup victory fresh in their minds, these two farsighted entrepreneurs saw the potential for starting a homegrown soccer team literally from scratch. In fact, they were unabashed in singing the sport’s praises to a somewhat skeptical but willing-to-try-anything Mr. Ross.

Steve Ross getting his "kicks" at Giants Stadium, the Meadowlands
Steve Ross getting his “kicks” at Giants Stadium, the Meadowlands

As a result of their efforts, Clive Toye was hired as general manager of the nameless team. Almost immediately Toye began to recruit players. But what the franchise needed above all else was a catchy name and a star attraction. Once the “Cosmos” moniker was agreed upon, British head coach Gordon Bradley was welcomed aboard in 1971. Back then, the newly christened team was comprised of such unknowns as Werner Roth, Shep Messing, Randy Horton, and a ragtag collection of semi-professionals. As the saying goes, big things come from small beginnings. And they couldn’t have come any smaller than this bunch.

From its conception the Cosmos had been playing their matches at Hofstra University in Long Island. To persuade the fans to come to their games, Ross made the shrewd decision to move the team closer to the city, to Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. That was in 1974. Despite this bold maneuver, the Cosmos still needed a high-profile player to draw the crowds and make both the team and the league as financially lucrative as possible.

But who would be willing to join a no-name, startup soccer league in America — and for what price?

(To be continued…)

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil’s Brightest ‘Prima Donna’ — A Candid Talk with Director, Writer, and Producer Gerald Thomas

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Gerald Thomas at Livraria Cultura
Gerald Thomas at Livraria Cultura

Trying to explain one’s motivation and art, while defending an individualistic view of the same, can be a time-consuming impediment to progress for any professional artist, as it surely must be for most people inside or outside the public domain.

But to say that Gerald Thomas, the talented director, writer, producer, illustrator, and graphic designer, has a particularly “individualistic” point of view is clearly an understatement: he is absolutely, without hesitation, Brazil’s most controversial contemporary stage figure to date.

His copious plays and uniquely identifiable theater pieces, along with an impressive and ever-expanding body of operatic work — not to mention his London Dry Opera Company and previous collaborations with composer Philip Glass — have enlivened the dramatic and performing arts to no end (See the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/getting-to-the-bottom-of-gerald-thomas/).

With constant “exposure” of his avant-garde ideas in the press and in the theater, however, Thomas has been forced at times into expressing his own level of frustration at audiences in no uncertain terms, as evidenced by his much-ballyhooed butt-baring episode at Rio’s Teatro Municipal, back in August 2003 — an episode that elicited an enormous amount of media coverage.

Residing in London for most of the remainder of that year, he returned to New York in March 2004 for the opening of his play Anchorpectoris (The United States of the Mind) at La MaMa Experimental Theater, on E. Fourth Street in Greenwich Village — the scene of his first stage triumphs with ex-mentor, the late Ellen Stewart, and the works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett.

In this interview, originally completed in the U.S. in December 2005, shortly after the successful Brazilian run of his Um Circo de Rins e Fígados (“A Circus of Kidneys and Livers”) with actor Marco Nanini, and updated during parts of 2008-2009, Gerald quite candidly delved into, and expanded upon, a wide range of topics, including his early career as an illustrator and in the opera house; his major artistic and literary influences; his personal recollections of John Lennon’s death and 9/11; his criticism of Brazil’s former Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil; and his future plans, among which were his long-awaited, stage-acting and directorial film debuts, as well as the release of his book, Suicide Note.

Politics mingled with art — ah, there’s the Thomas rub! And if ever there were an example of the two intertwining and becoming indisputably one, then Gerald Thomas — an individual whose palm print can be found on every facet of the performing arts — would be held up as the premier exponent, Brazil’s poster-boy for artistic and political activism, and a true, modern-age Renaissance man for the new millennium.

Josmar Lopes—The first thing I’d like to know more about, as I’m sure our readers would, too, is the origin of your name: is it really Gerald Thomas?

Gerald Thomas—It’s my first and middle name. The full name is Gerald Thomas Sievers.

J.L.—Have you had any identity crises or cultural clashes because of your American-sounding moniker?

Young Gerald
Young Gerald

G.T.—I’ve always been a “Nowhere Man” or, when I was a kid in school, a “Nowhere Boy.” I came to realize that very soon, because I never, ever fitted in. I was always from “abroad,” from “another culture.” At home, we never ate what the people of the country we lived in ate and that made me feel terrible. I remember the very first time I was invited (by the neighbors on the ground floor in Leblon, Rio) to come and eat dinner with them. I was stunned at the amount, the variety of different foods on the table, amongst which [were] black beans. We had been in Rio for about a year and all I knew was boiled potatoes and meat of some sort or another. Suddenly, this colorful rainbow opens up and I felt so great about Brazil.

J.L.—You learned recently that you were born in New York City but moved to Rio at an early age. Despite most articles claiming you were from Brazil, how has living in places like the Big Apple, Rio de Janeiro, and London contributed to a better or worse sense of your own individual identity?

G.T.—In Brazil, I have to say that I was born there, given the nature of my criticism of the government and Gilberto Gil, the minister of himself. No foreigner would ever be able to say such things without being thrown overboard. But a real and intriguing question does exist about the place where I was born: I do have three birth certificates and I do carry a German passport. It’s weird in a way to feel as though you belong to all of those places and, yet, the only place I can really call home are a couple of blocks on the East Side of Manhattan, between St Mark’s Place and E. Third Street on Second Avenue. I guess my parents must have registered me every time my father was moved by Lloyd’s Insurance from one country to another. That may have been a smart move.

J.L.—Indeed it was. But have you ever experienced a feeling of loss when you go abroad because of your country of origin or your Jewish background, in view of the apparent pride you have in being Brazilian?

G.T.—I know that the Jewish thing should play an enormous role here…but it doesn’t really. I guarantee you that I would be a rich man now if I had played that card but reality has it that I never felt very comfortable with those rituals. My bar mitzvah was awkward, I felt terribly awkward, having to memorize all that stuff phonetically. Plus the “father that brought me up” wasn’t Jewish himself and, during the years as a volunteer at Amnesty International in London, I got to know a lot of Catholic priests who were protecting political prisoners in Brazil. I thought that those people were so great. They showed me Italy for the first time. It was through their eyes that I saw the Vatican, its little holes and labyrinths…

J.L.—It’s a fascinating place. Since then, you’ve been all over the world, practically, and you’re always on the move. Are you comfortable with the ever-increasing globetrotting demands of your career?

G.T.—Always less comfortable because traveling nowadays is a problem, it consumes far more energy out of you with all the “checkpoints,” and cities are growing out of control, making traffic impossible, irritatingly so. I used to be productive in planes: open up the laptop and work. Nowadays, the guy sitting next to me in business class is just concerned with getting drunk. So no, thanks. I’m not going to wait until his margarita spills all over my PC.

J.L.—I don’t blame you. In contrast, throughout his life composer Richard Wagner was often referred to as a man “possessed.” Are you similarly possessed, and by what?

G.T.—I try to stay away from things like that. And as for what’s written about “mythological” characters, one never knows. Was it really so? Some people are furious, some are angry, others are simply frustrated and have tantrums and History can turn all that into “being possessed.” I am as cool as can be because when I have dealt with the actors, I remain in the theater and deal with all the other technical aspects of the play or opera I’m staging.

J.L.—That’s probably the best approach. With opera being such an international endeavor, how many languages are you fluent in?

G.T.—I really only speak three languages: English, Portuguese and German. The rest is parroting my way around the world.

J.L.—Yet you speak with a slight British accent. Would it have been more difficult for you career-wise if your name had been Caetano or Chico and you had spoken with a Brazilian accent? Or spoke no English at all?

G.T.—Well, that is difficult to answer since there are thousands of British or American or Australian or Canadian directors in the world who’ve achieved nothing in spite of their well-spoken English. I think that I owe my position in the world to my talent. Bluntly speaking, that’s it.

J.L.—I agree. Speaking of talent, who was the person or persons whose views influenced you the most as a youth?

G.T.—Samuel Beckett and Caetano Veloso, Hélio Oiticica and Haroldo de Campos. Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp and Marcel Duchamp. Saul Steinberg, Steinberg and Steinberg.

J.L.—That’s quite an impressive list. Where did opera first come in to play and how did you eventually come to stage it?

G.T.—That was in 1987 in Rio, and The Flying Dutchman was the victim. A very conceptual piece to begin with, I decided to stage it in such a way that the place was Berlin, East and West, divided by the Wall. The dead man (the Dutchman) and his vessel would appear on the East Side, and Senta would be waiting for him on one of those wooden platforms built by the Allies, forced to look over onto the other side. But all of that was metalanguage, since it all played as an installation watched by a “false” audience inside a mega-exhibition hall: the Kassel Documenta. So, two years before the fall of the Wall, it had already become an “installation of the past, an artwork worth nothing compared to the thousands dead trying to cross it.”

J.L.—Have your musical and operatic tastes subsequently evolved over the years?

G.T.—Yes and no: I have gone back and decided on opposite extremes such as Mahler and Schoenberg. I could sit all day and just vary between recordings of their works…

J.L.—You seem to show a strong affinity for “modern” music, i.e., Arnold Schoenberg, Philip Glass, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ferruccio Busoni, and others, which you’ve used frequently in your pieces. Is there a specific reason for this?

G.T.—But I also steal from Wagner and from Mendelssohn and from Haydn. There isn’t a specific choice for the moderns, though it gives me pleasure to work with someone who is alive and well, rather than some corpse.

J.L.—Have you ever used or thought of using Brazilian classical or popular music in any of your works?

G.T.—Other than Villa-Lobos, I know very little about Brazilian classical music. I do know how to drum the samba, since I am one of a very few allowed into Mangueira to be part of the drum section of their victorious samba school.

J.L.—Then you must know Marisa Monte, whose father was connected at one time to Velha Guarda (“The Old Guard”) da Portela Samba School in Rio?

G.T.—I was an “adviser” to her, when she first put her legs and voice on stage, through the hands of Nelson Motta: that was in 1986.

J.L.—You started out as a graphic artist and illustrator—a very good one, I might add. How has this early background in art and design bolstered your work on the stage?

Gerald Thomas art work
Gerald Thomas art work

G.T.—At age fourteen I managed to creep my way into the rehearsals of Victor Garcia’s version of Genet’s The Balcony in São Paulo. Undoubtedly one of the greatest stagings of the twentieth century, this vertical production not only caused a hell of an impression on me, but I also learned a great deal about the theater while being there, every day (and night, ALL night!!!). I learned what “modern and experimental theater” was and how that somehow integrated with the visual arts. In other words, I was experiencing a live Bosch painting, as it were. Then, two years later, in London, I sort of “infiltrated” the Royal Shakespeare Company while Peter Brook was rehearsing his Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, all the visual arts and dramatic arts came together as a whole.

J.L.—You once worked at The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and other newspapers. Do you still find time to illustrate for publications that are outside your normal field?

G.T.—No fun no more! I illustrate the programs of my own plays and the posters and I “design” or draw each and every one of the scenes that are to be staged…but that’s about it as far as drawing is concerned, commercially. I have a lot of recent material, but I keep all that to myself. Who knows… one day there will be an exhibition?

J.L.—Most recently, you’ve designed the posters and programs for Um Circo de Rins e Fígados (“A Circus of Kidneys and Livers”), starring Marco Nanini and staged at Teatro SESC in Vila Mariana, São Paulo.

G.T.—Yes, I’m involved in every single aspect of the theater, even in the soundtrack. Too involved!!! Some call me obsessed but I just find it normal since it’s an object of my creation and nobody else knows exactly what’s going on in this head of mine. So, instead of spending hours explaining, I might as well just do it myself.

J.L.—Do you prefer doing it all yourself, or do you leave certain tasks to others?

G.T.—Well, let’s say I delegate a little.

J.L.—Is this a form of “control” over the creative process?

G.T.—Look: we play being God! So, in the black box we can control the temperature, the smoke, the lights, the volume, the exactness of everything. That’s why I am present as much as I can at every performance. I have a little corner where I hide and even communicate with the players and gesture to them frantically, according to how the performance is going that night. Since I give all the cues, I can change things on the spot. I tell the actors in a clear voice that they can understand (when the PA system is loud enough) and, there it is: a brand new scene, created on the spot, on that very night for that specific audience, depending if there was some MAJOR news that day.

J.L.—Moving on to Brazilian pop music, bossa nova, seventies rock and Tropicália, were you attracted to any one style over another?

G.T.—I was very involved with the Tropicalistas. Still think that this was one of the most innovative movements ever! On the other hand, I was going to The Royal Albert Hall to some classical symphony, or to Berlin to watch Herbert von Karajan, or to see and listen to Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin here at the Filmore or at the Earl’s Court Arena.

J.L.—Do you still enjoy the music of Jimi Hendrix? The Beatles? John Lennon?

G.T.—I progressed as times progressed. I loved Nirvana and Pearl Jam and so many new bands out there that this interview would become as long as the Yellow Pages. But I still go back to the old icons, sure!

J.L.—You do resemble Lennon, you know, especially in your earliest photographs. You once portrayed him on the stage, did you not?

G.T.—Yes, that was meant to be a joke. Os Reis do Ié Ié Ié (“A Hard Day’s Night”) was the reunion of the Dry Opera Company and it was to have had only TWO performances. But you know how things go. Offers come in and the whores that we are…we end up accepting them!

Daniela Thomas & Director Gerald Thomas (NY Times)
Daniela Thomas & Director Gerald Thomas (New York Times)

J.L.—You posted a poignant remembrance of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death on your blog, http://www.geraldthomasblog.wordpress.com. Do you remember the shooting?

G.T.—As if it were yesterday! It was a spooky day for me, because it so happens that I had brought a former political prisoner from Brazil, a poet himself—Alex Polari de Alverga and wife—and all he wanted was to be photographed in front of the Dakota building. So, that’s what we did that day. Almost all afternoon we were there, outside Lennon’s door. Little did I know what was to follow: When I dropped the couple off at an apartment that I was vacating and driving myself to my new Village loft, I heard Scot Muny come to the microphone and make the announcement. Unbelievable. I rushed over to the Upper West Side (out of instinct, I don’t know…) and found a bunch of people there in tears…

J.L.—You were an eyewitness to 9/11, and from your apartment window, if I’m not mistaken. How did that terrible event affect you personally?

G.T.—I am not the same any more. I’m on medication. I lost friends. Witnessing what I did, as did millions of other New Yorkers… it changed my life, Joe. It changed the world…Sometimes I’m up at night rethinking the entire scene, over and over and over and over…

J.L.—How did these feelings about 9/11 compare to what you felt after Lennon’s untimely end?

G.T.—If the “dream was ever over,” it is NOW.

J.L.—Have these two tragedies soured you on living in large cities?

G.T.—Which two tragedies do you mean, 9/11 and Lennon? I wouldn’t even begin to compare… Terrorism is something so abominable and incomparable to individual murder by a crazy lunatic!

J.L.—Let’s talk about literature and poetry, something that has occupied you personally and professionally for the better part of forty years. When did you first learn about concrete poetry and the de Campos brothers?

G.T.—I was fourteen years old, living here in NYC with Hélio Oiticica, and he wouldn’t stop talking about the de Campos brothers. And he had some of their early works. So, I picked up whatever I could and started to read them, or leaf through those “pages.” I was fascinated, as you can imagine, because there I saw a mixture of words and images, almost something in 3-D, touchable and so “lucid,” inexplicably so. Words meaning others and it came to my perception that early on there was this “thing” called metalanguage. I was addicted at that age. Have been since.

J.L.—What other literary figures impressed you the most as an artist?

G.T.—Oh, there is Beckett—which also later developed into a personal relationship lasting until his death—James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Hegel, Kafka, Kafka, Kafka, and the Greeks, and as I sat in the British Museum Reading Room doing my studies, so many authors came across my eyes: it would be silly to name all of them. It would also trivialize them. But there was this one William Shakespeare who still hasn’t left me and I am not intending to leave him either.

J.L.—You’ve presented numerous works by your close friend Mr. Beckett, along with Shakespeare, Brecht, Kafka, Heiner Müller, and others. What contributions have they made toward the overall formation of your art?

Caricature of Gerald Thomas (Carvall
Caricature of Gerald Thomas (Carvall)

G.T.—No, I’ve never done Brecht (not that I can remember), but I have been a guest of the Berliner Ensemble, during the days when Berlin was still divided by the Wall. Well, all of those playwrights are—combined—part of what I am. If put together, vertically and horizontally, with what I have lived through empirically, the stories I was brought up with (the Holocaust) and the theater I built into my wardrobe as a child in order to “be somewhere”… what I’m trying to say is that ALL of which I have read and seen (and still do) causes an enormous impression on me.

That’s why I still don’t know exactly what to make of 9/11 and seeing the World Trade Center being hit. Being that the WTC were the towers of my generation: except for the Citicorp building, the rest of NYC was all built. I saw those two faceless monsters going up: they were the Warhol buildings (multiplications) or the Godot buildings: “nothing in two acts,” as Walter Kerr once described it in The New York Times. He later resigned, this critic that is, because he realized that Waiting for Godot was indeed THE masterpiece of the twentieth century and he didn’t have perception then, in the fifties. He said goodbye to his readers by saying that he must have ruined hundreds of lives of talented authors and actors and the like.

J.L.—You’re a prolific writer yourself, as well as a playwright and journalist, having contributed a number of articles to Folha de S. Paulo, Jornal do Brasil, O Globo, and other publications. Have you ever considered giving up show business for a career as a critic or political commentator?

G.T.—Never! I keep a journal. This journal is, finally, going to be published next year. The title is Suicide Note. I was offered a column in the most prestigious page in the most prestigious paper in the world (just guess), but in order to do that, I would have to give everything else up. I would have to be a “political traveler.” As much exposure as that would give me and throw me right into the limelight of mainstream AmeriKa, I declined because I cannot justify breathing on this planet without the theater or the opera. So, I will continue doing my work and other people, such as Wladimir Krisinsky, David George, Haroldo de Campos, Flora Süssekind, and so many others, will contribute with their opinion. Um Encenador de Si Mesmo (“The Staging of the Self”) is a compilation of such texts.

J.L.—Your stage productions bear the hallmarks of silent cinema, German Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, film noir, and Theater of the Absurd—have I left anything out?

G.T.—Yes. You’ve left “me” out.

J.L.—I stand corrected! In fact, you’ve peeled away most theatrical elements down to their barest essentials—that is, little or no dialogue, stylized acting, non-specific sets, and dramatic, sophisticated lighting. Is this what you’ve tried to accomplish with your Dry Opera Company?

G.T.—No, that is because I’ve chosen such scenes to go on a tape to travel commercially around the world. I chose precisely the most viable scenes to go on such a tape: but if you saw the pieces in their entirety, you’d see a lot (and some people actually have complained in the eighties that there was “verbal hemorrhage”) of text in those plays.

J.L.—A while back, a New York Times piece hinted at your early fascination with light and shadow—and there’s certainly no shortage of light, shadow, and smoke on display throughout most of your works. Are you still as captivated by these effects as you once were, or have you moved beyond this aspect of your art to other things?

G.T.—I think that, like everyone else, I go through phases. This latest play, A Circus of Kidneys and Livers, has very little of those: it’s basically the text and the actors that matter.

Um Circo de Rins e Figados ("A Circle of Kidneys and Livers")
Poster for Um Circo de Rins e Figados (“A Circle of Kidneys and Livers”)

J.L.—Good point. That said, Orson Welles was once described as the “boy wonder” of the stage, a master at multitasking who could act, write, paint, design, produce, direct, market, and promote his works—all at the same time. As formidably talented as he undoubtedly was, Welles spent his entire life actively selling the myth of his supposed “genius” to all comers. Would you categorize yourself as a genius in the Welles mold, i.e., someone who writes, directs, produces, markets, promotes, illustrates, and innovates, with the same non-stop intensity as he showed in his youth?

G.T.—No, but I fake it just as he—later in life—claimed he did. F for Fake is a great film. I would throw rotten eggs at any artist who would consider himself a genius! Seriously! At this day and age, after deconstructivism, iconoclasty… genius? Give me a break!

J.L.—Besides physically, what characteristics differentiate you from a Welles?

G.T.—Well, if I had accomplished Citizen Kane at age twenty-five, I would seriously give myself up as satisfied. It’s one of the best movies ever, EVER made. I’ve never thought of myself as anything close to Welles. In fact, while he was still alive, I almost came close to inviting him to play Hamm, in Beckett’s Endgame. That was right after directing the legendary Julian Beck, who died while we were touring with The Beckett Trilogy, 1985.

J.L.—Many felt that Welles peaked early on and never recaptured the inspiration he initially showed with his classic Citizen Kane. You’re 55 now—that’s more than twice Welles’ age at the height of his fame—and you’ve accomplished so much more in the theater than he ever did. What would you still like to do that you haven’t done as yet, theatrically?

G.T.—You must be joking! Welles was truly an INTERNATIONAL CELEB, and with clout. Whether what he did or didn’t do in the theater was good or not, I don’t know. The photos make things look rather kitsch. People who have seen it and described it to me say that it stank! But who am I to judge? Look at where the boundaries of my work stop and look at Welles!!!!!! My obit will be one paragraph long (if that!), while his…

J.L.—Your most favorable reviews have been for works that thrive on controversial subjects. Do you identify personally with the struggles of the protagonists of Moses und Aron, Doktor Faust, Tristan und Isolde, and Don Giovanni?

G.T.—I actually do. Moses especially, with the stuttering problem. And with the fact that it was a “spoken/notated” part, especially difficult to memorize for a player, when the entire orchestra is blasting notes of a completely different nature. Plus, that biblical subject matter does interest me very much—always has—so… Schoenberg’s life itself has always interested me, or, rather, fascinated me. So, putting it all together: Busoni and Schoenberg go hand-in-hand; Faust by Goethe is my favorite book (and until this date I have not entirely deciphered it, either in German or in English, or in Haroldo de Campos’s version: Deus e o Diabo na Terra de Fausto—“God and the Devil in the Land of Faust”). There you have the perfect subjects for me to delve into the darkest areas of the humanities, so to speak.

J.L.—You changed Faust’s profession from alchemist to artist—a painter, to be exact. Was this a conscious choice on your part, a sort of autobiographical statement?

G.T.—Certainly autobiographical…

J.L.—Were you deliberately placing yourself into the stage action and are you a frustrated actor at heart?

G.T.—Not anymore! I premiere, as an actor, next April 2006, in Asfaltaram o Beijo (“A Kiss Cemented Over”), an homage I pay to Beckett and the years we spent meeting in Paris.

J.L.—Do you regard yourself as more of an individualist and outsider, much in the manner of a Moses or a Faust?

G.T.—A total outsider, always. I was talking to Philip Glass just now and was telling him about the success Circus had, and how one has to constantly renew this pact with the world “within”, with the audience and with the press…It’s as if the world were a big memory bank that, given a month or two of our absence, would forget us altogether.

J.L.—Have you thought about tackling other characters of this type, for example, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Wagner’s Tannhäuser, or Berg’s Wozzeck?

G.T.—I am ready for all three of them.

J.L.—Aren’t you really more like Moses’ brother, Aron, a sort of manipulator of language and the spoken word?

G.T.—The image of me in the press certainly may appear so. But that has to do with the fact that the press is lazy. I ask you: how can any one person manipulate the press? How do you do that? With money? Drugs? Chocolate? Sex? How exactly? What does that phrase mean? As in a previous answer, I am timid and profoundly involved with sensitive questions about the nature of who we are. I am also very traumatized about the nature of who we are and what we are capable of doing. Aron wasn’t concerned with any of that: he merely wanted to sell his golden calf.

J.L.—Nothing you’ve done on the stage could possibly be construed as being a part of the mainstream. Has this “inaccessibility” to the general public, as it were, bothered you in any way?

Fabiana Gugli & Gerald Thomas (patrickgrant.com)
Fabiana Gugli & Gerald Thomas (patrickgrant.com)

G.T.—Sometimes the media builds this image out of nothing, just as it always has throughout History with not-so-easily-consumable-artists. But when some audience member walks in openhearted, he/she will find that my work isn’t all that inaccessible after all.

J.L.—Wouldn’t you prefer to be less on the cutting-edge and enjoy rather more widespread critical success?

G.T.—I’ve been given all the awards there were. The Molières and the (forget the names, really). I dropped the last Molière just to show the audience in Paris that it was made of chalk and not marble, and said quite bluntly that I hated to be endorsed by the middle classes. Those awards are given out by critics. I have no complaints, except for financial ones.

J.L.—In your opinion, is the notoriety you’ve obtained the best measure of triumph in your case, or are there other modes of measurements?

G.T.—I think that everyone who earns a certain amount of notoriety does so because of a number of factors: the media construct its own circus and make you into a “complex” and complicated “personality” (o polêmico) and the rest, of course, has to do with the work, with the fact that I am, in a way, untouchable, because I work in so many countries and have the endorsement of the top critics and the top houses in the world.

J.L.—Your frustration did manifest itself strongly at Rio’s Teatro Municipal in 2003, where you bared your buttocks after being roundly booed for Tristan und Isolde. Would you care to elaborate on what led to that encounter?

G.T.—I had received news that Haroldo de Campos had died just before the opening. That had already left me in a state. The boos don’t bother me. They actually amuse me. You can see that in the tape I sent you where I deliberately include minutes of it, as I enter the stage, during the curtain call after Flying Dutchman. But when I hear a rehearsed chorus from the first few rows, “Judeuzinho, volta pro campo!” (“Little Jew boy, go back to the concentration camp”), that… made my blood pressure rise up and… I lost it. It took me a year to get acquitted, and in Brasília, by the Supreme Court!

J.L.—Did the ruckus have anything to do with the appearance of a third major character introduced by you into the drama, namely Dr. Sigmund Freud?

G.T.—Absolutely yes! And the fact that I used cocaine as an analogy for the love/death potion given by Brangäne to Isolde. A mess from the start. Pressure from the start because the artistic director of the Teatro Municipal knew my concept an entire month before I left London, since I had published it in my column, at the time, in the now nearly defunct Jornal do Brasil.

J.L.—That was quite an unusual touch, wouldn’t you say, to have the title characters analyzed by modern history’s most famous shrink?

G.T.—That’s my job! Otherwise, just have the conductor stage the damned thing, as Karajan did so many times. Why call me? To sell tickets and fill the house. The Municipal has never been so sold out EVER!!!!!

J.L.—Do you find Brazilian audiences are less tolerant of these sorts of novelties than other audiences are, say, the Americans or the Europeans?

G.T.—No, they’re just as open minded. But not when it comes to Richard Wagner! Man! Wagner is stronger in Brazil than anywhere else… I mean, the traditionalists. But on the following nights we saw none of those problems. And may I point out that the troublemakers were just a handful within two thousand five hundred well behaved, opera-lovin’ people.

Gerald Thomas
Gerald Thomas

J.L.—But do think about staging Wozzeck one day—hopefully sooner than later. I had a brainstorm while listening to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcast wherein I imagined the whole thing set at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with the title character a U.S. Army soldier just returned from Iraq; haunted by visions of prisoner abuse at Abu Gharaib; then acting out his delusions by killing his live-in girlfriend—it has your signature all over it!

G.T.—What a great idea!!!!!! But which opera house would invite me to do such thing? As far as I’m concerned, I’m standing in line already! But where, and when? That’s the problem: like with anything else in today’s world, the titles offered to me are either totally unknown avant-garde or the very well-known and overdone pieces.

J.L.—What are your views on the current state of classical music and opera in Brazil?

G.T.—You know as well as I do that Brazil moves in waves and nothing lasts. Some say this is a good thing, some say it’s bad. It’s certainly the opposite of Europe and their secular cultural struggles, which never seem to end. It’s still the eternal anti-Schiller play and so on, or the latest version of the “anti-Hamlet” for the hundredth time. So, Brazil is very creative since this lack of tradition liberates its artists from this heavy commitment to battle these ghosts. Yet, I find that this also leaves an incredible emptiness which leads to the popularity of the soap opera culture (novelas) and the overwhelming LOVE Brazil has with television, more so than the U.S. (I find). So, as for your question, classical music and opera haven’t made a mark in Brazil because year in, year out there will be a Sala São Paulo, for instance, with heavy emphasis on classical programming—which is fantastic. But will it last past this current mayor? Or the next?

J.L.—What can be done to improve the unfortunately low expectations for classical artists and the performing arts there?

G.T.—Famine and poverty are the first priorities. To hell with the arts!

J.L.—Has the Ministry of Culture done much in the past few years to give aid and comfort to the arts?

G.T.—Gilberto Gil has certainly done a lot for himself! He is the Minister of Himself, and the ministry is called the “Ministério Gilberto Gil de Morte à Cultura” (The Gilberto Gil Ministry of Death to Culture). His fees for performing around the world have tripled and he simply loves to travel with Lula and shake hands with heads of state worldwide. It’s a scandal, it’s a shame and, yet, nobody says anything about it because the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores—Workers’ Party) is a true Stalinist revengeful party and it wouldn’t amaze me if, soon, there were a blacklist: something equivalent to the McCarthy era here, except in reverse. Dreadful!

J.L.—What are some of your future plans with respect to opera? Is there anything you can talk about openly?

G.T.—I’m involved in certain German operas at this moment that are almost embarrassing to mention: I call them train station noise (at 5 a.m., when the trains are pulling in) but I have to direct these so-called “avant-garde” things because they pay and they pay well. There is also an opera “in development” with Philip Glass, which is based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Bayreuth says it wants me in about one hundred years from now.

J.L.—This latest Thomas-Glass collaboration is exciting news for fans. In the past, many theater and film directors often ventured into opera. There was a time when Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Alfred Lunt, and Margaret Webster were all actively involved with its staging. This trend has returned somewhat with the operatic participation of Werner Herzog, John Schlesinger, William Friedkin, the late Anthony Minghella, and even Woody Allen. Do film directors have a better “eye” for stage detail than, say, the average opera or theater director has?

G.T.—I usually find that film directors are a total flop on the stage: here are two completely different languages. You might as well call a bricklayer to do the job! People are under the impression that “performing art” is one and the same. That is the biggest and dirtiest mistake ever. Imagine if you were to call Picasso to retouch or restore the Sistine Chapel, or Francis Bacon, for that matter. Michelangelo and the two I’ve mentioned are all involved in the “painting” media, but sectors are not to be confused.

J.L.—Have you given any thought to directing your own movies?

G.T.—Yes, I begin shooting Ghost Writer in about a year from now. I’m still developing the screenplay.

J.L.—What else would you like to direct, if given the chance?

G.T.—I’m an obsessive writer, so I’ll just continue to write my pieces. I think that History needs to move forward and we need to tell the stories of the times we live in, in whatever way we can. If we just keep on re-staging The Seagull over and over and over, or the classics, we won’t be telling people five hundred years years from now what the twenty-first century was about.

J.L.—That’s so true. By the way, do you have many friends or acquaintances in the movie business?

G.T.—Yes, I’m very close to Hugh Hudson, who directed Chariots of Fire, amongst other wonderful films, such as American Revolution; and Cacá Diegues, the Brazilian filmmaker.

J.L.—You made a cameo appearance in the film Terra Estrangeira (Foreign Land) by Brazilian director Walter Salles Jr. (Central do Brasil, Dark Water). How did it feel to be directed by someone else instead of your doing the job yourself?

Terra Estrangeira ("Strange Land") Photo: Daniela Thomas
Terra Estrangeira (“Foreign Land”) Photo: Daniela Thomas

G.T.—Oh, please don’t remind me of that. If I could…if I had the money I’d buy those frames and cut myself out of that movie…I wasn’t directed. Someone just said “roll” and there I was.

J.L.—You’re probably the most well-known, most talked about, and most written about Brazilian stage personality on the world scene today. How do you feel about that lofty position?

G.T.—I am very lonely and suffer just like anybody else when I turn on the news. Frustration kicks in, just like with anybody else. I don’t feel special, in fact, I don’t feel anything: all [that] I’ve done, I feel, has somehow been reduced to ashes. Don’t ask me why or how. It’s just a holocaustic feeling but, all the same, true. It’s vapor, it weighs nothing. I must reinvent myself, especially in this current world of NO values, of information overload, of shopping malls, of super-consumerism, iPods, internet, where people don’t really learn (they just copy and paste or use it for chats). This globalization has flattened Columbus’ world. It’s one with no memory or a weak one: it’s drugged, drunk, money-driven or driven by one god against another. We’re back to the Middle Ages, except that we have modern tools. It’s a horrible place where my profession doesn’t exist, really. So, all that I read about myself—I feel—I’m reading about someone who doesn’t exist; i.e., someone else or a ghost: a GHOST WRITER.

J.L.—I sense the theme of your screenplay at work. Can you give me some clues as to the movie’s plot and how it’s been coming along?

G.T.—What can I tell you about it, really, other than sending you bits and pieces of scenes or sequences, or scenes from my book (not yet published) by the same name on which this crazy pumpkin is based? Strangely enough, it is coming along: we’ve got money from the Independent Brits and the Danish (formerly known as) Dogma—they grew up seeing my plays all through the nineties when I started performing in Copenhagen: 1991 to be exact. We have DEUTSCHES money and we really don’t need that much more, or else I’ll start getting nervous about having to make a “hit,” when all I want is just to be able to experiment with the raw material and a funky story, surreal as hell, where the actual event always seems like dejà vu because, indeed, it IS being written by a Ghost Writer (unlike The Truman Show). This is an Arab/Western conflict which takes us back to ancient visions of Europe and the Founding Fathers of America. And Jihad. And the war of the Gods.

J.L.—Wow! I’m intrigued. What about the cast—any word yet on that?

G.T.—We’re casting in Turkey for a youngish Arab-looking boy, a teenager (same characters) and an older Arab man. There will be lesser or maybe even bigger names. I really don’t know… I will be one of the cameramen, but obviously not the cinematographer. They’re talking about some Italian (highly praised and awarded) and [paraphrasing Glauber Rocha’s famous statement about Cinema Novo] ALL I WANT “É UMA CAMARA NA MÃO E UMA IDÉIA NA CABEÇA” PORRA! [“…IS A CAMERA IN HAND AND AN IDEA IN THE HEAD,” DAMN IT!]

J.L.—Has the constant exposure in the press hampered you to any degree? You don’t seem intimidated or ambivalent by all the attention. How do you maintain your composure as well as your personal privacy?

G.T.—It’s impossible to have privacy when you’re having dinner and people are coming up to you constantly wanting to take a snapshot of you (with them, preferably).

J.L.—Thank you so much, Gerald, for your openness about yourself and your art.

G.T.—Thank you, Joe. ☼

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes