The cover of the most recently published biography of Orson Welles (titled Volume Two: Hello Americans by British actor-author Simon Callow) boasts a remarkable black-and-white photograph of the late, great media personality at the height of his fame and notoriety.
Sporting an immaculately tailored white-linen suit, he is seen buttoned to the neck in traditional 1940s man-about-town fashion. In one hand, he carries a drink — most probably cachaça, which Welles developed a deliberate taste for while carousing around the foothills of Rio de Janeiro; in the other, a lighted cigar. His face is bloated, the eyes mere slits, the cheeks puffy and swollen (in Callow’s estimation, he resembles “a fat, mischievous, rather ugly youth”). He looks astonishingly like one of his own later film creations, the corrupt police inspector Hank Quinlan, from his self-directed 1958 flick Touch of Evil — the one where lantern-jawed lead Charlton Heston plays a Mexican, and co-star Janet Leigh his platinum-blonde wife.
There is no date attached to it, but we can reasonably assume that, since the book covers the incidents in his life from the years 1941 through 1947, the portrait must have been taken sometime during Welles’ ill-fated Brazilian campaign of February 1942.
What is most pertinent for us here are the two native starlets pictured with him, both made up to look like baianas and holding on to the American celebrity’s arms for dear life: on his right is singer-comedienne Ademilde Fonseca; and on his left a young and cheery Elizete Cardoso (her first name is sometimes written as “Elizeth,” with various combinations in between). Already a well-known voice on radio and in the glitzy dance palaces of the storied big-band era in Brazil, the powerhouse carioca cantora (“Rio-born singer”) epitomized an older, more impassioned way of singing that would, by the very sound of things, make her an unlikely choice for international pop-music stardom in the youth-oriented culture of the 1960s.
One could be faulted, therefore, for having made such an erroneous connection. For all we know, Orson might well have been handing off the as-yet-to-be-invented title of the future “Muse of Bossa Nova” to Elizete herself. (And why not? Before being branded persona non grata in Hollywood, our honorary Brazilian citizen Welles had the run of the show in Rio and, for a brief period, an entire movie studio as well — “the best electric train set a boy ever had,” he was once quoted as saying.)
How wrong we were to have thought this. Historically speaking, the honor of “Muse of Bossa Nova” belonged to that of a green-eyed belle named Nara Leão, born in the same year as — and a few weeks short of — Welles’ momentous trip to her home country. And who, during the latter part of the fifties and into the early sixties, had welcomed the burgeoning bossa nova community of artists into her parent’s Copacabana apartment, which went on to become a haven for many of the movement’s key players.
Sadly for her fans, A Musa Nara was to pass on into pop legend much too early in life, in June 1989 (the cause of death was attributed to an inoperable brain tumor). Less than a year later, Elizete would likewise follow suit. Most modern-day moviegoers, Brazilian or otherwise, probably have no idea who either performer was; but if they had ever caught Marcel Camus’ 1959 co-production of Black Orpheus during its prime they would undoubtedly have heard Cardoso loud and clear on the soundtrack.
She provided the vocals for novice movie-actress Marpessa Dawn (who did not speak a word of Portuguese, but just happened to have been married to the film’s director) as Eurídice, with another relative newcomer, the singer Agostinho dos Santos, doing the same for Brazilian soccer player Breno Mello as the titular hero. Disappointingly, both her and Agostinho’s film labors went uncredited.
Her biggest claim to fame, such as it was, occurred some time later — around the year 1974, to be precise — with the release of the touching “Carta ao Tom” (“Letter to Tom”), a tender-enough ode penned by O Poetinha (“The Little Poet”), Vinicius de Moraes, with one of his later collaborators, performer-guitarist Toquinho (Antonio Pecci Filho). An evocative dedication — particularly in the superb rendition spotlighting the harmonious sister act, Quarteto Em Cy (The Girls From Bahia) — to Vinicius’ long-running relationship with composer-songwriter Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim, it recalled, most nostalgically, the mutual joy they each shared at Jobim’s old Ipanema hangout on Nascimento Silva Street, where his pedagogical skills were put to the test in teaching the veteran Elizete the words to the first of the pair’s many breakthrough bossa-nova hits:
Rua Nascimento Silva 107
Você ensinando pra Elizete
As canções de canção do amor demais
Lembra que tempo feliz
Ai, que saudade…
Ipanema era só felicidade
Nascimento Silva Street, No. 107,
You, teaching to Elizete
The songs to the song of excessive love
Remember those happy times?
Ah, what memories…
Ipanema was happiness incarnate
For a fleeting instant, it looked, for all the world, as if The Little Poet had transformed an over-the-hill Brazilian pop diva into that proverbial “Muse” her followers had been hoping for all along. Of course, it was all wishful thinking on their part. What was to Elizete’s benefit, it turned out, was the long-delayed credit given her for having recorded Canção do Amor Demais, or “Song of Excessive Love,” in early 1958. The album featured thirteen lucky tracks of seminal Jobim-Moraes compositions, including the now classic “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”).
Accompanying her on this and on one other number, “Outra vez” (“Once Again”), and injecting a syncopated breath of fresh air into the proceedings, was the most pugnacious fussbudget of a performer ever to grace a stage platform (and walk off of one, too): the twenty-six-year-old, Bahian-born João Gilberto do Prado Pereira de Oliveira, known in the music business as João Gilberto, from the sleepy provincial town of Juazeiro.
Right off the bat, the peeves and peculiarities that the perpetually off-putting Joãozinho (“Little Johnny”) became famous for later on were on ample display in this, his maiden studio outing with the more practiced Elizete, who continuously balked at his bold entreaties to pare down her pear-shaped tones while staying behind that radical guitar beat of his.
No More Blues? Man, You Got That Wrong!
Elizete Cardoso’s flagrant disregard for his unsolicited advice did not deter Joãozinho from putting his own spin to “Chega de Saudade,” laid down by him as a 78-rpm single in July of that year and subsequently issued on Odeon Records — with the unseen hand of its arranger, O Mestre Tom Jobim, having moved heaven and earth to accommodate the incredibly demanding singer-guitarist. What normally would have been a straightforward, two-to-three-hour recording session dragged on interminably beyond all practical limitations.
In spite of his well-earned reputation as an obsessive, nitpicking perfectionist, the fastidious and reclusive Joãozinho took full charge of the infant bossa-nova idiom from the start with his unrivaled ability to pull the vocal line every which way. “Bossa nova overwhelmed us,” offered fellow Bahian and devout apologist, Caetano Veloso, by way of elaboration. “What João Gilberto proposed was a deeply penetrating and highly personal interpretation of the spirit of samba.”
Picking up on this thread, writer Jeff Kaliss, in “Bossa Nova: Music of Modern Love,” a contemplative piece he submitted for the architectural-design magazine CA-Modern, made the argument that Joãozinho had sought “an inner vision” for himself, “a percussive, plangent style that would become the envy of all guitarists… this style bore the swing of samba, but made samba’s elements sound sweetly from a single instrument, with ‘altered’ chords that evoked both African folk music and the sophistication of [American] jazz.” Added columnist and music critic Daniella Thompson, the voice went “in one direction, the beat in another.”
Jobim expressed it best, however, when he reached the self-evident conclusion that “It was the rhythm, the swing. It was João Gilberto with his guitar, the beat of bossa nova.” There are some noteworthy examples of his quirky style in existence. In a comparison of two versions of “Chega de Saudade,” recorded more than forty years apart — the first, from his aforementioned 1958 single, which surrounds him with a swirl of syrupy strings; the second, from a Grammy-winning 2000 release João, Voz e Violão (“John, Voice and Guitar”), on an imported Verve CD and produced by Caetano himself — the voice has noticeably aged, but, like the finest wines, it has settled into a mellow companion-piece to his vintage guitar-work.
Still recognizable despite the passage of time, Joãozinho has lost much of his former sweetness and bloom. Miraculously, what he’s managed to preserve is that singularly individual timbre and precise enunciation of the Portuguese text — his charming Northeastern accent still mercifully intact — along with perfect pitch and a complete oneness with the composer’s musical ideas, all of them absolute prerequisites for putting the song’s tongue-twisting imagery across to succeeding generations of listeners.
This is what set an artist of João Gilberto’s exalted caliber apart from the majority of his contemporaries: that offbeat, off-kilter vocal style All Music Guide contributor Terri Hinte reverently referred to as his “fine muttering form” — an intense, vibrato-less delivery that made him sound as if he were intimately engaged in a one-sided conversation “with somebody in his breast pocket.” That’s the most convincing summation of his art as any I’ve ever read.
It’s no small wonder Elizete lost patience with the man, as did so many others that came after her. As for the tune that thrust Joãozinho into the probing eye of the microscope, it was just the beginning of a mass awakening, what Caetano Veloso ultimately attributed to Verdade Tropical (“Tropical Truth”): a lyrical introduction to the potentially revolutionary force that popular music was to exert on South America’s largest song market; and during a transitional period the Dylanesque singer-songwriter had devoted a good deal of thought to in his writing of the tell-all book of the same name, aptly subtitled A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil:
“I saw in ‘Chega de Saudade’ the manifesto and the masterpiece of a movement: the mother ship. A samba with some traces of choro, immensely rich in melodic motifs, with a flavor so Brazilian it could be a recording…from the thirties, ‘Chega de Saudade’ managed to be a modern song while having enough harmonic and rhythmic daring to attract any bop or cool-jazz musician. On the other hand, the title and lyrics suggested a rejection/reinvention of saudade, that word so prevalent in and emblematic of our experience and our language. A lush composition full of uncommon commonplaces… this song was a generous example of everything Tom, João, Vinicius, and others wanted to offer, containing all the elements that were elsewhere scattered. It was the prime mover of bossa nova, the map, the itinerary, the constitution.”
On that basis, and on the magic he was able to capture on the stage and recreate in the recording studio, João Gilberto was promoted forthwith into the swelling ranks of self-appointed music ambassadors, as the third and final ingredient in the formula that popularized bossa nova in their native land — and to a waiting world.
Their defining moment came, interestingly enough, not in Rio de Janeiro but during a nondescript Manhattan recital — the brainchild of record owner and producer Sidney Frey — held in the island borough’s famed Carnegie Hall auditorium. Hosted by jazz critic and political activist Leonard Feather and billed as an evening of “New Brazilian Jazz,” it took the unsuspecting nation by storm on a wet and subfreezing late-November night in 1962.
Not all the next day’s reviews were kind to them, however; in fact, most were positively frigid, much like the wintry weather itself. That did not impede the performers from warming up to the expectant crowd that had gathered there to hear real music-history in the making. Among the legendary participants were the then-unknown trio of João, Jobim, and Bonfá — all three of who stayed on in the city to eventually record, with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, the groundbreaking Jazz Samba Encore! and Getz/Gilberto albums for Verve — in addition to Agostinho dos Santos, Oscar Castro-Neves, Sérgio Mendes, Milton Banana, Carlos Lyra, Roberto Menescal, and Chico Feitosa.
Prominent by his absence was our friendly neighborhood songwriter, the reluctant Little Poet and vice-consul Vinicius de Moraes. Invited to attend but still miffed at the U.S. for its handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis of the previous October, the avowed Communist sympathizer made the startlingly controversial move to sit the event out. For a ranking member of Brazil’s diplomatic corps, he was anything but that when it came to his private impulses and pet idiosyncrasies. Once again, politics and poor personal choices — however explosive the combination may have seemed — easily trumped fortune and recognition in the jazz-pop field for the increasingly independent-minded, “left-wing hedonist.”
Knowing the poet as we do, he could not have cared a whit for what others had to say about his far-flung ideals. The likelihood, then, that his liberated lifestyle had interfered with his becoming a household name in America (in the slightly more tolerable Jobim mold, perhaps) is unusually high. Besides, the time for him to have profited from his previous stay there had long since outlived its usefulness.
In 1969, after years of putting up with his errant ways, Vinicius was ignominiously dropped from the Brazilian Foreign Service. Paradoxically, after the surprise success of the historic Carnegie Hall concert — and after the musical genre was well on its way to conquering audiences in the United States and abroad — the 1964 military takeover in Brazil put a halt to the optimism and exhilaration that had propelled bossa nova’s inexorable upward climb in the charts after nearly a decade of steady growth and expansion on its home soil.
Protest songs operating under the guise of pop-rock anthems, in addition to the ubiquitous Música Popular Brasileira and the even shorter-lived Tropicália movements, were becoming all the rage vide the eyebrow-raising endeavors of the young and restless Edu Lobo (“Arrastão” – “A Huge Drag,” introduced on national television by the future queen of pop, Elis Regina, with lyrics by O Poetinha himself), Jair Rodrigues (“Disparada” – “Stampede”), Chico Buarque (“A banda”), Caetano Veloso (“Alegria, alegria” and “É Proibido Proibir” – “Prohibiting is Prohibited”), Gilberto Gil (“Domingo no Parque” – “Sunday in the Park”), Geraldo Vandré (“Caminhando” – “Walking”), and a host of influential others.
Even the former “Muse” herself, Nara Leão, got into the thick of things by tossing out — at least, in theory — bossa nova’s pervasively romantic appeal in favor of themes with more relevant social content. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life singing ‘The Girl from Ipanema,’ ” she dissented, “much less sing it in English. I want to be understood, I want to be a singer of the people.”
It was just as well, since many of the stellar attractions previously associated with the seductive easy-listening format had, by then, left sunshine-happy Rio for points due north and west — in short, a bit further north (as in the Big Apple) and a lot farther west (as in the City of Angels) than any of them had ever dreamed of or imagined.
The resultant “brain drain” of entertainers was felt across the board in fun-loving, music-making Brazil. But unlike many seemingly insurmountable obstacles found there, the gap was soon filled by the above-named avalanche of talent, to most everyone’s favor and delight — everyone, that is, except the newly-installed ruling military body, which did not take kindly to the barely-concealed bashing it was receiving in the electronic media and elsewhere.
Calling to mind Newton’s Third Law of Motion (from which I quote: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”), the changes to the country’s musical landscape were a direct result of the disruptions caused along its political and economic frontier, which were scarcely to anyone’s favor or delight. As we soon learned, this was an exceptionally dangerous game Brazilian artists had been playing at, one that was sure to backfire on them in the days and months to come.
By that measure, saudade, an ever-present “longing” or “regret” for the good times that had come before; for idling by a sandy strip of Ipanema shoreline, with a beer in one hand and a “tall and tan and young and lovely” girl on the other; for those feelings of nostalgia that bossa nova once engendered in the trouble-free youth of the period, was manifestly all that was left once the crackdown of dissidents (the so-called “revolution within a revolution” of 1968) had begun, with a rebellious Caetano, Gil & Company placed at the head of the troublesome class.
Brazil, that exotic Amazon outpost overflowing with musical milk and honey, was still a long way off from steering a middle course between the rigid, hard-line of repression (which, regretfully, only got worse over time) and a more flexible form of self-governance. Φ
(End of Part Two)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
Usually around the close of an old year or near the beginning of the new, top ten lists are eagerly drawn up by writers and reviewers alike (let’s not forget us bloggers, please) detailing everything from the best of this or that blockbuster movie to the worst of this or that ludicrous fashion statement.
The pop-record business is no stranger to these hypothetical stocking stuffers, which may or may not include the old “desert island” gambit, i.e., which song or artist would you take with you if you happen to find yourself stranded on a desert island?
But instead of pushing my own laundry list of items onto the standard format, I’d like to offer a variant to this popular theme: the top ten (or more) songs, over the course of the last 20 years or so, to have reflected the pervasive influence of the classic bossa nova sound in their makeup or design.
To make it even more enticing, my list discounts the contributions of native-born Brazilians, and it arrives not at the end of the calendar year but somewhere in the middle of it — further evidence of its going against the commonly accepted grain.
My biggest problem with these sorts of surveys, however, is what everyone else finds wrong with them: where exactly does one begin, and with whom? Would the list need to be in chronological order by year or alphabetically by song title? Are the songs connected to a specific topic or theme, or just random selections with no discernible pattern or trend?
As you may have probably guessed, there’s an ulterior motive to this sonic exercise: since we already know what Brazilian bossa nova has done for American jazz (and if you don’t, then check out my earlier essay, “Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil”), what, if anything, did the genre do for popular music in general? This is the real meat of the matter. With that in mind, and in no particular order, here they are:
1. “Caramel” (Suzanne Vega). Let me start with someone I know to be on most every knowledgeable music fan’s wish list, and that is Greenwich Village coffeehouse favorite Suzanne Vega. I saw her a grand total of twice in my life: the first was in the late 1990s, in Brazil, where she made a guest appearance on Serginho Groisman’s teen talk show on TV Cultura; the second a few years ago, in the U.S., on the Sunday-morning television program Breakfast With the Arts.
On both occasions she sang her 1987 signature tune, “Luka,” about a boy confronting parental child abuse. But the song that genuinely stood out from the pack was “Caramel,” a wonderfully laid-back vignette from her 1996 album Nine Objects of Desire (A&M). It has a solid and respectable bossa nova beat (“It won’t do / to dream of caramel / to think of cinnamon / and long for you”), with an equally fine, syncopated guitar accompaniment — not the kind of thing one associates with an American pop song of the period, but not so rare as to be totally off-base. Factor in Vega’s hushed and reflective tone, and a modern-day classic was born.
Even still, I knew I had heard that melancholic turn of phrase before. Sure enough, after having wracked my brain silly for weeks on end, I came up with the answer: that same wistful undercurrent of nostalgia, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, must surely have come from the work of the underrated Rio-born composer Roberto Baden Powell de Aquino, known universally as Baden Powell.
Simply put, it was called “Valsa sem nome” (“Waltz Without a Name”), a song that appeared in the same year as another of his classic renderings, “Berimbau,” and was co-written, in 1964, with Vinicius de Moraes, one of the many afro-sambas they turned out together. Incidentally, “Valsa sem nome” can be heard in its original form on Powell’s 1988 Seresta Brasileira (“Brazilian Serenade”) CD, released in this country on the Milestone/Fantasy label. How’s that for a Brazilian connection?
2. “Each and Every One” and “I Must Confess” (Everything But the Girl). The next items are from the British pop duo Everything But the Girl, headed by none other than (what else?) a girl, the steamy songbird Tracey Thorn, and her multi-talented partner Ben Watt, more or less jazz-lite contemporaries of the better-known brand of vocalism practiced by Nigerian-born Sade and her Grammy Award-winning group.
Their entry, the single “Each and Every One,” from 1984’s eponymous Everything But the Girl (Blanco y Negro/Sire), the U.S. version of their UK debut album Eden, is a stylish second choice for alluring pop vocals of the sixties-era kind, that also became hot with the English after-dinner crowd — an upbeat, up-tempo musical tonic blessed with that unmistakable touch of samba.
Mysteriously, the song that was most clearly defined by its obvious bossa roots, “I Must Confess (I Agree),” found on the original Eden and a choice example of a Brazilian-style throwback to the softer-and-gentler side of Brit pop, was absent from its North American retread, a perplexing bit of mindless juggling by the label and a major letdown for fans.
3. “Smooth Operator” (Sade). Sensing an opportunity brewing, the doe-eyed Sade (née Helen Folasade Adu) was clever enough to take up the slack in the music charts, subsequently steamrolling her way past the competition during the latter half of the eighties and early nineties with her perfunctory vocal style and smoke-gets-in-your-eyes delivery.
She earns a space on the shelves of smooth-jazz collectors, and on my list, for her infectious chart-buster (“No need to ask”), the knockout number “Smooth Operator,” from her smash debut album Diamond Life (CBS Portrait/Sony, 1984), alongside such showstoppers as “Your Love is King” and “Hang On to Your Love.”
In a similar vein, there’s Promise from 1985 (CBS Portrait/Sony), featuring the serpentine-like “The Sweetest Taboo,” a cut that solidified her hold on Latin-music lovers and other romantics.
Though her voice is closer to the cool side of jazz-pop than to straight-up bossa nova (“Ice Queen” is the term most associated with her persona), the former model-turned-pop diva was inspired by no less than Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, with a smattering of Astrud Gilberto’s breathless naiveté thrown in for good measure. It’s a style that even Suzanne Vega has cultivated, to an extent, on some of her recorded masterworks — not bad for non-natives.
4. “Breakout” (Swing Out Sister) and 5. “Astrud” (Basia). Two other European-based artists, the Manchester, UK trio Swing Out Sister and the Polish songstress Basia (real name: Basia Trzetrzelewska — please don’t ask me how to pronounce it), have been co-equal contributors to the ever-widening Brazilian-music sweepstakes, and share the Number Four spot with their similar stylistic leanings.
The first group out of the gate, Swing Out Sister, comprised of lead singer Corinne Drewery, keyboardist Andy Connell, and drummer Martin Jackson, gained some semblance of notoriety (mostly in Europe and Japan) with their energetic hit single “Breakout,” a horn-heavy, synth-laden production that was also featured on their debut album It’s Better to Travel from 1987 (Mercury/PolyGram).
While both bands were rushing headlong toward the winner’s circle, the sophisticated chanteuse from Silesia grabs the top trophy overall for her fabulous Time and Tide outing on Epic (1987), an enterprising first-try at a promising solo career.
Several of the album’s cuts are worthy of honorable mention, including the effervescent title track, the highly refined “New Day for You,” and, of course, the marvelously catchy “Astrud,” her lyrical tribute to the Ipanema girl herself (“Nobody knows where she came from / The tall-and-tanned-young-and-lovely girl / With a voice as light as air”), a priceless recorded gem by any reasonable definition of the term.
6. “Third Time Lucky” (Basia). Basia and her musical cohort, producer Danny White, both formerly of the British group Matt Bianco, assembled an even more tantalizing assortment of Brazilian-inflected musical brush-strokes with their third effort, The Sweetest Illusion (Epic, 1994), in particular the fast-paced “Third Time Lucky,” with its Carnivalesque samba-driven sensibilities, and on the melting pop ballad, “Perfect Mother.”
This is Basia at her cocktail-hour best, and the place to start, really, if you want to hear what a foreign-born performer with taste can do with Brazil’s highly exportable pop material. Too bad impatient listeners in the U.S. weren’t lining up to buy it, due likely to the change in musical values after the late 1990s — a fate shared by many veteran vocalists, including Michael Franks and Al Jarreau — leading to diminished airplay for her type of “adult contemporary” music ventures.
My own theory behind this lies with Basia’s English enunciation, or the lack of it: it’s fairly incomprehensible without the printed text. Add to this her soulless rendition of Aretha Franklin covers, and one can only imagine how American reviewers must have reacted to her (not too well, I’m told). She still maintains a fine European presence, where the Brits are not as troubled by her accent as we Yanks appear to be.
7. “It’s Probably Me” and “Fragile” (Sting). And speaking of Brits, even the Demolition Man himself, that sturdy-old standby Mr. Gordon Sumner, a.k.a. Sting, got into the act with “It’s Probably Me,” taken from the soundtrack to the Mel Gibson-Danny Glover action vehicle Lethal Weapon III, released in 1992, and boasting the invaluable assistance of rock legend Eric Clapton, on guitar, and jazz-pop staple David Sanborn, on sax.
It resurfaced a year later, with a totally redone rhythm arrangement, on Sting’s excellent Ten Summoner’s Tales (A&M) and joins an earlier achievement, available on …Nothing Like the Sun (A&M, 1987) — the achingly beautiful “Fragile” (“On and on the rain will fall / Like tears from a star / On and on the rain will say / How fragile we are”) — as his two most consistent forays into this area.
Mixing sincere concerns for the environment with a lovely guitar-arpeggio interlude, “Fragile” is the one to get, and his finest all-around effort to date, as it all-but incorporates the basic bossa formula we’ve been hinting at throughout. There’s also a version for the South American market, sung in excruciatingly bad Portuguese, on the otherwise all-Spanish-language Nada Como el Sol…, from 1988 (A&M).
From there Sting wandered perilously close to “lounge lizard” territory, most of all with his below par Mercury Falling (A&M, 1996), a dreary recorded affair whose few highlights do not include the risible “La Belle Dame Sans Regrets,” sung en français, naturellement, and patterned after the exemplary oeuvre of the late Tom Jobim.
“Regret” is the right word for it, all right, as he has yet to fully recover from that misguided conception. Let’s hope his reunion concerts with ex-Police band-mates Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers repaired the damage done to his musical integrity, enough to turn things around for the eclectic songsmith (they have!). He’s worth the investment.
8. “Thank You” (Dido). We now come to my favorite piece — and one of the unrivaled peaks of the present-day, bossa nova-style revival: 1999’s surprise hit “Thank You,” from the album No Angel on Arista, by British singer-songwriter Dido (born Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle Armstrong).
The song took its time to assert itself initially, but following a brief warm-up period, wherein rapster Eminem sampled a portion of it on his own single, “Stan,” it reemerged in 2001 as a runaway Top Five mega-success, revealing the aptly named Dido to be a first-rate, triple-A, unadulterated pop queen of the front ranks.
Indeed, most of No Angel stays within the expected pop-music confines, with the notable exception of “Thank You,” which wafts in, of its own accord, on a refreshing ocean current. It stirs the mind and the heart (as well as the feet) with its introductory bongo taps, and, to alert fans of Brazilian samba, a neat electronic backing of an instrument called the cuíca (similar in appearance to a drum, but designed to produce a kind of squeaking or “groaning” noise).
There’s Dido’s poetic phrasing to drool over (“My tea’s gone cold, I’m wondering why / I got out of bed at all / The morning rain clouds up my window / and I can’t see at all”), in addition to her deliciously inviting timbre and sensuous air of assurance.
I must have played this one number a dozen times over in one sitting alone, so enthralled I was with its buoyancy and charm (and with Dido’s vocal resemblance to Sade). It never fails to put a smile on my face every time I listen to it, and it’ll do the same for you — thank you, Dido! The only blemish, really, is the overly loud, programmed drum kit (courtesy of older brother Rollo) that panders too easily to the dubious tastes of the hip-hop generation.
9. “Believe in Life” (Eric Clapton). From the cream of the crop to the bottom of the barrel, that’s what we get with Eric Clapton’s “Believe in Life,” his one (and hopefully only) attempt at a bossa nova connection. But the only connection purchasers need make after having acquired this CD non-entity is with the Returns Department on eBay.
The song is found on his ponderously titled Reptile (Reprise, 2001) — and yes, friends, the party’s definitely over with this bargain basement, pseudo-Brazilian atrocity, as faux a piece of work as any I’ve heard from the bluesman from Ripley. I’m still scratching my head over its banality and blandness next to the topnotch quality of Clapton’s previous output (“Wonderful Tonight,” “Tears in Heaven,” “Change the World”).
Possessed of the most uninspired lyrics he’s ever had the misfortune to dig up (“And when the day is almost done / And there is nothing left to say / You will let me call your name / ‘Cause I love you more than light”), the less I say about “Believe in Life,” the better.
And talk about a lounge lizard’s delight, this Reptile runs both hot and cold (mostly cold) and is, musically, all over the map. My advice would be to look elsewhere for your pop thrills.
10. “Come Away With Me” and “Sunrise” (Norah Jones). Just when you thought it was safe to throw out that old compact disc player of yours — especially after repeated hearings of Number Nine above — along comes a talented young artist, of the exalted caliber of Ms. Norah Jones, to lift the spirits and soothe the soul with her much-needed conviction that modern-day pop music is thriving in Lotus Land.
Jones, the daughter of sitar master Ravi Shankar, along with her crack backup band, received six Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist, for her triumphant Come Away With Me on Blue Note (2002).
On this, her premier set of songs, and on the atmospheric title tune, she is miles ahead of her nearest recorded rival, jazz-pop darling Diana Krall (see her recent Quiet Nights on Verve), whose sleepy-eyed readings and mushy diction are a chore to get through. Not so with Norah: she’s completely natural and unaffected throughout, and a sheer joy to listen to.
Even better is her 2004 follow-up, Feels Like Home (Blue Note), with its bouncy opening number, “Sunrise” (“Sunrise, sunrise / Looks like mornin’ in your eyes / But the clocks held 9:15 for hours”) — the colorful and surreal video’s not too bad, either. It holds the attention span, as well as the Number Ten position, thus bringing my “top-ten” best-of list (now a baker’s dozen) to a close.
I know what you’re thinking: that neither “Come Away With Me” nor “Sunrise” is, strictly speaking, legit bossa nova. I concede they’re a bit of a stretch, but bear with me for a moment, as you listen to that sure beat and toe-tapping rhythm, and especially to that irresistible voice and its allure.
Norah Jones is the real deal, all right, and the best we have in this repertoire right now. Despite certain tonal similarities to Dido and to Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachan (with a hint or two of country music’s Lee Ann Rimes), she’s as near to the “Astrud” aesthetic as we’re likely to get. Enjoy her, while you can, or we’ll be forced to give Clapton another spin.
So how did bossa nova fare overall? Not bad, actually. One half expected it to be a whole lot worse off than it was. There’s always room for improvement, of course, but truth be told it’s come along quite nicely throughout the years, given what there is to work with.
As we have now seen, the best songs of this type can be characterized not just by their exceptional lyric beauty but by the singer’s individual attitude toward them, expressed, principally, in the way he or she distances (or does not distance) him- or herself from the source.
To put it another way, it’s one thing to approach bossa nova covers in this arms-length manner; it’s quite another when attempting to do the proper justice to one’s own work. The finished product, then, invariably winds up striking a precarious (and sometimes unsatisfactory) balance between the two. Both are viable options, however, and are based strictly on personal preference, as this list certainly is. The mere fact that there are singers out there, both here and in Brazil, still willing to revisit the genre can be most heartening to us music fans.*
Now if we could only get the producers of American Idol or The X Factor to show some interest in that Brazilian beat… It would be my ideal Fantasy Island dream come true. That’s the only thing worth taking to that fictional atoll in the sky. ☼
* Included among the newer generation of Brazilian pop and bossa nova artists are such varied performers as Rosalia de Souza, Ana Carolina, Teresa Cristina, Adriana Calcanhotto, Fernanda Abreu, Celso Fonseca, Patricia Talem, Luciana Souza, and the group Bossacucanova.
Poor Michael Franks. He gets no respect, no respect at all from jazz purists. Although most critics have grievously placed him in the same New Adult Contemporary, bush-league music category as that of L.A. keyboardist David Benoit — that is, of artists who’ve been plying their trade for years without either public acclaim or mass countenance — Franks doesn’t look like a Rodney Dangerfield, nor does he act or sound anything like the late stand-up comedian.
Despite decades of slaving away in the pop-music business — in itself, nothing to laugh about, that’s for sure — his biggest obstacle to lasting success has always been his inability to please those same critics, if indeed that’s anything to lose sleep over.
As Rolling Stone staff writer Paul Evans so astutely concluded about him, “The attitude his music is intended to provoke is invariably: ‘Dim the lights, get out the Chardonnay, cuddle up.’ ” But for the many Brazilian musicians and performers who’ve worked closely with Franks over the years, it’s another story entirely.
Still, the oddest aspect of Michael’s 33-plus-year singing and composing career is the West Coast native’s apparent lack of hits (his “Popsicle Toes” from 1976’s The Art of Tea the only exception) or multi-platinum-selling albums to crown off his consistently earnest achievements.
In a nutshell, the main difficulty for most people remains his unattainability as a crossover specialist, a singer secure enough in his song-filled art at closing the ever-expanding gulf between the jazz and pop spheres so prevalent in the U.S. during his performance heyday.
Not that Franks worries one bit about his nondescript status among his peers. It’s just that the low-key method he’s brought to his words and music, manifested in the refined manner with which he’s formulated his spare yet insightful lyrics — abetted, to no end, by that Comparative English Literature degree he earned at UCLA in the seventies — hasn’t exactly bowled over what’s left of the uncommitted. And likely never will.
Surely Michael’s laid-back vocal temperament could be the hindrance, being that his basic singing style, which closely resembles that of American pop crooner Kenny Rankin, has been allied more to sophisticated Brazilian-jazz contexts than to pop-music puffoonery.
One could even say his voice is a warmed-over version of folk-rock’s best friend James Taylor, but without the singer-songwriter’s deviated-septum vocal production. Incidentally, before Taylor moved on to Columbia (now part of Sony) Records, both he and Franks were Warner Brothers label-mates in the mid- to late seventies, as was smooth-jazz pioneer Al Jarreau, another under-appreciated denizen of the Redwood State.
In actuality, though, Michael Franks is the nearest Americans have ever come to having that old Bahian bossa-nova stylist, the famously cantankerous maestro João Gilberto, in their midst — minus that eccentric singer’s onstage peculiarities, of course.
It would not be an exaggeration, then, to admit that Franks, in his inimitable fashion, is a continuation of the romantic spirit exemplified by the Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim — considered by Michael to be one of his prime movers ‘n’ shakers — alongside the still-imposing frames of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and the great George and Ira Gershwin.
But whatever issues he has pending with reviewers, they have had no ill-effects with the many steadfast fans who happen to be in the musical “know.” Take, for instance, former Steely Dan band member-turned-record producer Walter Becker, who paid the ultimate tribute to Franks’ compositional skills in the September 1990 issue of Jazziz:
“There’s a purity to what Michael does that I really admire. His songs are always simple in the best sense of that word. You immediately know what the song is about and where it’s going. It has its effect without too much digestive effort.”
“At the same time, there’s a lot there,” Becker added. “They’re very perfect little gems of structure and lyrical purity. Michael has a directness and a Zen-like quality to what he does that I really admire.”
That directness and simplicity was amply illustrated from the get-go with his trend-setting Art of Tea offering, particularly with such song titles as “Eggplant,” “Monkey-See, Monkey-Do,” “Mr. Blue,” “I Don’t Know Why I’m So Happy I’m Sad,” and “Sometimes I Just Forget To Smile.”
Even better still, and an early career milestone in the catalog of his cumulative works, was the Tommy LiPuma-produced 1977 outing Sleeping Gypsy, the first in a series of studio efforts to enlist the aid of Brazilian session players; in this case, Hélio Delmiro on guitar, João Donato on piano, and João Palma on drums — all of them associated at one time or another with Rio-born music-master, Tom Jobim.
Along with the now-classic “The Lady Wants to Know,” a modern-day jazz standard if ever there was one (“Daddy’s just like Coltrane / Baby’s just like Miles / The Lady’s just like heaven… when she smiles”), were two numbers originally conceived in red-hot Rio de Janeiro: “Antonio’s Song (The Rainbow),” a moving evocation of Jobim himself, and “Down in Brazil.”
“I wrote [these] in my room at the Copacabana Palace Hotel,” claimed Michael. “I went to Rio to record at the suggestion of Jobim, who had been very kind in his praise for The Art of Tea. It’s no secret he was one of my major heroes and influences.”
With that in mind, “Antonio’s Song” starts out in nearly the same tempo and rhythm-pattern as “The Lady Wants to Know” — it must have been a deliberate choice on Michael’s part to begin in this mode — but for the gentle-on-the-mind string accompaniment arranged by veteran Claus Ogerman, who worked on many of Jobim’s albums for Warner and Verve, including the timeless Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim pairing on Reprise a decade prior.
The image of a decadent Cidade Maravilhosa (“Marvelous City”), contrasted with that of Rio’s sunniest songwriting native-son — so peerlessly captured by Michael in the first few bars — set the prevailing tone and mood:
Antonio lives life’s frevo
Antonio prays for truth
Antonio says our friendship
Is a hundred-proof
The vulture that circles Rio
Hangs in this L.A. sky
The blankets they give the Indians
Only make them die
That opening phrase (“Antonio lives life’s frevo”) is a masterstroke of understated lyricism. Upon first hearing, it will ever-so-slightly pass by the untrained ear, unless one is intimately aware of the inner meaning of this uniquely Brazilian-Portuguese term: an exceedingly agitated Northeastern dance-rhythm, native to both Bahia and Recife, frevo is typically played during the pre-Lenten season. As a partial metaphor for the composer, moreover, it shrewdly encompasses Jobim’s hectic artistic lifestyle in a brief, eight-syllable sentiment.
While not the bold social statement often associated with the best of Bono and U2 (or early Sting, for that matter), the song nonetheless hints at an undercurrent of tension amid the tropical froth; as if Franks instinctively sensed the adoration his newfound friend felt for his seaside abode, despite all the harshness and strife he may have encountered there from time to time.
As well, the singer’s laconic, almost vibrato-less delivery of his lines, as matter-of-fact as only he was capable of producing back then — an American smooth-jazz offshoot of German Sprechgesang (“Song speech”) — adds to the objective formality of the piece. More so than the actual words, Michael’s aloof, non-judgmental approach leaves it to the listener to make up his or her own mind about the foibles of “Sin City” Rio:
We sing the Song
Forgotten for so long
And let the music flow
Like Light into the Rainbow
We know the Dance, we have
We still have the chance
To break these chains and flow
Like Light into the Rainbow.
The last line, “Like Light into the Rainbow,” echoes the essential English text (supplied by American jazz essayist Gene Lees) to one of Jobim’s bounciest Brazilian melodies, “Double Rainbow” (“Chovendo na Roseira”), also known by the less-familiar title “Children’s Games,” recorded by Tom with Elis Regina, in Los Angeles, in 1974:
Look at the double rainbow
The rain is silver in the sunlight
“Down in Brazil,” the closing track on Gypsy, is dedicated (for one) to the beauteous charms of Brazilian women, and is relayed high-up in Michael’s reediest tonal range:
Down in Brazil They never heard of win or lose If you can't feel That all those café olé girls In high-heel shoes Will really cure your blues It seems they all just aim to please Those women sway like wind In the banana trees When you know you're Down in old Brazil
At the fadeout, the oft-repeated verses of “Down in old Brazil” reminds one, too, of music legend Frank Sinatra’s sly sendoff on the time-worn Ary Barroso-Bob Russell theme, “Brazil” (“Aquarela do Brasil”), found in the first — and best — of Ole Blue Eyes’ various Billy May collaborations, namely Come Fly With Me (1957) for Capitol.
Yet what are we to make of the Franks brand of music making? Is it less-than-mainstream jazz, or plain old middle-of-the-road pop styling?
“Michael’s music actually exists in that ideal space between pop music and jazz that’s so difficult for people to locate and be comfortable in,” comments Becker.
“Part of the problem has been that traditionally, in jazz, you have a different kind of lyrical mentality than you have with pop. A lot of people associate jazz-vocal with the less ambitious lyrical things. Michael doesn’t do that. He just writes what he writes, undaunted by the ‘moon-June-spoon,’ Tin Pan Alley tradition of jazz. Again, it’s just hard for people to function comfortably to make that transition.”
In light of this estimation, and Franks’ positive working relationship with Brazil’s native-born performers, his unabated love for the country’s music conveniently spilled over into his subsequent long-play output, significantly in the 1978 Burchfield Nines release, with arrangements by Eumir Deodato (see 1971’s Sinatra & Company on Reprise); in Tiger in the Rain (1979), with the cut “Jardim Botânico” (“Botanical Garden”), featuring jazz artist Flora Purim and trumpeter Claudio Roditi; in Passionfruit (1983), with Astrud Gilberto and Naná Vasconcelos, on “Amazon”; and in Dragonfly Summer (1993), with key contributions by percussionist Paulinho da Costa and guitarist Toninho Horta.
But the work to end all works — the sine qua non of Brazilian tribute albums — was the career-defining Abandoned Garden project from 1995, recorded in loving memory of the late Antonio Carlos Jobim. Described as the “jazziest” of Michael’s subtropical jaunts, the CD features rhythm tracks laid down for him by paulistana pianist Eliane Elias — a current, and past, Jobim acolyte — along with a contemporary all-star lineup of acknowledged light- and smooth-jazz favorites, among them Michael and Randy Brecker (Eliane’s husband), Mark Egan, Art Farmer, Russell Ferrante, Bob James, Bashiri Johnson, Chuck Loeb, Bob Mintzer, Joshua Redman, and David Sanborn.
Two of the disc’s many highlights, “Cinema” (co-written with Jobim) and “Bird of Paradise” (music by Alagoan singer Djavan/English lyrics by Michael Franks), reveal a thoroughly evolved mastery of the lyrical style, as infectiously and flavorfully literate as anything in the Jobim-Moraes canon.
Some of the other songs on the set, including “This Must Be Paradise,” “Like Water, Like Wind,” “A Fool’s Errand,” “Hourglass,” “Eighteen Aprils,” “Without Your Love,” and “Somehow Our Love Survives” — originally on ex-Jazz Crusader Joe Sample’s album Spellbound (Warner, 1989), where it was performed by Al Jarreau — revolve around the themes of love-found, love-lost, and love-regained.
Interestingly, the main title-tune comes at the end of the nearly hour-long endeavor. With its slow, dirge-like musings, this mildly morose homage to Tom more than compensates for any rhythmic shortcomings by becoming a fitting formal close to the storied Jobim-Franks joint venture:
Though the samba has ended, I know in the sound of your voice,
your piano, your flute, you are found,
and the music within you continues to flow
sadly, lost Antonio.
You were my inspiration, my hero, my friend;
on the highway of time will I meet you again?
If the heart ever heals, does the scar always show
for the lost Antonio?
For the lost Antonio?
High hopes tinged with sadness: that was the message Michael Franks tried to make clear and convey in all his best work. And along those same lines, everyone from Shirley Bassey, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ana Caram, Natalie Cole, and Laura Fygi, to Diana Krall, Patti LaBelle, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Melissa Manchester, The Yellowjackets, and Ringo Starr has happily complied in covering his highly sought-after song material.
Shut out of FM-radio due to rapidly diminished airplay, Michael’s only-other completely original release thereafter,* the 2003 Christmas-themed Watching the Snow — with seasoned talents Romero Lubambo and Edson Aparecido (Café) da Silva among the artists present — was sold privately to fans on his personal Website via the Sleeping Gypsy label, an obvious (and sentimental) allusion to the first of his many Brazilian-inspired productions.
If, as they say, you can never go home again, Michael can now feel at ease, rest assured of having earned the love and respect of his infinitely loyal fan-base, not the least of which can be counted one deeply devoted admirer: Brazil’s dearly-departed and best-loved composer, a certain Mr. Jobim.
Take that, jazz purists, if you can! ☼
* His 1999 album, Barefoot on the Beach, for the New Age label Windham Hill, while consistent overall with Michael’s basic songwriting philosophy (“Heart Like an Open Book,” “Now Love Has No End”), was not entirely representative of the best of his earlier works. Consequently, it was not a big-seller either, nor did it do well in the record charts.
Can Broadway Be Far Away?
Over the past few seasons, there has been an explosion of films, television series, stage treatments, and animated features exploring the make-believe world of fairy tales – with more still to come.
A casual stroll through the neighborhood multiplex will reveal such titles as Mirror, Mirror (with Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane) and Snow White and the Huntsman (featuring Kristen Stewart, of Twilight fame, and Charlize Theron), both major studio releases. The previous year brought us the short-lived Red Riding Hood, with rising starlet Amanda Seyfried and veteran scene-stealer Gary Oldman, while the ABC-TV network took a giant step forward in bringing Once Upon a Time to the sparse Sunday-night lineup.
Even the Great White Way – no stranger to the fantasy genre – has served as host to a revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, a musical variation on the fairy-tale theme, albeit one based on the “early life experiences” of the Wicked Witch of the West, a character straight out of the 1939 film classic, The Wizard of Oz.
Let’s not forget the pièce de résistance of theatrical showpieces: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, a modern reincarnation of several classic tales, as interpreted by child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim – revived anew at New York’s Delacorte Theater, in Central Park, during August 2012.
And don’t get me started on all those animated varieties out there, including such past triumphs as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and DreamWorks’ Shrek and Puss in Boots, as well as Disney Studio’s Tangled, a delightfully daffy rendition of the Rapunzel story.
So why are we being bombarded with so many fairy tales? There are several reasons for this feast of storybook retellings, some having to do with the poor state of the economy and the longing for simpler, less troubled times.
Built-in to their success is the high recognition factor these stories hold for viewers, along with nostalgia for the lost innocence of youth, which fairy tales seem particularly adept at exploiting – the perfect family-friendly combination, one would think.
What most audiences fail to realize, however, is that fairy tales, while appearing to favor children as their target audience, were in fact written by grownups – grownups with a grave message to convey. That message, whether it be “Beware of strangers,” or “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” has been seen (in this country, at least) through uniquely American eyes.
This begs the question, then, of how other nationalities view these same tales and how they come to grips with their cautionary message.
The answer, if there is any, may be found in Brazil, in what has become one of the most significant and far-reaching theatrical developments of the new millennium: that of the country’s own musical “explosion.”
By this, we do not mean the ceaseless pounding of the samba drum at Carnival time. No, this musical explosion refers to more tuneful matters, i.e., such stage-worthy items as Gypsy, Hair, Sweet Charity, Company, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, The Witches of Eastwick, Avenue Q, Spring Awakening and, quite unavoidably, the ever popular Wizard of Oz.
Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho, the Brazilian team responsible for this renewed interest in the above classic and/or modern stage musicals, have been thriving in Rio de Janeiro for the better part of two decades. So why have we heard so little about them, especially since they happen to be involved with Broadway musicals?
In this writer’s opinion, they are Brazil’s best kept secret. Like most such secrets, however (including the name of the mysterious Rumpelstiltskin), sooner or later the ground-breaking work of Möeller and Botelho is destined to break out from their Brazilian boundaries.
But the question still remains: what can this award-winning team bring to the fore – in the way of musicals, of course – that is uniquely and authentically Brazilian?
Where Have All the Musicals Gone?
Regrettably, there are relatively few of what can be called “Brazilian musicals” to please the paying public. The most logical candidate, Magdalena, by native-born composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, whose music was adapted for the stage by Chet Forrest and Robert Wright (Song of Norway, Kismet, Grand Hotel), was an unfortunate flop at its 1948 Broadway premiere – although the work’s gorgeous showtunes practically call out for a rehearing.
Those other “stage plays with music,” by singer/songwriter Chico Buarque de Hollanda (Roda viva, Calabar, Gota d’água, Ópera do Malandro), were written in the 1960s and ‘70s during more troubled times – that is, those of the Brazilian military dictatorship years, with their government restrictions and concerns over language and content.
Chico’s musical excursions were a by-product of that tumultuous era: except for a 2003 revival of Ópera do Malandro (done, coincidentally, by Möeller-Botelho), they have languished in unmerited anonymity.
Fortunately for us, Möeller and Botelho’s 7 – O Musical (henceforth known as 7 – The Musical), an original stage conception that premiered in Rio, in September 2007, at the Teatro João Caetano, has suffered no such concerns. An instant hit with critics and public alike, 7 – The Musical garnered several prestigious prizes in Brazil, including the APTR (Association of Theater Producers of Rio) Award and the Shell Musical Award for Best Direction, Best Costumes, and Best Lighting.
With an appropriately atmospheric score (bordering on the sinister) by prolific jazz-funk artist Ed Motta, remarkably cogent lyrics and musical direction by Claudio Botelho, and Charles Möeller’s exceptionally insightful book, 7 (or Sete, in Portuguese) steered a musically dark path, and psychologically inspired course, through the same fairy-tale minefield as Into the Woods.
To these ears, 7 – The Musical is much closer in story and looks (if not in sound) to the Grand Guignol realm of Sondheim’s earlier Sweeney Todd. Set in a fantasy-land “Rio de Janeiro of the mind” – not your grandfather’s Rio, we assure you – the show brilliantly captures the same late Victorian-era aesthetic (via sets, makeup, hair, and costume design) as Sweeney, with enough inventive dialogue and melodramatic plot machinations to satisfy the most rapacious Sondheim fan (this author among them). On the whole, the musical’s story line is made-to-order for this type of treatment.
But what of the plot? Staying true to our fairy-tale format, 7 – The Musical is an adult version of (you guessed it) the classic story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with additional material drawn from other thrice-told tales, most notably Rapunzel and Cinderella.
There are, in fact, a host of women to deal with here – seven, in all – as well as seven men, seven wishes, seven good years, seven bad years, seven musicians in the pit (including the conductor), and all manner of representations of the number “seven,” just as in the Brothers Grimm.
Let’s Hear It for the Boys
To enlighten readers further concerning the genesis of this fascinating work, I called upon 7 – The Musical’s lyricist and musical director, Claudio Botelho. A native of Araguari, Minas Gerais, and one of Brazil’s top translators and adapters of all things musically inclined, Claudio is an expert in the field of theater music and popular song. We discussed his musical’s development, including its standing as (quite possibly) one of the finest shows in Brazilian musical-theater memory.
“Ed Motta was a friend of ours,” Claudio recalled, “ever since he came to see our production of Sondheim’s Company in 2001. One day in 2004, Ed called me and said he had a few musical themes which he felt were very theatrical, so he invited [me and Charles] to his home to listen to them. He had about twelve songs with no lyrics at all, just melodies and harmonies… We were immediately ecstatic, with the feeling that we had something extraordinarily new in terms of music in our hands, but no plot, no story, nothing, just the music.”
So that’s it! Ed was the fellow responsible. Through Claudio’s help, I contacted Ed Motta directly and obtained his views on the project.
“I called Claudio and asked him that I really would like to show [him and Charles] my Broadway-inspired tunes,” Motta told me. “They liked the atmosphere and they know the language very well, so it makes me more than proud and happy [what they did].”
“Who got the idea of doing a story based on a modern version of Snow White?” I inquired.
“This idea was Charles and Claudio’s,” he responded. “I just wrote the tunes before and made some suggestions about the music. My thing was strictly musical, Charles [did] the direction and Claudio, like the Renaissance man that he is, did everything else. I wrote some instrumental passages and overture, underture, etc. I worked a little bit with the original cast, singing together and playing piano.”
Claudio concurred: “Charles went home with a CD of all those tunes and after two days, we started to talk about a story. It simply came out of the blue: Charles had in mind a woman who lost her lover and went to look for a witch to find a way to get him back through magic. That was the only story line. From there to Snow White, to Mistress A, to all it [eventually] became – it took three years of work. I started to write some lyrics to the songs based on the very tiny story line we had [developed]… You could say that the story grew around the songs.”
Ah, yes, those marvelous songs. I asked Ed Motta if he had any notion of the music’s dark and somber nature.
“I think some of the tunes do have this dark atmosphere,” Motta replied, “but there are happy waltzes and classic Broadway ‘Can-Can’ as well. I have been writing these musical-esque tunes for a long time, usually it was just for my pleasure since my main audience knows me because of my soul-jazz tunes.”
“Who was it who decided on Snow White?” I asked.
Claudio answered: “Charles is the guy who created the characters and also the one who had the idea to approach our story to Snow White’s story, and especially trying to steer in the middle of it. ‘7’ had many versions before we arrived at the first cast reading. When we invited the main stars, we didn’t have the finished script yet. The idea of Mistress A came after we received a big ‘YES’ from Ida Gomes, who was very famous in Brazil for being the voice of many witches in Portuguese-dubbed TV movies. Ida was also the Brazilian voice of actress Bette Davis, so when she said she wanted to work with us, in spite of what we had for her – she never read one line of the play before the first day of rehearsals – we understood she would be an Old Witch in the story.”
That’s quite a vote of confidence, I thought, considering there were no lines whatsoever for a star of Ida Gomes’ magnitude to refer to, nor was there a finished plot to base her actions on.
“The same [thing] happened when Rogéria, the actress  who played Dona Odette, the owner of a bordello, accepted to do the show under the same conditions.”
“I’m telling you this to say that we didn’t know where the play would go at the very beginning. Having the cast – a dream cast for us! – inspired many of the characters. Mistress A was definitely written for Ida Gomes, a dear and wonderful friend, who died between the Rio and São Paulo run of the show. I miss her very much. She was one of the most excited companions we had in ‘7’.”
The other participants in Claudio’s “dream cast” were screen veteran Zezé Motta as Dona Carmen, jazz singer and performing artist Eliana Pittman as Dona Rosa, and powerhouse actress Alessandra Maestrini as Amelia.
“There is really no other Brazilian musical like this that I know of,” I cheerfully exclaimed.
“You’re right,” Claudio continued, “there’s nothing like ‘7’ here [in Brazil], and I dare to say it’s really something new in terms of writing for the musical stage. Of course, you can feel a Sondheim-esque atmosphere in everything, and also one can find traces of Into the Woods in the plot, but I think our story has nothing to do with that. It’s much more (in my opinion) a story like [Sondheim’s] Passion… It’s about love and loss, about being left by the one you love, about losing your mind for someone else.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” was my immediate reaction – a perfect way to end a fable by Aesop, but a theme for a Brazilian fairy-tale musical?
“There [are] also traces of Wicked,” he went on, “in the sense that it’s a story that tries to ‘explain’ why the witch is evil, or how she became evil in the same way Wicked [does] with The Wizard of Oz story. But I think those works – Into the Woods and Wicked – are sensational shows [in themselves] with the aim being the plot itself, not the characters.”
Elaborating on this key point, Claudio described the story further: “Our show is about this woman [Amelia] who’s abandoned by the man [Herculano] she loves, who is capable of doing anything – even killing – to get him back… the show plays inside of Amelia’s mind, like one long hallucination of hers… the whole story is just one ‘Memento’ [Author’s note: Spoiler Alert ahead!], of that old, destroyed woman waiting for a train with that young girl at the beginning.”
Having seen the show on DVD, read the original Portuguese script, translated it into English, and heard the music in my head – over and over and over again – I was convinced that Claudio and his partner, Charles, had a potential hit on their hands. Did I say hit? No, a masterpiece!
What’s in a Name?
The first thing that struck me about their show was how the story, dialogue, music and lyrics all worked off one another; how the situations they developed were guided along – first this way, then that way – by what the characters “imagined” they wanted from their lives.
Not only that, but the characters’ names and their individual quirks and personalities – I had no doubt these had some sort of relevance to the plot. Was I on to something here?
“The characters were named to create the idea of what’s good and what’s evil,” explained Claudio. “The ‘good’ is represented by Clara, Alvaro, and Bianca… Those are perfect people, beautiful, ageless… In opposition to all the other main characters are Amelia (the eternal sufferer), Odette (the fake French prostitute), Rosa (the fake good fairy), and Carmen (the gypsy who could die or kill for love). We were also inspired by this very Brazilian thing [of the] witches, who are called “mães de santo,” or those people who can ‘bring a man back in seven days.’ In one of Dona Carmen’s first lines, she says, ‘I’ll bring your man back in seven days’ (also her last line in the show). The audience used to simply laugh out loud [at this] because we see these kinds of things on every street corner in Rio.”
That’s fascinating! This brought up another issue: in the original Portuguese version, there are a couple of anachronisms. For example, Maracanã Stadium is mentioned; telephones are used in several key scenes; someone takes a photograph with a camera, etc. The question I had for Claudio was whether these anachronisms were done on purpose, because from the look of the costumes I concluded the period of the drama was set in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.
Claudio was happy to elaborate: “The story should be ex-temporal, in other words favoring no specific time period. Our aim was to tell a fairy tale in a Rio de Janeiro where snowflakes fall and Guanabara Bay freezes over. The Big Clock without the hands (at the beginning of Act I and end of Act II), that is lowered onto the set, should transmit the idea there is no precise time period involved. It’s left open-ended, so I can see where there might be some confusion.”
Yes, that makes sense. What about the stadium and those other anachronisms?
“The [use of] Maracanã Stadium and other cultural references to Rio,” he continued, “are an attempt to keep Rio as the locale for the story where everything takes place. This is important, in that Amelia comes to Rio in search of her husband Herculano, in the same manner as Herculano keeps Bianca [the girl he left Amelia for] under lock and key in a suburb of Rio, away from the big city (or away from ‘temptation’) – much like Rapunzel locked away in her tower for her own ‘safety.’ It’s important as well that Bianca gets lost in Rio’s streets, as if she becomes seduced by a city that attracts her, so much so that she gets lost in it (in a spell weaved by Dona Carmen).”
“What about the young people who went to see the show?” I inquired. “Did they enjoy the challenge of trying to figure it all out, what actually was going on?”
“The São Paulo audience (a younger one than the public in Rio) came to see the show many, many times,” replied Claudio, “always looking for signs and hints of plot threads and twists, and information about the characters in it, writing about the story in blogs and online discussion groups about the symbols present, etc.”
Now that’s impressive! The fact that young people were interested in the outcome of a musical show told me that 7 – The Musical would have a thriving theatrical life outside of Brazil, and a financially prosperous one, at that.
“Making ‘7’ was an absolutely electric experience for all of us! It’s a fairy tale that takes place in a Rio de Janeiro of the imagination: a dark Rio, somber, evil, distrustful. Carmen’s song inviting Bianca in Act I to ‘lose herself’ in the city’s beauty is a type of siren song leading her to her own death (in the manner of Odysseus).”
We could all get “lost” in the score and story line of 7 — The Musical, I wondered aloud to myself. It was obvious from my conversation with both Ed Motta and Claudio Botelho that their musical was as rich, authentic and thoroughly Brazilian a work as any I’ve come to know.
In the program booklet to the original Rio run of the show, both Claudio and Charles expressed the challenge that lay before them in practical terms: “Does Brazilian musical theater exist? Is it possible to reach that point without excessive self-pride and/or nostalgia for the past? Without the necessity of placing samba on every platform? A mulata in every scene? The Brazilian ‘way of doing things’ as a reflection on what came before?
“I believe that everything we’ve done to this point was, in actuality, a preparation for where we arrived with 7 — The Musical. It’s our voice, our discourse, all of it is there. There will be other productions, for certain, but this work is our most important showcase because it’s ours, in every sense of the term.”
I had many more questions for Claudio Botelho, but they’ll have to wait. Right now, he’s working to put English-language subtitles on the DVD of 7 – The Musical. Who knows? Maybe some Broadway producer will take a fancy to his show. And maybe it will come to New York’s Great White Way… or London’s West End.
Then — and only then — will we see if fairy tales can come true. It’s definitely something to wish for. Φ
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
 Author’s note: Rogéria is the stage name of renowned female impersonator Astolfo Barroso Pinto.
Orpheus in the Underworld
In 1959, almost two years after she had officially left the concert platform, Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão returned from her self-imposed retirement to participate in the recording of a new work entitled A Floresta do Amazonas (“Forest of the Amazon”), written by her close friend and fellow compatriot, the staggeringly prolific Heitor Villa-Lobos.
It was a vigorous, soul-stirring piece cobbled together from the scattered remnants of his stillborn Hollywood film score for the movie Green Mansions.
But despite the presence of Brazil’s greatest living classical composer and his favorite native songbird, the album failed to catch fire with fans and quickly went out of print. Villa-Lobos himself was to pass away on November 17, a few short months after the recording was completed.
For her part, Bidu would never again step into a gramophone studio, nor would she perform before a live paying audience for the remainder of her life.
In that same year, the revitalized Brazilian motion picture industry — soon to be known as the Cinema Novo (“New Wave”) movement — would test its fledgling wings by becoming the proud beneficiary of a more exceptional multi-cultural event: the worldwide release of French director Marcel Camus’ production of Orfeu Negro, or Black Orpheus, as contemporary English-speaking audiences would come to know it, a movie based on the musical play Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”) penned by carioca poet Vinicius de Moraes.
A multi-award winner and surprise international hit, the film’s extraordinarily influential soundtrack, co-written by musicians Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim, with an able assist from lyricist Moraes, would help launch the coming bossa nova invasion of the early to middle sixties.
The sultry new sounds that this style of world music actively came to encompass would give an entirely fresh and original slant to the much-maligned term “modern classical music,” literally transforming guitarist Bonfá, the shy piano-playing Jobim, and his hard-living partner, Vinicius, into latter-day Franz Schuberts for their unique songwriting skills.
Their historic collaboration would sweep Música Popular Brasileira, or MPB for short, into a whole other musical realm, permanently changing the face and focus of jazz and other forms of popular entertainment for years to come.
While this was all well and good for the pop and tourist trades, where did it leave the opera? What would happen to the four-hundred-year-old art form in Brazil, now that its feasibility had been suddenly called into question?
In an earlier posting (“Sadness Has No End” — A Testament to Black Orpheus and the Partnership That Started It All), we found that in 1960 the country’s capital underwent a dramatic changeover from the old Portuguese-dominated cultural center of Rio de Janeiro to the modern, Oscar Niemeyer-designed city of Brasília.
As an unfortunate consequence of this radical move, Brazil’s major theaters and government-sponsored opera houses were relegated to a perpetual state of penury, if not outright impoverishment.
Opera, as it had been presented and performed in the land of Carnival and samba, was in danger of going the way of the dinosaur. It was gradually being pushed aside to make way for the seductive young charms of the sensuous new kid on the block, the statuesque “Girl from Ipanema.”
Going on the Record
With extinction unavoidably looming, there simply had to exist a more practical method for preserving the rich cultural heritage (or what little of it there was) of the Brazilian national opera — not to mention the outstanding creative contributions of so many of its finest proponents — before this cataclysmic event would come to pass.
The only way this could be done was through the medium of recordings — ironically, the self-same technology that was threatening to displace opera’s intellectual prominence in the first place.
Why threatening? Had not Bidu Sayão, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Camargo Guarnieri, Francisco Mignone, and dozens of other classical artists before them, committed their best-known interpretations to long-playing disc? Had not the prized theatrical works of Carlos Gomes, Alberto Nepomuceno, and Henrique Oswald been given the deluxe three-record treatment by the major international record labels?
Hardly, is the brutally honest response to those queries. While even at the zenith of her European and American operatic career, Bidu Sayão had left only a comparable handful of recorded extracts from her most popular stage parts, with very little in the way of complete works preserved on LP.
Her only commercially available full-length opera recording, made in 1947, was a version on Columbia of Puccini’s La Bohème, with colleagues Richard Tucker, Frank Valentino, Mimi Benzell, Salvatore Baccaloni, and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Giuseppe Antonicelli. The album was re-released a few years ago on compact disc by Sony Masterworks. It was a fine, even nostalgic production, but paled in comparison to the classic renditions presided over by Arturo Toscanini, Thomas Beecham, and Tullio Serafin.
Another of Bidu’s signature roles, that of Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, was launched into the market only via a private, off-the-air transcription from 1940, and featured Baccaloni, Valentino, and tenor Nino Martini in the leads, with Gennaro Papi as the conductor.
Much later, the Met itself would issue two wonderful live-broadcast performances from the forties as lavish gift sets for its contributors: the first, from the 1940 revival of The Marriage of Figaro, starred the ever-bewitching Bidu as Susanna, with Italian matinee idol Ezio Pinza as her Figaro; the second, from a 1947 production of Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, had Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling’s impassioned Roméo serenading the sparkling soprano’s Juliette.
Bjoerling, who appeared as the lecherous Duke of Mantua, shared the spotlight with Bidu’s “innocent, sheltered girl” depiction of Gilda, in a belated Naxos release of Verdi’s Rigoletto, another Met Opera radio broadcast from December 1945 that also boasted the powerhouse baritone of Leonard Warren. The soprano was appropriately lauded for her application of “small touches” to this part “that made for unforgettable portrayals” overall.
But as far as satisfying consumers with her thoroughly rounded and much-admired assumptions of Violetta, Gilda, Lucia, Manon, Mélisande, Micaela, or even Rosina, record companies looked to other, more “familiar” voices to fill the Brazilian singer’s shoes — Licia Albanese, Erna Berger, Lily Pons, Victoria de Los Angeles, and Lucine Amara — familiar, that is, to New York record-buying audiences.
In truth, the rationale for this decision was quite logical: as regrettable as it may have been for her legion of loyal followers, the closing portion of Bidu’s career with the Met and other leading opera houses had coincided with the advent of 33 1/3 long-playing records, occurring sometime around the years 1948-49.
By the same token, the initial releases of an exciting newcomer named Maria Callas — first on Italian Fonit-Cetra, then at England’s Columbia-EMI/Angel Records — had spurred renewed interest in the once neglected bel canto repertoire, as did the recitals of early-period Verdi, on Decca/London, by the superb lirico spinto Renata Tebaldi, her main rival in the opera house.
Commencing in the 1950s, these two aspiring performers began to record the standard soprano parts (Tosca, Mimì, Violetta, the two Leonoras, Aida, Butterfly, Gioconda, et al.) over an impressive ten-year span. In doing so, they joined with another dominant vocal personality of the time, the Czech diva Zinka Milanov, who had previously signed with RCA Victor, in the hopes of giving the paying public a solid run for their operatic money.
Callas, Tebaldi, and Milanov. This phenomenal recording triumvirate — accompanied by their usual stage-partners Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, and Jussi Bjoerling — proved to be a potent combination for millions of record buyers in North America and elsewhere. Their standing in the classical-music world, however, would make it extremely difficult for past operatic luminaries, such as the diminutive Bidu Sayão, to successfully compete with on any conceivable basis.
Shunned in the early fifties by an intransigent Met Opera management, poor under-represented Bidu was left holding the empty album cover, as it were, by this intolerable state of recorded affairs — a disappointing casualty in the complete opera-album wars.
Luckily for collectors, her varied interpretations of Brazilian folk tunes; art songs from France, Portugal, and Spain; arias from Italian, French, and Brazilian opera; and lyrical Brazilian and French showpieces, written or arranged for her by Villa-Lobos, Hernani Braga, Barroso Neto, Reynaldo Hahn, and others, have been meticulously restored by Sony, with all of the selections having undergone miraculous sonic transformations; enhancements that have contributed enormously to their shelf-life as well as to their future enjoyment.
Girl of the Golden West and Other Oddities
The not-so subtle shifting of musical tastes in the 1960s from the classical to the pop arena — with pop steadily encroaching upon opera and, irrevocably, gaining the upper hand — was uppermost in the minds of record owners and producers, and clearly reflected in the preferences of the album-buying public of that period, both in Brazil and in the United States.
The times were indeed a-changing, as evidenced by the increased attention being paid to native performers Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Luiz Bonfá, Astrud Gilberto, Baden Powell, Sérgio Mendes, Oscar Castro-Neves, Bola Sete, and their work, by a plethora of entranced American players, among them guitarist Charlie Byrd, saxophonists Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, flutist Herbie Mann, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and pianist Vince Guaraldi.
Pointing the way toward this newly expansive musical plain, bossa nova, samba, and, to a lesser extent, other varieties of MPB experienced a near-cosmic explosion on North American airwaves and in record shops not seen since the days of Carmen Miranda, almost to the point of over-saturating the imported music mart all too quickly, and too soon, according to some critical ears.
Nevertheless, once firmly committed to this unalterable path, Brazil’s homegrown talent (and, more importantly, her audiences) would never again go back to the way things were — the notoriously volatile Brazilian economy would surely see to that, never allowing for the majority of its citizens the experience of such First-World amenities as regular concert-going, the purchasing of vast quantities of classical music albums, the attending of live opera performances, or the listening of long-playing records made famous by native-born classical artists.
In fairness, though, it must also be added that the U.S. record industry was experiencing many of the same trials and tribulations with respect to the marketing and selling of the classical-music repertoire as Brazil had, only on a more calculated scale.
Once most of the standard works were more than adequately represented on vinyl, record companies had nowhere else to go except to engage in a treasure hunt for rare and undiscovered “jewels” that might still have gone unnoticed in some obscure corner of the unrecorded repertory.
A perfect illustration of this was the concurrent 1958 release of two competing versions of composer Giacomo Puccini’s Italian-American “spaghetti Western,” the opera La Fanciulla del West (“The Girl of the Golden West”), based on playwright David Belasco’s turn-of-the-century stage spectacular.
At the time, this infrequently performed work — more a provocative, whole-tone experiment by the renowned Tuscan melodist than a true successor to his previous Belasco influence, Madama Butterfly — had been given an inferior rendering on Cetra of a 1950 radio broadcast from Italy’s Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI) network, with an even more ineffectual roster of unknowns doing it a disservice.
It cried out for a modern, technologically advanced production, with a cast of equally distinguished stature to promote it; but instead of one new stereophonic recording, EMI and Decca treated a reticent buying public to two.
The full story behind these differing releases need not be retold here, but let it suffice that EMI’s project was originally to have featured an exceptional all-star lineup to include the divine Maria Callas, leading man Franco Corelli (three years before his Met debut), and the veteran Tito Gobbi, with the full forces of Teatro alla Scala of Milan, under the firm direction of Lovro von Matačič.
What finally emerged from these sessions was a disquieting blend of substitute singers: alongside famed Swedish-born Wagnerian, Birgit Nilsson — herself a last-minute replacement for the departed Callas — EMI enlisted the aid of the all but unheard-of João Gibin, a barrel-chested Brazilian tenor who later changed his name to the more Italianate-sounding “Giovanni,” in place of the formerly announced Corelli; while second-stringer Andrea Mongelli subbed for Gobbi, another ideal cast member to have been dropped from the proceedings.
In volume three of the book Opera On Record, reviewer Edward Greenfield went on to blithely praise Gibin’s “beautiful shading of tone and dynamic” and his “very distinctive timbre,” which were welcome but decidedly unexpected compliments, given the tidal wave of sound registered by that titan of the turntable, tenor Mario Del Monaco, on the rival Decca set.
In spite of this lone favorable assessment, negative criticism of the whole misguided EMI venture doomed the album to back-order oblivion. It was sadly prophetic, too, of the complicated course Brazilian opera singers would inevitably take with regard to their own future lack of stability in the post-bossa nova period.
Incidentally, nothing further in the way of commercial recordings was ever forthcoming from Gibin, only a few sporadic appearances in the States, including a debut at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House in the middle-sixties, followed a few years later (on June 20, 1972) by a solitary Metropolitan Opera assignment as Radamès in Aida.
Apart from Bidu, the only other Brazilian-born, classical vocal artists to be captured by the microphones with any degree of consistency over the years have been, coincidentally enough, three lyric baritones.
An exceptionally versatile artist, with a “pure, limpid tone and a gorgeously pliant natural instrument,” the darkly handsome Paulo Fortes made his operatic debut, in 1945, as Germont in La Traviata, at the Teatro Municipal in his native Rio de Janeiro.
For the next half-century, Fortes would enjoy an immensely diversified entertainment career, appearing with many of the major stars of the day (Callas, Tebaldi, Gobbi, Di Stefano, Del Monaco, Gigli, and so forth), as well as performing on radio, in television, and in the movies.
He sang throughout most of Latin America, even traveling abroad to Italy and Portugal, but preferred to stay close to his home base in Rio. In fact, prior to his death, at age 69, on January 10, 1997, Fortes held the house record for making the most appearances at the Municipal of any artist that had ever sung there. He created the leads in Villa-Lobos’ opera Izaht, as well as in two late works by Francisco Mignone: as Francisco Gomes da Silva in O Chalaça (1972), and Vidigal in O Sargento de Milícias (1978).
His sole complete opera recording, however, was a live September 1977 “private” version of Gomes’ Salvator Rosa that came late in his career. It was released on the Brazilian Master Class label. He also recorded a number of vocal recitals, none of which are currently available. What remains are some absolutely delightful excerpts of his marvelous Gianni Schicchi on YouTube, in a 1976 performance of Puccini’s one-act comedy staged at Rio’s Teatro São Caetano. Fortes’ ringing voice and superb Italian diction are reminiscent of a young Giuseppe Taddei, while his thespian mannerisms mimic that of the late Tito Gobbi, a leading exponent of the role.
A close contemporary of his was Lourival Braga, who proved as equally adept at portraying scoundrels on the stage as Fortes had been, in particular such colorful baritone rogues as Amonasro, Barnaba, Count di Luna, Scarpia, Tonio, and Don Carlo, among others.
Although there is scant biographical information about him — he was born in 1921, made his debut as the elder Germont in 1949, and died in 1978 — Braga left behind several distinguished examples of his work, including a classic Il Guarany, which this author owned at one time, performed in the original Italian, with tenor Manrico Patassini as Peri and soprano Niza de Castro Tank as Cecília, along with the same composer’s Lo Schiavo; both were from 1959 and made in Brazil by Chantecler.
A live 1970 performance of Guarany at Rio’s Teatro Municipal, conducted by Santiago Guerra and starring tenor Assis Pacheco, with Braga again as the villain Gonzalez, was recently reissued in CD format by Master Class. Heavily cut and in mono, it is primarily of historical interest to fans.
A trio of thrice-familiar Puccini operas, made in Bulgaria, of all places, for the budget company Frequenz — one of Tosca with soprano Raina Kabaivanska, tenor Nazzareno Antinori, and conductor Gabriele Bellini; another of Madama Butterfly, again with Kabaivanska, Antinori, and Bellini; and a third of Manon Lescaut with the same team — co-starred Brazilian baritone Nelson Portella, a favorite with European audiences of the seventies and eighties.
The possessor of a warm and mellifluous singing voice, Portella’s parts in these frequently performed soprano showcases, while still fairly involving dramatically, could hardly be termed as true operatic tours de force. Opposite the splendid recorded competition (and there were many to contend with and choose from, to be certain), the vocally lightweight Portella came off as a dependable but dull routiner, an also-ran before he ever left the starting gate.
Plenty of Pop Stars
So where had Brazil’s myriad opera talents migrated to all these years? Why were there so few classically trained performers around to fill the empty stage left vacant by the departure of that prima donna par excellence and quintessential role model, Bidu Sayão, from the international opera scene?
One possible explanation may lie within the pop field itself. As irreconcilable as it might seem to us today, Brazilian power vocalists of the 1940s to the 1960s typically personified the penchant for over-the-top delivery that was so strongly in vogue at the time: they were considered the ne plus ultra of the Latinate style of pop singing much favored in South America’s largest country — at least, until the arrival of bossa nova and MPB.
Among female interpreters of this type were the legendary Dalva de Oliveira, the creamy-voiced Ângela Maria, and the earth-toned Eliseth Cardoso, three individual stylists who could be construed as direct descendants of the vocal tradition previously set down for them by French chanteuse Edith Piaf, and American jazz-pop specialists Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan. Impressively moving artists in their own right, they epitomized the raw brand of this emotional, all-or-nothing approach to popular song that had so imbued Brazil’s version of the hit parade.
On the distaff side, there was (from an earlier generation) the lyrically trained Vicente Celestino, followed, in my own time, by Agnaldo Rayol and Agnaldo Timóteo, three charismatic male performers who possessed powerful tenor-like voices, with all the requisite richness and passion necessary for full-throated vocalizing of the operatic kind.
One of them, Agnaldo Timóteo, was widely acclaimed for two solid hits from the sixties, the romantic “Meu grito” (“My Cry,” R. Carlos-E. Carlos) and the tender “Mamãe” (Gall-Aznavour), a sweetly sentimental paean to Brazilian mothers everywhere. The other, Agnaldo Rayol, with his fluffy, pompadour hairstyle and choirboy good looks, physically resembled the once fashionable African American pop crooner Johnny Mathis.
Mathis, it should be noted, had once taken up serious vocal studies near the start of his career, but abandoned his operatic pursuits in the mid-fifties in favor of the more lucrative song sphere. His smooth-as-silk ballad style became instantly recognizable through the liberal use of head tone and falsetto; whereas Rayol’s more robust sound can best be defined as having a cutting edge to it, what in Italian is often referred to as squillo (pronounced SKWEE-lo, and not to be confused with esquilo, the Portuguese word for “squirrel”).
Squillo is a term used to identify the visceral, penetrating ring in the upper-middle to top-third of the male tenor voice, a somewhat indefinable trait not all members of that voice category can lay claim to. Ideally, Rayol had this quality in spades. Why he chose the popular song route over a possible career on the operatic stage, after having been blessed with such a remarkable, God-given endowment, is not immediately clear. That he had the right equipment in his larynx, however, is absolutely without argument.
Like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett before him, two immortal American artists who went through numerous ups-and-downs in their long musical pathways, Agnaldo Rayol had a late-blooming vocal resurgence, characterized by his warbling of the trenchant main theme to the hugely successful soap opera Terra Nostra, “Tormento d’amore” (Viana), sung as a duet with Welsh singing star Charlotte Church.
Their 1998 Italian-language recording of the number was an unparalleled cultural phenomenon in Brazil, and became, undeniably, Rayol’s most financially prosperous pop foray in years, resurrecting his sagging singing career at a relatively late stage in his professional life.
It also sounded in eerie imitation of an earlier 1996 Euro-pop confection, “Con te partirò/Time to Say Goodbye” (Quarantotto-Sartori), recorded jointly by tenor Andrea Bocelli and soprano Sarah Brightman. That trite tune spirited the blind Bocelli to the top of the crossover charts, where he has encountered substantial media coverage ever since, however debatable (or unmerited) that may be.
This was not the first time that an Italian popular song had heightened Brazilian awareness of this crowd-pleasing musical sub-genre.
A major event of 30 years prior, one that did much to signal the final transition over into the pop-music world — and nearly single-handedly derailed the classical “gravy train” in the country, once and for all — was the participation, in the 1968 San Remo Song Festival, by Jovem Guarda (“The Young Guard”) emblem and Brazilian pop sensation, singer and songwriter-turned-TV host Roberto Carlos Braga.
A former radio balladeer, who rose to fame with such ersatz song titles as “É proibido fumar” (“Smoking Not Allowed”), “Quero que vá pro inferno” (“Let it All to Go to Hell”), “Mexerico da Candinha,” and others, Roberto, along with his sound-alike co-host and songwriting partner, Erasmo Carlos (no relation), were inspired, as many of their generation had been, by the sixties pop sounds of The Beatles, The Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and other British Invasion groups (known as iê-iê-iê, or “yeah-yeah-yeah” music, in Brazil).
Roberto’s winning entry, “Canzone per te” (“A Song for You”), a sappily written love ballad by Italian composer-performer Sergio Endrigo, was a Neapolitan-inspired romanza aimed squarely at Brazilian youths’ recurring obsession with italianità and the obviously partisan Mediterranean judges of the contest.
At that fortuitous moment, O Rei Roberto proved that he could deliver the finished goods as well as, if not better than, most of the mediocre talents that had comprised that year’s list of song candidates, thus securing for himself (in Brazil, anyway) the perennial and undisputed title of “The King” of pop music — Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson aside.
The Brazilian Ratings Battle
As it eventually played out, the real struggle for audience attention had already begun to be waged on Brazilian television during the mid-1960s in the form of live televised song festivals, but with a slightly different twist: it was not to be a battle against opera or classical music at all, but between the burgeoning Brazilian rock and MPB factions.
This openly competitive situation,* brought about by the rivalry of these two popular entertainment forms, quickly led to their becoming a regular weekly feature on TV Excelsior and TV Record, the two major networks of the time.
Strangely enough, this same type of domestic programming has even permeated the popular culture of American television of late, what with the recent rebirth of song “contests” recycled as reality shows (with the prime-time mega-hits American Idol, The X Factor, America’s Got Talent and The Voice leading the way) ruling much of the TV-ratings game.
In Caetano Veloso’s candid look at the era, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, the all-consuming, all-pervasive influence that was exerted on promoters, performers, and viewing public alike by this new and highly attractive musical format was convincingly depicted by the Bahian singer-songwriter in surprisingly matter-of-fact fashion:
“After this  festival, producers at the other broadcasting company were also more receptive, and initiated a kind of programming that would transform television as much as music. The idea of song competitions had been borrowed from the San Remo Festival in Italy, but in Brazil, after the success of the first one, it was to acquire different characteristics and carry a different sort of weight. Elis Regina’s performance [of the song ‘Arrastão’] had shown the owners of TV Record how broadly appealing MPB could be with the Brazilian public, the scope of its potential audience as well as prestige… MPB started to be taken seriously in Brazil, in every sense: from the specifically musical aspects to the literary and the political, there was an aura of mission connected to the songs.”
As a result of this sudden flush with success, fast-rising pop-rock artists of every stripe and persuasion, including the aforementioned Roberto and Erasmo Carlos, Wanderley Cardoso, Wilson Simonal, Elis Regina, Jair Rodrigues, Wanderléa, Chico Buarque, Jerry Adriani, Renato e Seus Blue-Caps, The Fevers, Os Incríveis (“The Incredibles”), and Ronnie Von; to be followed later by Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee and Os Mutantes, Edu Lobo, Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia, Gal Costa, and Tom Zé; in addition to Italian pop favorites Rita Pavone, Gigliola Cinquetti, Gianni Morandi, Massimo Ranieri, and others, would reign supreme (for a time) as the “New Young Guards” of the living room.
In the same, inexplicable manner that Carnival and samba had meshed into a feverish, tropical goulash of colorful rhythmic delights, Brazilian rock and popular song had somehow come to terms, and agreed to peacefully “coexist,” in that genuinely affecting way the Brazilian people seem to have of ingesting non-native musical forms. And, most intriguingly, of turning out lush, finger-snapping works of deceptively simple structure, despite the presence of so much political and economic turmoil, particularly during the military years of the mid-sixties to early eighties.
Although opera (and by that, we mean Italian, French, and German opera) had thrived in a few isolated corners of the country — invariably contracted out to visiting artists, foreign conductors, and outside production interests — it would continue to be systematically clobbered into the back-pages of the obituary section by the envious demigods of Brazilian popular music, once they grabbed hold of the entertainment headlines.
And they still refuse to let go, as witnessed by the disastrous decline in new and complete opera recordings and by the rapid slimming down of the classical-recorded repertoire by the prime international record companies.
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* Nelson Motta, who was one of dozens of qualified participants, described it as “a veritable musical war. Debated passionately on street corners and in bars, in drug stores and in funeral parlors, Brazilian music, young guard or not, was the topic of the moment at the beginning of 1966.”
“I Am That I Am…”
Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone opera Moses und Aron, unjustly portrayed in the classical-music media as a “jumble of dissonant cacophony” and a “tough intellectual exercise,” has forever stood on the fringes of the standard repertory.
Its Viennese-born Jewish creator, a great-uncle to conductor John Neschling, was also credited with having supplied his own libretto, much as another musical marvel, the revolutionary Richard Wagner, had done for his works.
By 1932 the score had all but been crafted for the first two acts, when ill health and the rising tide of the Third Reich forced Schoenberg to flee the following year to America, where he took up successive teaching posts in Boston, Los Angeles, and briefly Chicago.
While the composer later revised the text to Act III, the work was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1951, despite his directive to perform the final act as a spoken “pendant” to the two completed ones — a practice not normally complied with in actual performance.
What remains, then, is an unparalleled opera-going experience where philosophy and theology converge in a head-on clash over ideas: the conflict of biblical prophet Moses and his views of a benevolent, all-powerful Supreme Being (“omnipresent, omnipotent, unimaginable”); and that of his brother Aron’s slicker, more down-to-earth version, a simplistic solution for mass consumption that the children of Israel could more easily swallow and grab on to.
Their dialectical debate ends in the Second Act, with Moses’ heart-wrenching cry, “O Wort, du Wort das mir fehlt!” (“Oh Word, thou Word that I lack!”), let out as an audible affirmation of his inability to give form and definition to what is, in essence, formless and indefinable.
Most visionary artists have felt this same need for understanding, with some of them taking their frustrations out to absurdly preposterous lengths.
A good case in point is Brazilian director Gerald Thomas, who staged a well-received 1998 production of Schoenberg’s complex theater piece in Graz, Austria; and whose personal artistic credo — that “words are less important and more restrictive than images” — has often driven him to the outer limits as well of postmodern visual expression.
But his most recent interpolation of Tristan und Isolde, unveiled in August 2003 at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, almost rang down the curtain once and for all on his notoriously controversial stage career.
As a stunned assembly watched in amazement, the drama unfolded with a couple of novel “touches” unwisely added in, including a masturbating woman, a chorus of Hasidic Jews, a fashion show, and a riotous, cocaine-addicted appearance by none other than Sigmund Freud, the protagonists’ de facto analyst. The entire affair took place not in Wagner’s mythical Cornish kingdom but in the good doctor’s private consultation quarters.
This is exactly the sort of cultural “event” most Europeans have grown accustomed to over the years, what with their constant exposure to such personality-driven régisseurs as Patrice Chéreau, Walter Felsenstein, Goetz Friedrich, Harry Kupfer, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, and Giorgio Strehler, to name but a few.
The same cannot be said, however, for more tradition-bound Brazilians, who when it comes to their favorite operas like them served up with all the classical trimmings. Greeted at the end with a judicious salvo of boos and catcalls, Thomas turned his back to the audience, dropped his green-colored underpants, and flashed his bare buttocks at them.
“You could have heard a mosquito fly past,” he claimed afterwards.
For his maverick efforts the authorities slapped Thomas with a public indecency charge. “Surprising in a country that we love for its openness to all kinds of political and social dialogue,” American composer Philip Glass was quoted as saying in his defense. “The act itself was not obscene. What they are objecting to is an artist replying to his critics, and knowing Gerald’s work, he would of course choose a theatrical response.”
Thomas even refused a plea-bargain agreement, stating in effect: “If I pleaded guilty, what would that say to my fellow professionals and later generations of artists? Don’t do anything risky? I don’t accept the fact that I committed a crime because I decided to ‘moon’ the audience in my own theater.
“I joined the music of Wagner, an anti-Semite, with the ideas of Freud, a Jew that changed thought and the art of the twentieth century. But I thought that I had created a pretty formal opera with a thoughtful concept. Fashion really does kill passion, especially in a piece like Tristan und Isolde.”
It very nearly killed his chances at directing future theater projects, too — but if chutzpah were an accredited field of study, then Gerald Thomas would hold a doctoral degree in it.
Indeed, anyone familiar enough with the wacky world of the avant-garde, and the vast laundry list of Thomas’ bizarre stage works, can attest to the claims made against him, labeling the audacious director as “profoundly ridiculous,” “an incurable crackpot,” and “a precocious boy who went senile at the age of thirty.”
Others have hailed him as a “genius,” a “pop star,” and “the most lively and animated presence on the moribund stage of the Brazilian theater today.”
It’s fair to assume by these colorful, off-center epithets that one can never be certain of anything that has ever emerged from this nonconformist’s wildly vivid mind-set.
“I have become a presence in Brazil’s cultural life,” he told The New York Times as far back as 1988. “People are already talking about the pre-Thomas and the post-Thomas eras of Brazilian theater.”
His lack of modesty aside, Thomas epitomizes the commonly held notion that “to be an artist is to not recognize frontiers.” In that sense, he shares similar circumstances with another iconoclastic colleague, maestro John Neschling: both come from Jewish backgrounds, both grew up in Rio de Janeiro — although born in New York City in July 1954, Thomas immigrated to the South American port at around age seven — and both are equally at home in Europe, North America, and their native Brazil, despite not always feeling welcome there.
Negative criticism has nonetheless played a crucial part in Thomas’ daily regimen since the mid-1970s, when he first dedicated himself to a life on the stage at London’s famed National Theatre.
“I was the youngest director to enter and also the quickest to leave,” he commented to the Brazilian magazine Veja. “I debuted there with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which all the newspapers bad-mouthed. At the Theatre, no one dared look me in the face, so I took my piece off the marquee. Fortunately, an American producer [Broadway’s Joseph Papp] told me I was in the wrong city. I then moved to New York and staged the same piece again. This time, it came off without a hitch.”
Working in the Big Apple between 1979 and 1984, Thomas expanded his professional horizons at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, and at La Mama Experimental Theater in Greenwich Village. Thanks to Papp and early mentor Ellen Stewart, he presented numerous off-off-Broadway works by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, a past master of the absurd and a close personal acquaintance, until his 1989 passing.
Anyone for Dry Opera?
Upon his return to Brazil in 1985, Thomas formed the Dry Opera Company in the Manhattan-theater-district equivalent of São Paulo. The group eventually relocated to Rio in November of 1999.
“Dry opera,” as it came to be called, is an original Thomas creation, an innovative style of theater that incorporates, in the words of New York Times reporter Alan Riding, “a cinematographic use of lights and blackouts, prerecorded music, almost choreographic acting, and a sort of anti-language he describes as ‘verbal hemorrhage.’ ”
How have all these elements combined to help further the audience’s appreciation for, and understanding of, his vanguard ideas about art?
“Text is only one aspect of theater,” Thomas explained. “The other aspects are the setting, the sound effects, the music, and the lights… As written language, they may not be understood, but visually they will be sensed. And anyway, when does ‘understanding’ come? When a piece ends? An hour later? A week later?”
This is true. Although Schoenberg’s serial Moses was made to suffer by the difficulty he faced putting words to his personalized vision, Thomas has had no such qualms about the integrity of his own speech, or the skill he employs in using it: “Puns are my real interest, visual, philosophical, musical puns that subvert meaning. It’s good for any artist to machine-gun conditioned values.”
A brilliant marketer and self-promoter, he is fluent in several languages: Portuguese, German, and British-accented English. He relishes, too, the wider latitude a strictly theatrical forum has allotted him as a means of artistic expression throughout the span of his thirty-plus-year career. But in art, as in life, there are limitations.
There are times when even Thomas has gone too far in the liberties he has taken with the sacrosanct work of others. For example, in 1987 he presented a trilogy of Franz Kafka pieces, one of which, a stage adaptation of the Czech writer’s The Trial (O Processo), made heavy use of music from Wagner’s final opera Parsifal — a first for Thomas — sandwiched between a score by Glass and Brazilian cellist-composer Jaques Morelenbaum.
It was also an occasion for the inventive director to replace the original text with his own imposition of ideas. “I don’t need Kafka’s lines,” said Thomas, “I just need his ambiance. I can make better use of him by putting other lines in the bucket he has created.”
The year before he staged Carmen Com Filtro, which, like the Kafka Trilogy, played first in repertory, then traveled successfully abroad to such places as New York, Vienna, Munich, and Hamburg. Literally “Carmen With Filter Tips,” and based on the same Prosper Mérimée story that inspired Bizet’s popular opéra-comique, Thomas’ more streamlined approach (which included a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s “Readymade” Bicycle Wheel, an ever-present symbol in many of his subsequent stagings) boasted minimalist music by his friend and working partner, Philip Glass.
The play became one of several joint collaborations, the most elaborate and controversial of which turned up later in Rio de Janeiro, where together, in July 1989, they unveiled their Mattogrosso, a sprawling, three-part spectacular created exclusively for the Beaux-Arts brilliance of the Teatro Municipal. It was billed as the first true “environmental opera.”
Expectations naturally ran high, but the writer-director was severely rebuked by critics, mostly for his “marvelous capacity to stage his deliriums, puns and piles of cultural references.” One journalist went so far as to describe the work as “a repugnant nightmare,” while another felt that, “Visually, it was beautiful, but it seemed to be at the service of emptiness.”
And as for Glass’ highly touted musical score, “It was irritating. It also had nothing to do with Thomas’ play.” The composer himself called Mattogrosso “a collage of images. My music gives it a musical window to look through.”
Still, how can one dismiss a piece outright that mixes three pillars of European cultural history — William Shakespeare, Charles Darwin, and Richard Wagner — with American comic-book characters Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Batman?
As usual with the eloquent Mr. Thomas, his reaction to the chaos around him was maddeningly oblique: “I am trying to transform the sung aria, the didactic aria, into a scenic thing. [That’s why] I use enigma. You have to let the audience complete the puzzle.” And so it goes.
Yet the basic question for Gerald Thomas remains: what would he accomplish with a standard repertory assignment — the complete Ring cycle by Wagner, for instance, a project “made-to-order” for his peculiarly fertile imagination? Would he get away with subverting the master’s well-known text, or would mere visual subversion be sufficient?
Audiences have already experienced his radical reworking of the same composer’s The Flying Dutchman in Rio (1987), set at the Berlin Wall, as well as Ferruccio Busoni’s eclectic Doktor Faust for Graz (1995). How about trying something more stylistically challenging for a change, say, new productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro at the annual Glyndebourne Festival?
Similarly, Beethoven’s lone opera Fidelio and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande are also up for grabs and, theoretically, waiting in the wings. Would he consider instead a lavish Baroque piece by Handel, or a less stately form of eighteenth-century entertainment?
At this point, even a Johann Strauss operetta or two will do. And let us not forget the great Italian composers, Verdi, Puccini, and Rossini: how would they fit into the overall Thomas stage-picture?
It is high time the talented 58-year-old came in from the outer fringes of the avant-garde and joined the modern ranks of the classical mainstream — without compromising his outré principles, of course. Surely, that would be his greatest coup. He could conceivably spice up operatic life as we know it, given his far-fetched, Freudian account of Tristan for Rio.
What is still not known about him, as far as the theater world is concerned, is if and when he will run out of bold ideas before his own third act is complete. (In August 2009, he decided to take a leave of absence from the stage, which coincided with the closing down of his online blog. Nine months later he was back in action.)
Some say past performance is no indication of future events. Not so with the savvy Thomas: when all has been said and done and written about him, he is still “barely” getting started. ☼
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes