Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Five): The Olympic Light Burns Twice as Bright

Oscar Schmidt waves to the crowd at the Opening Ceremony of Rio 2016

Oh, but wait! Who’s that big guy carrying the Olympic flag? That’s Sestão! Sestão? Who the hell is Sestão? Why, it’s Oscar! Oscar Schmidt. No doubt he’s filled out some, but the form was still the same, and so was that unmistakable grin. Schmidt’s imposing six-foot-nine-inch frame towered over everyone else. Yes, Oscar Schmidt, Brazil’s all-time leading scorer in Olympic and professional basketball, if not in ALL of basketball, on hand for the opening ceremony.

After undergoing surgery for brain cancer in both 2011 and 2013, Oscar looked healthy and fit as he stood proud and tall in his all-white suit. Waving to the thousands of cheering fans in attendance, he held the Olympic banner aloft, alongside seven other Brazilian athletes and former Olympic medal winners, to include women’s soccer champion Marta.

Many moments later, the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony resumed with the presence of retired tennis player Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten. At about the middle of the runway, Guga paused and kissed the next torchbearer’s hand. Upon receiving the flame, the torchbearer raised it high overhead. Guga held on to the torchbearer’s hips and bowed, gallantly, to former basketball sensation Hortência Marcari. Strolling sideways down the runway, the still elegant Hortência reached the long-awaited individual who would take hold of the flame and light the Olympic cauldron.

“Guga” Kuerten & Hortencia holding the Olympic flame at Rio 2016

For the next two weeks, the cauldron would burn bright, a symbol of the unquenchable light that illuminates the inner flame of every Olympian; the light that coaxes the ancient spirits of Mount Olympus down from the clouds and back down to Mother Earth. Entrusted with this sacred duty, the bearer of the Olympic flame must be an athlete of unrivaled ability; a sportsperson of the highest order as well as unquestioned integrity and esteem.

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima came from the small town of Cruzeiro do Oeste (Western Cross) in the southern State of Paraná. He was raised in Tapira, an even smaller town in the same state. Like many young Brazilians before and after him, Vanderlei had childhood dreams of becoming a stellar soccer player. Instead, he turned to running.

The aim of most runners is to go the distance, to extend themeselves beyond the norm. This became Vanderlei’s mantra as well, his reason for doing what he did. Through the inspiration of his coach, Ricardo D’Angelo, Vanderlei went from half-marathons to running “the whole nine yards” (actually, 42.2 kilometers, or 26.2 miles for a full marathon).

“We have a great relationship,” Vanderlei said of Coach Ricardo, “and when I started running, he was starting his coaching career. We both learned a lot together.”

He qualified for the Atlanta Games in 1996, and went on to finish the Tokyo Marathon in 1998, taking second place. In that same year, he placed fifth in the New York Marathon with a near-personal best of two hours, ten minutes, and forty-two seconds. While training for the 2000 Sydney Games, Vanderlei hurt his foot, leading to a seventy-fifth place finish with one of his slowest times ever (two hours, thirty-seven minutes, and eight seconds).

“I had to stop three times and walk,” Vanderlei reported. “Nobody knows what I had to go through to finish there. I got injured while preparing in Mexico, and I was never able to recover fully.”

He did recover fully, however, nearly matching his personal best, in 2001, in Japan, and winning in São Paulo in 2002. Previously, he had taken the gold at the 1999 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and struck gold again, in hot and humid Santo Domingo, at the 2003 Pan-American Games.

“I don’t know how I managed to finish that race. The race was the toughest of my life. I don’t remember ever having that many thoughts of abandoning a race. I believe all those who were able to finish were heroes. I remember having no strength to complete the final lap at the track, and people told me I passed out for a few minutes at the end.”

His greatest ambition — and, indeed, the ambition of all marathoners — would be to run in the 2004 Athens Games, where Vanderlei could trace the steps of the legendary messenger, Philippides (or Pheidippides in some accounts), from the ancient city of Marathon to the Greek capital of Atenas, or Athens.

“That was a singular moment in my career,” he remembered. “It took twelve years of preparation for me to reach that point. Considering what happened, I look at it positively that I won an Olympic medal.”

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima with the Brazilian flag at Athens 2004

He was going all the way. Not for silver, mind you, not even for bronze. Vanderlei had his heart set on winning the gold. He had trained for years for this moment. At the 35 kilometer mark, he found himself in the lead at Athens 2004, a mere half-a-minute ahead of his nearest challenger. Buoyed by an inspirational letter he received from Coach Ricardo (sent through another coach), Vanderlei appeared on the verge of victory.

The letter, in part, read as follows: “Remember the tough hill at 35km. If you are feeling well, take your risks, because if you don’t risk, you will never win.”

“I thought a lot about that letter,” Vanderlei reflected afterwards. “Especially once I started feeling well in the race … Perhaps some athletes thought I wasn’t going to lead for a long time, but that didn’t bother me at all.”

What never entered his mind was the fate of that fabled Philippides run. Charged with announcing the news of the Greek victory over the invading Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.E.), Philippides ran the nearly 40 kilometer route (or 25 miles) to Athens. Upon reaching the city’s gates, the exhausted herald approached the ruling body and declared, “Hail to you! We’ve won!” Immediately after, the messenger collapsed and died.

To Vanderlei’s surprise — and to the surprise of spectators and journalists who lined the busy streets of modern-day Athens — he was rushed upon by a man dressed in an orange kilt, a green beret, and green socks. The man shoved Vanderlei off the course and onto the sidewalk, preventing him from going on with the race. But thanks to a burly, bearded Greek onlooker named Polyvios Kossivas, who pushed the assailant away and helped the runner to his feet, Vanderlei continued the race. Losing his rhythm as well as his focus, it took all of Vanderlei’s skill as an experienced marathoner to recover his momentum.

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima is accosted by an assailant at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games

“The attack was a surprise for me. I couldn’t defend myself because I was concentrating on my race. I don’t know what would have happened if the Greek man who helped me so quickly hadn’t reacted the way he did. I give him a lot of credit for his courage.”

The assailant turned out to be a fanatical Irish priest named Cornelius “Neil” Horan, a man with a history of interfering in races and competitions. He was arrested (though given a suspended sentence) and fined a large sum. A year later, Horan was defrocked by the Catholic Church in Ireland.

“It was very difficult for me to finish,” Vanderlei summarized later. “With my sense of Olympic spirit I showed my determination and won a medal” — a bronze medal for third place.

Toward the end of the race, Vanderlei glided into the Panathinaikos Stadium with arms splayed in an airplane-like spread. Smiling broadly and blowing a kiss to the cheering stands, he wound his way over the finish line, physically drained and emotionally overwhelmed.

Nevertheless, his resolve to push on despite the mishap earned him a consolation prize: the prestigious Baron Pierre de Coubertin Award, given by the International Olympic Committee for those athletes who exemplified “the true spirit of sportsmanship.”

“When I entered the stadium, I was so happy that I had already forgotten the episode. It’s bronze but it means gold.”

This brought to mind the hallowed words of the Apostle Paul of Tarsus, who traveled to such far-flung places as Rome and Jerusalem, and, in between, the length and breadth of ancient Greece: “He fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith.”

For his having finished the race, Vanderlei was called upon once more, this time as one of the torchbearers charged with bringing the Olympic torch to Maracanã. But unlike his predecessor, the Greek Philippides, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima survived the ordeal and was accorded the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron.

In an odd turn of events, Pelé, who was originally scheduled to perform the deed, decided on short notice, and within hours of the occurrence, to bow out of the ceremony, citing “poor health.” Could the former soccer great have been suffering the ill effects of prostate surgery? No, not possible. The surgery had taken place a year earlier, in May 2015. Cold feet, perhaps? Not likely. Whatever his reasons were, Pelé, unlike his fellow athlete Oscar Schmidt, had failed to show up.

The next in line would be Gustavo Kuerten, but Guga would have none of it. He graciously stepped aside to allow Vanderlei to take his proper place at the top of the steps leading to the cauldron.

Olympic marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lights the Olympic cauldron at Rio 2016

When Cornelius “Neil” Horan, the fellow who pushed the runner off course in Athens, got wind of the news, his reaction confirmed the delusional state he’d been in for some time.

“When I actually saw him with my own eyes, I really got angry,” the former Catholic priest confessed to the New York Times. “I look[ed] at Vanderlei and I [thought], ‘You would be nowhere the star if not for me.’ ” We trust that Mr. Horan enjoyed his plate of sour grapes that evening.

Horan achieved a degree of notoriety when he danced an Irish jig for talent judge Simon Cowell on a 2009 episode of Britain’s Got Talent. In October 2004, Horan was charged by an Irish court with indecency involving a seven-year-old girl, an unsavory act that allegedly took place ten years prior. He was acquitted of all charges. However, the real-life judge in that case reminded the jury that one of Horan’s “character” witnesses, a clergyman, referred to the ex-priest as “a bit of a nutcase.”

(End of Part Five)

To be continued….

Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Welcome to Cosmos Country: Soccer Memories from Derek McLean

The great Pele & a young Derek McLean in 1982

Today’s guest contributor is former footballer Derek McLean. A native of Liverpool, England, Derek began his “football” (or, as we know it, “soccer”) career at his Primary School team, Corinthian Avenue. He went on to play in the B.B. League as a teenager, winning the league and cup double in one season and the cup winners the following season. His first adult team was Bemrose Printers as a left winger in the Liverpool Sunday League (from age 18 to 23) in “a very average team which won nothing.”

Derek moved on to Bellefield in the Liverpool Business House League in the early 1980s, where he switched from left wing to striker. In their second season, the team went on to win the league and the L.C.F.A. Sunday Junior Cup. Derek scored the winning goal in a 1-0 victory, for a total of 24 goals in that season. He also played in Yorkshire for a couple of seasons with LDS, playing as a central midfielder. Due to work and travel, Derek was unable to play for a team for a few years.

Coming out of retirement to play for Liverpool International Supporters Club in the Formers League in 1998, Derek switched to center back and went on to receive the “Player of the Season” award in his second season at 38 years of age.

Derek’s footballing highlight came by playing in America in a one-off match at Pelé Soccer Camp at age 17 — the background of which he relates in the following series of e-mails:

September 17, 2017

 

Hi Josmar,

I just wanted to say thank you for a very interesting and worthy piece of literature I found online about Professor Julio Mazzei that you wrote.

I am from Liverpool in England and I had my most memorable time in football (soccer as it is known in America), thanks to the Professor.

I had visited America on holiday as a 17 year old with my family in 1979. My Uncle was a soccer coach at the Pelé Soccer Camp in New Jersey at the time. We visited for the day and my Uncle asked if I wanted to play in one of the matches. I never turned down a game of soccer.

Each coach was assigned a group of about 16 players to coach for the week and they played matches against each other through the week. My Uncle asked all the coaches did they want an extra player for their match on the day I visited. They all said no, so my Uncle played me in his team with the agreement of the opposition coach.

I scored one and made the second goal as we led 2-0 at half time. The opposition coach then asked my Uncle could I play for his team in the second half as it was unfair!

I switched sides at half time and managed to set up the goal that earned me a win of both halves and my Uncle’s team a 2-1 win. The lads in my Uncle’s squad asked if I could stay for the week but unfortunately I had to say no.

I was totally unaware but sitting in the little stand for friends and families was Professor Julio Mazzei. I never knew of him at the time and I never saw him that day.

I returned to America on holiday again three years later in 1992. By this time the Professor was manager of the New York Cosmos. My Uncle took me down to the Meadowlands Stadium and we went into the Manager’s office and there was the Professor, still unknown to me. [Mazzei] said, “So, Derek, you have grown a bit since I last saw you, are you still scoring the goals?”

I was confused as to how he knew me. He then went on to explain how he had watched me play in one match, at Pelé Soccer Camp three years ago, and did I want to train with the New York Cosmos on Friday of this week?

I could not believe what I was hearing. “Of course, I would love the opportunity.” Was this really happening to me?!?

Well, I did train with the New York Cosmos. I was next to Johan Neeskens as we did six sprints of the length of the pitch in the Meadowlands Stadium. I beat him in the first one, I later realized he was running at the same speed each time, whereas I had got slower with each sprint!!

Derek McLean training with Johan Neeskens in Cosmos Country

I jogged around the pitch doing stretches in the close proximity of Carlos Alberto. I have never tired of telling this story to people who come into my life at different stages, it [was] all down to Professor Julio Mazzei. I can never thank him enough.

As I was only 20 at the time (and I was young and naïve), I never used the opportunity to see if the Professor could help launch a career in soccer for me in either America or back in England. I never asked if he was just being nice by letting me train or did he think I was a talented footballer?

Sadly he has gone, but I recently made contact with his daughter on Facebook and told her my story. Marjorie Mazzei told me that her Father would never have allowed me to train with New York Cosmos if I was not good enough. She said that around that time she had a boyfriend who was a very good goalkeeper and she had tried to get him the same opportunity but he said no chance. She was adamant that I was obviously good enough in her Dad’s eyes.

That was good enough for me, it has really made me happy, but very grateful to the man you have written such a great article about.

I have attached a couple of photographs of me training with these legends and the Professor also allowed me to keep the Cosmos shirt I trained in, I still have it along with a coaching manual by Pelé, which is signed by both Pelé and the Professor to myself. Great treasures!

Thank you for your great insight into the man and what a vital role he played in not just looking after Pelé but also growing the game of Soccer in America. Thank you for your great piece of work and I hope you enjoy reading about my greatest memory in Soccer.

Kind Regards,

Derek McLean

 

September 24, 2017

Dear Derek,

Good morning. I’ve known Marjorie for quite some time. We corresponded for several years before I finally got to meet her in person. Our respective fathers had met, too, over 35 years ago, for lunch. I have often wondered how that encounter came about, but since both my father and the Professor never knew each other personally and, sadly, have passed on, we may never know for certain.

In any case, I appreciate your detailed description of having played with the Great Ones during the heyday of the Cosmos. I saw an exhibition game at the decrepit Downing Stadium Field on Randall’s Island (it really was dilapidated, a veritable nightmare!). I saw many Cosmos home games at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands. I was even privy to Pelé’s final game there on October 1, 1977, against his old team Santos.

According to the Professor’s account, Carlos Alberto had quite a temper! In one of their games, Carlos Alberto spat at the referee, which got him suspended from the playoffs. That was the main reason for their having lost the championship that year (it must have been around the early 1980s or so – Pelé had already retired). It was the game that Nelsi Morais (another Brazilian) had scored in the infamous shootout phase, but the ball went inside the net just seconds after the whistle blew. A real heartbreaker!

Derek in training with Carlos Alberto at the Meadowlands

In any case, I appreciate the photographs. What a treasure trove of memories! I would like your permission, if you can, to use your e-mail and photos on my blog. I’m sure the many Cosmos and soccer fans out there would be thrilled to read your personal account of these events.

Thank you again for writing, Derek. Stay well and keep in touch. I’m curious to know your thoughts regarding the upcoming World Cup in Moscow. That should be an entertaining event, more so now because of the politics!

 

September 24, 2017

Hi Joe,

It was great to get a reply from you and I am glad you liked my greatest time in football (soccer). I would have no problem with you telling my story in a future blog. I would be honored to have you write about me.

I am currently in the process of writing the whole story myself and that was how I came across your articles, through my research on the Professor. My son had said I should get my memories down in writing, as I had said how many stories from my parents and grandparents have now been lost, since they have all passed away.

My Uncle went to the final game for Pelé against Santos. He gave me the match program. I love soccer memorabilia and I have lots of items from my trips following Liverpool FC during their great years of the 1970s and 1980s. I also have some match programs from Cosmos games, which have a number of the players’ autographs on [them]. Great keepsakes!

I was really fascinated about your stories about Pelé v Eusebio, Carlos Alberto and Nelsi Morais. I love to know more insight into these players and their personalities.

The World Cup in Russia is a political hot potato and FIFA have not done themselves any favors with the way they have been behaving in recent years. Clearly money is talking when it comes to deciding on the countries hosting the next two World Cups.

It also worries me how the Russian fans behaved in the last European Championships in France; they had a clear plan to attack the British fans from Wales, England and Ireland. It will be interesting to see if they don’t want it to happen in their own backyard or if it gets even worse.

As far as who is going to win it, I can definitely say it will not be England [Note: Derek was spot-on with that one]. Possibly Germany, if I had to make a guess at this stage [Note: No, not really]. Who do you think will win it at this stage?

Well, thanks again for replying. Let me know if you want any more photographs and hopefully keep in touch. It is interesting to get an insight from someone from another part of the world.

As we say at Anfield,

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

Derek

 

October 7, 2017

Hi Derek,

In answer to your question: Yes, Derek, please send me some more photographs — something along the lines of “then and now” photos, i.e., what you looked like when you were a young soccer player vs. what you look like now.

I would be using your e-mail recollections below, if that’s OK, which I have done with several people I have corresponded with over the years (including Marjorie herself).

Professor Mazzei was a fascinating individual to write and learn about, and an incredibly cosmopolitan gentleman. He had the foresight to encourage Pelé (who was unwilling to leave Brazil and his family) for stardom in the U.S. I firmly believe that Professor, Pelé, Chinaglia, Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Steve Hunt, Shep Messing, and the other players on the Cosmos roster and other NASL teams in the 70s and 80s paved the way for soccer (football, futebol, calcio) in America. Although the league eventually failed, soccer itself was a success. It is now a permanent fixture on the North American sports frontier. That’s a huge difference from where it was four decades ago!

And again, Derek, thank you so much for writing!

Enjoy the weekend,

Joe

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Four): The Changing of the Avant-Garde

Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games: Opening Ceremony

We Love a Parade

Brazil came out last. Not last in the competition, mind you, but as the last nation to present its eager group of athletes.

In all, the city of Rio had put on a spectacular showcase, an opening ceremony to end all opening ceremonies. Impressive and exhilarating, nationalistic and fervent, the coordinators did it the Brazilian way: in the biggest Carnival pageant on Earth, as they had envisioned. The mood was joyous, the celebration spontaneous. Brazil, perpetually on the cusp of greatness but never actually achieving it — to repeat an old dictum, always the bridesmaid but never the bride — had reached the summit of its abilities. Would that joyous mood last?

After the parade of athletes, there followed dull, interminable speeches by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee President Carlos Arthur Nuzman, by the International Olympic Committee’s President Thomas Bach, and by two-time Olympic marathon champion, Kenya’s Kipchoge Keino. Although he was neither acknowledged nor introduced, Brazil’s Acting President Michel Temer rose from his spot in the stands and curtly declared the Rio 2016 games to be officially open. It was an astonishing lapse in Olympic protocol. A moment to remember, one to relish for what remained of one’s active life, had whizzed by in a twinkling of an eye. For his effort, Temer was greeted with a round of boos.

Brazil’s Acting President Michel Temer announces the official opening of the games

Next, the solemn procession and physical raising of the Olympic flag took place, followed immediately by the singing of that banal Olympic Anthem and the taking of the Olympic Oath.

The ceremony closed with a tribute to Brazilian composer Ary Barroso, a prolific purveyor of Carnival dance tunes and sambas from the first half of the twentieth century. His song, “Sandália de Prata” (“Silver Sandal”) from 1942, was introduced by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. The two old-timers were joined atop another of those circular platforms by carioca singer-songwriter Anitta.

Amid the goings-on, viewers caught a glimpse of Rio’s twelve samba schools (the lost tribes of native Brazil?) decked out, in their “official” regalia, in costumes of red, yellow, gold, blue, violet, and black. Their rhythmic back-and-forth beating of pandeiros and cuícas, the tireless blowing of ear-shattering whistles, and the ceaseless smacking of snare and bass drums culminated in a shower of colorful confetti, a parade of scantily-clad dancers, and a brilliant burst of fireworks.

Parade of Rio’s Twelve Samba Schools at Rio 2016

At the conclusion of the number, Caetano and Gil ceremoniously kissed Anitta on the cheek. The two male artists then gingerly departed the stage with their arms wrapped around each other’s wastes. I imagined that audiences around the world let out collective sighs of nostalgia and relief. I know I did, but more for how Caetano and Gil have aged, especially Gil. Whether knowingly or not, we were witnesses to the changing of the avant-garde: old song warriors, near the end of their respective careers, giving it their all, that final “hurrah” for old times’ sake. They have been close companions and musical partners for well over half a century, and for most of their adult lives.

With a degree of wistfulness for a lifetime of creative and personal achievement, and with the words as valid today as when he first wrote them, Caetano called to mind, in his autobiographical Tropical Truth (first published, in Portuguese, in 1997), his initial encounter with the Bahian-born Gil between the years 1962 and 1963:

“Gil seemed as happy to meet me as I was to meet him. One could have said that he had been seeing me on some transcendental television and was expecting that meeting as much as I was …. At times, through the years, I have heard Gil say, and been deeply moved by it, that when he met me he felt as though he were leaving behind a great loneliness: when he saw me he was sure that he had found a true companion. I think that to prize in me a vision of the world that encompassed music, in which he was so gifted, […] a vision that seemed like an enlargement of his own, he created an image of me as the master and, much as the great see greatness in those they admire, he dismissed my shortcomings. Better yet: he interpreted them in such a way as to give them a finer meaning. He therefore saw qualities in my music then that no other musician of equal talent would have seen, and in this way he not only encouraged me, he also taught me everything that I could possibly learn, becoming himself truly my master.” [i]

Caetano Veloso, Anitta & Gilberto Gil at the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics

What a pleasant surprise it was to have seen two such old friends — the master and the pupil — back together on the world stage, performing and sharing the stadium lights with younger aspirants, in recognition of their past accomplishments. The promise of youth fulfilled at last, their careers have spanned two generations. Gil and Caetano have jointly shared the good and bad times, as colleagues and performers, and as respective cellmates. Their ups and downs, both politically and artistically, have risen and fallen, and have risen again, with the times — so much like the country itself.

Obviously, they are more weather-beaten today than they were in their glorious youth. Who wouldn’t be, given what they went through? But, to paraphrase a line from that old stadium rocker, Elton John, “They’re still standin’.” A might shakily, if “tropical truth” be told, with a puffy-eyed Gil tottering a bit on the edge of the stage platform, his voice frail and thin, his gait slow and measured, yet still game and willing; and still capturing the imagination of that younger generation of performers, as he and Caetano had done in their earlier excursions.

Not bad for two septuagenarians!

(End of Part Four)

To be continued…..

Copyright (c) 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

[I]  Veloso, Caetano. “Tropical Truth,” Companhia das Letras, Sao Paulo, 1997, p. 178

‘Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova’ — Preface to Life

The Fat Lady Sings!

Life is not worth living if one is insufficiently challenged or inspired by it.

My soon-to-be-finished book, Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova, and the stories within it were inspired by several themes in my life, the main one being the dramatic and forever-fluctuating fortunes of Brazil’s operatic Fat Lady, a subject not so normally written about even in the country of my birth.

Innocently enough, this all came about not as a weighty historical tome (which I pray it has not become) but as a series of challenges in the form of freelance articles first published online at an unprepossessing Internet website. Why challenging? Because, as it became apparent, a great deal of my time and effort would be spent on the task of researching, studying, and analyzing the subject beforehand. While this is a regular, everyday part of most professional writing assignments, it proved especially daunting where this topic was concerned, due in large part to its having been written almost exclusively in the United States and not in Brazil, as one might have expected.

Nevertheless, as these pieces began to expand and coalesce into a more or less sequential retelling of the history of opera in Brazil, I decided at that point to push the rough outline along by adding tidbits and side-trips to the other under-explored regions of Brazilian culture, namely those of popular music and the worlds of professional soccer, musical theater, and the once derided Brazilian cinema. But how, one might ask, could these diverse areas have anything to do with the tantalizingly horned grande dame of the operatic stage? After all, in America, at any rate, movies are movies, sporting events are sporting events, and popular- and classical-music programs are, well, popular- and classical-music programs — “and never the twain shall meet.” This has been the time-tested thought pattern for any number of years now.

Yet, as a native-born Brazilian with a healthy curiosity about his origin and roots, and an in-bred concern for these same subjects — tossed in, like so much salad, with recollections of how Carnival, pop music, soccer, and the stage and screen all seemed to blend together into one big kettle of black bean stew — never had I felt that these seemingly independent activities should be divorced from one another, not by any means. This led directly into the other all-embracing theme of my work: the interconnectedness with, and close identification of, individuals and groups with country and subject matter.

Perhaps the early influence of my father Annibal, who had a vast and nearly encyclopedic knowledge of all these areas, was of primary importance to me in my quest for some illumination through the sometimes-murky cultural waters that Brazil appeared to bask in. Perhaps, too, my own life experiences would lead me to the fundamental conclusion that, in essence, we are dealing with the same, basic ingredient: and that is, popular entertainment.

This is not to say that “popular” entertainment should be equated with “mass” entertainment, although, in theory, there are many overlapping elements common to both terms. In this instance, popular entertainment can come to denote multiple or myriad diversions that are, by their nature, both pleasant and appealing to most sensible human beings, irrespective of class, color, and origin, or their economic station in life.

Staying with this theme, I can remember a time in Brazil’s not-too-distant past when highbrow entertainment would freely associate with its lower-browed brethren, and at any number of public gathering places. Older readers in the U.S. may recall, too, that classical music was referred to at one point as “that longhair stuff,” and by no less an accepted authority than America’s own favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny — accepted, that is, until the advent of the swinging sixties and early seventies, when the hippie lifestyle and counterculture movements all but wiped those precious sentiments off the map of our subconscious.

On another, more personal level, nothing could ever wipe from my subconscious the memory of such life-altering events as:

Jair Rodrigues, “Deixa Isso Para La”

  • listening to an EP, or “extended play,” of the ever-smiling, ever-joyful São Paulo-born pop stylist Jair Rodrigues, performing his biggest hit, “Deixe isso para lá” (“Leave that to the side”), from 1965, with its rhythmic, over-and-under hand movements — a possible prototype for today’s ubiquitous hip-hop and rap music;

 

  • remembering the time my sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lawrence Bresner, knowing I was Brazilian, quite innocently inquired as to how to pronounce the exotic-sounding name of Astrud Gilberto (“Why, Astrud Gilberto,” I responded warily); he went on to mention a former top-ten tune of the period, “The Girl from Ipanema,” written by someone called Jobim (“Joe Beem?”), while, in the same breath, extol the scenic virtues of the film Black Orpheus; at the time, I had no idea who these two individuals were, or even where — or what — Ipanema or Black Orpheus might be;

 

  • seeing the fabulous soccer star Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or, as he was more commonly known to the sports world, O Rei Pelé, the “King” of the soccer field — live and in person — appearing with his home team, Santos, at the nearly dilapidated Downing Stadium on New York’s Randall’s Island, back in the mid-1960s;

 

  • getting drenched to the bone, along with my father, brother, uncles, and cousins (and everyone else who was present), at my first Corinthians soccer match in July 1971; the team, an old family favorite, won the game by some ridiculously lopsided score not even the record books could keep track of;

 

  • hearing future Bahian singing star Simone (née Simone Bittencourt de Oliveira) become an overnight sensation — and before our very eyes — at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in the summer of 1974, years before her recording of Chico Buarque’s song, “O que será” (from the film Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands), reached the top of the worldwide charts; this was also my initial exposure to the Brazilian martial art and dance form known as capoeira;

 

  • experiencing my first — and most likely last — Carnival dance party in February 1979, inside the huge Corinthians sports complex, situated in the upscale neighborhood of Tatuapé in São Paulo; and, as a result, becoming the unlucky recipient of the worst damned headache I have ever had the misfortune to obtain after four non-stop hours of constant drum-pounding and samba-line strutting;

 

  • finding a complete recording of Carlos Gomes’ most famous opera, Il Guarany, at some out-of-the-way spot in the old downtown district of the São Paulo back in 1985; a monophonic long-play in near-sterling condition, it featured a cast of Brazilian no-name singers, piping away in fairly decent Italian; the most striking thing about this album was its total lack of a libretto or program notes, which my father never stopped pestering me about;

Grande Otelo

  • catching the amazingly talented pequeno gigante (“little giant”), actor, singer, comedian, and popular entertainer Grande Otelo (born Sebastião Bernardes de Sousa Prata in the state of Minas Gerais) — so often described as a dynamic, pint-sized version of Sammy Davis Jr. (as if such a thing were possible) — at the Scala Nightclub in Rio de Janeiro, during my July 1987 honeymoon; the same Grande Otelo who once caught the discerning eye of maverick filmmaker Orson Welles in his unfinished It’s All True epic;

 

  • having lived, from 1996 to 2001, in the “concrete jungle” of São Paulo, population fifteen million (and climbing), during the latter half of the Clinton presidency, and getting to know a longtime friend of my wife’s family, Oswaldo Lucchesi; an ex-employee of Banco do Brasil, the late Mr. Lucchesi spent the start of his banking career in the wilds of Manaus, near the mouth of the Amazon River, where he witnessed the filming of the jungle adventure Fitzcarraldo, which featured Grande Otelo in a supporting role;

 

  • making the acquaintance of my next-door neighbor: former Broadway dancer, painter, sculptor, and art instructor Jon Kovach, who upon hearing that my wife and I were Brazilian-born proudly related the jaw-dropping anecdote of how he once danced the night away with the incomparable Carmen Miranda and her sister, Aurora, at the Roxy Club in Manhattan during the late 1940s; and

Susana Moraes

  • placing a late afternoon telephone call, in September 2010, to the late filmmaker Susana Moraes, the eldest daughter of legendary poet, playwright, songwriter, and performer Vinicius de Moraes, and speaking with her about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, the film Black Orpheus, his favorite partner Tom Jobim, our respective parents, and the marvelous times in which they lived.

I lost count through the years of the number of individuals I’ve come into close contact with as a result of my writings. These and other noteworthy episodes aside, I sincerely feel that this maiden literary effort of mine has, to no small extent, brought these seemingly disparate elements together into one engaging and, it is my wish, perfectly lucid anthology for laypeople interested in or curious about Brazilian classical and popular culture. Examples of artistic eclecticism abound throughout, and can be found on almost every page: from native-born artists studying opera abroad, to classically-trained conductors writing their own film scores; from avant-garde directors experimenting with cutting-edge theater pieces, to American jazz-pop vocalists composing songs dedicated to Brazilian masters; from soccer players and pop stars moonlighting as movie actors, to opera singers dressing up as their favorite Carnival participants; and many more.

This is what the vibrant and colorful body of individuals that make up the multi-faceted and multi-racial society of Brazil can do to those who dearly love its culture so. And, indeed, diversity is what the country and the Brazilian people are ultimately about and what I aspired to recreate with the writing of this book.

As a consequence, I have scrupulously tried to capture the flavor of these various events, hence the longwinded subtitle A Personal & Cultural History of Opera, Pop, Soccer, Cinema & Musical Theater in the Land of Carnival & Samba. As any writer will tell you, reinvigorating the past in print, especially if one was not present to experience it, is a supreme challenge to anyone’s abilities. One must rely almost entirely on the accounts of others, or, at best, on those whose research has succeeded in bringing these past occurrences to life.

That being said, I have attempted to personalize my stories whenever and wherever possible, in the expectation that by doing so one can extract a good deal of useful information from them, which will allow the reader to identify more closely with the situations described therein, as they surely have for me. To be precise, establishing and maintaining a Brazilian identity in the face of rampant globalization and growing multi-culturalism is at the heart of everything I write.

What qualifies me for such a momentous undertaking? Besides a lifetime of living and working in the United States and Brazil as a Brazilian-born American married to a native paulistana (a resident of São Paulo) — which has been of tremendous significance to me in augmenting my sometimes myopic perception of things — I basically grew up with these topics. In addition to having taken part in, appreciated, and studied all these various aspects in depth, I have paid particular attention to those that piqued my interest the most.

As examples, I cite my participation in Fordham University’s Film Club presentations, as well as having been enrolled at that school’s Rose Hill Campus as a student of art history, theology, philosophy, and modern and medieval history; my work as a consultant and transcriber of movies, shows, television programs, and miniseries for the Home Box Office Network of Brazil; and my fifty+ years as an active eyewitness to a fabulous assortment of classical, operatic, athletic, cultural, and/or cinematic events. As such, I find myself uniquely blessed in attesting to the views and opinions put forth in this text.

What might also have spurred me on to complete this worthwhile project was the anticipation of Brazil’s hosting the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, along with the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first time any South American nation has been accorded that prestigious honor. A book covering this wide swath of Brazilian culture would go a long way toward providing some needed background for people whose first exposure to the country these events would undoubtedly be. It is to be hoped that my efforts were not in vain. ☼

Copyright (c) 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes

Fiction Story — ‘How to Paint Paradise: A Magical Amazon Story’ (Part One)

Amazonian macaw (in Portuguese, arara)

(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.”

Tupi Indian native (Photo: picfair.com)

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.”

“Yes sir.”

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.”

Blue and yellow macaw (Photo: Real World Holidays)

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.”

Amazon rain forest canopy

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.

Shy macaw (Photo: Alamy Stock Photo – alamy.com)

“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

Lust in the Stage Dust — The Fire and Brimstone of ‘Tosca’ and ‘Trovatore’ (Part Two)

No One Knows What It’s Like to Be the Bad Man

Quinn Kelsey as bad guy Count di Luna (L.) faces off against Yonghoon Lee (Manrico) in Act II, scene ii, of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at the Met

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.

Vittorio Grigolo, as the painter Cavaradossi & Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera via AP)

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.

Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca brings candles to light the corpse of Scarpia (Zeljko Lucic) at the Met Opera

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?

Count di Luna (Kelsey) has the gypsy Azucena (Anita Rachvelishvili) arrested in Act III, scene I, of Il Trovatore

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.

Stefan Kocan as Ferrando starts things off with a ghost story in Act I, scene i

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.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Azucena (Met Opera)

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.

Yonghoon Lee as Manrico rallies the “troops” in Act III, scene ii, of Il Trovatore

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.

Soprano Jennifer Rowley as Leonora, wearing her lover’s green frock coat: Act IV, scene i, of Il Trovatore

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.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Azucena, with her “son” Manrico (Yonghoon Lee), Act IV, scene ii of Il Trovatore

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!

Rowley with Quinn Kelsey (Count di Luna): making an offer she’d rather refuse

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

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Three): Cry, the Beloved Mother Country

Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony: Grass Huts by Native Performers, August 5, 2016

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.

Brazilian national anthem performed by Paulinho da Viola and orchestra during Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony, August 5, 2016. (Photo: Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

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.

Brazilian flag-raising ceremony, Rio 2016 Olympics

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.

Arrival of the Portuguese – Opening Ceremony of Rio 2016 Olympics (Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)

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.

2016 Rio Olympics – Santos-Dumont, flight of the 14-Bis (Photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)

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’!”

Gisele Bundchen strutting her stuff at Rio 2016

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 Boy and the Plant: Concerns for the Environment, Rio 2016

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.

 

É feia.

It’s ugly.

Mas é uma flor.

But it’s a flower.

Furou o asfalto,

It broke through the asphalt,

o tédio,

Tedium,

o nojo

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