Human Interest Stories
(Today’s piece is a story by guest contributor Thais Angelica Tavares Lopes. Thais Angelica is my oldest daughter. Her varied background encompasses a range of subjects, including art instruction, drawing, sewing, dress designing, convention-hopping, and creative writing. This specific story is replete with magical realism and the scent of the Amazon rain forest.)
Have you ever wondered about paradise? Does it really exist? If it does, is it an actual place? If it were, would it be a huge palace made out of alabaster stone, covered with massive gold pillars, furnished with delicate embroidered pillows, luscious velveteen royal-purple curtains draped by huge windows, and jewel-bedecked people dancing in merriment?
Well I have. I’ve even thought about painting it, but how does one go about painting paradise? I’ve come to the conclusion that … well, it’s hard to explain without going into all the details. I wondered, if I were to experience a place such as this I would surely find out what paradise looked like, but I was wrong.
It happened long, long ago. I was very young then, a budding painter. I had been asked to come to the New World to depict the various aspects of Brazilian wildlife. Wildlife? Why would I want to paint that? I wanted to paint marble towers and ancient castles, not trees and parrots. But my patrons insisted, and so I relented — much to my dismay.
The trip from Portugal was long and arduous, but when I finally arrived I was met by my longtime friend, Tarius, who was in charge of a camp at the mouth of the Amazon River. He would be my only comfort, the only thing familiar to me in this vast, new land, densely populated by strange vegetation.
“This heat is insufferable,” I complained. “Why can’t the summer be more like fall, cool and breezy, more agreeable to us all?”
“True, but if it were so then it would always be cool, it would be easier to catch a cold,” answered Tarius.
“What do I care about colds? I just don’t want to die from extreme heat, melting like an icecap in Greenland.”
“Is there nothing that pleases you, Yali?” sighed the haughty Tarius.
“Only the cool drink of the guaraná fruit will satisfy my parched lips, Tarius,” I giggled.
“Then I shall ask my servant, the Indian boy, to fix you up with one right away. See hear, George, will you be a gentlemen and fetch Lady Yali a drink?”
“Why certainly, my lord.”
As the servant ran off, I turned again to my longtime friend and inquired, “Is it necessary to send him scampering about all the time? I mean, he is our age, and besides, you could have done it yourself.”
“Indeed, but then I would have to part from this lovely vision here before me.”
I felt a blush rise up to my cheeks and quickly averted my eyes. Luckily, at that moment, George came back and bowed to me, gently handing me the drink made by the Tupi Indians of Brazil with his tanned rough hands.
“I thank you, George, and here, have some money for your trouble.”
“Thank you, but no thank you, Miss. You see, I don’t take money for a simple favor such as this.”
“Are you sure? Well, if you’re certain.”
“Thanks again, George, you can return to your camp duties now.”
As George retreated, I sipped slowly and delicately, as a butterfly sips honey from a flower, or so I thought. I kept my watchful brown eyes on the boy until he left my sight, choosing this moment to finish my drink and turn my attention back to Tarius.
“So what do you think of our tropical gem?” questioned Tarius.
“It’s very different from Portugal, very wild, untamed so to speak. So much nature surrounds this place; you can almost feel the unearthly echo of silence reverberating in your ear. No mighty kingdoms, no luxurious dresses, nothing but trees, trees, and more trees.”
At this mention of silence, a macaw flew down from the nearest fig tree and landed in a nearby shrub. I had never seen such a creature before and was amazed at its long persistent gaze as it perched and munched on wild berries.
“Such a strange looking bird. How do you suppose it became so colorful?” I inquired.
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Tarius, “probably from the colorful fruit it eats? I really have no idea. Do you see the sun setting? It’s time we ate dinner and got ourselves to bed.”
“I’ll be there in a moment, I want to watch this intriguing fellow a while longer.”
“If you insist. Don’t stay out too long, you never know what lurks behind those bushes.”
“Okay, I promise I won’t.”
With that, Tarius left to go see about the dinner preparations. The macaw was very passive and continued to munch and stare at me as if it knew I was watching it. Its green and blues were as vibrant as the grass, and its yellow and reds were as fierce as a roaring flame. It was a stunning sight to behold such a peaceful animal of the forest.
“I wonder if it will let me get closer to it,” I thought aloud.
As I carefully inched toward it, the bird turned its head and flew in a westward direction. I followed after it, even though I felt somewhat startled. The bird landed on a young boy’s shoulder, who upon seeing the bird, patted it on the head and continued clearing the ground for a fire.
“Hey,” I gingerly called.
The boy whipped his body around so fast that the bird almost fell off of his thin, unstable frame.
“Yes my lord?”
“Oh, it’s you, George!”
“Oh Lady Yali, you scared me witless. I must catch my breath, pardon me.”
“No, pardon me, it was I who startled you. I merely wanted to inquire about that bird, is it yours?”
“Lady Yali, you should know that no animal can truly be tamed, nor can we call a free animal our own, but if by your question you mean has it made my acquaintance, then the answer is yes.”
“How lovely. What kind of bird is it? Have you named it yet? If you have, would you tell it to me?”
“Yes, my lady, one question at a time. It is a male macaw, a member of the tropical parrot family. As for his name, I have not yet decided upon a moniker for him yet. He likes to sit and stare whimsically at me, but he does not seem to enjoy the company of other people in the camp, nor in my village.”
“That indeed is very odd. Do you think he would mind my stroking his feathers?”
“He has bitten all who try, but if you feel up to the challenge I will not try to stop your ladyship.”
I carefully set my hand in front of the macaw and waited for his reaction. The macaw turned his bristly green head, blinked, and cawed. Slowly, I placed a finger on his belly and tickled him. A sharp whistle escaped his fine beak and then he nibbled my finger. The sharp pain stung but I did not recoil. After realizing that I would not back down, the bird let go and I was able to finish petting him.
“Amazing. That is the first time he has backed out of a fight.”
“I am honored to have him on my side, since he is truly fierce. We should name him Dragon.”
“Name him what?” exclaimed George.
“Dragon? Do your people not know the stories and legends of the ancient reptilian animal that is taller than any tree, has large scaly wings twice the size of their bodies, and out of their eternal wrath spout shoots of fire from their foul mouths?”
“Are there such horrible beasts as these among the lands?”
“These are only stories that people in my country tell their children to teach them a lesson. But my point is, this mythological creature is famed for its intolerance of others. Don’t you think this macaw acts much like one of these beasts?”
“Indeed, he does. This name befits him well.”
I smiled, as did George. We stared for a while at each other’s faces but I, being somewhat shy in nature, and he, seemingly to be the same way, turned our attention back to Dragon, who was beginning to nibble on George’s hair.
“Miss, if ever there is anything you require simply ask it of me, I am yours to command. A friend of Dragon’s is most certainly a friend of mine, if I am not being too bold in my statement,” said a bowing George.
“Not at all, in fact …”
“Yali, it is past the time for idle talk. Dinner is almost ready. George, I thought I told you to start that fire,” said Tarius, marching across the camp to join Yali and George.
“Yes, sir, I had forgotten my place, sir. The fire will be lit momentarily.
“Come, Yali, let us walk together.”
“Oh, well, see you later George.” As I walked away in the arms of Tarius, I turned my head back to George but continued to walk on.
Night fell fast in the Amazon. I had never seen a sky so magnificent; it looked as though a dark velvet sheet lay on top of the whole world, while small stars peeked through the vast darkness. Granted that huge trees blocked my perfect view of the firmament, I was still able to enjoy the evening. After dinner, I lay on my wooden cot running the day through my mind. However, it being late and the exhaustion of the first day overcoming me, sleep came quickly and overtook my body.
End of Part One
(To be continued….)
Copyright © 2008 by Thais Angelica Tavares Lopes
No One Knows What It’s Like to Be the Bad Man
A little less than half a century separates Puccini’s Tosca from Verdi’s Il Trovatore. And there could not be two more dissimilar works in the repertoire than these. With that out of the way, the above operas, considered standards by just about everyone, do have one thing in common: a magnificent villain.
Ah, yes, the villain, the proverbial “bad guy.” As the old Who song goes, “No one knows what it’s like to be the bad man.” But what motivates these fiends? What gets them to do what they do? And is everything they do really all that bad?
Granted, there are countless bad women around. In fact, opera is littered with a wide variety of seducers, gypsies, jealous princesses, tempestuous divas, and evil queens. Mezzos and contraltos are the primary recipients of this category, but sopranos can be just as mean and ornery as their lower-voiced counterparts. Still, why are most male villains given to baritones, while the so-called “good guys” are invariably tenors?
These are primarily the province of the composer, but certain caveats apply in casting for these parts, i.e., a few operatic rules of thumb to remember. Take, for instance, the notion that higher voices tend to be sympathetic to listeners’ ears, while lower ones have the air of authority about them. In opera, that authority can be used for either honorable or deceitful purposes, hence the manly sound of a baritone. Basses also tend to be authority figures: fathers, priests, judges, gods, even demons. And yes, they too suffer the indignity of villainy.
Nevertheless, when people think of treachery in opera, that designation falls to the baritone of the species. But what inspires Scarpia to be the most despised character in all of Puccini? The answer has been provided by Sardou, the author of the verbose five-act French play on which Tosca is based. We know from the playwright that Baron Vitellio Scarpia is a quasi-historical figure — a nobleman and a Sicilian by birth; and a successful keeper of the peace, if also an especially ruthless one.
According to the inventive Sardou, whose philosophy was to provide the public with “the well-made play,” Scarpia was charged with arresting the aristocratic Cesare Angelotti, who had a brief fling with a young girl he met in Hyde Park, London, of all places. Much later, that girl turned out to be Lady Emma Hamilton, the wife of the British Ambassador to Naples. And Lady Hamilton had close ties to Queen Caroline of Naples, Scarpia’s patroness.
In order to cover up her friend’s youthful indiscretion, the Queen ordered the chief of police to keep Angelotti under lock and key. Not only was Angelotti a potential squealer, he was also violently opposed to the monarchy, having been deposed as Consul to the short-lived Roman Republic (Cavaradossi spells this out early in Puccini’s Act I). His escape from prison adds a high degree of immediacy to Scarpia’s job of recapturing Angelotti or face humiliation and loss of his authority.
As for Cavaradossi, he too was sympathetic to and in league with the revolutionaries of his day, and therefore bore close watching. His association with Angelotti, the fact he was painting a portrait of the ex-Consul’s sister (whom Scarpia once tried to seduce), and his open affair with the flamboyant Floria Tosca, the darling of the highborn court, brought increased suspicion and vigilance. Ever on the lookout for a weak spot in the opposition, Scarpia endeavors to use Tosca as a way of getting to Cavaradossi, who he knows is harboring an escaped fugitive from justice, Angelotti. Urgency, then, is the leading motive for Scarpia’s viciousness, which allows him further leeway both as a corrupt official and a sexual deviant.
In Trovatore, Count di Luna appears to be the de facto antagonist. However, his father, the elderly Count, was the REAL instigator of the plot. You see, years before the story opens old man Di Luna had a woman burned at the stake as a witch. This witch, who was accused of placing a curse on one of the old Count’s two young sons, also happened to be the gypsy Azucena’s mother. In defiance of the old codger, Azucena crept into the sons’ bedroom and stole the infant Manrico from his crib. With her own mother in full view, Azucena threw the lad into the ensuing bonfire.
As it turned out, Azucena’s act had a fatal flaw. In her blind quest for revenge, she had inadvertently tossed her OWN child into the flames (she must have been absolutely delirious at that point to have made such a mistake). The old Count, upon hearing of the kidnapping, fell ill and eventually died from remorse. But before his death, he asked his only surviving son (the present Count di Luna) to swear an oath to keep searching for his lost brother.
Meanwhile, once Azucena had come to her senses and realized she had murdered her own flesh and blood, the gypsy vowed to wreak vengeance on the surviving Count by using Manrico as a means toward that end. So what’s the catch? Manrico has no idea that HE is Count di Luna’s brother.
See how “complicated” this gruesome tale can get?
One of the many criticisms thrown at Trovatore’s plot has been the convoluted stories its characters attempt to tell, associated mostly with melody-driven narratives. Most of the incidents depicted in these narratives take place, or have already taken place, out of the audience’s sight — which makes the opera a challenge to present, and the staging of paramount importance. The Met Opera’s 2009 production, directed by David McVicar and revived by Daniel Rigazzi, solves many of these issues with a revolving set (courtesy of Charles Edwards) that makes for swift transitions from one group of characters to another.
The first narrative, related by the family retainer, Ferrando, who served under the old Count and is presently in the service of Count di Luna, begins the opera proper (“Di due figli”); the second, expressed with passion by Leonora, the beautiful heroine enamored of the troubadour Manrico (“Tacea la notte placida”), occurs in scene two; the third, as told by Azucena (in her Act II, scene one narrations, “Stride la vampa” and “Condotta all’era in ceppi”) of how she mistakenly threw her child into the inferno; the fourth, in Manrico’s retelling of his encounter with Di Luna (“Mal reggendo”), follows in the same scene; the fifth, with Count di Luna (Act II, scene two) in his cantilena, “Il balen del suo sorriso,” conveys his undying ardor for Leonora; the sixth (Act III, scene two), belonging primarily to Manrico (“Ah, sì, ben mio” and the rousing “Di quella pira”), goes from one extreme (tender avowals of love) to the other (outright swagger and bombast); and the seventh and final narrative, in Act IV, scene one (“D’amor sull’ali rosee” and the frequently cut, “Tu vedrai che amore in terra”), are expressions of Leonora’s desperation to save Manrico from his impending execution.
Gee whiz! With so much singing and loving and cursing and despairing, when does the villain have time to be a villain? That’s easy: whenever he appears. Di Luna is one of opera’s most cherished scoundrels. He’s given plenty of opportunity (as the late, great Russian divo Dmitri Hvorostovsky was accustomed to doing) to show off his machismo; to display what mettle he has in the voice, and what determination he embodies in convincing the prima donna that he’s the man of her dreams.
Good luck with that!
No matter how handsome he may be, how brilliant he is with small talk, how tall or how charming, or how good he is with the sword, Leonora simply cannot accept this fellow as her match made in heaven. Di Luna does have a bravura aria to sing, the aforementioned “Il balen del suo sorriso” – translated as “The flashing of her smile.” The tessitura lies high up in the baritone’s extreme range, making it difficult to sustain the melodic line without undue effort. Only the best of the best can pull this number off.
But that’s not all. While the Count pours his heart out to her, practically begging the light of Leonora’s gaze to chase away the tempest of his heart (mercy me!), the cabaletta section that follows is even more daring in his plea for death to come swiftly; the joy that awaits him can only be reached in heaven. In vain, a hostile God — no, not even God himself — can steal her from him.
A villain with a heart! Does this sound like a bad man to you? Why, for all we know he could be a teenager in love! The words are so bold and forthright, so poetic and refined. But the soprano is in love with the tenor (who else?), case closed. And this tenor, whose name is Manrico, has a certain way about him. He strums his lute to songs of love. His unseen entrance in Act I, scene two, encompasses a serenade, “Deserto sulla terra,” the main melody of which he repeats later on when Manrico is locked up in the prison tower during the Act IV Miserere.
No matter, the baritone re-emerges in Act IV with orders that Manrico be put to death by the axe, his mother to be burned at the stake. In the ensuing scene, he wonders aloud if in ordering their deaths he has not gone too far. Could the love of his life be doing this to him? Leonora accosts him and pleads for mercy for her lover. The Count is adamant: nothing doing! Ah, but Leonora has a trick up her sleeve: she offers herself to him. (In this, Leonora shares a kinship with Tosca, who acquiesces to Scarpia’s demands by offering her body in exchange for Cavaradossi’s life, only to kill the villain as he tries to ravage her person.)
Count di Luna cannot believe his good fortune. Will she keep to her word? Yes, she swears it. In many productions, Leonora turns her back to the villain and swallows a vial of slow-acting poison. She mutters to herself that the Count will indeed have her cold, lifeless body, as promised. Librettist Arrigo Boito and composer Amilcare Ponchielli would more-or-less re-enact this episode (albeit in more violent fashion) for the shocking ending to their grand opera La Gioconda, a precursor to verismo as well as Puccini’s Tosca.
Speaking of shock endings, the climax to Trovatore comes about quickly and inexorably. Confronting Manrico, Leonora tells him to leave, but she will not be accompanying him. What? Life without you? Are you insane? No, not insane, just desperately in love. Manrico refuses to budge without her. His sense is that she has betrayed him in order to spare his life. He will not run away. Suddenly, the poison takes its effect and Leonora collapses to the floor of the prison cell. As the Count enters, he hears Leonora’s dying words, asking the Lord’s forgiveness.
Enraged, Di Luna orders that Manrico be killed, this instant. As he is led away to the executioner’s block, Azucena awakens and begs the Count not to slay him. Too late! He is gone. The time has now come for a startling revelation: “He was your brother!” Azucena shouts at Di Luna. Then quickly adds, “Mother, you are avenged!” The Count can only blurt out his pathetic last line: “And I live on!”
Now we know what it’s like to be the bad man! At least Scarpia went down fighting. He deserved his fate, but this poor guy? We think not.
It’s the Casting That Counts
To experience the emotions of the characters that Verdi and his librettist, Salvatore Cammarano, had envisioned for Il Trovatore (keeping in mind that Cammarano had previously written the librettos for Verdi’s Alzira, La Battaglia di Legnano, and Luisa Miller, along with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor), a strong cast of singing-actors would seem to be the prerequisite.
For the Met’s Saturday broadcast performance of February 3, 2018, Count di Luna would be taken by Hawaiian-born baritone Quinn Kelsey, the lady-in-waiting Leonora by Cleveland native Jennifer Rowley (in place of the indisposed Maria Agresta), the stalwart hero Manrico by Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, Azucena by mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili from the former republic of Georgia, and Ferrando by Slovakian basso Štefan Kocán. Sarah Mesko sang Ines, Edward Albert the Old Gypsy, David Lowe the Messenger, and Eduardo Valdes the part of Ruiz. Marco Armiliato, himself replacing the previously announced James Levine, conducted the Met Opera Chorus and Orchestra.
Let’s start with maestro Armiliato, whose older brother, tenor Fabio Armiliato, has also appeared with the company. An expert hand at Verdi, Puccini, and most of the Italian repertoire, Signor Marco filled in for one of his mentors, the now disgraced Mr. Levine. It’s been that kind of season, people. That he was able to lead the orchestra with another substitute on hand, the effervescent Ms. Rowley, for the revival of a major repertory piece, and still keep a cool head about him, speaks loudly for his work ethic and professionalism.
Keeping the correct tempos and marking time to Verdi’s deceptively simple scoring is a major task in itself. There have been few conductors in the past who’ve enlivened Trovatore to acclaim. Arturo Toscanini was one of them, Herbert von Karajan was another. Zubin Mehta yielded positive results in his RCA Victor complete recording of the work, as did Levine in his various recorded versions. But pacing Trovatore is no walk in the park: lots of stops and goes, lots of rests and reposes, and definitely too much of what smacks of “oompah-pah-pah” bandmaster music.
What helped is that this production had at one point opened up standard cuts that have been the curse of this opera since it first premiered. Repetitions, unheard cabalettas, and snatches of phrases normally carved away were reinstated, for the most part (though the company is starting to slacken a bit from this policy). I’m still ticked off by the shearing off of “Di quella pira.” Come on, Met Opera! Let’s hear the whole thing, shall we? Why only one stanza of this sure-fire audience pleaser? Maybe Yonghoon Lee, our Manrico of the afternoon, was having an off day, so an accommodation was called for? I don’ think so. From what I heard, his Del Monaco-like timbre and high volume outpourings could have managed it handily.
In fact, Mr. Lee hardly sounded strained at all. I did notice that dynamic levels veered sharply from a near whisper to a huge bark. His softest passages were reserved for a respectable “Ah, sì, ben mio,” along with some coarsening of his basic sound in a bludgeoning-of-the-ears delivery of “Di quella pira” (he did NOT hit high C, I’m sorry to note, but took the number a half- or whole-tone down). Too, Lee’s emulation of the great dramatic tenor Mario del Monaco has been observed by other online critics. So it’s not just my impression, but the impression of many that Lee has been carving out a career for himself as a spinto. Nice work if you can get it!
Still, the young performer Jennifer Rowley was the real star of this broadcast. She held on to her top notes for all they were worth, yet managed to convey a strikingly lifelike portrait of a woman in dire distress. Leonora’s agitation and eagerness to resolve her plight came through loud and clear. Rowley gave a rousing rendition of the lady-in-waiting’s first act aria; she sounded even better in Act IV, where she regaled the audience with the rarely heard “Tu vedrai che amore in terra.” But the higher up she went the less focused her basic sound became. Ms. Rowley came to attention via another substitute performance: in Franco Alfano’s rarely heard Cyrano de Bergerac with tenor Roberto Alagna. I would advise caution, at this early stage in her career; to be a shade more restrained lest her ability to please the public be spent too quickly and too soon.
As the harried gypsy woman Azucena, Anita Rachvelishvili (what a mouthful) chewed the scenery brilliantly. She might have been aiming her potent mezzo high up into the gallery, but I had no problem relating to her all-out emoting. While this was her role debut at the Met, I too have some advice for this budding artist: you have an incredibly flexible and multi-hued vocal apparatus. Use it wisely for dramatic purposes, and not only to please the crowd. Your acting abilities, from what I gathered of the glowing reviews, serve you well. We could stand more of your powerful vocal thrusts, but please do so at the service of the composer and of the character you are interpreting.
Take a lesson from some of your illustrious predecessors: Ebe Stignani, Giulietta Simionato, Fedora Barbieri, and Fiorenza Cossotto. And from the former Soviet Union, pay close attention to Elena Obraztsova and Olga Borodina. They each had something to say about how to play these parts to the best of one’s abilities.
Štefan Kocán poured out his characteristically rounded tones as Ferrando, the first storyteller of the afternoon to be heard, although his basic enunciation of the all-important text left much to be desired. We should be grateful to have a major artist of Kocán’s repute in a role usually given to a comprimario singer. In years past, I have heard such excruciatingly sung attempts by lesser artists that it poisoned the well for others. It’s a marvel to actually hear such a robust sound in this thankless part. After scene one, Ferrando is given brief patches of dialog in Acts II and III, and only ensemble singing in those same scenes. A pity!
And now, for the villain of the piece: the “evil” nobleman Count di Luna. Despite favorable press coverage, given that HIS predecessor in the role was the estimable and still, to my mind, incomparable Dmitri Hvorostovsky, baritone Quinn Kelsey was incapable of producing a vocal snarl or the equivalent of a sneer and a snivel. So be it! Since I have already made the case that this villain is anything but your average bad guy, let it be said that Kelsey once again impressed me with his noble presence.
I first heard this fine young artist a few seasons back as a substitute Giorgio Germont in the Saturday broadcast of Verdi’s La Traviata. He reminded me then (as he did in this Trovatore) of a young Rolando Panerai: superior Italian diction, clear-as-a-bell vowels and consonants throughout his range and at all volume levels, along with attractive tone. So what if he fudged the Count’s high note at the conclusion of “Il balen del suo sorriso”? I’ve been privy to worse-sounding performances in my day — and from some pretty famous folks!
True, dramatically Kelsey lacked that “fire in the belly” of the best of his breed. But really, can anyone expect a young and talented singer near the start of what may be a major career to be another Leonard Warren, or Sherrill Milnes, or even a Cornell MacNeil? You’ve got to be joking! So many young “stars” have come and gone, without leaving their mark. I’m convinced, as I was with the likes of Robert Hale, Greer Grimsley, Mark Delavan (who Kelsey strongly resembles), and others, that stardom will come to those who wait; and, most likely, to those who do the work and align themselves closely with Verdi’s music.
It worked for Hvorostovsky, a Siberian-born performer leading an aimless life in a dead-end city, until the day he was discovered — actually, until Dmitri HIMSELF discovered he had the voice and soul of an artist. When that day comes, get out of Kelsey’s way! There won’t be an empty seat in the old opera house.
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes
Honor Thy National Anthem
Discerning viewers should bear in mind that London’s 2012 Summer Olympics Games closed with the same “Aquele abraço” theme song. While retaining the original’s lyrics, the vastly pared-down number, as it was presented at Rio 2016, lacked the stridency and gruffness of songwriter Gilberto Gil’s 1969 extended play recording (which this author once owned and can safely vouch for).
Produced by Manoel Barenbein for the Philips label and arranged by Rogério Duprat and Chiquinho de Moraes, the number’s rasping power and jarring orchestration contrasted with Luiz Melodia’s more contemplative, down-to-Google-earth interpretation — Gil Unplugged!
At that same London 2012 closing ceremony, one of Brazil’s top-rated performers was carried aloft by giant pale-blue flower petals. With arms outstretched and dressed in a flowing white gown, the raven-haired vocalist regaled London’s Olympic Stadium audience with her haunting delivery of the opening melody to Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5.
The tune was one of many such efforts by the inexhaustible carioca composer to blur the lines between classical and popular compositions. But who was this ravishing starlet, this improvised Brazilian Fat Lady? It was none other than Marisa Monte, and Villa-Lobos’ melody played perfectly into her hands (or, should I say, her voice). Little did viewers suspect that the teenaged Marisa had once spent a year studying opera in Italy before returning to her home in Rio.
Adding to the list of headliners, top model Alessandra Ambrósio also participated in the closing ceremony, as did singer-turned-actor Seu Jorge and rapper B-Negão. Former soccer great and ex-minister of sport Pelé was on hand, too, in a surprise visit, as “Aquele abraço” reached its peak. Amid a stream of dancers in typical Oba-Oba formation, the plan was to build anticipation for an Olympic-style Carnival to come, an all-out celebration to include drum-corps pounding, samba dancing, colorful outfits, and that ebulliently festive atmosphere.
Returning to Rio 2016, I made note of some shockingly slipshod attempts by English-speaking announcers to pronounce the many indigenous names that abound in Brazilian Portuguese. I realize, as most native speakers do, that the language is not the easiest one to enunciate. However, when reporting on events from the actual physical sites newscasters should have at least tried to master the correct manner of articulation before airtime.
For instance, the name Maracanã (pronounced Mah-rah-cah-NÃ), a word with a nasally-produced final syllable that resonates in back of the throat, became Mara-CAHN-a in the mouths of reporters. And instead of futebol, the Brazilian-Portuguese literation of “soccer,” the word futbol (in the Spanish-language spelling) scrolled across viewers’ screens. In the same league as the spelling and pronunciation issues, the redundant phrase “Carnival capital of the world,” used to describe Brazil’s party-hearty host city, quickly became an overworked cliché.
Just the same, the Maracanã stadium’s field resembled a visual map of Brazil. Onto this digitally-enhanced encampment, carioca native Paulinho da Viola (né Paulo César Batista de Faria) materialized, strumming a solo guitar and seconded by an eight-piece string orchestra. This is where the creative directors’ plans for the Rio 2016 opening ceremony came into their own.
After all the pomp and majesty of military bands and symphony orchestras; after so many pretentious arrangements for grand piano and choirs of fifty thousand or more voices; and after the circumstance surrounding the pointless chest-beating at the 2014 World Cup, listeners were held spellbound by the hushed elegance of Paulinho’s intimate take on the country’s Hino Nacional.
This was no time for posturing or empty-headed braggadocio on the soccer field of shattered dreams. Instead, Brazil laid bare her musical soul. With reverence and retrospection, the coordinators of the opening program opted to look inward, to go back to the country’s pop-music beginnings: to samba and bossa nova.
It was as if João Gilberto himself, who slowed down samba’s rhythmic impulses to barely whispered cadences, were physically present that August evening. We know that wasn’t the case. Still, Joãozinho’s essence was carried forward in Paulinho da Viola’s gorgeously understated, two-minute-and-twenty-two-second presentation that set the tone for the sixteen-day event.
Forcing viewers to lean forward in their seats, it commanded their attention by urging them to follow along with the words. This was a multi-part conversation that brought people nearer to today’s Brazilian reality, as well as an invitation to take part in a national ritual. The producers exceeded expectations by toning down the bombast to a mild trickle. The mood was surprisingly stirring. And there was no question of defamation or lack of respect. This was hallowed ground.
As Paulinho continued to enthrall listeners, a group of young people, wrapped in the country’s colors, mounted a circular platform where the flag-raising ceremony would be observed. The platform was inspired by the spherical discs flanking the modernistic structures of the capital Brasília’s National Congress. The group gathered at the flagpole’s base to pay homage to the Brazilian flag. A jet of air, pumped through the flagpole’s core from its base below ground, gave the impression of a banner waving in the night.
Brazil sang, and the world sang with her. A sense of pride swelled up in the audience and in our household; a pride that, frankly, hasn’t always been felt considering what the country has been going through these past few years.
In all probability, the idea for this smaller-scaled treatment may have begun with London 2012’s closing ceremony. During the handing over of the Olympic flag portion, the tradition of playing the new host-country’s national anthem was followed. It was carried out by a recording of a military band intoning Brazil’s Hino Nacional over the Olympic Stadium’s loudspeaker system, in a controversial “shortened edition” that eliminated an entire verse.
Now imagine if you will a scenario of patriotic American baseball or football fans, hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a stadium in the U.S. After the section, “Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight / o’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?” they realize that the bridge, “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,” had been edited out. This glaring omission would be taken as an insult to the host nation, and would no doubt have sparked an international incident. Summon the secretary of state! On the double, pronto!
Mercifully, when Brazilians in Brazil hear their Hino Nacional played, it is given complete. At least, the first stanza is complete. As we know, there are several other stanzas to confront, as there are with America’s “Star Spangled Banner” and numerous other hymns of the nations. These are normally omitted in order to save time.
Besides all that, how many people memorize all of the stanzas to their country’s national anthem? Not many, I’d be willing to bet.
Birth of the Brazilian Nation
The next section introduced the story of the founding of the land we call Brazil (named after the Brazilwood, or Paubrasilia that once thrived there), of the indigenous native population that abounded, of the birds and beasts that inhabited the densely forested continent: Terra Brasilis. Land ho!
In an intricately choreographed segment, performers in native costume (actual descendants, in fact) danced around the arena creating images of grass huts with gigantic ribbon strands. Then, the first Europeans, the Portuguese, arrived in their fast-moving caravels. The bouncing prows of the highly maneuverable ships carrying the bearded and longhaired Portuguese inspired awe and curiosity among the natives. The Portuguese carved a trail through the Brazilian landscape, leaving their mark behind.
This was followed by the African slaves, towing their plows, laden down by their shackles and chains, tearing up the land with massive paddlewheels, and working the sugar plantations. The analogy to the Hebrew slaves of Egypt was inescapable. This marked the exploitation of the races in the Portuguese conquest of Brazil.
Little by little, subtly at first, the landscape began to change (through the modern technology of projection mapping). The African slaves were followed in turn by the Arabic contingent, then the Orientals, and still more arrivals from other nations. Japanese immigrants settled in the region of São Paulo. After five generations, the Japanese are completely assimilated into Brazilian life, as were other nationalities, including the Italians, the Poles, the Germans, Czechs, Spanish, Syrian-Lebanese, and various subordinate groups.
A patchwork quilt design emerged, representing the varied and assorted nature of the population as the country approached the modern era — the early twentieth century. The building of contemporary Brazil incorporated rising platforms from under the stadium so as to visualize the growth of buildings, apartment complexes, businesses, and living quarters.
The concrete jungles that dot the horizon led to the burgeoning of major cities. Alongside these, the rise of the slums, or favelas, that cropped up simultaneously along the peripheries. Modern edifices and high-rise dwellings compete for space, with tenants scaling the dizzying heights. Like monkeys swinging from the jungle canopy, individuals try to get a leg up, jumping and climbing from rooftop to rooftop, inching ever higher, and swaying from the parapets in a mad scramble to see who would be first in line to achieve their goals.
From the white Plexiglas squares placed together by the performers there appeared a replica of the 14-Bis (Quatorze Bis), an actual working model, we believe, of a canard biplane, with an actor filling in for that little-known homegrown genius, the eccentric inventor Alberto Santos-Dumont. This biplane flew the friendly Brazilian skies out of the stadium and around the Lapa Arches and over Guanabara Bay (or so it was made to seem to viewers). This portion of the show perplexed many of the foreign reporters covering the event, who had difficulty grasping the message that in Brazil, France, and other countries Santos-Dumont is considered the Father of Modern Air Flight, not the Wright Brothers. So be it.
Cue back to the big city — digitally and physically enhanced in the wide-open spaces of Maracanã Stadium. Floating through the airspace, the harmonious sounds of a piano accompanied the voice of Daniel Canneti Jobim, composer Tom Jobim’s grandson, who took center stage. Dressed in a white wide-brimmed hat, he sang and played his grandpa’s singular sensational tune, “The Girl from Ipanema,” with lyrics by poet Vinicius de Moraes.
Gliding down the digital runway, and strutting her stuff as only a super-model of her caliber could, stood Gisele Bündchen — a sixth-generation German descendant — in a stunning silver-lamé gown. Jobim’s image was projected thirty-or-more-feet onto the side of a makeshift apartment complex, as the assemblage sang along with the composer’s grandson. Gisele, all smiles, captivated the crowd as she took her sweet time crossing the open field. “When she walks, she’s like a samba / That swings so cool and sways so gentle that / When she passes, each one she passes goes ‘Ah’!”
Switching over to the pop arena, the succeeding segment emphasized the evolution in tastes and Brazilian musical development with the rise of hip-hop, baile funk, axé, forró, frevo, etc. Popular culture took precedent, with the wailing voices of slum residents. Elza Soares, one of the last surviving grandes dames of variety and theater, sang a brief snippet of Vinicius and Baden Powell’s “Canto de Ossanha.”
Along with capoeira, the heavy sound of a cuica pervaded, along with Zeca Pagodinho and rapper Marcelo D2, delivering Zeca’s patented ode to better living, the song “Deixa a vida me levar” (“Let life take me along”). The clash of musical styles, represented by rap and pop (and contemporary artists Karol Conká and twelve-year-old MC Sofia), continued to duke it out in a syncopated slugfest.
Next up, actress and singer Regina Casé interrupted the proceedings to state her case that we need to “bring people together and celebrate their differences.” “Here’s to diversity,” she shouted. Joined by the forever youthful Jorge Ben Jor (“Mas, Que Nada”), both artists sang one his signature hits, “País Tropical.” This brought out the warring factions of different colors, strokes, and folks into one patchwork design, as at the beginning of the ceremony. With fireworks exploding and lights blazing, the theme struck up anew: “Looking for similarities, celebrating differences.” That’s something we, here, in the United States have been striving to come to terms with for, oh, two hundred and fifty years, or more.
Pause for Reflection: A Reading from “Nausea and the Flower”
The concluding portions of the ceremony explored the alarming rise in CO2 emissions on the planet, the dangers of unchecked global warming, of climate change, the melting of the polar icecaps, and the rising sea levels, all of them “challenges to the coastline cities.”
A lone boy in shorts and sneakers, with a backpack and form-fitting cap, discovers a single green object growing in the street. It’s a plant. Thus begins a recitation of the final stanzas of the poem, “A Flor e a Náusea” (“Nausea and the Flower”), by mineiro author and modernist poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. It would be spoken by two of the world’s greatest actresses, Fernanda Montenegro (in the original Portuguese) and Dame Judi Dench (in English translation). The accompanying music score by Antonio Pinto and Jaques Morelenbaum was taken from the multi-award-winning film Central do Brasil (Central Station):
Uma flor nasceu na rua!
A flower has sprouted in the street!
Passem de longe, bondes, ônibus, rio de aço do tráfego.
Buses, streetcars, steel stream of traffic, steer clear.
Uma flor ainda desbotada
ilude a polícia, rompe o asfalto.
A flower, still pale,
Has fooled the police, it’s breaking through the asphalt.
Façam completo silêncio, paralisem os negócios,
garanto que uma flor nasceu.
Sua cor não se percebe.
Suas pétalas não se abrem.
Seu nome não está nos livros.
É feia. Mas é realmente uma flor.
Let’s have complete silence, hold all business,
I swear that a flower has been born.
Its color is uncertain.
It’s not showing its petals.
Its name isn’t in the books.
It’s ugly. But it really is a flower.
Sento-me no chão da capital do país às cinco horas da tarde
e lentamente passo a mão nessa forma insegura.
I sit down on the ground of the nation’s capital at five in the afternoon
And fondle with my fingers this precarious form.
Mas é uma flor.
But it’s a flower.
Furou o asfalto,
It broke through the asphalt,
Disgust and hate.
e o ódio.
The boy takes the plant and places it gently into a waiting receptacle. Rising from the ground, he holds the object aloft, and silently walks off the stage.
Time for the parade of athletes.
(End of Part Three)
To be continued…..
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes
Countdown to Show Time
Winning and losing. That’s life in the Olympic fast lane. They are also part of every Brazilian’s daily grind.
For Brazil, becoming the Top Dog — whether in soccer or beach volleyball, in Formula One racing or the fast-paced world of international athletics — has proven to be a self-deluding pipe dream.
You may recall that the country had stumbled mightily (or, should we say, crashed and burned?) at the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament. But for two full weeks in August 2016, Brazil would be given the opportunity to redeem itself — a do-over, such as it was, where it could enjoy the rapt attention of sports fans, along with a fair share of global viewership and a complement of positive press coverage, for its lavish opening ceremony.
Many in the world media would describe a country’s opening ceremony as its first line of defense — its premier showcase — to prove to inquisitive viewers (and incredulous skeptics) that Brazil, or any other nation, was made of sterner stuff.
Several individuals were involved as creative directors in the planning and execution of this Olympic pool-sized project: Fernando Meirelles, a noted filmmaker and director/producer of City of God and The Constant Gardener; and set designer Daniela Thomas, a screenwriter, stage actor, and ex-wife of writer-producer and theater director Gerald Thomas. Two additional collaborators were also employed: director, producer, and screenwriter Andrucha Waddington (The House of Sand) and choreographer Deborah Colker, known for her work with Cirque du Soleil, as well as hundreds if not thousands of eager volunteers.
Catchphrases for the opening ceremony, which commenced on the evening of August 5, 2016, included such hyperbolic assertions that audiences were in for “a sixteen-day Carnival,” and that “Rio 2016 [was] going to be entertaining.” No need to downplay it, fellas!
As show time neared, a beaming Cristo Redentor (or Christ the Redeemer) statue, the reinforced-concrete symbol of a hospitable host city, stood imposingly upon its base at Mount Corcovado (“The Hunchback”). The towering ninety-eight-foot-tall-figure glowed with a bright green, yellow, and blue light — the colors of the Brazilian flag, calling the world’s athletes to attention in the sporting event of the season.
Paradoxically, since the seasons are reversed below the Equator, the quadrennial summer competition took place during Brazil’s winter of political discontent (see the following link to Part One of my piece: (https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2016/09/03/flames-over-rio-2016-brazils-president-burns-as-the-world-watches-the-summer-olympic-games-part-one/). Even though disgraced Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was suspended from office in early May, she declined an invitation by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to attend the opening ceremony. Her former vice president and soon-to-be-interim president, Michel Temer, had been pegged to represent Brazil in her stead.
Immobile and stone-faced, with bribery scandals of his own to agonize over, Temer sat in stern silence in the grandstand area, unintentionally mimicking the stoical gaze of Rio’s Redeemer (or perhaps needing a savior of his own).
Our Country, ‘Tis of Thee We Sing
Music, theater, and dance, in as much as they could be viewed or heard in a stadium of the massive proportions of the two-hundred-thousand-seat-capacity Maracanã, started the 2016 opening ceremony off with the unassuming, nondescript vocals of a veteran sambista, the Rio-born singer, actor, and songwriter Luiz Melodia (Luiz Carlos dos Santos, who sadly passed away on August 4, 2017, almost a year to the day of the opening festivities).
Waves hugging the city’s shoreline, swimmers approaching the water and diving headlong into the tide; surfers riding the crest of the ocean current; men playing soccer atop a building’s roof; a skateboarder on a deserted street, a golfer swinging his five iron, a biker winding down a treacherous path; rock-climbing, roof-hopping, jogging, and volleyball; and, of course, the thrill of hang-gliding and wind-surfing, and strolling along Rio’s characteristic mosaic-laden streets — all to the strains of a Gilberto Gil song, “Aquele abraço” (“That Big Embrace”), and breathtaking overhead shots of Marvelous City.
“That Rio de Janeiro is still gorgeous,” went the lyrics. “That Rio de Janeiro continues on, / That Rio de Janeiro during February and March, / Hello, hello, Realengo, that big embrace. / Hello you fans of Flamengo, that big embrace.”
O Rio de Janeiro continua lindo,
O Rio de Janeiro continua sendo,
O Rio de Janeiro, fevereiro e março,
Alô, alô, Realengo, aquele abraço.
Alô torcida do Flamengo, aquele abraço.
Chacrinha continua balançando a pança,
E buzinando a moça e comandando a massa,
E continua dando as ordens do terreiro.
Alô, alô, seu Chacrinha, velho guerreiro.
Alô, alô, Teresinha, Rio de Janeiro.
Alô, alô, seu Chacrinha, velho palhaço.
Alô, alô, Teresinha, aquele abraço.
Alô moça da favela, aquele abraço.
Todo mundo da Portela, aquele abraço.
Todo mês de fevereiro, aquele passo.
Alô Banda de Ipanema, aquele abraço.
Meu caminho pelo mundo, eu mesmo traço.
A Bahia já me deu régua e compasso.
Quem sabe de mim sou eu, aquele abraço.
Pra você que me esqueceu, aquele abraço.
Alô Rio de Janeiro, aquele abraço.
Todo povo brasileiro, aquele abraço
Clearly, Rio “abides.” The song played out as a salute to Cidade Maravilhosa, a tourist’s paradise, and a city that, much like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, never truly sleeps. Alive with activity, Rio de Janeiro (translated as the “River of January”) is a place with style and purpose, and a reason for being.
The old adage that São Paulo, the hemisphere’s most populous (and prosperous) state, carries Brazil on its back has a basis in economic fact. That may well be, but what gives the country its rhythm and pulse is Rio, the heartbeat of a nation.
But to insist this pleasant-sounding number was little more than an easygoing sambinha, addressed to unwary international listeners, is to deny the Brazilian producers the profound depth of knowledge they possessed apropos of Brazil’s tumultuous past.
With regard to that past, Tropicália co-founder and songwriter Gilberto Gil (born Gilberto Passos Gil Moreira) wrote “Aquele abraço” in 1969, during Brazil’s most repressive period and close to the eve of his forced departure from his native soil to a two-and-a-half-year exile in Merry Olde England.
After seventy days in prison, Gil had just been released (along with close friend and fellow Bahian, musician and songwriter Caetano Veloso) from a military detention center in the district of Realengo, which Luiz Melodia mentions above.
Gil stepped outside to freedom. His lungs took in Rio’s air and warmth. Upon seeing the still-festooned city, he resolved to express both relief and indignation at his forced captivity in the wistful, bittersweet manner familiar to all Brazilians: in words and song. The date was February 19, 1969. Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras (or Fat Tuesday), which marked the end of Carnival and the beginning of the Lenten season — a time of reaffirmation and renewal.
He and Caetano had paid the price (so they believed) for their supposed “transgressions,” which, according to Brazilian authorities, involved so-called subversive activities such as outright protests, civil disobedience, and criticism of the military. They were placed under house arrest and taken to Salvador da Bahia, where they were required to report daily to the chief of the federal police. Four months later, they received an “invitation” to leave the country, an offer neither artist could refuse.
Both men had been part of a growing artistic trend that incorporated music, words, images, and sounds, even nonsense syllables, into their work, in an attempt to convey one’s hostility, or whatever emotion they felt compelled to exhibit, toward the current state of affairs — an anything-goes, kitchen-sink-style approach to protesting.
This trend (or movement, if you prefer) acquired the exotic-sounding label of tropicalismo, itself derived from “Tropicália,” a term originally used to describe an installation piece by the carioca visual artist, Hélio Oiticica. Caetano appropriated “Tropicália” (a name he much admired) for the title of a song, a raucous blend of verbal representations invoking the modern capital of Brasília, the French Nouvelle Vague, Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, birdsong, Carmen Miranda, Dadaism, concrete poetry, Che Guevara, indigenous forenames, the films of Glauber Rocha, and so on.
Unfortunately, rumors had been circulating that the tropicalistas had defamed Brazil’s national anthem in this musically-dishonored manner (the rumors proved to be false). Despite their denials, the accusations served as the flimsy justification for Caetano and Gil’s arrest and their being whisked off to Europe, comparable to riding backwards on a donkey while wearing an ill-fitting dunce cap.
Other pop culture references alluded to in “Aquele abraço” paid respect to two polemic TV personalities of the era (the “clown” Chacrinha and the fictional Teresinha), the city’s largest and most influential soccer team (Flamengo), a girl from the slums of Rio (moça da favela), one of its local samba schools (Portela), and the month of February (o mês de fevereiro), in that order.
Gil concludes the number with a few short phrases: saying goodbye to the samba band from Ipanema — a Guarani word with the distasteful connotation of “bad water” (which, if the Olympic rowers and swimmers had advance knowledge of, may have elected not to participate in those events); and, with his middle-finger raised in the direction of the ruling regime, statements about his personal philosophy of life:
I’ll make my own way in the world
Bahia provided me with slide-rule and compass
Who better than I know what’s best for me?
For those who don’t remember me, that big embrace
Hello, Rio de Janeiro, that big embrace
To the people of Brazil, that big embrace
And with that parting shot at Brazil’s brass, Gil bid a fond farewell. But don’t think for a moment that he had lowered his head in shame and penance. Not long after “Aquele abraço” was recorded and performed (in a show, given at Teatro Castro Alves in Bahia, to raise money for their “trip” abroad) Caetano and Gil left their old haunt, not knowing whether they would ever see the country again.
Obviously, the number meant more to Gil and Caetano than a hello-and-how-do-you-do. “Aquele abraço” became the expression, in Caetano’s words, of “its wound of love and loss, and above all the direct address to Rio de Janeiro, the city to which I feel so intimately connected … The irony of this song — which seemed a kind of valediction to Brazil (represented, according to tradition, by Rio) but without the least rancor — is that it made us all feel up to the difficulties that lay ahead” (Caetano Veloso, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music & Revolution in Brazil, pp. 266-267).
His companion-in-exile Gil was far less circumspect. Turning down the prestigious Golden Dolphin (Golfinho de Ouro) Prize, from the Museum of Image and Sound, for the best-selling record of the year, Gil wrote an incendiary piece, “Recuso + Aceito = Receito” (“Refuse + Accept = Acquiesce,” a less-than-veiled play on words), in the Brazilian periodical O Pasquim, explaining his reasons for declining the dubious honor:
“If the MIS [Museum of Image and Sound] thinks that with ‘Aquele abraço’ I was going to beg forgiveness for what I had done, they were mistaken. And let it be clear to those who thought my mind had changed with ‘Aquele abraço,’ that it does not mean I have been ‘regenerated,’ that I have become ‘a good black samba-player,’ as they want all blacks to become who seem to ‘know their place.’ I do not know what place that is and I am no place at the moment. Even far away I can understand what’s going on. Even in England, the Brazilian Embassy has declared to news agencies that I am persona non grata. No prize will make this situation disappear.”
So this was the background to that simple little samba. And yet, this was but the opening salvo, the first of several Olympic broadsides that, through intricacy and nuance, accomplished what tropicalismo had tried to do, but in a less vulgar, less crass, and certainly less overt way. To these ears, the playing of “Aquele abraço” could only have meant one thing: as a reminder to their fellow citizens, by the producers and creative directors of the opening ceremony, that they should be mindful of their country’s past and present ills.
Their subtlety may have gone over the heads of everyone else who was watching the Olympic program. But it could not have escaped the notice of those Brazilians whose lives were irrevocably transformed during the harrowing military-dictatorship years.
(End of Part Two)
To be continued….
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes
Let’s Discuss It!
After Ken Avis’s introduction, Leo Lucini started the discussion off with a few words about the roots of Brazilian music, especially the native indigenous sources, mixed in with those of the country’s Portuguese colonizers, and, of course, the African slave influence. He went into a bit of the history of how the descendants of former slaves came together at a street corner named Praça Onze (“Square Eleven”), in Rio, and began to play the rudiments of choro, maxixe, and street samba. From there, later generations of Brazilians, i.e., Jobim, Vinicius, and, in Lucini’s opinion, the “founder” and pioneer of bossa nova, João Gilberto, had also banded together along the beachfront sections known as Ipanema and Copacabana.
Leo paused in his talk to give an active demonstration, involving sections of the audience, of the sounds that comprised the basic samba rhythm. This portion of the program went on a trifle longer than necessary; however, the point was made that samba encompassed a variety of contrasting elements that, together, created the music and rhythm which, when slowed down, gave way to what we know as bossa nova.
The next speaker was David Adler, who wrote the 2004 cover story for JazzTimes on the making of the album Jazz Samba. Most of David’s discussion was centered on his article, but the part that opened most of the audience’s eyes was the sidebar involving the so-called “Phantom Sessions” that allegedly took place prior to Jazz Samba being recorded. Basically, it was an October 1961 session with guitarist Charlie Byrd and saxophonist Stan Getz with Getz’s working quartet at the time, including bassist John Neves and drummer Roy Haynes.
David actually talked to Haynes, who remembered being in the studio with Charlie Byrd before bossa nova became popular. David even sought out and spoke with knowledgeable individuals, several of whom were able to provide specific dates (October 24-26) for the sessions, although no tapes or supporting material was found. “So there is a Jazz Samba session that’s in the ether somewhere, and it is gone,” David concluded. “It doesn’t exist anymore.”
What David drew from this disclosure was the incontrovertible fact that bossa nova required artists who were exposed to the music, who knew it and were capable of playing it. This is where the drummer Buddy Deppenschmidt and bassist Keter Betts came in.
The talk transitioned over to Buddy and his experience with making the now-classic album. He admitted, quite candidly, that “it’s just my version of it, my interpretation of it. It is not pure bossa nova. It’s exactly what the [album] cover says it is. It’s Jazz Samba. It’s the first fusion album before they even started using the word ‘fusion.’ ”
Without realizing it, Buddy held the audience in the palm of his hand from the start. He remained calm and collected throughout the experience. And he showed a canny sense of humor and comic timing, too, when he regaled the crowd with this morsel: “We had no idea [the album] was going to be so successful. Keter Betts said months later, ‘You know that album we did?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, it got a Grammy.’ And what’s even funnier is, I was 24, and I said, ‘What’s a Grammy?’ I didn’t even know what a Grammy was!”
More controversially, Buddy equated the album’s popular success with, quite possibly, percussionist and second drummer Bill Reichenbach’s placing the emphasis on the rhythm of the songs (which Charlie Byrd selected) on beats two and four, something the “American public was used to hearing” and “could identify with.”
It was now multi-award-winning sound engineer Ed Greene’s turn to discuss his participation in the venture. Ed wasted no time in stressing the fact that a jazz combo, as much as a symphony orchestra, needs to be recorded in an acoustically agreeable environment, not in a “dead room.” It was the raison d’être for recording Jazz Samba at All Souls Unitarian Church in D.C.
True to his profession, Ed emphasized the technical aspects of sound recording, including his use at the time of vacuum tube circuitry, Ampex tape recorders, condensers, and mixers. More important than these was his insistence the musicians be comfortable playing with one another.
It was at that point that Ed turned to Buddy, who he hadn’t seen in over fifty years, and asked, “Were you guys comfortable on stage, playing together?” Buddy replied with a simple “Absolutely,” which he prefaced with “You made my drums sound better than they ever sounded.” This pleased Mr. Greene to no end, who confided to audience members the reason he left the record business, mainly because he got tired of doing guitar overdubs on albums for weeks on end. Again, the musicians had no one to relate to, which in his opinion made the business much too complicated, what with earphones and monitors and such. “It’s a miracle anything comes through at all.” He did say that he enjoyed the immediacy of television, which is where Ed had been thriving for the past several decades, prior to his passing in August 2017.
Returning to the panel discussion at the Strathmore, D.C. native Tom Cole was asked to provide, in response to Ken Avis’ prompt, some context for, as well as the impact of, the album on pop music during and after the 1960s. Turning the tables on the moderator, Tom inquired of the participants that although both instrumental and vocal music were listened to with equal interest, did any of them recall hearing Jazz Samba on the radio; and, if they did, how did they react to it?
Words to the Wise
Ed Greene was the first to interject, in that he still “hears the album on the radio. It’s an unmistakable sound. There’s something about it. The music was not only well played, superbly played. It’s a very sensual music. That’s really what that album’s about. And that’s the essence of bossa nova.” Leo Lucini confirmed Ed’s appraisal, adding “among other things.”
Buddy offered his own thoughts in that he was “pleased that it sounded good. Everything about it was okay, it was correct. I didn’t hear anything that I disliked. And I’m always listening to mistakes that I made. The worst thing about making any recording is that you have to listen to your mistakes over and over and forever.”
What ultimately came out of this phase of the discussion was that the American record-buying public was readily taken with Jazz Samba over earlier recordings that were issued (in some cases, a decade or so earlier), among them Brazilian music featuring guitarist Laurindo Almeida and saxophonist Bud Shank.
A brief question-and-answer session followed, wherein yours truly, who was present in the audience and listening attentively to what was being divulged, was asked by Buddy (thank you, my friend!) to comment on the influence of the movie Black Orpheus in popularizing bossa nova. Here’s the answer I gave the panel:
“Vinicius de Moraes and Jobim wrote the music for the original play, Orfeu da Conceição, which later was turned into a film by Marcel Camus, made in Rio. It included none of the music from the play, but all new music by Jobim, as well as music by Luiz Bonfá. That “The Morning of Carnival” and “Samba de Orfeu” were Bonfá’s music. Black Orpheus is a totally other story. It’s a film that really captured, visually and sonically, the imagination of Americans and pretty much the whole world — except at the time the native Brazilians.”
Although nobody asked me, I volunteered a story that I had read in journalist and writer Ruy Castro’s book, Chega de Saudade (a.k.a. Bossa Nova): “My comment is about Stan Getz, they said he was a great player because of his sound and everything. During the recording sessions of Getz-Gilberto, João Gilberto made a comment to Jobim about it. As Getz was blowing away, Gilberto told Jobim [and I was paraphrasing here], ‘Tell that moron to shut up, he’s playing too loud.’ Jobim saw Stan’s expression and he said, ‘He says he likes the way you play.’ And Getz, in response, said, ‘Funny, I don’t think that’s what he said.’ ”
I was pleased — no, thrilled — to hear that Brazil’s music, especially the soothing sounds of bossa nova, was still seducing audiences the way it had over half a century ago.
Looking back on the previous Friday night’s concert with Eliane Elias and Sergio Mendes, I was reminded of an elderly gentleman seated to my right. He had come into the Strathmore Music Center with the aid of a walker, so fragile and weak was his appearance. The man must have been in his eighties. He was accompanied by his wife, who looked about a decade younger.
As the music and vibes reached their peak, the man stood up and, to my astonishment, started jerking his arms around in time to the rhythm. He was hardly able to keep up with the music, but boy, was he having the time of his life! Fond memories of his younger and healthier self must have been on his mind.
Then it dawned on me. Bossa nova continues to charm the world. And based on what I witnessed that night, it never really gets old, does it?
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes
To hear a great musical masterwork performed to perfection by master craftspeople is worth waiting for. Sometimes the effect can be overwhelming, and sometimes not. Anticipation can get the best of you, knowing that you are in for something out of the ordinary. Likewise, disappointment is around the corner if the outcome isn’t what you expected.
For example, could an unsuspecting Metropolitan Opera audience (and worldwide listeners tuned in to their radios) have known that during the Saturday intermission of Verdi’s Macbeth, performed on the afternoon of January 23, 1988, an elderly audience member would plunge to his death from the auditorium’s top balcony? No one could, until it actually happened. As a result, the rest of the performance was cancelled.
The fall would be ruled a suicide. Bantcho Bantchevsky, the 82-year-old man involved, had been a regular at the opera house for many seasons. In declining health and fortunes, and having suffered a recent heart ailment, Mr. Bantchevsky, who normally sat in the orchestra, decided to end his life in dramatic fashion.
Bantcho chose the time and the place as well as the method of his demise. But most of us are not so fortunate. Life has a way of choosing for us. And, more times than not, our choices are governed by unfolding events.
Nearly thirty years later, on the Saturday afternoon of December 2, 2017, the Met launched its 2017-2018 radio broadcast and Live in HD season with another Verdi masterwork, the Messa da Requiem, or Requiem Mass. (For the background to this towering and emotionally compelling piece, please see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/08/09/the-fab-four-of-opera-mozart-verdi-wagner-puccini-part-three/.)
This was not the first time the Met has performed Verdi’s opus. However, I do not recall a Saturday radio broadcast devoted exclusively to it — at least not lately. Nevertheless, the performance was dedicated, as all four of the sold-out performances were, to the memory of the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, whom I recently wrote about (please see the following link to last week’s post: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/12/04/and-the-curtain-slowly-falls-the-passing-of-classical-music-artists-in-2016-2017/).
The four soloists that headlined this showcase consisted of Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova, Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk, Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, and Italian basso Ferruccio Furlanetto. Chorus master Donald Palumbo was in charge of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, and Music Director Emeritus James Levine led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, two of the finest ensembles to be found anywhere.
Starting off softly with the bowing of the cellos, the chorus enters along with the strings. It solemnly intones the first lines, Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine – “Grant them eternal rest, Lord.” A brief a cappella section follows; then, all four soloists enter. One by one, starting with the tenor, they proclaim the Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”), which is the characteristic opening line of every Roman Catholic mass. Embellished to a degree by each of the singers, they are joined by the chorus in the concluding repetition of Kyrie eleison.
Suddenly, and without warning (the better to shock audiences into submission), pandemonium breaks out in the orchestra, a veritable Hell on earth: vigorous string movements collide with thunderous whacks on a gigantic bass drum; the blasting of the brass section (Tuba mirum spargens sonum – “The trumpet, casting a wondrous sound”), the chorus practically spitting out the words Dies Irae, dies illa — that fateful Day of Wrath when the heavenly trumpets shall sound and the earth cracks open; where the dead rise up with the living to face their Maker.
In this fiery recreation of the Last Judgment, Verdi summoned up every ounce of skill he had as a musical dramatist. Shades of his previous work, most notably Don Carlos and Aida, resound in the vocal and orchestral lines, along with hints of the masterpieces Otello and Falstaff to come. In the hands of an ensemble up to the task, this impressionable portion of the Requiem should knock the literal socks off us listeners.
I once experienced this feeling when, at Carnegie Hall in May 1982, yours truly was present at maestro Lorin Maazel’s farewell concert of this work with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus. I can vouch for the hall’s celebrated acoustics. Indeed, every filigree of sound was clearly and discernibly audible. Those tremendous bass drum smacks shook the very foundation of the place. There was a general feeling of both awesome grandeur and respectful religiosity, as befit the occasion in question.
Few of these qualities emerged in James Levine’s cautious reading, although the Met Chorus shone brilliantly in its moments under the spotlight. The Met Opera Orchestra, too, remained as pliable and responsive as always, if slightly devoid of its customary sheen. None of those spine-tingling moments guaranteed to send a shudder down one’s back, or grab you by the collar, or shake the life-blood out of your system, manifested themselves in this performance. Sorry to say, it remained stubbornly earthbound.
With the exception of the veteran Furlanetto who, despite some noticeable strain on top, managed to inject pure terror into the haunting words of Mors supebit et natura (“Death and nature will be stupefied”) — a superb acting job, I might add — none of the other soloists approached this level of artistry. Both Stoyanova and Semenchuk came off better vocally than verbally in their individual numbers and duets, with many of their words getting lost in mushy projection. Antonenko, in his solo, Ingemisco tamquam reus (“I groan as a guilty man”), displayed a worrisome wobble every time he strayed into high-note territory.
Then again, the occasion was a somber one, and not the usual festive affair. Even before Hvorostovky’s passing, I mentioned the rather offbeat programming of the Requiem, done in contemplation of the Met Opera’s perilous financial condition.
Let me spell it out for anyone whose grasp of subtlety remains less than acute: to begin the radio broadcast season with a work honoring the deceased (in this case, the late Hvorostovsky, although Verdi dedicated the piece to famed author Alessandro Manzoni) is tantamount to admitting the inevitable: Are we paying tribute to a failing institution — that is, the Metropolitan Opera itself— and the dying art of opera? Are we about to embark on a series of cost-cutting measures (fed by ever-distressing news from our Congress) that will end with curtailment of any future opera seasons?
We await further news along this front.
What Goes Around Comes Around
The title of this post, “Quid sum miser,” is taken from one of the sections of the Latin Mass for the Dead, that is, the notoriously apocalyptic Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”). It is first voiced by the mezzo in gently hushed tones. She is joined by the soprano and tenor as the solo transmogrifies into a trio. The full Latin text is given below:
Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus?
Cum vix iustus sit securus?
It translates to the following:
Then what am I, a wretch, to say?
To whom should I make my appeal?
When even the just are in need of mercy?
Later that same Saturday and throughout the following week, the news broke that longtime maestro and Met Opera music director James Levine — a revered figure in New York’s classical music circles, and beyond, for well on 45 years — had been accused more than three decades prior of the sexual abuse of several men when they were teenagers.
There have been rumors circulating to this effect for quite some time. Whether or not Met Opera management had anything to do with playing down the gravity of these charges, or whether maestro Levine, 74, (and, by implication, any of his “enablers”) will continue to deny these stories as unconfirmed accusations, the sad part is that only NOW such matters are being taken seriously and investigated. If there was the possibility of a crime being committed, then it must be ferreted out.
Consequently, the Met suspended maestro Levine for the rest of the season (he had been scheduled to conduct several more works there), leaving his continued association with the company in doubt. Health-wise, Levine has been in a debilitated physical state for a number of years now, due to numerous back injuries brought about by falls in or about his home. Because of his condition, a specially-constructed conductor’s podium, which rises from below the house’s orchestra pit, was set up for his specific use. What is to become of this contraption?
Along similar lines, New York Times’ classical music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote a self-explanatory postmortem the other day titled “Should I Put Away My James Levine Recordings?” Good question! Do we stop listening to maestro Levine’s many excellent recorded mementos because of these latest developments? One can say the same about other artists in the entertainment and broadcast field (I will not get into the political arena).
Michael Smerkonish, CNN’s television presenter and talk-radio host, voiced similar concerns regarding the likes of Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and others. “Is it okay to enjoy the work of those accused of sexual misconduct?” he asked on the air. “Can we as consumers continue to enjoy the fruits of the labor of those who are now under a cloud of suspicion?”
The above-named men weren’t the only ones to have been charged with impropriety. Add to them the names of Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Bryan Singer; from the past, we should also mention Pablo Picasso, Claude Debussy, Puccini, Wagner, Diaghilev — the list is long and troubling. Although Smerconish mentioned some of these individuals, historically sexual abuse or misconduct, including within the Catholic Church, has been far too prevalent, and not only against women but against men and underage children, too.
“People in the public eye,” Smerconish went on to say, “tend to be larger than life by the definition, but when we hear the sordid details [of their abuse], what does it mean with our past relationships to their work? I’m having trouble making up my mind.” He’s not the only one!
What are we to say, wretches that we are, when faced with such revelations? To whom should we make our appeal? What does one do when even the just among us are in need of mercy?
As I mentioned at the outset, the expectation of something out of the ordinary can lead to disappointment. We do not choose the time of our demise. Events unfolding before us, often out of our control, make the choice for us. It’s a safe bet that maestro Levine will no longer conduct at the Met, or anyplace else.
In order to reconcile ourselves with our Maker, the church teaches us to confess our sins, to be contrite in our confession, and to go and sin no more. We are all fallible and in need of redemption. And we all fall short. This is the message of Verdi’s piece.
The Requiem concludes with this final prayer for deliverance:
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda
Quando coeli movendi sunt et terra
Dum veneris judicare seclum per ignem.
Libera me, Domine, de morte aeterna in die illa tremenda.
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that terrible day
When the heavens and the earth shall be moved
When you will come to judge the world by fire.
Deliver me, Lord, from eternal death on that terrible day
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
With the old year winding down and the new Metropolitan Opera broadcast season gearing up, let me pay tribute to some of the classical-music artists, singers, musicians, and craftspeople who have passed on to their heavenly reward. I have broken them out based on voice category or their specific field of endeavor:
Peter Allen (September 17, 1920 – October 8, 2016) was the Met Opera’s radio host for 29 seasons, starting in January 1975 after the company’s longtime announcer, Milton Cross, had suddenly passed away after 43 years of service. I remember both Cross and Allen, and between them there were lots and lots of opera talk, not to mention the knowledge imparted about those broadcast works. To me, Cross almost always came across as pompous and aloof, a byproduct of an earlier era of radio journalism. But with Allen (born Harold Levy in Toronto, Canada), there was a gentlemanly manner and easy affability about him, along with a natural Canadian reserve. A most erudite individual, Allen became a radio announcer upon graduation from Ohio State University, eventually moving to New York and serving as radio station WQXR’s classical-music announcer from 1947 until his retirement. He went on to earn a reputation of grace under fire, of composure and imperturbability in the midst of chaos. His smooth delivery and soothing conversational style were never grating or perturbing, a true professional in every way. And Allen absolutely adored opera. I will never forget how he delivered Tosca’s last line in Act III, just before she leapt to her death — conveyed to worldwide audiences in a most unassuming manner. With bite as well as no small degree of bemusement, Allen spoke the fabled words: “Scarpia, we meet before God!” You could almost see the announcer grinning behind his bespectacled bearing. Allen stepped down in September 2004 when Margaret Juntwait was chosen to replace him.
Neville Marriner (April 15, 1924 – October 2, 2016) and Georges Prêtre (August 14, 1924 – January 4, 2017) had overlapping podium careers. Born four months apart (Marriner in the United Kingdom, Prêtre in France), they both started playing jazz at an early age. In addition to being an accomplished violinist, Marriner studied at the Royal College of Music in London, while Prêtre, who preferred the trumpet, took up the conducting art at the Paris Conservatory. Prêtre led his first opera at Marseilles in 1946. The work was Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, which he recorded in 1962 with tenor Jon Vickers, mezzo Rita Gorr and baritone Ernest Blanc. Not necessarily an opera conductor but known primarily for his founding of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (a chamber ensemble at its start), Marriner achieved worldwide fame and recognition with the soundtrack to director Miloš Forman’s 1984 film of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus. Throughout the years, Marriner’s Mozart recordings with the Academy of St. Martin’s won numerous Grammy Awards and other distinctions. Prêtre continued to work with various orchestras throughout his lengthy career. Fans of soprano Maria Callas will recall his podium presence for her various comeback concerts and recital albums, including an EMI/Angel Records stereo remake of Tosca featuring her frequent onstage co-star Tito Gobbi and tenor Carlos Bergonzi; and a marvelously atmospheric reading of Bizet’s Carmen (which Callas never sang on the stage) with the late Nicolai Gedda (see below).
Jeffrey Tate (April 28, 1943 – June 2, 2017) was a physician by training (he was an eye specialist at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London) before becoming a musician. Tate overcame two childhood ailments, congenital spina bifida and kyphosis (curvature of the spine), to devote full-time to medicine, although he remained undecided about a career for some time. He eventually abandoned medicine for music around 1970-71, studying at the London Opera Centre and then at Covent Garden. Some of his early conducting mentors were Georg Solti, Colin Davis, and Josef Krips. A chance meeting with conductor and avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez led to Tate’s appointment as Boulez’s assistant at the 1976 centennial production of Wagner’s Ring cycle at Bayreuth. He was later offered a position in Cologne, where after much cajoling he was persuaded to conduct Carmen in Sweden. This led to further engagements throughout Europe, conducting Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Tate made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1980, leading a revival of Alban Berg’s Lulu, a historic production which included the restored third act. Primarily a conductor of the classical repertoire — he was chief conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra since 2009 — Tate spent much of his time in the opera houses of Europe and England and giving concerts, especially in Germany where he made his home. He passed away of a heart attack at an orchestra rehearsal at the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo, Italy.
Gigliola Frazzoni (February 22, 1923 – December 3, 2016) was born in Bologna. She studied with former diva Blanche Marchesi and, according to Frazzoni’s Official Website, made her professional debut on October 4, 1947 in the minor role of Samaritana in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini. Frazzoni was a lyric soprano with a strong dramatic flair that endeared her to Italian audiences. Because of her fear of flying, Frazzoni’s career was limited to the European Continent, specifically to Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, and Egypt. Although it limited her exposure abroad (she made few studio recordings), Frazzoni can still be heard as Minnie in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West in a live 1956 transmission from La Scala, alongside colleagues Franco Corelli and Tito Gobbi, and conductor Antonino Votto. Radio commentator Ira Siff’s review of the recording for Opera News emphasized that “Frazzoni’s Minnie fairly leaps out of the speakers; her fragility, courage, longing and despair tug at the heart of the listener.” Americans never got to hear the singer in her prime. However, this recorded memento of her art remains a testament to the fire and viability of Italian verismo from one of its chief proponents.
Roberta Peters (May 4, 1930 – January 18, 2017), Patrice Munsel (May 14, 1925 – August 4, 2016), and Brenda Lewis (March 2, 1921 – September 16, 2017) all made their Metropolitan Opera and/or professional debuts within a few years of each other. Brenda Lewis (born Birdie Solomon), the oldest of the group, first appeared as the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Philadelphia Opera in 1941. She became a mainstay at the New York City Opera for 22 seasons (from 1945-1967), while her Met Opera debut took place on January 24, 1952 as Musetta in La Bohème, opposite Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão. A versatile artist encompassing a wide range of styles and vocal demands, Lewis made her mark in two important American works, Marc Blitzstein’s Regina and especially Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden, as well as in musical theater (Call Me Madam, Kiss Me, Kate, and Annie Get Your Gun). Patrice Munsel (née Munsil), the second oldest, was the youngest singer ever to have debuted at the Met, taking on the coloratura part of Philine in Thomas’ Mignon at age 18, on December 4, 1943, when most teenagers of the time were graduating high school. Munsel was a popular crossover artist, enjoying a fulfilling second career in musical comedy, along with television forays and Broadway road-show outings of Mame and Applause. Her final appearance with the Met was in Offenbach’s La Périchole on January 28, 1958. In addition to her stage appearances, Munsel also enjoyed a fulfilling nightclub career singing show tunes. Peters (real name Peterman), the youngest of the three, debuted at the Met on November 17, 1950, as a substitute Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. She was two years older than Munsel at her debut. In all, Peters’ career at the Met lasted a total 34 seasons, with her final performance as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto occurring on April 12, 1985. It was an early Rigoletto performance with a handsome young baritone named Robert Merrill that caught Peters’ eye as well her ear. They were married in 1952, but the union did not last: they realized they were much too young at the time. “I think I fell in love with his voice,” she later recalled, “not with the man.” However, Peters and Merrill remained close friends for many years thereafter. One of the baritone’s frequent collaborators, tenor Jan Peerce, introduced Peters to voice coach William Herman, who was also Patrice Munsel’s teacher. Another colleague and close friend of Merrill’s, tenor Richard Tucker, who often played the Duke of Mantua to Peters’ Gilda, sang alongside the soprano in 1967 at the start of the Israeli Six-Day War.
Géori Boué (October 16, 1918 – January 5, 2017), born Georgette, was a French lyric soprano of wide-ranging roles during the pre- and postwar years, beginning with her debut at the Capitole de Toulouse as the page Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Boué became familiar to French and Western European audiences with her assumption of Gounod’s rarely heard Mireille, Massenet’s Manon, Charpentier’s Louise, Micaela in Carmen, Debussy’s Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande, and copious others. She toured the major centers of Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Italy, and Germany, often appearing in tandem with her husband, the French baritone Roger Bourdin, in such works as The Tales of Hoffmann (Antonia and Dr. Miracle), the aforementioned Pelléas (Mélisande and Golaud), Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (Tatyana and Onegin), and Gounod’s Faust (Marguérite and Valentin). She was particularly memorable in Offenbach’s operettas, among them La Belle Hélène and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein.
Roberta Knie (May 13, 1938 – March 16, 2017) was a dramatic soprano especially adept in the works of Wagner. Born in Oklahoma, Knie spent time in London and in Germany with famed tenor Max Lorenz. Her professional debut occurred in Germany in 1964 as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. She became a member of the Vienna State Opera in the early 1970s and made her Bayreuth debut as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in 1974. Her first stab at Isolde came a year later in a Wieland Wagner production of Tristan und Isolde at Ravenna. Plagued by recurring illnesses (viral pneumonia, a detached retina, colon cancer) and disagreements with producer-directors, Knie’s singing career ended in 1991. It was supplemented by a teaching career that began in earnest in 1996; and, in 2004, as an artist in residence in the Voice and Opera Department of Temple University. Her Met debut was in 1976 as Chrysothemis in Strauss’ Elektra. Knie bore a striking resemblance to Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones, who shared similar Wagnerian repertory. Curiously, due to Knie’s frequent battles with director Patrice Chéreau during the run of Bayreuth’s centennial Ring production, she was replaced by Dame Gwyneth.
Carol Neblett (February 1, 1946 – November 23, 2017) was a shining star in the operatic firmament. With her stunning good looks and impressive stage deportment — not to mention her lithe figure — Neblett attracted immediate attention from the start. That she had a voice to match made her a much sought-after artist. Another early starter, Neblett made her professional bow in 1964 at age 18 in Respighi’s Lauda per la Natività del Signore (“Laud to the Nativity of the Lord”). Known for “her charming, often sensual portrayals of comic characters and dramatic heroines,” Carol was married to conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn. One of her favorite roles was Tosca, which she sang over 400 times (in her estimation), including performances at the Chicago Lyric with Luciano Pavarotti. Neblett also appeared as Puccini’s other forthright heroine Minnie in La Fanciulla del West at Covent Garden with Plácido Domingo (she later recorded the role with Domingo, Sherrill Milnes and conductor Zubin Mehta). Her New York City Opera debut came in 1969 as Musetta, a natural fit for her sparkling personality. That same year she took on the challenge of both Margherita and Elena (Helen of Troy) in Tito Capobianco’s production of Mefistofele, with Norman Treigle as the Devil. Neblett also took part in a revival of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppaea (1973), the title role in Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (1973), and the Frank Corsaro staging of an overlooked masterwork, Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (“The Dead City”), with tenor John Alexander. She went on to record the role of Marietta/Marie in that opera for RCA Victor with René Kollo. But her biggest claim to fame was a production of Massenet’s Thais in New Orleans, wherein she appeared in the buff. Her Met Opera career was launched in 1979 with the role of Senta in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s disastrous The Flying Dutchman production. Recovering from that debacle, Neblett spent ten seasons at the Met, singing Musetta, Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, Alice Ford in Falstaff, and, of course, Tosca. A bout with alcoholism in the 1990s led to major career challenges, which she managed to overcome by taking up teaching at Chapman University in Southern California.
Nicolai Gedda (July 11, 1925 – January 8, 2017). Not only did Gedda have a long, outstanding stage and recording career, but he was also long-lived in number of years. Born Harry Gustaf Nikolai Gädda (pronounced “Yedda”) in Sweden to dirt poor parents, the young Gedda was raised by his father’s sister and her Russian husband. It was from his step-father that he gained fluency in several foreign languages, along with a healthy respect for music from all genres. While working as a bank teller, one of Gedda’s customers recommended a voice teacher to improve his chances at a musical career. This led to a brief period of study and his formal debut in 1952 as Chapelou in Adam’s Le Postillon de Lonjumeau, a part that boasted a high D at his entrance. Gedda’s incredible facility with high notes, in addition to his language ability, opened the doors to a successful career in lyric and bel canto roles. Mozart was on the menu for several seasons, including the roles of Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio, and Tamino in The Magic Flute. EMI impresario Walter Legge and his wife, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, heard the versatile singer at the Royal Opera of Stockholm, and in due course a long-term contract was signed. Subsequently, Gedda became an exclusive EMI/Angel Records artist for the bulk of his career. This included a well received recording of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (as the Pretender Dmitri), alongside Bulgarian basso Boris Christoff. A steady diet of opera, operetta, and light opera roles followed, many with Schwarzkopf as his leading lady and conducted by a who’s who of legendary maestros, i.e. Herbert von Karajan, Erich Kunz, Otto Ackermann, Thomas Beecham, Lovro von Matačić, Otto Klemperer, Carlo Maria Giulini, André Cluytens, Josef Krips, and others. Before the days of the Three Tenors, Gedda was the most recorded male classical-vocal artist to have released opera LPs. His Met debut occurred on November 1, 1957 in Gounod’s Faust, a role he twice recorded. For all intents and purposes, the Met became his home base, but he allowed himself sufficient leeway to appear all over Europe. Some of his many roles included the aforementioned Don Ottavio, the Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La Traviata, Rodolfo in La Bohème, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Hoffmann in The Tales of Hoffmann, Don José in Carmen, Des Grieux in Manon, Roméo, Lensky in Eugene Onegin, Gherman in The Queen of Spades, Danilo in Lehár’s The Merry Widow, and Anatol in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa in which he was praised for his exceptionally fine English enunciation. Although he had a tendency to sharpness above the staff, Gedda was an extremely reliable artist who always delivered the goods. In his Opera News obit, Peter G. Davis wrote that while “Gedda never generated the hysterical fan response of, say, Franco Corelli … few left his finely nuanced, vocally secure, emotionally generous performances feeling cheated.”
Johan Botha (August 19, 1965 – September 8, 2016) was sadly cut down in the prime of his life by cancer. The South African tenor was known for his “gloriously large voice and physique,” according to The Telegraph. Indeed, that over-sized frame was both a hindrance and a help to his career as a heroic tenor. Luckily for fans, the barrel-chested Botha was one of the few modern interpreters of Wagner who could get through a full evening’s worth of Walther von Stolzing’s “Morning Song” or Tannhäuser’s grueling third-act “Rome Narrative” without running out of fuel. Impressive as those accomplishments were, incredibly Botha began his singing career as a bass-baritone! He grew up in a farming community not far from Johannesburg. During his military service (1983-85), Botha was urged to join the choir. It was there that his singing talents were brought to light, although he could hit those high notes from early youth. To ease the tension of military life, he took up percussion and the guitar as a member of the military jazz band. Around 1986 or 1987, his voice changed as he “started moving up into a higher register.” His professional debut came in 1989 in Johannesburg singing Max in a production of Der Freischütz. Heard by Norbert Balatsch, the chorus master for the Bayreuth Festival, he was engaged as part of the chorus. A few seasons later, in 1995, he appeared at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, singing Pinkerton in Robert Wilson’s controversial production of Madama Butterfly. Botha then took up residency in Vienna where, in 2003, he was made a Kammersänger by the Vienna State Opera. His Met debut took place in 1997 as Canio in Pagliacci. He would go on to sing more than 80 performances of 10 roles in over 20 years with the company. Among his assignments were Radamès in Aida, Otello, Calàf in Turandot, Walther in Die Meistersinger (excellently done!), and a staggering interpretation of Tannhäuser, which to my mind was his finest achievement. Earlier, Botha took part in an unusual 2002 production of Puccini’s Turandot. Directed by David Pountney for the Vienna State Opera, this was the first performance of the newly revised third act composed by Luciano Berio. Mysterious and modern-sounding, this new ending did not convince listeners or critics of its viability. Despite the hoopla surrounding the event, Botha’s contribution was cleanly and assuredly delivered. The production has been preserved on DVD/Blu-ray Disc for the curious-minded among us. Botha’s size became a barrier for some, but with his characteristic good humor the tenor took the criticism in stride, fueled by a firm religious conviction that all would be right.
Barry Busse (August 18, 1946 – May 15, 2017) and Manfred Jung (July 9, 1940 – April 14, 2017) were near contemporaries who passed away within a month of each other. Their repertoires coincided from time to time, but Busse and Jung were basically vocal opposites. Born in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, Busse received his BA in Music from Oberlin College, a Master’s in Music from the Manhattan School of Music, and a Master’s in Education from Walsh University. He started out as a baritone, winning the coveted George London Award, but switched to tenor in 1977, singing in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men in Houston. He was often compared to Canadian powerhouse Jon Vickers, not only in looks but in voice and acting chops. Both Vickers and Busse sang the role of Britten’s Peter Grimes in that self-titled work, as well as Canio in Pagliacci, Wagner’s Parsifal, Siegmund in Die Walküre, and Don José in Carmen. Busse helped to extend the boundaries of the dramatic tenor repertoire by performing in numerous modern works, many of them world and/or American premieres, i.e. in Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco (1971), Conrad Susa’s Transformations (1973), Thea Musgrave’s Mary, Queen of Scots (1980), and David Lang’s Modern Painters (1995) and Nosferatu. Manfred Jung was a German Heldentenor who performed in Wagner’s operas all over the world. Having started out in life as an electrician and lighting technician, Jung then studied music in Cologne where he went on to sing lyric tenor roles in Mozart operas. He made his Bayreuth Festival debut in 1967 singing the part of Arindal in Wagner’s Die Feen (“The Fairies”), the composer’s very first stage creation. From there, Jung put in guest appearances at the Salzburg Easter Festival under Herbert von Karajan and at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. He is perhaps best known to American audiences for having participated in the 1976 centennial production of the Ring cycle at Bayreuth under Pierre Boulez and director Patrice Chéreau. The revival in 1980 (shown on German TV and broadcast to American audiences via Public Television), where Jung sang the hero Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are the ones most viewers will remember. Jung earned the distinction of having sung every one of Wagner’s tenor roles. His tone may have been a tad underpowered for these two massive works (in this author’s opinion), but his wondrous acting talent opposite Donald McIntyre’s world-weary Wanderer, Heinz Zednik’s crafty Mime, and Gwyneth Jones’ womanly Brünnhilde, was anything but mediocre. In 1981, he made both his Vienna State Opera and Metropolitan Opera debuts.
John Del Carlo (September 21, 1951 – November 2, 2016) and Enzo Dara (October 13, 1938 – August 25, 2017) specialized in the bel canto and opera buffa realm. A hometown San Francisco boy, Del Carlo was enrolled in the Merola Program where he learned his craft. He was a regular at the city’s War Memorial Opera House, where he sang many of his money roles — among them Dr. Bartolo in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Dulcamara in The Elixir of Love, Don Magnifico and Dandini in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and other comic parts. He made a specialty out of characters that included the Sacristan in Tosca, Benoit and Alcindoro in La Bohème, and Falstaff in Verdi’s eponymously titled opera. Certainly his towering 6’ 6” height lent stature to these overlooked assignments. He appeared all over Europe and the U.S, and even sang the leading Wagner roles for a time, until he found his true niche in comedy. He famously sang Kothner in Die Meistersinger for then-Met Opera music director James Levine. According to Del Carlo’s obituary in Opera News, “When he finished his audition, Levine said, ‘Bravo, John. Where have you been?’” He made his debut in the part on January 14, 1993 and enjoyed a 21-season career there. Enzo Dara’s career crisscrossed with that of Del Carlo’s: both artists sang pretty much the same buffo repertoire. The difference in his case was that Dara, older than his American colleague by 13 years, was born and bred in Mantua, which gave him an advantage in authentic Italian culture and pronunciation. He worked as a journalist for a time before switching careers. His professional debut came in 1960 as Colline in La Bohème. Dara’s gift for rapid-fire vocal patter and comic timing was leavened by his exceptionally clear diction and sterling musicianship. Indeed, Dara sang with the best of the lot, including Samuel Ramey, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, Hermann Prey, Leo Nucci, Teresa Berganza, Alessandro Corbelli, and a host of others. Dara sang 41 performances at the Met of his signature Dr. Bartolo.
Frank Corsaro (December 22, 1924 – November 11, 2017). Along with director Tito Capobianco, conductor Julius Rudel, soprano Beverly Sills, and bass-baritone Norman Treigle, Corsaro was one of the most influential artists associated with the New York City Opera in its heyday. Born Francesco Andrea Corsaro in New York City (actually, on a boat in New York Harbor “that was bringing his immigrant parents from Argentina”), the future Actor’s Studio alumnus and Broadway and NYCO stage director graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, with a short stint in between at Immaculata High School in Manhattan. He attended City College and the Yale Drama School, where his production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit paved the way in 1947 for the Off-Broadway movement. From 1950, and between the years 1988 to 1995, Corsaro studied at and directed workshops at the Actor’s Studio, along with serving as its artistic director. He appeared on Broadway as an actor in the 1950s; he also started directing plays, many of which starred such luminaries as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Ben Gazzara, Shelley Winters, and Bette Davis. It was Julius Rudel who gave him his City Opera break when Corsaro was asked to direct Floyd’s Susannah in 1958. His drive for authenticity, his inborn rapport with singers and performers, and ability to get to the heart of any opera or play, served him well throughout his years at the company. One of his adherents, baritone Richard Stilwell, remarked in Opera News that “Corsaro had an amazing combination of musical knowledge and theatrical expertise” that opened his eyes “to what opera could be — a special art form in which words, music and theatrical prowess contributed equally to create stirring drama.” That Corsaro did! I was privy to several of his insightful productions, the first of which was a 1975 Faust with Samuel Ramey as Méphistophélès, Kenneth Riegel as Faust, and Carol Bayard as Marguérite. Corsaro brought out Gounod’s dark humor (Faust’s laboratory, in eerie imitation of Leonardo Da Vinci, was littered with cadavers, one of which was Mephisto himself!), as well as the pervasiveness of evil in the everyday world (Act III began with a bone-chilling recreation of a Satanic Black Mass). Another was his modern take on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, wherein Pinkerton’s naval buddies and their sweethearts were a boisterous presence at the teenage Cio-Cio-San’s wedding. Still another was his tradition-breaking La Traviata, where Alfredo (a very young Plácido Domingo) carried off the consumptive Violetta around the stage in his arms as they sang the third act duet, “Parigi o cara.” This was preceded in Act I by that notoriously long pause between the chorus’ departure and Violetta’s reflection before her aria, “Ah, fors’è lui,” beginning with the line “È strano.” How dare Corsaro interrupt the opera’s forward momentum with this ridiculous silence! But it worked! The performance I saw was a 1974 revival of the 1966 production that featured the fragile and waif-like Violetta of Patricia Brooks and the angry, menacing Giorgio Germont of Dominic Cossa, both veterans of the original. Corsaro’s only directorial misfire, in my recollection, was an ill-conceived Manon Lescaut done-in by over-ambition and miscasting. His other NYCO projects included Pelléas at Mélisande (a big hit with the hippies!), Leoš Janáček’s The Makropoulos Case and The Cunning Little Vixen, Bizet’s Carmen (which I also happened to catch), and Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Ronald Chase. In 1987, Corsaro joined the staff of the Juilliard School’s American Opera Center.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky (October 16, 1962 – November 22, 2017). One of the truly great Verdi singers of his generation, Hvorostovsky (“Dima” to his friends and fellow associates) was born in Krasnoyarsk, Russia — a heavily industrialized area of Siberia. He battled alcoholism and gang participation in his youth. He left behind the squalor of his hometown for an international career in opera. Gifted with a smoldering stage presence, a masculine voice, and a shock of prematurely gray-turned-silver hair which he wore as a badge of honor, Dmitri was the epitome of class and style (no doubt his 6’ 4” frame had something to do with it). I heard his supple tones in many a Met performance, both live and on records, and on DVD/Blu-ray. With his super-human breath control, nobody could sing Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, in Verdi’s Don Carlo the way he could. Take, for example, Rodrigo’s death scene with its matchless legato and long-lined expressiveness. An equally fine elder Germont in La Traviata, Count di Luna in Il Trovatore, and Renato in Un Ballo in Maschera, Hvorostovsky excelled in Russian roles: Tchaikovsky’s haughty title character in Eugene Onegin, his Met debut role (1995) as Yeletsky in the same composer’s The Queen of Spades (aka Pique Dame), and his heart-on-sleeve portrayal of the brooding Andrei Bolkonsky in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, based on Tolstoy’s historical novel. His moving death scene, accompanied by the youthful Anna Netrebko as Natasha Rostova, did not leave a dry eye in the house. He was a surprise winner of the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition, barely beating out Welshman Bryn Terfel for the honor. Hvorostovsky’s passing of brain cancer was a tragic loss. It reminded me of two other giants of the baritone repertoire: American-born Leonard Warren, who died on stage at the Old Met during a performance of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino; and the suave Italian master Ettore Bastianini, who died at 45 of throat cancer. It is fitting, then, that the Metropolitan Opera’s first broadcast of the 2017-2018 season of Verdi’s Requiem should be dedicated to the memory of this beloved artist.
Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
(Many thanks to Opera News, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Opera Wire, and other publications for providing background information and informative notes)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes