The Mythology of Change: Designing and Empowering Voices in Contemporary Science Fiction

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of ‘Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus’

Today’s guest contributor is writer, artist, and animator Natalia C. Lopes. A graduate of North Carolina State University’s Master’s Degree Program of the College of Art & Design, her essay, “The Mythology of Change: Designing and Empowering Voices in Contemporary Science Fiction,” was first published in the College of Design’s Student Publication magazine FLUX: Design in Transition.

Upon the first publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1818, the birth of the genre we know today to be science fiction was realized. Originally published anonymously, this tale of creation gone awry received favorable reviews from critics. Encouraged by this reception, Shelley claimed authorship of the work, resulting in subsequent critics immediately dismissing it.

The knowledge of the voice behind the work, being that of a woman barely in her twenties, suddenly made it more difficult for it to be validated and accepted. Yet if not for Shelley, we may possibly have never conceived of a genre, now beloved by many, that impacts us tremendously in its discussion of what humanity might face in our future.

The character of Victor Frankenstein is at first depicted as in control of his knowledge and of his creation. But as soon as it comes to life, his fear and neglect of it produces monstrous results, and for the remainder of the novel, he spends his time searching for the creature in order to destroy it, as its existence haunts him.

While the ephemeral nature of power, who has it, and who will inherit it, has long been a part of the discussion of science fiction narratives and what they mean for us, it is interesting to note that the first science fiction novel dealt with the consequences of letting technology and power have too much control.

The Creature (Jonny Lee Miller) wrestles with his maker, Victor Frankenstein (Benedict Cumberbatch), in Danny Boyle’s 2011 National Theatre production of ‘Frankenstein’

Today, the concept of power has new meaning as those who were once marginalized are slowly emerging as active voices in conversations enabled by accessible and portable technology. Among these voices, the most active should be that of the contemporary maker and storyteller. The primary role of designers and storytellers today should be to bring contemporary issues to the forefront of their work, and to assert their voice in unique ways by utilizing technology to contribute meaningful and accessible work. While in Shelley’s case the author’s voice was considered in her time to be as important as the ideas being expressed, this notion can be used as a positive in today’s design practice.

The nature of change is a topic that remains pervasive in science fiction narratives, since designers and problem-solvers have realized many of the solutions proposed in science fiction stories that were at one time or another impossible to imagine. We are also undergoing a period of great transition, not just in a global sense but also in the sense that the ultimate voice of authority — the voice of credibility — now takes many forms.

Because of our unprecedented access to technology, the everyday person can find and belong to a community of like-minded individuals that, when engaged in a proactive way, can become ultimate driving forces for change and action. What better way to engage and encourage people than with designing new tools that they can use for creation and conversation? Or better yet, for the aspiring storyteller to engage their audience in new ways using technology not only as part of the content, but in tandem with the form in which their story is told, the message and the medium becoming one and the same?

Oftentimes contemporary science fiction storytellers focus too much on the spectacular fear of it all: fear of space, of isolation, of the rising fascist dystopia, of the collapsing environment, of the other. While this is a necessary commentary and certainly a valid one, it is my belief that today’s world needs stories with a focus on how to combat this fear with accessible ingenuity.

Connecting our storytelling with the hybrid nature of media, therefore, allows designers to bring in new tools we have yet to use for the purpose of storytelling and engagement, and merging the form with the content of the story, creating new opportunities for design and for designers to see new problems to solve.

One typically sees design as a way of solving problems for the masses, or for a particular demographic or situation. In the case of storytelling and design, there is no need necessarily for a product to be invented, but rather the encouragement of experimentation and of trial and error, that eventually might lead us one day to place meaning and value to new concepts that empower all.

‘The Iron Giant,’ directed by Brad Bird (Photo: Warner Bros. Studio)

Just as in the film The Iron Giant, arguably an animated version of the Frankenstein story, the title robot helps to create art out of spare parts and garbage in the junkyard that he hides in, so we can potentially learn to utilize what has been disposed of or devalued by others to empower our narratives.

By speaking about technology while utilizing technology to tell new stories, audiences may grow to understand how to engage with the world and empower their own voices using what is around them. There are new needs and new voices in need of expression, and for tools to be designed for those voices.

What allows certain voices to remain in power and oppressive to other points of view, is the value that is placed in what those in power use to empower themselves. Put more simply, those who can’t have what those in power have don’t know what it’s like to value what they can’t have.

In the film Ex Machina, another more recent incarnation of Shelley’s novel, there is an almost wordless scene in which the robot Ava, who is trapped in a room for most of the film, repairs herself before making her escape into the human world.

After learning about humans and being embedded with a drive to become a part of them, she literally and figuratively completes herself by taking the skin from previous humanoid robots and placing flesh on parts of her body that were of synthetic material. In this way, she refashions herself in her own image, no longer functioning for or according to her creator.

Ava (Alicia Vikander), the robotic A.I., from Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’

The scene is poignant and beautiful, as it stands for the power of design and self-expression, as imperfect as it might be, perfectly flawed.

Regardless of the aesthetic, the function of design for new storytelling and empowerment rests in its message. The tools we need to empower our voices and those of others are not only around us, but also within us.

Copyright © 2016 by Natalia C. Lopes

The Lion of Venice Roars and Sputters: The Raging Storms of Verdi’s ‘Otello’

Verdi’s ‘Otello’ at the Met Opera: The Act I Brindisi with Alexey Dolgov & Zeljko Lucic (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The Opera That Almost Wasn’t

Leave it to Arrigo Boito to screw up a nearly ideal situation. He and Verdi, the dean of Italian opera composers, had come together to form a cautious if mutually convenient artistic collaboration: Boito, the man of letters, with Verdi, the purveyor of memorable stage works. But an incident occurred in early 1884 that dampened their budding partnership.

Verdi had asked Boito for changes to his libretto to the yet to be completed Otello. He had started work on Act I and was looking forward to sketching out the rest, when reports reached him that Boito, in Naples supervising a production of the revised Mefistofele, had mouthed off to a newspaper reporter that “although he had originally written the libretto of Otello almost against his will, he was sorry, now that it was finished, that he could not compose [the opera] himself.”

That did it! Verdi bristled as he read the account. But instead of firing off a missive to Boito directly, the self-proclaimed “Bear of Busseto,” whose irritability was as renowned as his operatic output, decided to write Boito’s close friend, the conductor and composer Franco Faccio, that he, Verdi, would be glad to return Boito’s manuscript “without any kind of rancor.”

In Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s definitive biography of Verdi, she quoted the outraged composer, adding that, as the “owner of the libretto,” he would only be too glad to “offer it as a gift ‘in the hope of contributing something to the Art we all love.’” Faccio, upon receipt of Verdi’s letter (and with the greatest of tact and diplomacy), wrote back trying to apply cold towels to a potentially heated situation.

Oblivious of what had occurred between Faccio and Verdi, Boito, for his part, did next to nothing to calm the waters, even after reading the reporter’s account of his pronouncement in a local journal. His first thought was to fire back at the newspaper, but had a change of heart while he contemplated asking Verdi’s permission before responding. When he met up with Verdi and his wife Giuseppina in Genoa, Boito got cold feet and neglected to discuss the matter.

Only later, when he ran into Faccio in Turin, did his friend inform him of Verdi’s reaction to what Boito had allegedly stated, and of Verdi’s offer to return the Otello libretto back to him. Boito was shaken and immediately sent a letter to Verdi claiming he was “misquoted by the reporter and that he could not accept Verdi’s offer to return the libretto.” It was here that the man of letters proved his worth by accepting blame for the situation and pleading his case to Verdi not to abandon the “Chocolate Project,” their code name for Otello.

Arrigo Boito (l.) alongside Giuseppe Verdi in publisher Giulio Ricordi’s garden (Photo: Achille Ferrario, 1892)

All this took place between the end of March and into late April 1884. It took most of the spring and into the early fall — and well into 1885 and afterwards — before Verdi, who met and spoke to Boito on numerous occasions, would commit himself to resuming work on what would be his penultimate masterpiece. For the duration of their time together, which included the as yet to be imagined comic opera Falstaff (1893), he and Boito would treat each other cordially and with respect.

Incidentally, it was Boito’s brother, the architect Camillo Boito, who helped create the neo-Gothic-styled Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, the famous rest home for retired and/or destitute artists, singers, and musicians that Verdi had founded and allocated the funds for circa 1896.

An Island of Troubles

The Bartlett Sher production of Verdi’s Otello, with text by Boito adapted from Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice, was the featured work on the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcast of January 5, 2019. With sets by Es Devlin (the kind that slide in-and-out and snap into place like a giant erector set), costume designs by Catherine Zuber (prevailingly black, white, purple, and red), lighting designs by Donald Holder, and projection designs by Luke Halls (one critic felt they resembled a large, economy-sized screen saver), this revival was buoyed by the radio debut of that Venezuelan “Wonder Boy,” conductor Gustavo Dudamel, leading the Met Opera Orchestra.

Both the play and the opera take place on the island of Cypress, then under the rule of the powerful city-state of Venice. Librettist Boito dropped Shakespeare’s first act, which played out in lovely Venezia, as well as did away with several minor characters (Desdemona’s father, Cassio’s mistress), in favor of setting the action in what basically amounts to a 24-hour cycle of events.

Otello (Stuart Skelton) hears about Iago’s ‘Dream’ (Zeljko Lucic) in Verdi’s ‘Otello’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

As in Shakespeare, the plot revolves around a forced “misunderstanding.” Bitter at being passed over for promotion in favor of Lieutenant Cassio, Iago plots to get even with his general, Otello. His plan is to trick Otello into believing his beautiful wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with the handsome young Cassio. Besides possessing a jealous nature, Otello suffers from self-esteem issues in that he, a black man in service to the Venetian Council and a former slave, must constantly reinforce his position to those under his command, Iago among them. Boito streamlined the plot so that the story’s arc occurs early on in Act II.

That arc, by way of a fateful handkerchief, ignites the flame of distrust that leads to Otello’s brutal strangling of the innocent Desdemona. And who is the mischief-maker responsible for duping the head man? Why, Iago, of course! Verdi was so captivated by this malevolent creature that he was tempted to call his opera Iago, but thought the better of it.

Australian-born Stuart Skelton, a most memorable Tristan, appeared in the titular name part (see the following link to my review of his performance in Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2017/09/17/met-opera-round-up-the-seasons-last-gasp-tristan-the-flying-dutchman-and-the-love-of-a-good-woman-conclusion/). Unfortunately for Skelton, he ran into vocal trouble from the start with the Moor’s strenuous entrance air, “Esultate!” A mere twelve bars of music, most of it unaccompanied and leaving the singer exposed, can make or break an artist. Though no announcement was forthcoming of his indisposition, we learned later that Skelton had been suffering the effects of a nasty flu bug that was going around town.

Otello (Stuart Skelton, l.) being manipulated by Iago (Zeljko Lucic) in Act II of ‘Otello’ (Photo: Ken Howard)

He missed the first performance on December 14 (his substitute was a rugged native-Virginian named Carl Tanner, who made his local debut at North Carolina Opera last year in Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila). Apparently, Verdi’s torture test for tenors got the better of Skelton at that point, but he gamely went on with the show. Time for Serbian baritone Željko Lučić’s subtly suggestive Iago to save the day! Indeed, it was a pleasure to hear his understated vocalism as “his Moorship’s ancient.” Iago is far from your average mustache-twirling scoundrel. He’s more of a low-key plotter and full-time deceiver, and Lučić played him that way.

Others in the cast included Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva who repeated her heartfelt Desdemona, and Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov, a known quantity at the Met in roles ranging from Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. He proved a lyrically adept Cassio. Jeff Mattsey sang the part of Montano, with mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano as Desdemona’s maid Emilia, Kidon Choi as the Herald, and veteran James Morris as Lodovico. What was left of Roderigo’s participation, in Boito’s abridged version, was nicely vocalized by tenor Chad Shelton (no relation).

The Met Chorus, under chorus master Donald Palumbo’s steady direction, contributed greatly to the opening storm sequence, one of opera’s most spectacular scenarios; along with taking part in Iago’s lusty drinking song (a masterpiece of dramatic contextualization), as well as their full-throated outpourings in the concertato that closes Act III.

Iago’s Brindisi, the drinking song mentioned above, was incisively paced under Maestro Dudamel’s baton, and thoroughly insinuating in Lučić’s flawlessly accented Italian. Dolgov was properly forthright and passionate, too, with solid excursions into his role’s nether regions. Lučić appeared to enjoy the snakelike twisting and turning that Verdi had allotted the singer. The downward thrusts and purposely meandering theme (both simultaneously jovial and serpentine), in addition to the sliding rhythms, were perfectly in sync with the drama. And the baritone’s Gobbi-esque interjections were thoroughly apropos of the situation.

Not surprisingly, Dudamel had a field day in the pit, keeping up a furious pace from the first downbeat to the last. The forward momentum rarely let up, which lent the entire work a feeling of inevitably, of forces beyond anyone’s control. A good example was the drunken fight scene between Cassio and Montano: every note was clearly and audibly articulated. As a result, the maestro was cheered at his every appearance, and deservedly so. He might have tried to relax the tempo in spots or lingered over certain passages — near the end of Act III, for instance, before Iago’s pronouncement of “Ecco il Leone!” (“Here lies the Lion!”). But for the most part, his way with the score smacked of intense knowledge and familiarity with its orchestral requirements.

Venezuelan maestro Gustavo Dudamel

Mr. Skelton, after his momentary lapse, re-emerged from the doldrums miraculously “cured” (for the time being) of whatever ailment he experienced at the outset. He was better at Otello’s declamatory passages than the Moor’s clarion call of victory against the Turks. He shined in the few lyrical moments allotted the general, but his Italian needs work. That’s for future assignments in this repertoire. He’s still so veddy British, or Aussie-influenced in his case. That’s not to say that foreigners can’t make great Otellos. I remember the likes of Leo Slezak and Lauritz Melchior, or Torsten Ralf and other Golden Age artists: despite their varied backgrounds, they proved their mettle in this part by dint of superior vocalism.

If Lučić had skillfully channeled the ghost of Tito Gobbi in the previous segment (without actually incorporating that artist’s vocal mannerisms), then Skelton must have allied with past Met Opera luminaries as Otello, among them the barrel-chested James McCracken and the equally well-proportioned Richard Cassilly (whom Skelton resembled vocally). Skelton’s voice is a large one — ideal for the part of the Moorish general. Still, I’m certain he was more comfortable in Wagner than in Verdi, as my hunch was later proven.

Love is All Around

In the exquisite Act I love duet with Sonya Yoncheva, Skelton settled down somewhat. He took the elegant line, “Se dopo l’ira immensa. Vien, quest’immenso amor,” in one breath as written, and seemed at home in the opera’s poetic phrases. Ms. Yoncheva, herself recovering from a cold that nearly sidelined her on opening night, properly anchored their scene with long, sustained passage work — commendable, despite a persistent wobble in her voice’s middle register. Comparisons to Maria Callas were inevitable, and most reviewers mentioned this remarkable similarity in timbre, mostly toward the midrange. To these ears, she sounded more like Anna Netrebko.

The love theme that Verdi provided for this tranquil sequence, the so-called “Kiss” motif, shimmered and shook in the strings, thanks to the orchestra’s concert master. A long sustained note on violins, with the harp plucking away at the curtain (or lighting effects, in this production), took one’s breath away. The act closed on this rare moment of intimacy between husband and wife — the calm before the inevitable storm. This was Verdi’s only completely tranquil tenor-soprano love pairing from among his many works, an impressive achievement for a composer with a long and illustrious pedigree in the theater.

Desdemona (Sonya Yoncheva) embraces her husband, the Moor Otello (Stuart Skelton) (Photo: Ken Howard)

On the downside, our Otello struggled with his top notes on the phrase, “Venere splende!” at the conclusion of the duet. With Skelton still under the weather, the applause he garnered for his brave show of stamina was the audience’s sign of forbearance for his plight. Clearly, this was going to be long afternoon at the opera.

On to Act II and the crux of the drama! Again, the sinister orchestral introduction predominated in the lower woodwinds and bass pedal notes. Lučić spun his perfidious web of intrigue around the unsuspecting Cassio, as suited Boito’s masterly configuration of the text and the composer’s supple scoring.

We were treated to a powerful rendering of Iago’s Credo (“Credo in un dio crudel” – “I believe in a cruel god”), one of the undisputed pillars of the baritone repertoire. Lučić sang the number a tad under pitch (a continuing problem with this artist), but his forcefully projected delivery compensated for any shortcomings. The orchestration is thick with brass punctuations, and can drown out a singer if one is not careful. However, Lučić penetrated the racket (not as easy to do in actual performance) with head held high. Vocally, he exuded evil and displayed a potent lower register, while the orchestra under Dudamel’s guidance echoed his diabolical pronouncements beat for beat — kudos to the maestro for keeping things firmly under control.

The next scene, the one in which Iago plants the seed of deception in Otello’s mixed-up mind, the singer’s artful manipulation of the text was more overt, with Lučić downplaying the malice in order to keep up appearances as Otello’s right-hand man. As for Skelton, he was again stretched to the limit by the tortuous tessitura, a punishing check on the singer’s ability to navigate the raging storms in the Moor’s soul.

Let Loose the Green-Eyed Monster

One of the chief reasons for Otello’s mania and obsessively jealous streak went missing from Sher’s production: and that is, the fact that Otello is a black-African. The Met, bless their hearts, had bowed to political correctness where, frankly speaking, none was required. Shakespeare and Verdi, along with Boito, were specific in their intent and kept to the basic premise, which, as anyone who’s studied English literature and Italian operatic practice will tell you, blames Otello’s distrust of his younger-aged bride on his ethnic background; and the fact that he had been enslaved as a youth, and escaped the horrors of such an experience (not unscathed), are essential and crucial components of his makeup (no pun intended).

The role, then, of the upstanding military man, presented here sans blackface, is neutered by this avoidance of the character’s basic trait. Worst of all, director Sher offered no substitute for this exclusion, thus rendering Otello’s maddeningly spite-filled rages and convulsive temper tantrums fitful and mild, and weakened by this omission. With that said and the air cleared on the matter, we fear that Skelton’s trips to Cyprus will be few and far between. A pity, since by all reports he made a splendid figure in uniform.

Otello’s initial confrontation with the clueless Desdemona takes place in their brief Act II exchange and in the subsequent quartet, where Iago purloins Desdemona’s handkerchief from her maid Emilia, who is also his wife.

On a side note, another of the those traits that both Verdi and Boito regrettably were unable to keep in the transition from the Elizabethan stage to Italian opera was Desdemona’s wit. Shakespeare wisely gave his heroines the intelligence and wherewithal to express their insight at key points in his plays. In Otello, so much of the character’s intellect, along with her deceptive misleading of her father regarding her relationship to the Moor, is absent from the opera. Many lines and character nuances had to go by the wayside in condensing the play into a viable operatic libretto, this being one of them.

Desdemona (Yoncheva) pleads her case to her husband, the general Otello (Skelton) (Photo: Ken Howard/ Met Opera)

Nevertheless, the quartet once again exposed Skelton’s failure to hold the line in his part’s highest registers. The lower passages were fine, however he swallowed one of the high notes (one reviewer claimed he cracked on the high A’s). He wasn’t alone in the wayward vocal department: Yoncheva wobbled mightily on her highest and softest approaches, which in her character’s case fit the situation to a “T.” Otello’s martial-like farewell to arms, “Ora e per sempre addio,” whizzed by in a flash, with Skelton buckling under the strain of reaching and holding onto that high B at “è questo il fin!” (“This is the end!”).

By comparison, some past exemplars of this scene, including Canadian Jon Vickers (a fine Otello on the stage and on records), used the difficulty of sustaining that note to their advantage by conveying the character’s deteriorating mental state. Others, such as Giovanni Martinelli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, and Mario Del Monaco (one the modern era’s best), commandingly held the note for all it was worth. While still others, i.e., Ramón Vinay, Plácido Domingo, and José Cura among them, were triumphant in reaching the heights, but preferred to husband their resources (a wise move). Either way can work, as long as there is some connection to the plot.

Fortunately, Lučić stayed with Skelton all the way, lending strong support. The baritone took Iago to his lowest level by poisoning the general’s mind with vile thoughts of Cassio seducing his wife — another of Verdi’s most illuminating instances in “Era la notte, Cassio dormia” (“The other night, Cassio was sleeping”). This fabulous, high-lying piece comes off better when delivered softly (Verdi marked it sotto voce or “under the voice”). How many present-day artists can do that? It takes an exceptionally good actor to keep up the pretense to the end. He must convince the gullible Moor that his angelic spouse is, in fact, a whore.

The act ended with Verdi’s pièce de résistance: that high-powered vengeance duet, “Si, pel ciel!” (“Yes, by heaven!”), a rousing and thoroughly bombastic curtain-closer by any definition. Skelton extended himself far beyond his comfort zone, and those sustained high B’s can be punishing for any performer. On the radio, the fire and brimstone was absent, although in the theater this scene can be a surefire hit.

With the coming of Act III, the passions and conflicts between male and female protagonists came to a boil. Dudamel kept the lower brass, which had sounded out of sorts in the later Das Rheingold broadcast, in check and under tight control, with nary a sour note. Unlike James Levine, who slackened the pace somewhat at the concertato, Dudamel kept things moving. The chorus, too, provided firm support, in spite of some stray sounds. Unfortunately, as in the outer acts, Skelton managed only to squeak out a high B at the climax of “Dio, mi potevi scagliar” (“God, you could have punished me with all manner of torture”), Otello’s pitiable and self-lacerating monologue and the only piece reminiscent of an actual aria for lead tenor.

Desdemona (Yoncheva) alone in her bedroom in Act IV of ‘Otello’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Act IV couldn’t have come any sooner, permitting Skelton a brief respite from his labors. Yoncheva and Johnson Cano reveled in the quieter scena for Desdemona and her maid, mimicking the plaintive “Willow Song” from Shakespeare in Verdi’s gorgeous rendition. The tranquil “Ave Maria,” which listeners will notice bears striking similarities to Elisabeth de Valois’ last act aria from Don Carlo, gave Desdemona her only peaceful moments outside of the Act I love duet. Her bed is shaped like a funeral bier, an analogy (I should think) to Juliet Capulet’s end in the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet and far from a valid comparison. But, hey, it’s Shakespeare!

Having husbanded his resources, Stuart Skelton finished stronger than when he first started. The Moorish general Otello regained a measure of his nobility in the famous death scene, “Niun mi tema” (“Let no one fear me”), where he kisses Desdemona three times before killing himself, with the poignant “Kiss” motif returning as the final seal of approval.

Ah, yes, not a banner day at the Met. But for fans of Verdi’s greatest theatrical creation, there will be better days for the Moor and his minions. Of that we are certain.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Redemption for the Met: ‘La Fanciulla del West’ Returns With a Bang!

Minnie (Eva-Maria Westbroek) makes a slam-bang entrance in Act I of “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Movie Music for the Times

The Metropolitan Opera transmitted Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West over the airwaves via a Live in HD telecast on October 27, 2018, and the regular Saturday radio broadcast (taped) on December 22. Based on Broadway playwright, impresario, and self-promoting producer David Belasco’s most successful stage play The Girl of the Golden West, La Fanciulla del West contains some of the composer’s most bizarre and perplexing music and situations, as well as some of the most exhilarating moments in the theater.

According to Mosco Carner, in his critical study of Puccini, the renowned musician from Lucca had grown tired of the “world of frail heroines and fragile things,” of tragic young women who manage to die of one thing or another at the end of his works. He wanted something bold, new, and dramatic that would help to conquer the “lucrative American market.” Egged on by his close friend and Muse, the Englishwoman Sybil Seligman, Puccini looked to Belasco for inspiration. As he had done with La Bohème by sullying his hands with the sadism of Sardou’s La Tosca, Puccini turned away from Madama Butterfly’s Japanese setting (another Belasco influence) to feast his Tuscan eyes on the American West.

The Girl, as the composer referred to his seventh stage work, takes place in the mountain camps of Northern California during the brash Gold Rush days, i.e., of “miners, forty-niners.” The opera closely follows the play in structure and contrivance. Belasco helped to direct the piece for its Metropolitan Opera premiere on December 10, 1910. There’s an amusing caricature by tenor Enrico Caruso of the first staging rehearsal (dated November 1910) where he captures Belasco in his trademark black frock coat and priestly white collar (he was mocked as the “Bishop of Broadway”), along with the beetle-browed Toscanini (at center, with arms raised), and a portly Puccini (at far right).

Caricature by Enrico Caruso of “La Fanciulla del West” stage rehearsals, dated November 1910 (Alamy Stock Photo)

As clever as this was, the drawing pretty much summed up the whole affair, in that La Fanciulla was a spectacular success on its opening night. Thereafter, enthusiasm cooled for the piece as the world engaged in all-out war. Who cared about prospectors panning for gold when more important issues were at stake (survival, for one)? Nostalgia for the past was replaced by concerns for the present and the future.

Interestingly, Puccini may have foreseen what would eventually draw listeners back to The Girl: a longing for home and hearth, for Mom’s apple pie, and for the warmth and compassion of a (so-called) “good woman” and a correspondingly “good man.” These themes, and other related ideas — especially the notion of redemption for one’s transgressions (and Puccini had many that needed redeeming) — recur throughout Fanciulla. According to Minnie, the opera’s gun-toting female protagonist, “There’s not a sinner in the world for whom a path to redemption is not open.”

Most notable of all was the musical language Puccini employed to carry out the subtleties of this newly worked-out theme. He had first experimented with the whole-tone scale in La Bohème (for example, the interlude that begins Act III), and afterwards in Madama Butterfly where the pentatonic (or “five-note”) scale was introduced, in addition to several Japanese folk themes. Both scales took center stage in Fanciulla, and right from the opening bars. One could write entire treatises on that musical motif alone! I prefer to let more learned authorities lead the way on that one.

Poster art for “La Fanciulla del West” by Giovanni Palanti, ca. 1910

For me, I love to wax poetic on the subject of Puccini’s instinctive ability to delineate story, plot, and character through his novel use of the orchestra; how he was able to draw such vibrant portraits and pertinent commentary on the action through seemingly effortless means — what in the nascent film industry would become known as “Mickey-Mousing.” Throughout the years, I’ve learned that Puccini not only had an all-consuming passion for the theater, but also a sense of music’s cinematic potential. This is not a new theory, but purely an observation, on my part, that lends credence to the thought that Puccini was cognizant of the simultaneous growth of silent cinema around the time he wrote his most famous works. Did he pay much attention to silent movies? We’re not at all sure.

Still, I happen to take issue with William Berger’s declaration, published in Puccini without Excuses (Vintage Books, 2005), that the composer “never developed, or pretended to develop, an interest in cinema” — this despite the fact that Pietro Mascagni and Ildebrando Pizzetti, along with other contemporary composers, wrote dozens of scores for early silent features. Even that bellicose poet and playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio got “paid a fortune merely writing the screen titles in the epic of ancient Rome, Cabiria, in 1914” (p. 68).

All this is fine, as far as it goes — and, to quote an Old Italian adage, Si non è vero, è ben trovato (“If it isn’t true, it’s well founded”). But the point remains that in our modern era Puccini’s scores have been serving as movie soundtracks for decades on end. Despite the fact he never wrote music directly for the movies, his scores have a way of indirectly “mimicking” a film’s soundtrack, especially in his operas’ onstage and offstage occurrences.

Listen, for example, to the opening section of Tosca, how the music follows along with the escaped prisoner Angelotti in his frantic search for the key to his family chapel: “A piè della Madonna mi scrisse mia sorella” – “At the foot of the Madonna so wrote my sister.” That’s where Angelotti finds his precious key, but not before the music leads the character to rummage through the church for several nail-biting minutes. Moments later, the irascible Sacristan saunters in. What a delightful, bouncy little tune he has! You can almost picture in your mind the fellow bumbling and grumbling about his business.

Moving on to La Fanciulla, the underscoring is masterfully interwoven into the dialogue in order to capture a “Wild West” ambience — that is, something out of The Great Train Robbery from 1903. To illustrate this point, maestro Stephen Mercurio, in the December 2010 issue of OPERA NEWS (via his article “How the West Was Won”), describes the thirty-five bar prelude as making “a short, loud curtain-raiser, with a cinematic sound that would ultimately serve as a model and inspiration for film composers” (p. 36).

Mercurio went on to expand upon his assertion: “As a conductor, I’m always amazed by the extent to which [Puccini] would challenge the audience’s ear, rendering the offstage action a musical equal to the onstage action … One unique example: immediately after the curtain goes up, a silent-movie-like scene is played out onstage, as Nick the bartender, Jack Rance the sheriff and Larkens, the despondent miner on the verge of a nervous breakdown, appear to reflect their individual psychological states. The only voices heard are the boys’ shouts from a distance, signaling the end of the miners’ workday, and the foreshadowing of Jake Wallace’s melancholy minstrel song, sung by a baritone offstage.

“All of this happens before even one note is sung onstage. It was an audacious move for Puccini to open this opera in such a manner, forcing the audience, and the orchestral players as well, to expand their ears beyond the pit … The entire offstage drama, almost a parallel opera, representing the life of the posse, is played out by Puccini in each of the three acts. They supply a continuous action heard offstage.”

Step up to the bar: Opening scene of “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Met Opera)

In the concluding section, Mercurio summarizes his findings as to Puccini’s methodology for expressing the inherent theatricality of his works: “I am constantly reminded of how his highly developed dramatic sensibilities would anticipate, on an orchestral level, what was to become a common technique for the best film composers — underscoring to heighten the audience’s anxiety level for dramatic effect…

“From the downbeat and the cinematically evocative bars of the prelude to the final fading off into the sunset, La Fanciulla del West was conceived to capture the imagination of American audiences. By bringing Belasco’s highly successful play to the opera stage, Fanciulla entered into what Puccini believed to be the American psyche — bigger than life, dramatic, colorful and ultimately life-affirming. With La Fanciulla del West, Puccini gave us the ‘new world,’ symbolizing optimism, hope and freedom for all — and, in essence, what may well be considered the first great American opera” (p. 39).

La Fanciulla’s Minnie as Calamity Jane? How about Annie Oakley? Hmm…. I don’t know about “the first great American opera” label, but I do know this: it’s definitely, as author Christopher Frayling termed it in Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death, “the first Italian ‘Western.’ ” Pass the spaghetti sauce, please!

‘Go West, Young Man (And Woman)’

The only Fanciulla production I am aware of that took the silent-film aesthetic fully to heart, and presented Puccini’s “horse” opera in a debatable facsimile of that form, is German stage director Christof Loy’s 2012 production for the Royal Swedish Opera House. Designed by Herbert Murauer (the single-unit set is mostly a corrugated “wall”) and conducted by Pier Giorgio Morandi, the cast features Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Minnie (our titular “Girl”), Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Dick Johnson (aka the bandit Ramerrez), Swedish baritone John Lundgren as Sheriff Jack Rance, and bass Michael Schmidberger as Wells Fargo agent Ashby.

Two of the more striking visual components of this version (available to viewers on a Unitel Classica DVD/Blu-ray Disc) are the introductory pre-curtain feature, shown on a screen before the curtain proper; and the entrance of the “blind” minstrel Jake Wallace (sung by baritone John Erik Eleby).

Cover of Unitel-Classica’s release of “La Fanciulla del West” – Production by Christof Loy, 2012, Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm

The pre-curtain feature, as outlined in the accompanying booklet (with notes by Ruprecht Langer), is in “the style of a 1950s black-and-white Western. Minnie rides through a Wild West landscape. [No sooner] has she jumped off her horse [when] she begins running towards the audience and, at the last moment, literally [bursts] out of the screen, revolvers drawn — eliciting her first applause without having sung a single note.” A “yippee-ki-yay” flourish if there ever was one! But what do you do for an encore? It’s hard to top those first few minutes, and indeed nothing else in the staging quite approaches that opening thrill ride.

Another instant, one that probably looked better on paper than in actual practice, was the brief interlude with Jake Wallace, here made up to look like the rumpled Little Tramp from The Gold Rush (written, directed, and produced by Charlie Chaplin himself in 1925, fifteen years after La Fanciulla’s debut). Forgetting the Gold Rush analogy for the moment, singer John Erik Eleby’s pained expression betrayed noticeable discomfort. The character basically stands around not knowing what to do. This sequence fell flatter than Chaplin’s worn shoes.

Continuing with Langer’s notes, “Film elements pervade the entire opera. In each of the three acts, screens several [meters] high show cleverly selected close-ups of the actors’ big moments in Hollywood-style projected images.” Too, this element proved more distracting than enlightening: it was more a question of where audience members needed to focus their gaze, either on the singers themselves or their larger-than-life screen counterparts. It generated more frustration than illumination, a good idea improperly thought out, and illustrative of what people meant when they refer to bad Regietheater.

As for the casting, the popular Ms. Stemme, who has triumphed in such roles as Strauss’ Elektra, Wagner’s Brünnhilde, and Puccini’s Turandot, while tough as nails as the barkeep Minnie, lacked vulnerability. She seemed tougher than boot leather, when compared to the pudgy out-of-sorts Antonenko. Vocally, Antonenko reminded me of the late Hungarian tenor Sándor Kónya, a memorable Lohengrin at the Met, and an affable Dick Johnson in the 1970 radio broadcast of Fanciulla. Aleksandrs, too, lacked a certain suavity and charm, both necessary components if we are to believe this farfetched couple’s relationship.

CD cover of Renata Tebaldi as Minnie in “La Fanciulla del West”

By the way, that now-legendary 1970 radio broadcast boasted one of a handful of Met Opera appearances by the late Renata Tebaldi as Minnie. I recorded that performance on open-reel tape and remember it fondly, mostly for Tebaldi’s feminine guile and sweetness, despite blustery and harshly sung, off-pitch high notes. The role unfortunately occurred late in her career when anything above the staff became painful to listen to. Her mustache-twirling antagonist, sung by the underrated Anselmo Colzani (subbing for an indisposed Cornell MacNeil), snarled and rasped to our delight.

Their second act duet, almost a re-creation of the Tosca-Scarpia encounter, but with the villain left standing at the end, raised the Met rafters to new heights with Tebaldi’s delivery of that classic rip-roaring line, “Tre assi e un paio!” (“Three aces and a pair”), in their high-stakes poker game. The audience was still cheering many minutes after the curtain had fallen. Wow, talk about goose bumps!

One live production I rather enjoyed, although it was staged on a proportionately smaller scale than the Met’s, was from 1977 at the New York City Opera, courtesy of director Frank Corsaro. Even with a reduced orchestra, conductor Sergiu Comissiona coaxed some sonorous nuances from a cast headed by Maralin Niska (over-parted but acceptable) as Minnie, Ermanno Mauro (very Del Monaco-esque, as was his wont) as Johnson, and Charles Long (substituted in Acts II and III by the full-throated Vern Shinall) as Rance.

How the Met Was Won

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, the “Girl of the Golden West” (Photo: Met Opera)

No such goose bumps proliferated in the Saturday matinee re-broadcast of Fanciulla, but the full cast does merit attention: Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Johnson/Ramerrez, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Rance, bass Oren Gradus as Jake Wallace, and tenors Scott Scully and Carlo Bosi as Joe and Nick, respectively; with bass Richard Bernstein as Bello, tenor Alok Kumar as Harry, bass-baritone Joseph Barron as Happy, bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha as Sid, baritone Michael Todd Simpson as Sonora, tenor Eduardo Valdes as Trin, baritone Adrian Timpau as Larkens, bass Matthew Rose as Ashby, tenor Ian Koziara as the Post Rider, baritone Kidon Choi as José Castro, mezzo MaryAnn McCormick as Wowkle, and bass Philip Cokorinos as Billy Jackrabbit. Marco Armiliato (whose brother, tenor Fabio Armiliato, has also appeared at the Met and elsewhere) presided over the orchestra and, if truth be told, conducted the work from memory. Praise be, Toscanini lives!

The production, a grandiose affair, owes much to the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and is credited to Giancarlo Del Monaco, the famed tenor’s son, with period sets and costumes (atmospheric but hardly of the times, so I’ve read) by Michael Scott, lighting by Gil Wechsler, and revival stage direction by Gregory Keller. The men’s chorus, an important ingredient in this piece, was prepared by Chorus Master Donald Palumbo.

The story, in a nutshell, concerns the literal taming of the West — in this instance, involving three of the opera’s characters: Minnie, Johnson/Ramerrez, and Rance. The fourth character, the miners and would-be gold prospectors, functions as a Greek chorus. Their redemption, along with those of the main figures above, takes up the opera’s running time.

Minnie is a free spirit, but a faintly religious one. She’s not the Bible-thumping, pistol-packing Mama depicted in tiresomely lazy reporting by most critics and reviewers. William Berger has stressed that fact: she’s a rugged individualist, the lone female out to tame those unruly frontiersmen (code word for the wilderness). She wants to meet a man who can tame her as well, but strictly on her terms. Johnson, whose real name is Ramerrez (a Mexican bandit by inheritance), happens to be that man — or so he thinks. His task is to convince Minnie of that, only she’s not so easily convinced. Then, there’s Sheriff Rance. He’s not such a bad sort, but more of a disgruntled loner. True, he’s the law in these parts, and every two-bit mining town needs a lawman. He has a wife, but longs to run away with Minnie. Who wouldn’t? It’s lonely in them thar California hills — and Minnie’s quite the catch!

Filling her boots is Eva-Maria Westbroek, who has teamed with Kaufmann on prior occasions as Sieglinde to his Siegmund in Die Walküre, as part of the Met’s current Ring-cycle production. She’s also appeared in the Francesca da Rimini revival a few seasons back, Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and as Katerina Izmailova in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Not a lirica-spinta by any stretch of the imagination, Westbroek met the challenges and obstacles of Minnie’s part head-on. If she appeared to be steam-rolling over some of the role’s treacherous tessitura (and let’s face it, not for nothing is Minnie known as the Italian Brünnhilde), she managed to create a sympathetic portrayal nonetheless. She did manage to make it through her second-act poker match (with squalls intact), but ran afoul of the orchestra which blasted away to mesmerizing effect.

A “Meet Cute”: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie and Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Wayward high notes aside, Westbroek made for a perfect match-up with her frequent stage partner Herr Kaufmann, returning to the Met after an absence of four seasons. Man, was he missed! But after hearing him as Dick Johnson, made famous by the great Caruso, as well as other artists from the past (Del Monaco, Corelli, Tucker, Domingo, and the like), I wished he’d cut down on the crooning.

Kaufmann’s voice has turned darker with the intervening years, and was not as penetrating or as viscerally enticing as when we last heard him, both as Wagner’s Parsifal and as a peerless Werther in the Massenet opus. His soft-singing was soothing, though, especially in the long duet with Minnie that closes Act I. He was forthright and heroic where he needed to be in Act II, and his “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act III, the only number in the opera that can be classified as an “aria” (or, as the late Met spokesperson Francis Robinson used to pronounce it, “aah-ria”), was meltingly enunciated, if a might too careful and mannered: he sounds more and more like Jon Vickers every time I hear him. Fans of the tenor were in good voice (and in ample supply) at curtain time.

Making his role debut as the bad-ass sheriff, Željko Lučić allowed his strongly sinuous and muscular baritone to ring out resoundingly. Here was a lawman to be reckoned with! His experience with that other Puccini policeman, Scarpia, showed in Lučić’s onstage carriage and vigorous vocal allure. Still, Rance is not the main focus of the plot, only an incidental (and diversionary) one at that. He’s left standing apart from the others at the close, which is not what Puccini or Belasco had intended.

Last Man Standing: Željko Lučić as Jack Rance in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Overall, there was no faulting Lučić’s confident grounding of his role in the key Act II match-up with Minnie. There was excitement a-plenty here, even if it failed to erase memories of the Tebaldi-Colzani encounter, or any of the recorded ones featuring Tebaldi with MacNeil (on Decca/London), Carol Neblett with Sherrill Milnes (DG), or the available YouTube excerpts, starring the rarely heard Gigliola Frazzoni, with Corelli and Gobbi. American lyric soprano Dorothy Kirsten was a natural for the part of Minnie, especially when she was paired up with Brooklyn-born Richard Tucker (wearing Caruso’s jacket from the original Belasco production!).

A one-of-a-kind dream cast with verismo specialist Magda Olivero, along with the giant-voiced Gian Giacomo Guelfi (a personal friend of Corelli’s), is another YouTube find and highly recommended. Even more impressive is the young Italian tenor in the part of Johnson: Daniele Barioni. Proving he was a lot more than a dime-store Del Monaco, Barioni delivers the goods in spades with an outstanding interpretation, both vocally and histrionically, of the bandit-turned-lover. Barioni’s only available commercial recording is the first stereo rendition of Puccini’s La Rondine for RCA Victor, with Anna Moffo, Piero De Palma, Graziella Sciutti, and Mario Sereni, conducted by Francesco Molinari-Pradelli.

Redemption finally comes to our heroine and her bandit boyfriend. Minnie saves Johnson from the hangman’s noose and convinces the miners to set him free — with Minnie as his redeemer. Together, they leave the mining town behind to go off into the sunset, while the men commiserate over their loss with a repeat of Jake Wallace’s wistful ballad, “Che faranno i vecchi miei, là, lontano?” (“What will the old folks do, so far away?”). Berger insists it’s an old Zuni Indian tune, while Carner maintains its close relationship to Stephen Foster’s “The Old Dog Tray.” (Note to readers: After listening to an excerpt of “Old Dog Tray” online, I am convinced that Puccini’s reworking is not even close to Foster’s theme, but an original creation.)

The community is transformed, now and forever, by the miners’ solidarity and their association with The Girl. The lovers’ fading voices in the distance are all that’s left of their memories: “Addio, mia California! Addio!” The opera began with the word “Hello!” and ends, deliberately and nostalgically, with “Goodbye!” “But whatever bright future they may have in front of them,” Berger’s thoughts tell us, “there is a unique sadness to the finale of Fanciulla, despite the lack of a ‘body count’ and the theoretically happy ending.”

You have my permission to wipe away the tears with Puccini’s score in hand.

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

A Cloak, a Convent, and a Conman: Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ Celebrates 100 Years at the Met

Puccini’s ‘Il Trittico’ (“The Triptych”), his trio of one-act operas, at the Met Opera revival, Dec 2018: ‘Il Tabarro,’ ‘Suor Angelica,’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’

Three for the Price of One

Puccini’s Il Trittico (or “The Triptych”), a dark, somber, and moody work for two-thirds of its running time, is brightened in the final third by Gianni Schicchi, the composer’s only opera in the buffa vein. Given in three acts (each of the mini-pieces runs to about an hour in length), Il Trittico, Puccini’s most sustained and atmospheric theatrical creation, celebrated its one hundredth birthday at the Metropolitan Opera House this past December 8, 2018, in a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast. The production was by Jack O’Brien, with sets designed by Douglas W. Schmidt, and costumes by Jess Goldstein.

A later transmission, on December 22, showcased the same composer’s La Fanciulla del West, the only bona fide Italian spaghetti Western in the entire standard repertoire. Based on American impresario David Belasco’s turn-of-the-century stage play The Girl of the Golden West, we’ll soon be reviewing Giancarlo Del Monaco’s production of this “horse” opera in a future post.

So which came first, The Girl or the triptych? In actuality, the 1910 gala premiere of Fanciulla brought the world famous composer, on hand for the opening night performance, heavier than usual press coverage (Puccini’s first visit to America came in 1907 for the New York premieres of Madama Butterfly and Manon Lescaut). A stellar cast, headed by Emmy Destin, Enrico Caruso, and Pasquale Amato, along with some spectacular production values, wowed the Met’s diamond-horseshoe set.

Conducted by the renowned Tuscan maestro Arturo Toscanini, La Fanciulla, Puccini’s seventh effort for the stage, was the most lavish operatic presentation of its day. Oddly enough, The Girl’s beauty began to fade just as the world sank ever deeper into international conflict. On the other hand, the reputation of Il Trittico, which did not bring Puccini back to the Big Apple (the First World War had only recently ended in November 1918, which meant that floating mines were still a major hazard for trans-Atlantic crossings), suffered as a result.

Despite the presence of several outstanding artists, among them Claudia Muzio, Luigi Montesanto, and Giulio Crimi in Il Tabarro (“The Cloak”), Geraldine Farrar in Suor Angelica, and Giuseppe De Luca, Crimi, and Florence Easton in Gianni Schicchi, the Trittico was far from an immediate hit. Praise for Gianni Schicchi was universal, of course, but critics puzzled over the other two works, most misunderstanding their content and character. The association with Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Schicchi is briefly mentioned, and the notion that individuals must journey through phases of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise for their redemption, are essential to their interpretation. In reference to Il Tabarro, Toscanini himself declared: “I don’t like it at all,” a perceptive observation on his part — in fact, his only complete recording of a Puccini opera would be the composer’s youthful La Bohème with Licia Albanese and Jan Peerce in the leads.

The original cast of ‘Il Trittico’ at its Met Opera premiere in Dec 1918

The sordidness of that opening piece or the sentimental quality of the second one, Suor Angelica, may have had something to do with Toscanini’s harsh judgment. Certainly the famed musician could have fallen hard for item number three, Gianni Schicchi — a work of comedic genius in the manner of Verdi’s Falstaff. Nothing doing! It was left to opera companies, the changing nature of opera as a whole, and the passage of time to render a more favorable outcome for Puccini’s trio of compact masterworks.

Nevertheless, despite past misgivings I was thrilled to be hearing these three operas again, after their being absent from the Met repertoire for much too long a time. In my view, they are the composer’s most mature and perceptive creations.

Attend the Tale of Il Tabarro

Luigi (Marcelo Alvarez) reminisces with Giorgetta (Amber Wagner) about their youth in the Parisian suburb of Belleville, in ‘Il Tabarro’

The opening piece, Il Tabarro, based on a one-act French play La Houppelande by Didier Gold, is a forerunner to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: it is pure Grand Guignol, and a stark one at that. But don’t be fooled by the comparison! No one gets their throat cut or baked into meat pies. The brutality in Tabarro is swift and resolute in the lead character Michele’s hands and fully warranted, one might add, given his young wife Giorgetta’s secret affair with the hunky Luigi. A second murder by a minor character, the drunkard Tinca, one that takes place offstage in the play, was discarded by the composer for reasons of dramatic unity and coherence. That’s one too many killings for a single act.

The curtain rises in silence. It’s only then that we hear the prelude to Il Tabarro, a masterful depiction of the River Seine flowing languorously through the byways of Paris, here (thanks to an excellent libretto by Giuseppe Adami) given prominence as a major character. The water’s ebb and flow goes in only one direction, stressing the inevitability of fate, and a life of labor and pain. The protagonists get what they can out of this harshness, and Puccini’s music reflects that warped, oppressive environment. You can taste the expressionistic flavor in nearly every bar.

After his whole-tone experiment with La Fanciulla, in Il Tabarro the composer went all-out by not only channeling Debussy, but more prominently the music of the Russian school (Mussorgsky and the young Stravinsky). It’s remarkable how far Puccini had progressed from the banality of La Rondine (1917), that pseudo-Viennese operetta and Traviata wannabe that prefaced Il Trittico, to this.

You could say, too, that the problems of little people in Trittico don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy, mixed-up world of the opera. However, the issues that working stiffs had to deal with in Berg’s Wozzeck, which had its world premiere only a few short years after Il Trittico bowed, were fully formed and addressed in Tabarro, and by the briefest of means. Compositionally speaking, there are numerous examples of characters commenting on their situation, sometimes spoken in hushed tones, other times in rising and falling cadences, or just plain monotones.

One of them, the rag picker La Frugola, has an odd little number early on where she shows off what her rummaging through the Paris trash heaps has turned up. It’s basically a stream of consciousness narrative. With metronomic echoes of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, along with similar vignettes scattered throughout the entirety of the triptych, these moments pay considerable reverence to the downtrodden (specifically, those found in Hugo’s Les Misérables, or the works of Émile Zola), in a type of musical shorthand only a composer of Puccini’s innate dramatic sensibility could assemble.

Giorgetta (Amber Wagner, left) tries to follow La Frugola’s (MaryAnn McCormick) thoughts in ‘Il Tabarro’

This musical shorthand went hand-in-hand with the prevailingly bleak atmosphere, one of inescapable despair and drudgery; of common folk grasping at fleeting moments of gratification, be they sexual (i.e., Giorgetta’s wild fling with Luigi) or other forms (Tinca’s alcoholism, La Frugola’s obsessive compulsiveness). Events occur at such a rapid pace that audiences barely have time to catch their collective breath, so well has Puccini understood and developed the art of the short phrase. The handling of key dramatic situations, and the spaces between notes, are flawlessly interpreted all through the opera’s single act, and, indeed, throughout its sister works, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Despite the added casting burdens placed on opera houses due to the multiple roles involved (several of which can be doubled or even tripled, I might add), the rewards are great for artists rightly in tune with their requirements.

On that note, the Met’s matinee cast for Tabarro was ready and able to tackle this assignment. It included the amply endowed soprano of Amber Wagner as Giorgetta, tenor Marcelo Álvarez as Luigi, mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick (in place of the formerly announced Stephanie Blythe) as La Frugola, baritone George Gagnidze as Michele, basso Maurizio Muraro as Talpa, and tenor Tony Stevenson as Tinca. The Parisian-born Bertrand de Billy (an excellent choice) presided over the worthy Met Opera Orchestra. As a matter of fact, Monsieur De Billy was a most indulgent and reliable orchestra leader. His background in French and Italian opera gave him a tremendous advantage in presenting these three works in the best light, especially Tabarro where the setting is not-so-Gay Paree.

Michele the barge owner (George Gagnidze) wonders who his wife’s lover is in the finale to ‘Il Tabarro’

To start things off, Marcelo Álvarez struggled with the high, punishing tessitura of his role as the tortured stevedore Luigi. One of the finest recorded examples is that of Mario Del Monaco on Decca/London, in a virile vocal display that set the standard for subsequent performers. Of course, he had the luxury of having Renata Tebaldi by his side, and both were ably guided by Lamberto Gardelli’s knowledgeable baton beat. Still, Álvarez managed to mold something out of those high notes into an anguished human being. His arioso, “Hai ben ragione,” was flung full force into the audience with more abandon than I’ve heard from him of late. Praise be! He did a better job here than in the previous season’s Turandot broadcast: his Calàf was vocally bland and high-note shy throughout.

Amber Wagner’s weighty Giorgetta had the requisite thrust, including a superbly held, optional high C in her brief, agitated first duet with Álvarez. There’s no aria for the soprano, as such, in these intense exchanges. All the same, the two lovers offered a distinct contrast from the tensions wrought by their illicit assignation to that of the billing and cooing of Lauretta, Schicchi’s twenty-something daughter, and her similarly smitten betrothed, the resourceful Rinuccio.

George Gagnidze’s burly baritone — dark and tightly wound — and hulking menace made for a memorable Michele, the brooding barge owner and Luigi’s boss. The abundance of chromatics in his character’s music lent an air of tension to Michele’s dilemma. That Gagnidze simply could not rival the acting chops of a Tito Gobbi, or the burnished bronze of Ettore Bastianini’s 1953 radio broadcast, or that of Robert Merrill in the same Decca/London outing with Tebaldi and Del Monaco, need not diminish the Georgian baritone’s accomplishments.

Michele (George Gagnidze) attempts to rekindle his relationship with wife Giorgetta (Amber Wagner)

Foghorns, offstage chorus, sound effects, a bugle playing taps — all of them superbly employed as mood music — set up the magnificent closing monologue, “Nulla, silenzio” (“Nothing but silence”), the wary Michele’s fatalistic rumination on who the culprit fooling around with his wife might be. This is one of Puccini’s gloomiest and most forceful depictions. An earlier version of this aria, employing basically the same music, but longer and more lugubrious in nature, was rejected. It was a direct translation from the play, which would have been all wrong for the exigencies of the opera house. Fortunately, the composer insisted on a complete rewrite, which transformed the solo into the much-improved current version.

This was something that had also occurred with the first draft of Cavaradossi’s third-act aria in Tosca, originally a so-called “Farewell to Life and Art,” with text by Luigi Illica and subsequently replaced by the instantly memorable (and dramatically more pertinent) “E lucevan le stelle.”

Luckily for listeners, Gagnidze too was transformed into a singing actor, where word-play became paramount in this multi-layered sequence, and high-powered vocalism a prerequisite. The climax of the opera is one rip-snorting coup de théatre: Michele pounces on the unsuspecting Luigi and throttles him to death. Luigi dies with the words “L’amo” (“I love her”) on his lips, admitting his affair with Michele’s wife. Hiding his lifeless body underneath his long cloak (ergo, the ill-omened title of the piece), the barge owner reveals its grisly contents to his disbelieving, adulterous spouse, as the curtain falls. The original stage directions called for the baritone to shove Giorgetta’s face onto her dead lover’s ashen visage. (Shudders!!!)

The music throbs with expectancy at this violent episode; the basses and cellos pluck away in imitation of Luigi’s heartbeat, fluttering and fading to the last strains of the music. Giorgetta has her last moments of regret for betraying her husband in her choppy dialogue. She wants only to sit next to Michele, as in olden days — before their child had died — to cuddle in his cloak. Be careful what you wish for, girl! As Giorgetta dejectedly declared earlier in the drama, “How difficult it is to be happy.” That’s Hell for you!

A Lot of Nun-Sense

Kristine Opolais as Sister Angelica in Puccini’s ‘Suor Angelica’

For a change of pace, Suor Angelica is a delicate filigree of a work (Giovacchino Forzano provided the libretto, along with that of Gianni Schicchi; both were original ideas). Modal Gregorian chanting pre-dominates in the opening sequence. Note to readers: Puccini’s real-life sibling Iginia was first a nun and then a Mother Superior to a small convent in Italy. She “inspired,” shall we say, the title character as well as the ambient church melodies to be found in Suor Angelica (and in Tosca, too, if memory serves). Puccini learned much from tapping into his sister’s experiences of daily convent life, in addition to that of a priest he befriended, although the composer himself remained a lapsed Catholic to the end.

Consequently, the music in this act is entirely dissimilar from that of Il Tabarro, setting a tone of reverence and mysticism implicit in the story: those short phrases, little musical episodes endemic to verismo as a whole — something that Puccini continued to master over the course of the many decades he spent perfecting his art — govern this work, as well as Tabarro and Schicchi.

The tragedy of Sister Angelica, then, is that of a young noblewoman who bore a child out of wedlock, now cloistered away from society in a convent. She’s visited by her stern aunt, the family matriarch. Angelica asks for word of her son, only to be told in the harshest of terms that the child passed away after a brief illness. Devastated at the news, the little sister prepares a poisonous mixture from the herbs she has planted in the garden.

Drinking the fatal concoction, she realizes, to her horror, she has committed a mortal sin by attempting suicide. As she dies, Angelica (an appropriate name, to be sure) has a miraculous vision of her little boy with the Virgin Mary (in many productions, this celestial visitation is only hinted at, as it was in the Met’s previous Fabrizio Melano production). It’s a heartbreaking moment, guaranteed to leave audiences in tears. Only the most exceptional of artists — I’m thinking of the splendid Renata Scotto, and the equally-gifted Teresa Stratas and Gilda Cruz-Romo — can hold themselves together to pull this scene off. It takes a performer of the absolute first rank to survive such an emotional and vocal ordeal.

Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, a welcome and frequent figure at the Met, has appeared in many a Puccini part, i.e., Manon Lescaut, Mimì, Cio-Cio-San, and Magda in La Rondine. She sang the titular Angelica with poignancy and nuance. In her broadcast performance, Opolais opened the floodgates to summon the ghosts (and artistry) of verismo singers past: Muzio, Rosa Ponselle, Magda Olivero, Victoria De Los Angeles, Tebaldi, and the aforementioned Ms. Scotto — all of whom excelled in this repertoire.

Sister Angelica (Kristine Opolais) goes into a tailspin at the thought of her mortal sin

Since the opera is short, Ms. Opolais felt no compulsion to hold back for fear of running out of voice. Outside of some mild shrillness on top, she conveyed the character’s strength in adversity, maintaining her composure throughout her ordeal with the formidable Zia Principessa (“Princess Aunt”), sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. It’s here that Angelica matures from a young novice into an adult woman of substance. Others in the all-female cast included MaryAnn McCormick as the Monitor, Rosalie Sullivan as Sister Osmina, Maureen McKay as Sister Genovieffa, and Lindsay Ammann as the Abbess.

As mentioned above, the opera starts quietly, with hints of melodies to come. For roughly half its playing time we are presented with little character portraits from the large ensemble; each one voicing pointed commentaries or whispered asides around the routine of their convent, or the comings and goings of visitors, especially the wealthy aunt. Individual moments emerge, similar to but quite apart from those in Il Tabarro. We are not at the Seine, but in a religious community: there are no saints here either, only sinners. Leave it to Puccini who, along with Verdi, Boito, and others, had little use for organized religion EXCEPT as inspiration for their music.

The Musical Nature of Characters

Opolais’ middle voice had a beauty and vibrancy that signaled a close identification with this part. Short phrases both underscored and moved the action along in snippets — that is, until the music grew deadly serious upon the arrival of Angelica’s aunt, the nameless Zia Principessa. A character that Puccini etched from real life (quite possibly from his wife, Elvira), she is the arbiter of righteous indignation: proud, imperious, unyielding, and bereft of the most basic of human emotions toward her niece — that is, a monumental lack of compassion.

The implacable Zia Principessa (Stephanie Blythe, l.) confronts her niece, Sister Angelica (Kristine Opolais) at the convent

Ms. Blythe took the attitude of a performer trying to bring some level of humanity to a complicated part. In her intermission interview, Blythe expressed the view that to make the Aunt an all-out villain does the character an injustice. One has to imagine her as a flesh-and-blood individual, not a cardboard caricature, in order for audiences to relate to the tensions at hand. She’s a woman tasked with the responsibility of maintaining the family structure (and, let’s face it, the family fortune) in the face of a difficult situation. The Aunt is there to force Angelica to sign over her share of the family inheritance to her little sister, who is about to be married (a fascinating correlation to the goings-on in Gianni Schicchi).

While it’s hard for audiences to feel much sympathy for this creature, Blythe brought a heavy world-weariness to the part, along with rock-solid vocal technique and potent chest voice (never overused, mind you, but unleashed in the service to the plot). Puccini’s previous writing for mezzo or contralto is sparse (for example, the maid Suzuki in Butterfly has few opportunities to shine), but in Il Trittico there are three prominent roles that the same singer can take on and add luster to.

Puccini engaged in various modernesque techniques in his never-ending quest for how to tell his story by way of his music. An example of this is Sister Genovieffa’s brief arioso about her bleating lamb, vividly illustrated by thumps in the double basses and high strings. Again, a trick of the operatic trade that the composer marshaled forth to foster color and musical interest, from the chirping of the birds (flutes and woodwinds) to the tingling of the bells (both real and simulated).

Themes to be heard later in the opera, and more forcefully at that point, intrude on the nun’s chatter; the future telescoped portentously into the present — another way of foreshadowing events via purely musical terms. How carefully has the composer crafted his work: Puccini knew instinctively where to go with his score, as well as how to mold the text to fit this basic scheme. Too, there’s much to marvel in the novelty of his orchestration. His understanding of human nature, both here and in the two outer works, was built from the ground up in a lifetime spent in sorrow and disappointment. All his biographers have dwelled on the inescapable fact that Puccini’s own nature was one of perpetual melancholy.

Composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)

The music turns solemn as we hear the Princess Aunt’s sinuous, stern lines (like a serpent ready to strike) along the lower wind instruments and strings (cellos, violas) and the ubiquitous ostinato passages in the basses (see La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly for comparison). She’s not a villain in the Scarpia mold; nor, for that matter, was Michele. Here, Blythe remained unemotional in her banter with Angelica, sporting a monochromatic delivery — the Princess Aunt on her high horse. Angelica’s more humane interactions contrast sharply with the Aunt’s self-righteous discourse. She speaks only of “justice” and “expiation” for her niece’s sin. Angelica, for her part, only wants to know about her child, repeating the words “Mio figlio, figlio mio” over and over again — another ostinato figure that is reiterated in the orchestra multiple times.

From this exchange, the haughty Aunt hits her anxious niece between the eyes with a thunderbolt: “It’s been two years since he passed. We did all we could.” Angelica lets out a hurtful wail that goes to the heart of the issue. She has nothing to live for, and therefore signs away her inheritance. The Aunt departs, accompanied by her winding theme in the lower strings (again, monotonous ad absurdum).

In Angelica’s gorgeous aria, “Senza mamma,” she voices her thoughts about her son, how he died without ever having known his mother’s love. When can she see him again? According to William Berger’s description of this episode, “The vocal line soars in G minor, but the muted orchestra recalls the Zia Principessa’s prayer in the previous scene” (Berger, Puccini without Excuses, p. 254). Indeed, her aria begins with the same three notes that accompanied the Aunt out the door, hinting that Angelica can never fully escape her relative’s long shadow. The intermezzo that follows is justly renowned as a passage of supreme repose.

Opolais returned to deliver the final scene in tightly controlled, but emotionally gripping fashion, the sorrow in her voice taking on Tebaldi’s velvet blanket in a most soothing and respectful mode. Needless to say, the soprano broke all hearts with her portrayal and was feted with a long ovation at the end. Puccini then concludes the opera in the same way that it began: with the nuns’ voices (representing the angels of heaven) heard from above, and the musical forces of two pianos, organ, glockenspiel, celesta, triangle, bass drum, cymbals, etc., in the background — a psychological if not a religious manifestation of a miracle, or “the poignancy of the human need for salvation,” as Berger put it.

It’s a more “restrained” approach to the subject than audiences might have anticipated, and will rekindle fond memories of Cio-Cio-San’s ritual suicide in Madama Butterfly, a coincidence this opera happens to share. The whole of the instrumentation dies out quietly with the subdued voices of the nuns, a hushed ending to accompany Angelica’s death and the wonder of salvation through grace. Purgatory was never so sublime.

‘Rich Relations May Give You Crust of Bread and Such’     

Placido Domingo (in hat and scarf) as Gianni Schicchi, surrounded by the Donati family

For Gianni Schicchi, Puccini treats audiences to a story of greedy relatives out to fleece the recently deceased Buoso Donati, a rich family member, out of his estate. They only need to find his last will and testament, that’s all. But where the heck did Buoso hide it? When they eventually locate the document (thanks to the young Rinuccio), they discover that he’s left his entire fortune to the church (gasp!). Undeterred by this unfortunate setback, they ponder how to rectify the situation.

[Author’s Note: In our estimation — and one that has been overlooked by many writers — the plot of Gianni Schicchi is a continuation of where the Zia Principessa left off with her niece Angelica. Puccini’s little in-joke, then, takes the story of the Aunt, now reshaped into that of Zita, the senior female member of the Donati clan (note that “Zita, i.e., zitta, or “shut up” in English, is close to the Italian word “Zia,” or “Aunt”), and follows it to its natural conclusion: i.e., what happens to the family fortune that Angelica signed away to her little sister, Anna Viola, so that she could marry her unnamed suitor. The raucous consequences, as put forth in the farcical routines of Schicchi, are funny and startling.]

Rinuccio suggests they summon Gianni Schicchi, a so-called “new monied man” whose cleverness and quick wit can help to recover their inheritance. Of course, Rinuccio has an ulterior motive behind this suggestion: he plans to wed Schicchi’s beautiful young daughter, Lauretta, with the inheritance serving as a tidy little wedding present. The relatives balk at the mere mention of this upstart. When Schicchi enters, he hits upon a plan to impersonate the dead Buoso and take his place in bed. His idea is to trick the Lawyer and his Notary into rewriting the will in the relatives’ favor (ahem, but taking the bulk of the riches for himself, lest he accuse the relatives of conspiring to cheat the state).

After the Lawyer and Notary have left, the relatives grab whatever articles aren’t nailed down and exit the house with Schicchi in hot pursuit, leaving the two lovers, Lauretta and Rinuccio, alone to blissfully make their wedding plans. True to form, Schicchi has the last word on the subject: “I trust you audience members have enjoyed this little plot. If what you’ve seen today pleases you, then join in unison and declare me ‘not guilty’.” Paradise was never so good!

In the finale to ‘Gianni Schicchi,’ the lovers Lauretta (Kristina Mkhitaryan) and Rinuccio (Atalla Ayan) fall into each others’ arms

There are some tricky time signatures and rhythm changes throughout this wonderfully paced score. Puccini’s penchant for stating a theme he has every intention of re-using down the road continues in the same vein as in the other two works of Il Trittico.

One obvious illustration is found in the ubiquitous aria, “O mio babbino caro,” which translates to “Oh my beloved father” (or “daddy,” a more accurate rendition), the thrice-familiar theme of which is first heard in Rinuccio’s “Firenze è com’un albero fiorito” (“Florence is like a flowering tree”). Soprano Kristina Mkhitaryan, as Lauretta in the Met broadcast, sang the aria brusquely, as it was originally intended, with no undue schmaltz attached or prolonged delays.

The piece comes and goes in a flash and should be delivered that way, not drawn out ad infinitum as heard in countless on-air ads and TV commercials, and especially its egregious misuse in the Merchant-Ivory production of A Room with a View (1986). Taken out of context, the air collapses of its own weight and winds up being a trial to the ears as well as a test of listeners’ patience. In its proper place, and as a spontaneous plea for a father’s aid, Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro” is a pleasant enough diversion (a “breather,” in modern day parlance) from the actions of those money-grubbing relations.

As Rinuccio, Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan (Christian in the Met revival of Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac) was primed for this high-lying lyric role. He even sounded like a younger version of Plácido Domingo, who took on the sly Signor Schicchi in this performance, and will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his debut at the Met this season. Stephanie Blythe repeated her imposing Zita, with Maurizio Muraro as Simone, Lindsay Ammann as Ciesca, Jeff Mattsey as Marco, Gabriella Reyes as Nella, Tony Stevenson as Gherardo, Patrick Carfizzi as Betto, and the other artists, all contributing to a unified ensemble. And that’s what counts in any Schicchi performance.

Zita (Stephanie Blythe), Nella (Gabriella Reyes), and Ciesca (Lindsay Ammann) sweet talk Schicchi (Placido Domingo)

As the star of the afternoon, Mr. Domingo proved once again that at 78 he can still deliver the goods, but barely. He sounded like his old self — that is, a tenor posing as a baritone trying to sing in the lower register. I’ve been critical about this for the last decade or so. I know it’s one way for him to prolong his singing career, and I know he thoroughly enjoys performing on the stage. But no matter how hard he tries or how much work he puts into it, Domingo simply does not sound like a baritone. This creates an imbalance in pieces that demand a firm and rich sound, something that, at THIS stage in his vocation, the artist does not command. With a 50-year career behind him, it is long past the time for Sr. Domingo to step off the stage and allow the next generation of talents to assume their rightful position.

He came off well enough on Saturday’s broadcast, though, injecting humor and humanity into this lustrous part. But again, I must stress that his voice was but a shadow of what it once was. Oh, well, I’ve groused about this matter long enough, so I’ll let bygones be bygones. Everyone had the time of their lives, so who am I to quibble? In fact, where most baritones run aground, in the arioso “Addio, Firenze, addio cielo divino” (“Goodbye, Florence, goodbye divine sky”), Domingo excelled. Bravo to that!

There’s one thing I am pleased to confirm: never again will these wondrous works be separated from one another, as they once were in the years after the premiere. Paired with a plethora of other operas (including Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle), Il Trittico can be enjoyed in its entirety as three parts of a unified whole. Father Dante would be well pleased!

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part Two)

Orpheus playing his lyre, with thoughts of his lost love, Eurydice

A Dog’s Life

Despite the surfeit of first-rate material, written and performed by artists of the front ranks, in this author’s view Brazilians still need to face up to an unpleasant trait that continues to haunt their midst.

This trait, known, at the time, as complexo de vira-lata, or “mongrel complex” (decades before Sting’s use of the word “mongrel”), was introduced by sports columnist, author, and playwright Nelson Rodrigues (the self-professed “pornographic angel”) after Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. The phrase suggests that what Brazil has produced is less refined, less “pure” if you will and, for that reason, less genuinely Brazilian than what Europeans and North Americans have provided the world. Ever the dramatist, Nelson went so far as to accuse his fellow Brazilians (and, by implication, himself as well) of being “Narcissuses in reverse who spit on [their] own image.”

What an extraordinary admission! When you consider that eight years later Brazil enjoyed nearly back-to-back triumphs in the 1958, 1962, and 1970 World Cup Soccer tournaments, you realize that Nelson’s remark failed to hold up (as least as far as soccer was concerned). You would think that Brazil’s Fat Lady would have taken pride in these accomplishments rather than go the self-critical route.

Writer, sports columnist, playwright, and dramatist Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980)

How could Brazilians, who, as an example, took the sport of soccer (introduced into the country by a Brazilian-born, British descendant named Charles Miller), injected that sport with so much joy and spontaneity, and after that, went about making soccer essentially their own, have possibly subjected themselves to such levels of self-deprecation? The image of a mangy mutt overturning cans in a darkened alleyway, fighting for scraps with others of its kind, and rearing a brood of “less than pure” offspring, runs counter to everything we know and love about Brazilians. “If you lay down with dogs, you’ll get fleas,” goes the corresponding English connotation. Was this a warning to Brazilians to steer clear of foreign influences, lest they become infected with a permanent stain on their national identity? It positively reeks of post-Modernism gone awry.

However, the reality of the situation is far more complicated, and not as easily dismissible as it might appear. It goes to the core of the argument that Brazilians, as in the days of medieval flagellants, reserve the harshest punishments for themselves. An excerpt from a popular poem known to every Brazilian household, and ascribed to politician, writer, and fanatical Fluminense follower Henrique Maximiano Coelho Neto (1864-1934), both praises and bemoans the insurmountable obstacles of motherhood. The last lines are quoted below:

 Ser mãe é andar chorando num sorriso!
Ser mãe é ter um mundo e não ter nada!
Ser mãe é padecer num paraíso!  

To be a mother is to cry when you are smiling!

To be a mother is having the world when there’s nothing to have!

To be a mother is to suffer even in Paradise!

If you were to substitute “Brazilian” for the word “mother” (“To be a Brazilian is to cry when you are smiling! To be a Brazilian is to have the world when there’s nothing to have! To be a Brazilian is to suffer even in Paradise”), you would begin to appreciate the lengths the Brazilian people have gone to, and the degree of suffering they’ve had to endure, in forging a purposeful life for their families and loved ones in the midst of turmoil and defeat.

Be that as it may, I happen to disagree with Nelson’s viewpoint. I believe, as many of my family members do, that diversity brings us strength and unity of purpose. In my own case, and in the case of my wife, we are the product of multi-ethnicities, of cultures foreign (for the most part) to the Brazilian ethos, yet inextricably bound to it.

My background, as revealed to me recently, was surprising and unforeseen in that it overturned all previous expectations — something many Brazilians have grown accustomed to experiencing. I learned that I am predominantly of Iberian descent (i.e., Portuguese and Spanish), and, in descending order of importance, part Southern European (Italian and/or Greek), part British Isles, part Middle Eastern, part Scots-Irish-Welsh, part North African, and part European Jewish. Similarly, my wife is overwhelmingly Portuguese, over a third Spanish, and a good part French, with a significantly smaller percentage of Native North, South, and/or Central American heritage, along with minor Sardinian ancestry. Do these statistics make us “mongrels”? I suppose they do, but without the complexes, I assure you. If you asked me, I’d say the preferred description would be “citizens of the world.”

In a way, the discovery of our roots has helped me to reconcile a longstanding issue I once had to face as a youngster growing up in the South Bronx. So many individuals I encountered had expressed surprise and, indeed, outright astonishment at my having been born in Brazil.

“Oh, really?” they responded quizzically. “Funny, you don’t look Brazilian,” as if they had advance knowledge of what Brazilians looked like.

It happened that I hailed from the city of São Paulo, a region populated by immigrants with Western European, Middle Eastern, and Japanese affiliation. Judging by such iconic images as those of superstar Pelé and soccer player-turned-actor Breno Mello (Orfeu in the movie Black Orpheus), most folks took it for granted that Brazilians were all people of color, an understandable albeit misguided association. I grew up realizing that such misapprehensions about a person’s “looks” were commonplace in the sixties and seventies, although I had a hard time accepting them. Still, I struggled to overcome people’s ignorance of Brazilian culture and their seeming unawareness of Brazil as a place almost as large, and equally as diverse, as the continental United States, with events in both countries’ past that often paralleled one another’s history.

Orpheus Rising

The favelas, as represented at the Rio 2016 Olympics

In the meantime, Orpheus, the perfect surrogate for a battered Brazil (and a citizen of the ancient world), continues to ply his trade by singing his songs through the mouths of present-day Narcissuses. “The show must go on,” he cries, even if it doesn’t. The irreconcilable dichotomy between the passions of Orpheus with the rancor of a reverse Narcissus is troubling, to say the least, but closer to the truth of who Brazilians are and what Brazil has become. There is one thing we can all agree on: even in the face of the direst distress, Brazilians remain resilient.   

In spite of Brazil’s bittersweet trajectory and its perpetual tumbling toward the abyss, we must admit that the country has continued to evolve, though not in the way one would have expected. It is more apparent to me now that Brazil has been, and will forever be, the land of Carnival and samba. Orson Welles knew this. Vinicius and Jobim knew this, as well as Marcel Camus. Cacá Diegues and Caetano Veloso both knew this, as did Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, and many others. But the world has always known it.

In the make-believe cinema universe and in real life, the Brazilian favelas have forever been depicted as crime-ridden, drug-plagued infernos (unfairly, I might add). Carnival was similarly looked down upon when Welles tried to capture the event in his unfinished documentary It’s All True. His attempts at foisting the festivities down the throats of RKO executives were met with resistance and defeat. Inconceivably, at the time not even those Brazilians in power wanted anything to do with Carnival, especially if it focused on black people. With the 1959 release of Black Orpheus, the elevation of the slums and the film’s inauthentic depiction of Carnival were again rejected by Brazilians, but embraced by everyone else.

Poster for “Orfeu Negro” (“Black Orpheus”)

Yet, by some miracle of modern thought transference, and a combination of déjà vu with wish fulfillment, the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics brought Carnival and the favelas back into the national conversation. In defiance of the odds Orpheus rose once again to strike up his lyre, this time over a setting Brazilian sun. Kept front and center throughout the games, it appeared to television viewers, and to millions of Brazilians, that the country had accepted the image that had long been imposed on them so many decades before. Too, the ceremony’s creative directors had begun to embrace this once-reviled picture of Brazil (the country’s “true face,” come to pass). And appreciably, the music of the ceremony — the same music that issued forth from the slums of Rio de Janeiro — has become suggestive of the forgotten inhabitants who happen to live, work, and die there.

With the exception of the commotion that swirled around the Ryan Lochte episode, a meddlesome sideshow to the main event, Marvelous City Rio put on a model Olympics. And despite the staggering costs involved in the project, and the adverse publicity generated with the city’s concurrent (and mutually exclusive) relocation and pacification efforts, most observers, including a majority of its citizens, gave Rio 2016 an enthusiastic “thumbs up,” a traditional sign of approbation.

About a decade ago, in September 2010, in conjunction with a planned Broadway mounting of a new musical version of Black Orpheus, I had the esteemed privilege of speaking to Susana Moraes, Vinicius’ eldest daughter. We talked, among other things, about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, and how it differed substantially from the movie, Black Orpheus. She told me in model English (she also spoke fluent French) how much the movie had perturbed Vinicius when he saw it at the Presidential Palace in Rio. She sat alongside him at the time, and described to me the tears of hurt and anger that welled up in his eyes and down his cheeks at the stereotypical images of black Brazilians cavorting on the screen.

Susana Moraes (1940-2015), eldest daughter of Vinicius de Moraes (at right)

Over the years, Susana came to soften her outlook on the picture. For one, she regarded it as mostly nostalgic, part of that longing for a time that may never have existed in fact, but that still had a place in her memory and heart; for another, she acknowledged the huge influence Black Orpheus exuded on the world scene in bringing something of Brazil’s culture to the fore.

Looking back on that experience, Susana Moraes, an actress, filmmaker, and producer in her day, had finally come to grips with the movie’s power to enchant through sound, images, and song. Susana had accepted the notion that Black Orpheus had been idyllic in nature, if not grounded in reality. But more importantly, she had grown more mindful today of how the Brazil of 1959 (coincidentally, the year my family and I came to America) had been represented — i.e., as a country on the verge of greatness — than when the movie had first come out.

Coincidence or not, this author has reached a similar conclusion: that Brazilians, too, must accept the notion of what a twenty-first-century Brazil has always been — i.e., an “Orphean country,” in the perceptive, frequently quoted, and still applicable terms of poet-musician Caetano Veloso, “one that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music” — with moments of revulsion and regret whenever that vision ran counter to those terms. To these, and more, we plead nolo contendere.

In a paradoxical twist of fate, Brazil, in the past, has been touted as the country of the future. For today’s Brazilians, that future never seems to arrive. Prosperity appears to be just around the corner; you can almost touch it, squeeze it, even taste the riches that are within your grasp, yet it remains stubbornly out of reach, as it was for many artists and those “just plain folks.” One gets the impression the populace rather enjoys harking after a nostalgic past, with misgivings for the present mixed with unbounded expectations for the future — Tropicália turned inside out and on its head. If diversity in all matters can lead those inured to the country’s problems into the light of reason, may it be so.

What does the future hold for Brazil’s Fat Lady? My parting advice for her is this: Take heart, girl. The performance is over. It’s time to take stock of your accomplishments. Learn from your mistakes, especially from your glorious past. Revamp your repertoire, learn new roles; take on new challenges, then show them what you’ve got. Do something to address the problems of the present, and the future will take care of itself. But do make it a future worth striving for — a grateful nation will be at your feet. Ω

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part One)

Bidu Sayao (c.), with conductor Jean Morel to her left, and composer Heitor Villa-Lobos at far right, 1946

“I Got the Music in Me”

When I began the writing of my book Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova, my enthusiasm for opera and, if I may be all inclusive, for soccer, cinema, bossa nova, pop music, musical theater, and most matters related to Brazil was at its unassailable peak. With the passage of time (by my count, almost a decade and a half), the glow of that enthusiasm has dimmed in proportion to events as they continue to spiral out of control — both in Brazil and elsewhere.

If that is the case, well, then, so be it. To the extent these subjects have revealed themselves to be somewhat flawed, I remain convinced of their efficacy. I am not so naïve as to believe the institutions that have existed in Brazil, or that have endured throughout the world, have continued to function at top speed and full tilt. That these institutions have been influential in bolstering the production of opera and film, in maintaining the support of men’s and women’s soccer, in driving the investment in and promotion of new musical-theater material, and in contributing to the vitality of the popular song format cannot be denied.

On the other hand, there is no question that music, not soccer, is Brazil’s lifeblood. Yes, you read that right. Author, musicologist, and accomplished vocalist Vasco Mariz, in the Introduction to his book História da Música no Brasil (“The History of Music in Brazil”), made note of the fact that “the Brazilian people have always been musically inclined.” I have yet to encounter anyone who disputes that claim. Considered a participatory event, music is an expression of the public’s taste (or mood) at any given moment. It can manifest itself in any number of ways, most commonly in communal gatherings, rock concerts, soccer stadiums, church functions, birthday parties, after-school programs, wedding celebrations, and fêtes in the park; in street demonstrations and political rallies, in local and national news coverage, indeed wherever music may be found and heard.

Vasco Mariz, ‘Historia da Musica no Brasil” (“The History of Music in Brazil”)

Along similar lines, the genealogy of Brazil’s musical styles can serve as a blueprint for the country’s vaunted diversity: In the beginning, there was choro, and choro begat samba, which begat samba-canção; the combination of samba and samba-canção with cool-jazz begat bossa nova; and bossa nova begat Música Popular Brasileira (MPB). With Música Popular Brasileira and the influx of British Merseybeat, as well as American rock-n-roll, one can chart the next stage of development in the shorter-lived Tropicália movement — itself a compendium of the musical, artistic, literary, and audiovisual ideas re-imagined as a form of protest.

While bossa nova hit the world’s shores with the force of a typhoon, by comparison Tropicália was a mild ripple — except in its place of origin. But which genre has proven to be more resilient, both musically and artistically, or more challenging and inventive? For the Young Guard and the older generation of that era, Tropicália was everything and it was nothing; it came from everywhere and nowhere at once; it created and destroyed, constructed and deconstructed the country’s musical foundations. Transformative is another term used in connection to the genre’s impact.

In the same instant that Tropicália was commenting on the present, it paid homage to the past while hurtling toward an uncertain future. A typical aesthetic of Tropicália was its drawing from a rich variety of sources. Another was its use of “opposites” to disguise one’s true feelings from authorities who were forever policing what performers could or could not say or do in public.

To illustrate this point, when the tropicalistas sang “Alô, alô,” what they meant was “Goodbye, goodbye,” one of several methods employed for avoiding confrontation with the censors. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work to their advantage. For their efforts, they, along with like-minded individuals, were treated with either suppression, imprisonment, torture or exile — and often all four, even to their death.

Tropicalistas (Top row – from left to right: Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee, Gal Costa; bottom row – Os Mutantes Arnaldo Baptista and Sergio Dias Baptista)

All told, the most significant and intellectually stimulating of Brazil’s musical-poetic creations registered as a giant blip on the country’s radar, so radically disturbing it proved to the status quo.

Others have tried to define this typically Brazilian methodology of taking from multiple references to suit their artistic purposes. For instance, British rocker and former Police front-man, Sting, once proposed that “pop music should be a great mongrel,” wherein the ability to glean “from any source” and from any country’s musical traditions would result in a cornucopia of stylistic forms and elements — all of them perfectly suitable for public consumption.

This same thought process originated in Brazil decades before with Modernist poet, polemicist, playwright, and novelist José Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Cannibalist Manifesto,” where the term antropofagia, or anthropophagy (known by the more familiar expression “cannibalism”) was initially coined. Oswald de Andrade was speaking figuratively, of course, about the phenomenon of ingesting foreign cultures through their music, art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and so forth. What came out in the end evolved into something fresh and exhilarating, as well as distinctly and, to his eyes, unapologetically Brazilian.

Jose Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), author of the “Cannibalist Manifesto”

There are multiple examples of cultural cannibalism throughout Brazil’s history, about which I have touched upon in my work. There is the case of Carlos Gomes, a Brazilian opera composer who (first) went about in search of a theme, and (second) in search of an individual style to fit that theme. Another artist who flourished in the wake of Oswald de Andrade’s cannibalist theory was Carmen Miranda. What Carmen was forced to accept — or, rather, what Hollywood imposed upon her to admit — was what today is called “cultural appropriation,” defined as “the inappropriate use by a dominant culture of borrowing,” as it were, “from a subordinate culture.”

Significantly, for the first decade of her career — that is, prior to her coming to North America — Carmen achieved recognition in her field for performing sambas, marchas, marchinhas, samba-choro, samba-batuque, and similar styles. As in Sting’s example above, Carmen drew from a variety of sources to expand the range and content of her repertoire. She did not write her own songs, but rather had songwriters compose them for her. In Brazil, these songwriters offered their services willingly, knowing that Carmen would interpret their work to the best of her ability and talent.

Carmen Miranda in ‘The Gang’s All Here’ (1943)

By comparison, Carmen’s compatriot, soprano Bidu Sayão, took the opposite position in that she exuded a typically Westernized approach to such operatic staples as Manon, Susanna, Zerlina, Violetta, Mimì, Mélisande, Micaëla, and others, as befit the requirements of the time. As always, Bidu’s innate Brazilianness shone through in the way she carried herself on and off the stage, and the manner in which she led her later life away from it.

Separately from Carmen but contemporaneous with her and Bidu’s chief period of activity, composer Heitor Villa-Lobos thrived for a time as Brazil’s most voracious musical artist and nationalist educator, a “cannibal” in all but name only. His insatiable appetite for folk, street-wise, native Brazilian and non-native sources, in addition to the variety of styles he applied those sources to, was unequaled among his peers.

After Carmen, Villa, and Bidu, cultural cannibalism continued unabated and, we make note, unabashedly Brazilian, which supports Oswald de Andrade’s theory in action as well as in fact. It was carried over into the classic song output of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, which came about through the power of classical and jazz compositions, Greek mythology, Brazilian folklore, and various other sources, expanded upon at length in the preceding pages of my book.

And let’s not discount the contributions of Brazil’s musical and/or dramatic theater to the country’s artistic diversity. It has impressed me, to no end, how rich and fertile this overlooked facet of Brazilian culture has been; one that has witnessed a substantial growth pattern over the past five or more decades, thanks to the creativity and vision of Villa-Lobos, Chico Buarque, Paulo Pontes, Augusto Bial, Carlos Lyra, Gerald Thomas, Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho, and that ageless national treasure Bibi Ferreira.*

  • Just as this portion of the text was completed, the disheartening news was received that Bibi had passed away at age 96 on February 13, 2019, after suffering cardiac arrest. Much of her obituary in the Brazilian media was taken up with her 77 years as a performer, singer, actress, writer, director, and producer. One article described her having sat on Carmen Miranda’s knee, which must have taken place sometime in the 1930s. She also studied theater in London (thankfully, not during one of those infamous blitzkrieg bombings) during the early 1940s.

(End of Part One)

To be continued …..

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Flames Over Rio 2016 (Part Eight) — Conclusion: Living the Reality-TV Life

Painting of ‘The Fall of Icarus’ by Jacob Peter Gowy

One-Way Flight

Daedalus hit upon a bold scheme. While Icarus lounged lazily about the prison, Daedalus put himself to work on threading bird feathers together and binding them with wax. His plan was to fashion two pairs of wings, one for himself and one for his son, and escape through their prison’s window. From there, they would launch themselves from the island’s highest peak and fly away to freedom — a novel idea, but one that required patience and resolve.

When the wax had finally hardened, Daedalus explained to Icarus that they could wear their wings to freedom, but they had to steer clear of Apollo’s rays. “Follow me and do as I do. Do not go too near the sun or too close to the sea. Steer a middle course and our freedom will be assured.”

Icarus promised to obey. He followed his father’s advice to the letter, to a point. When the day finally came for them to flee, at dawn they jumped out of the window (there was no need for bars or guards, for there was no-where to run). Climbing the highest peak, Daedalus and Icarus took off and soared effortlessly above the island. They flew for many miles, staying as close to each other as possible.

Soon, the clouds began to part and a magnificently golden sphere appeared in the sky above. Icarus forgot everything his father had taught him and, feeling stronger than ever and free as an eagle after years of confinement, soared ever closer to disaster. On and on Icarus flew, paying little regard to his wings, whose wax binding began to melt away like lard from pig fat.

Distracted by the sights and sounds of gulls and terns, Daedalus looked to see if Icarus was beside him. Not seeing the boy, Daedalus cried out in alarm: “Icarus! Icarus! Where are you?” In desperation, he flew back to where his son had been, whereupon he spotted some loose feathers bobbing in the water. It was all that remained of the impetuous Icarus. Unaware of his surroundings, and caring not a whit for what his father had warned him about, young Icarus had plunged into the sea and perished.

The Truth and Nothing But the Truth

When the fatuousness of reality-TV life begins to dictate the course of one’s real-life experiences, you know you’re in big trouble. And, boy, did Ryan Lochte find himself in a heap of difficulties — up to his swimmer’s ears in them — when the truth of what occurred at that Rio de Janeiro filling station ultimately unfolded.

It did not trickle out in digestible dribs and drabs but rather gushed forth in continuous waves, a torrent of negative publicity and nonstop coverage that nearly drowned the eleven-time Olympic medal winner in a sea of recriminations.

“People wanted a reason to hate me,” Ryan griped to Allison Glock, a senior writer for ESPN Magazine, nearly a year from the time when the incident took place. “After Rio, I was probably the most hated person in the world. There were a couple of points where I was crying, thinking, ‘If I go to bed and never wake up, fine.’ I was about to hang up my entire life.” (You will excuse me for having to point out the obvious, but in this context Ryan’s poor choice of the words “hang up” may not have been ideal.)

Nevertheless, according to that same ESPN Magazine article (“Do You Really Still Hate Ryan Lochte?”), surveillance video from the scene in question revealed a different take on the matter as originally reported. The story went that Lochte and his swimming pals had asked the taxi driver to pull into the nearest filling station so they could make use of the station’s facilities. One report emphasized that there was no access to the men’s room; as an alternative, the drunken foursome urinated on the gas station’s walls, or, in ESPN’s account, they went about “[relieving] themselves in a filling station hedge.” In addition to which, his teammates later claimed to police that Lochte “also pulled a framed advertisement to the ground” and vandalized it.

To hear Lochte tell it, the filling station’s security guards arrived on the scene with guns drawn. The video, alluded to in Ms. Glock’s piece, “showed security guards demanding money in payment for the damage [the swimmers had caused] before letting them depart in their cab. The men paid [the money] and returned to the Olympic Village, where the incident would have been quickly forgotten had Lochte not exaggerated the retelling to his mom, who in turn shared with the media that her superstar son had been robbed at gunpoint.” Ryan repeated the allegations to the Today Show’s Billy Bush.

NBC’s Billy Bush (left) hearing Ryan Lochte’s description of the alleged ‘mugging’ in Rio

Incidentally, it was determined that the swimmers had paid $100 Brazilian reais (or approximately US $30) in damages and offered an additional US $20 to each of the security guards.

By Wednesday, August 17, when doubts began to surface over the initial robbery claims (which included an undisclosed altercation with one of the guards), the story started to unravel. By that time, Lochte had departed for the U.S., leaving his swimming buddies behind to wade, up to their necks, in the fallout.

Incensed by the objectionable nature of the allegations, the Brazilian police sought answers to their queries. They pulled Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger from their flight to face interrogation. Their passports were confiscated as well. The swimmers talked to police on Thursday, August 18, and, satisfied with what they had to say, were subsequently “whisked through airport security and [put] on a plane that night,” as reported by the Associated Press and corresponding news outlets. The fourth swimmer, Jimmy Feigen, followed them on Friday night, “but only after reaching a deal with a judge to make a US $10,800 payment,” a symbolic gesture intended as a charitable contribution.

“I definitely had too much to drink that night,” Ryan fessed up in a televised interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer that aired the following Saturday night, “and I was very intoxicated.” He admitted that paying for the damage was a way of “striking a deal” to avoid embarrassment over his “dumb behavior.” “We just wanted to get out of there,” Lochte persisted. “That’s why I’m taking full responsibility for it, because I over-exaggerated the story. If I had never done that, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

His late-in-the-game admission carried little weight with Rio’s humorless police officials, who charged the swimmer in late August 2016 with filing a false robbery report (punishable under Brazilian law by a maximum penalty of up to eighteen months in prison).

Action and Reaction

Brazilians’ reaction to the veracity (or not) of Ryan’s cause célèbre reflected a long-standing view that white-collar (or upper-class) crimes — the sort that involve public officials, TV and sports personalities, and/or the super-rich — are treated differently by the media than are blue-collar (or lower-class) crimes. Some Brazilians took the rolling disclosures in stride; many expressed dismay that four American athletes had been “mugged” on the mean streets of Rio, only to have lied about it in retrospect; while others sneered indignantly at the incident as typical of the favorable treatment accorded foreigners, as opposed to what their fellow citizens go through on a daily basis.

Brian Winter, Latin American expert at the Council of the Americas research center in Washington, D.C., in an interview with BBC Brazil, raised the issue that “in serious countries, you can’t lie to the police and get away with it.” Alternatively, columnist Nancy Armor of USA Today, while at first insisting that the “truthfulness of Lochte’s story was ‘irrelevant,’ ” took the Rio police to task “even after the swimmers [admitted] that they [had] lied and apologized … [The] Brazilian police missed the boat by treating the false report as a ‘capital offense.’ If only the police had cared as much about the evil done every day against their own citizens …” If only!

BBC News columnist Tim Vickery argued, too, that “real criminality” in Rio should be kept front and center. “It’s for this reason that exaggerated coverage of this subject is preferable to one that tends to minimize the dangers. The main victims of violence in Rio are its citizens. The rich are more likely to protect themselves in their closed condominiums and private living quarters. Those who suffer the most are everyday folks.”

“Here Come da Judge!”

A fascinating sidebar to the gas station goings-on came from the presiding magistrate involved in the proceedings, Judge Keyla Blank de Cnop, of the Juizado Especial do Torcedor e Grandes Eventos (Special Court of Fan Support and Major Events). Interviewed by Gerardo Lissardy for BBC World in Rio, Judge Keyla sensed that Lochte and his team members’ account of the “crime” did not hold up to scrutiny or to the logic of the situation.

Judge Keyla Blanc de Cnop

“I started reading about the case out of curiosity,” Judge Keyla posited. “The way Lochte described the mugger caught my eye. Because it seemed very similar to what American screenwriters think of South American thugs: a tall, strongly built, bearded man, hair cut in the military style. And I thought, ‘This is a long way from our street robber, who often has other physical characteristics.

“The (supposed) robberies also caught my attention because in Rio, if you are mugged, the first thing the bad guys want is your cell phone. And I figured, ‘American swimmers have nothing less than state-of-the-art iPhones. Why would the burglars take only the money?’ It’s not real; no one would ever take the money and leave the cell phone, the watch, expensive clothes.

“Comparing Lochte and the (swimmer) James Feigen’s statements, I realized there were other contradictions: one said that there was only one bandit, another that there were several bandits and only one carried a weapon. I called the prosecutor, we examined the case, and he said, ‘I agree with you, there’s something fishy here.’

“Another thing that caught my attention was the fact that three of [the swimmers] had been lying on the ground but that Lochte had refused [to do so] and the thug put a gun to his head. In Rio, if a bandit tells you to lie down, you lie down, because if you don’t obey, he’ll open fire. It’s no joke. So I said, ‘It’s not possible, no one refuses to comply with an order [to lie down] with a gun pointed at your head.”

Judge Keyla continued to poke holes in Lochte and his teammates’ arguments. “When I saw the images from the Olympic Village, I noticed that one of [the swimmers] was wearing white pants, which had no dirt stains. Anyone who lies down on the asphalt with white pants will leave a mark.” Apropos of these findings, Her Honor ordered that the two swimmers, Conger and Bentz, be detained and their passports confiscated until the matter was cleared up. “There was never a question of demanding their arrest, just the withholding of their passports to prevent them from leaving the country. Considering the level of the athletes in question, it was advisable to alert the Federal Police who have jurisdiction over foreigners departing for the airport.”

At that, the magistrate grew reflective. “Well, then, the government has invested heavily in the Olympics, in the areas near the Olympic parks, but the reality that is Rio de Janeiro is not unknown, and the violence is grave and serious. Do not kid yourself. That’s why [their description] sounded to me like a script out of a Hollywood movie.”

Judge Keyla Blank de Cnop summarized her case in the methodical and measured tone to be expected from a magistrate responsible for maintaining order in the midst of constant chaos. “Brazilian justice is firm, solid, serious, one of the pillars of the nation,” she insisted unequivocally, “and it’s for treating everyone equally that all this has taken place.” (Within the context of this account, this last assertion is surely debatable.)

“Seizing Olympic medalists’ passports is no easy matter,” Keyla concluded. “These are heroes, but an athlete who comes to another country to participate in the Olympics serves as an example to the world and cannot play around that way. They’re not in their home. They must be subject to the rules. I think [the swimmers] thought they were in a country where they could do anything they want, and that’s not so. They thought they could play around with our institutions, with the police. If it’s not so in the United States, why would it be like that here? Now people are going to think seriously before they come here and do something wrong.”

Let’s Face Facts         

When faced with having done something wrong, what would Ryan Lochte do? He would lie, of course, which initiated a brief period of “fake news” before the term had come into regular use. Instead of accepting the consequences of his or his teammates’ actions, Lochte weaseled out of the situation by concocting a fanciful yarn about a robbery that never took place.

Some say it was to protect one of their own from staying out past their curfew. Perhaps Ryan lacked the courage to tell his mom what a naughty boy he had been. Perhaps he found it impossible to distinguish fact from fantasy (or farce, in this case). Or perhaps his mind was clogged with too much to drink, as he later disclosed. Whatever his reasons were, Lochte got caught with his swimming trunks down. He had flown too close to the carioca sun and crashed into Guanabara Bay. He climbed the highest peak in Rio, only to fall flat on his face on one of those mosaic-laden streets.

Within days of his arrival in the U.S., Ryan had lost most of his sponsors (to include Speedo USA and Ralph Lauren cosmetics). He was suspended for ten months following the incident and had to forfeit US $100,000 in Olympic bonus money; as further punishment, he was banned from participation in the 2017 national and world championships.

Ban or no ban, on August 21 the Rio 2016 closing ceremony went on as scheduled without Lochte, or any of the other participants involved in the incident, in attendance. Acting as if one were still on a reality-TV show is no way for a talented athlete to go through life, particularly the sporting life. In that June 2017 ESPN Magazine article, sports writer Glock learned that Ryan wasn’t exactly enamored of the reality show experience (now she tells us!). “They had me drinking nonstop. Eight in the morning, a drink in my hand. I’m like, my liver is about to fail. And anything I said, [the producers would] say, ‘All right, let’s do this scene over, and Ryan, say it like this.’ ” Say it ain’t so!

On July 14, 2017, a Brazilian Appellate Court dismissed the criminal case against him, concluding that Lochte had not broken the law in exaggerating the details of the filling station incident. The Appeals Court had reversed the original decision on a technicality, ruling that the law was not broken because the police in Rio had initiated the investigation, not Lochte. Since he wasn’t the one who reported the alleged crime, no harm had been done (except to someone’s self-worth). Whatever Lochte had said in those NBC interviews with Billy Bush and Matt Lauer did not constitute, in their eyes, a false report. Additionally, USA Today insisted they found no evidence of vandalism, as suspected by the police, with the exception of the poster being thrown to the ground.

“You learn from your mistakes,” Ryan Lochte divulged to Allison Glock. “Am I going to be perfect? No.”

Perfection, like nirvana, is an ideal, not a fact. To work toward perfection, to strive for it, to achieve it, is the goal of every Olympic athlete, be they American, Brazilian, or what have you. However you may look at it, Lochte’s so-called “crime” was committed not to the Brazilian people but to himself.

To compensate for the offense and his admittedly “dumb behavior,” on August 20, 2016, the day before the closing ceremony, Lochte taped (in Manhattan) a rambling and mildly impecunious interview with TV-Globo’s New York correspondent Felipe Santana. It was part of a purported “apology tour” and broadcast simultaneously in Brazil, on the nightly news program Jornal Nacional, and, in a separate interview, in the U.S. with Matt Lauer on NBC.

Matt Lauer (L.) interviewing Ryan Lochte on NBC-TV

“That was my fault. Brazil doesn’t deserve that. You guys put on [an] amazing Olympics. Everyone in Brazil, the people, the fans, everyone that put on the Brazil Olympics, it was amazing and you guys didn’t deserve that kind of publicity. And it was my immaturity that caused that. And that’s why I’m saying, that’s why I’m really sorry about that. It was my fault and I take full responsibility for it. I just want the people of Brazil to know how truly sorry I am, because I’m embarrassed, I’m embarrassed for myself, for my family, for my country. It was … I was highly intoxicated[1] … I’m human, I made a mistake, and one thing I did learn from it, that this will never happen again.”

Apology accepted.

Dance to the Music

On September 13, 2016, not a month after Rio 2016 had wrapped up and the Olympic flame had been doused, Ryan Lochte found himself mired in another controversy as a contestant on the popular ABC-TV program Dancing With the Stars, the hallowed platform for has-beens and makeover artists.

Seeking to repair his tarnished Olympian image, Ryan and his dance partner, Cheryl Burke, started the competition off with a foxtrot. Just as the pair was receiving talent judge Carrie Ann Inaba’s verdict, two intruders rushed up to the stage in protest over Lochte’s appearance. They each wore T-shirts emblazoned with a red circle and a slash across the swimmer’s name. One of the protesters shouted out that Ryan was “a liar.”

Host Tom Bergeron, Ryan Lochte and his partner, Cheryl Burke, on ‘Dancing With the Stars’

None of the ensuing brouhaha was broadcast to viewers, since the TV station had gone to a commercial break. However, cameras captured the incident whereby one of the protesters was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by security. When the show returned from the break, Dancing With the Stars host Tom Bergeron addressed the incident indirectly. He thanked the security team for their quick action and asked Lochte how he was feeling.

“I’m a little hurt,” Ryan responded. “You know, at that moment, I was really heartbroken. My heart just sunk. It felt like somebody just ripped it apart. I had to brush it off … I came out here in front of millions. I did something that I did not know how to do — I don’t know how to dance. And I gave it my all and I’m glad I did it and I’m glad I’m here.”

Instead of a foxtrot, it would have been instructive for audiences to learn if Lochte could master the samba as well as he handled the freestyle.

In our opinion, the opportunity of a lifetime had been squandered. What BBC Worldwide Productions, the company that produced Dancing With the Stars, could have done instead was to pair Ryan Lochte off with another Olympic disrupter, the defrocked Irish priest Cornelius “Neil” Horan, the man who threw Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima off his course in Athens 2004. Together, Horan and Lochte could have wowed North American TV viewers with an Irish jig or two. What a striking couple they would have made.

Normally, the moral to this drawn-out Olympic story would be: “Honesty is the best policy.” As for myself, I’d prefer a more aptly worded one: “Birds of a feather flock and dance together.”

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

[1] A year and three months later, Lochte announced that he was seeking treatment for a “destructive pattern” of alcohol abuse, something that had been going on for years, in accordance with his attorney, Jeff Ostrow’s October 8, 2018 press release.