When the Stars First Came Out
As the soprano concluded the last of her encores and was savoring the applause of an appreciative public gathered to hear her command performance at the White House in Washington, D.C., then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enthusiastically approached the fragile-looking figure before him and complimented Bidu Sayão on a most enjoyable concert program.
In the same breath, he casually proposed to the Brazilian singer an immediate American citizenship — most likely a calculated gesture on his part, motivated by his administration’s bold dedication to the policy of the upcoming “good Northern neighbor.”
Obviously flattered by her host’s generous offer, the gracious Bidu politely declined. “Thank you, Mr. President,” she was acknowledged to have replied, “but I am a Brazilian artist and would like to die as one.” The date was February 1938.
A little over a year later, on May 17, Broadway producer Lee Shubert, of the Shubert Brothers Theatrical Company, was getting ready to greet another Brazilian artist, one whose ship had just pulled into New York harbor, with her band and retinue in tow.
She was scheduled to make her U.S. stage debut in Shubert’s 1939 musical revue The Streets of Paris, a show that featured the local appearance of comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.* The artist’s name was Carmen Miranda.
Disembarking from the S.S. Uruguay, she was met by a horde of big-city newspaper reporters, all eager to record the spontaneous comments of this sizzling new Latin sensation. Carmen did not disappoint them. Her first words to the waiting crowd were reported to have been, “I say money, money, money, and I say hot dog! I say yes and I say no, and I say money, money, money, and I say turkey sandwich, and I say grape juice,” and so on.
These two radically distinct responses, and seemingly unrelated occurrences, would come to denote to the Brazilian artistic community at large that, for a precious lucky few, living and working in North America — even while earning fame and fortune on her streets and in her theaters — would prove to be a most illusory pursuit.
They would also serve to teach multi-talented Brazilian nationals some valuable life lessons in the world outside their native land: that the pains and compromises, glories and frustrations, triumphs and disappointments all such artists regularly endured for their art were no substitute for the loss of their individual identity.
To paraphrase a line from Rudyard Kipling, rare were the artists that could keep their own heads, when all about them others were losing theirs. And there exist no finer examples of this than the stories of these two marvelous Brazilian singers.
Certainly, the old truism that “good things come in small packages” was never more so than in describing the physically compact and vocally alluring attributes of the lovely Bidu Sayão and the electric Carmen Miranda. In reverse proportion to their small stature, they were the central figures in Brazilian opera and popular entertainment for the better part of 30 years.
Prima Donna Par Excellence
Formally trained in Brazil and Europe, and deeply influenced by legendary Polish tenor Jean de Reszke and by her second husband, the Italian baritone Giuseppe Danise, Bidu Sayão was Brazil’s most well-known classical vocal export — and every inch an opera star of the first magnitude.
Although christened Balduína de Oliveira Sayão after her paternal grandmother, she would forever be known by the simple nickname “Bidu.” Indeed, simplicity and restraint, in matters both personal and professional, were to become the hallmarks of her fame.
She was born on May 11, 1902, in Rio de Janeiro, to a socially prominent upper-class family, which relocated to the beachfront district of Botafogo when Bidu was but five years old. Tragically, her father died shortly thereafter, thus depriving her of a masculine role model and leaving the poor girl to her own juvenile devices.
Playful and tomboyish, with a unique flair for fun and mischief, the incorrigible Bidu was never to attend public school with the other children of her age group; she was instead to receive private tutoring at her mother’s home up through the age of sixteen. But the independence and resourcefulness she first exhibited in her youth would later manifest themselves on the operatic stage in many of her most memorable comic parts, especially those of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Adina in The Elixir of Love, and Rosina in The Barber of Seville.
Soon after her father’s untimely demise, Bidu’s older brother would assume his rightful place as the family patriarch, but the real seat of power would always remain with her mother, Maria José. Significantly, though, the absence of a strong male figure in her formative years may well have been one of the root causes of Bidu’s early marriage to a man three times as old as herself.
Yet even before this would come to pass, the choice of a theatrical profession for a society debutante from Rio was much frowned upon at the time by the privileged upper stratum. Recalling the event some years later, Bidu commented that, “Going on the stage was absolutely out of the question for a girl born to a respectable family.”
This aspect of her early life struggles was charmingly captured in a 1940s comic-book depiction of her life entitled Boast of Brazil. In it, the young fourteen-year-old is shown being scolded by her parents (the father’s death a decade before notwithstanding) about her “wrongheaded” career decision, and told, in no uncertain terms, how disgraceful it would be “for any well-brought up Brazilian girl even to consider such a thing.”
Not to be dissuaded, the typically resilient teenager pleaded with her lawyer uncle, Dr. Alberto Costa, to take up her cause. As a result, the musically inclined Costa became instrumental in swaying the mother’s opinion about a potential singing career for her daughter, having earlier arranged for his niece to take private lessons from Romanian soprano Elena Theodorini, a former star of La Scala — who personally thought the girl too immature, and the voice too small, for such a serious undertaking.
Nevertheless, Bidu persevered. With patience, practice, and stubborn persistence, she managed to survive Madame Theodorini’s rigid voice sessions. This led to her informal 1916 debut at Rio’s Teatro Municipal in the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, an appearance that would permanently put to rest the question of a career in the theater.
Theodorini’s resolute decision in 1918 to retire from teaching and return to her native country coincided with the end of the First World War. It also gave good cause for the adventurous Bidu to accompany her instructor back to the European mainland, the first time the blossoming prima donna had ever been away from her close-knit family. Not to fear, but her mother stood close by her as chaperone throughout her years there.
The time she spent abroad, however, was indeed fruitful, as Bidu applied for and was admitted to Jean de Reszke’s famous vocal school in Nice, France, where she was the only one of his personally handpicked pupils to have hailed from Latin America.
The still elegant Polish tenor had been a leading man with New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company long before Caruso’s debut there, and was a fixture at the house for many years prior to his own retirement in 1904. He would be the next to take on the role of surrogate father to the Brazilian novice, helping to refine and perfect her diction, and instructing her in the long-lost art of French singing style and vocal technique:
“De Reszke had an extraordinary ability to evaluate the text, integrating it to the music until they became one. This was to be of enormous help to me when I took on many of the Debussy scores… [The] dazzling mad scene [from Thomas’ Hamlet] which became a must on my concert programs, became a real part of me, so many were the times he made me go over it, concentrating on the words’ essence and producing sounds that would enhance them.”
After the death of de Reszke in 1925, and Theodorini’s own passing the following year, Bidu was forced to seek assistance elsewhere in planning for her operatic future. She journeyed to Italy for the express purpose of establishing contact with former diva Emma Carelli and her husband, the noted impresario Walter Mocchi, whom she had previously heard about while living in Brazil.
Together, the couple ran the Teatro Costanzi (later changed to the Teatro Reale) in Rome, and, since 1910, Mocchi had also been responsible for the opera performances at Rio’s Teatro Municipal, as well as the summer seasons at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Mocchi took quite a fancy to the young Brazilian beauty, as did his soprano wife. Suitably impressed by the little songbird’s talents, Signora Carelli referred her to maestro Luigi Ricci for training in operatic repertoire; and on March 25, 1926, Bidu Sayão made her European debut at the Costanzi as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, later adding Gilda in Rigoletto, and Carolina in Il Matrimonio Segreto, to her growing list of stage roles.
Her success in the Italian capital soon paved the way for Bidu’s triumphant return to the Brazilian one: she reappeared in Rio de Janeiro, as Rosina, in June of that year.
In the meantime, Mocchi had gone ahead and booked her for several more seasons at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo, where he had previously accepted the management’s offer of a full-time directorship. Bidu went on to perform there in a wide variety of works, including the opera Sister Madalena by, of all people, her uncle Alberto Costa, a sentimental payback of sorts for his having served as the family intermediary ten years prior.
How much Mocchi’s new position had to do with the singer’s extended local engagement, however, is not known, but it soon became a situation ripe with romantic speculation. Irrespective of the rumors that might have been generated by the physical proximity of these two individuals, fate would inevitably thrust them even closer together.
In 1928, Emma Carelli was involved in a fatal car accident in Italy. Her sudden death left a personal void in the busy professional life of Walter Mocchi, who now looked to Bidu for consolation.
It would be easy to suggest that her subsequent marriage to the much older Mocchi was a relatively stable one, but the enormous 40-year difference in their ages proved a difficult gap for Bidu to close. She later admitted her mistake, claiming: “I have always searched for my father in the husbands that I married.” They separated after a time, and were finally divorced in 1934.
The following year, Bidu would at last meet her prospective soul-mate in the person of Italian opera star Giuseppe Danise. It was during a 1935 performance of Rigoletto at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, quite possibly in one of the many moving numbers they had so often sung together at rehearsal, that soprano and baritone decided to transform their budding emotional relationship into a permanent love duet.
The couple officially tied the knot in 1946, and would remain constantly devoted to each other until Danise’s own departure from this world in 1963. He was nineteen years her senior.
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* Future Hollywood film actor, dancer, choreographer, and Broadway stage director, Gower Champion, had also been present in the cast, but only as a member of the chorus. The other participants included French singer Jean Sablon, comic Bobby Clark, and Luella Gear, all of whom have been lost to entertainment history.
There was nothing more thrilling for an untested composer from the Brazilian countryside than to be thrust into the musical heartland of Milan, the veritable eye of the operatic hurricane.
Italy after unification had been bracing for massive upheavals to its cultural plane for quite some time. No one knew exactly what to expect, Carlos Gomes least of all. One thing was certain: Verdi was still the unquestioned main attraction. On the other hand, fully half of the master’s last six works — the revenge-themed La Forza del Destino, along with the gigantically scaled Les Vêpres Siciliennes (“The Sicilian Vespers”) and Don Carlos — all had world premieres in theaters outside their home country and to decidedly mixed reviews.
But as far as prospects for the Italian stage were concerned, it would seem the Milanese were as adept at recognizing nascent musical talent as the perceptive Dom Pedro was, for while Gomes was in the city he became the talk of the industrial town — and not just for his music. Some of his greatest lyric accomplishments received their maiden appearances at Milan’s famed Teatro alla Scala, including his most celebrated stage piece Il Guarany, which premiered there on March 19, 1870.
Based on the 1857 novel O Guarani by Brazilian writer José Martiniano de Alencar, with a libretto by Italian poet Antonio Scalvini* and additional contributions from playwright Carlo d’Ormeville, this sprawling four-act opus told of the interracial love between Cecília, the daughter of a Portuguese nobleman, and Peri, a chief of the Guarani Indian tribe, in sixteenth-century Rio. Its exotic backdrop and contrived romantic relationships, involving a cultural clash similar to the ones depicted in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s posthumously produced L’Africaine (“The African,” 1865) and Verdi’s soon-to-be-premiered Egyptian spectacular Aida (1871), literally brought down the house and gave the unfamiliar new name of Carlos Gomes a high recognition factor both in Europe and in his native Brazil.
A major force behind Guarany’s success was the high-lying role of Peri. Equal parts jungle warrior and noble savage, in the literary tradition previously expanded upon by José Bonifácio, Antonio Gonçalves Dias, Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, and other so-called “Indianist” authors, Peri was primarily a figment of Alencar’s imagination, who it can be noted absolutely abhorred the composer’s operatic treatment of his work.
Regardless of how Alencar may have personally felt, the part was a rewarding one vocally and has attracted star performers from the early gramophone period on. The great Enrico Caruso left several recorded extracts, as did Giovanni Zenatello, Beniamino Gigli, and others — a remarkable demonstration of the opera’s durability over the years. French dramatic tenor Georges Thill sang the role in Rio, with Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão, at the 1936 centennial celebration of the composer’s birth, while the Spanish-born Plácido Domingo made much of the character’s feathered headdress and skirted costume for Bonn, Germany, and for Washington, D.C.’s National Opera during the mid-1990s.
Of particular interest to us is the Guarani’s courting of the beautiful donzella in distress — a highly doubtful encounter, to say the least; and Peri’s climactic spur-of-the-moment baptism into the Catholic faith by the girl’s reluctant father — reluctant, that is, to have the chieftain as his future son-in-law. (This latter aspect, or something close to it, would ring remarkably true for the composer’s stormy personal life.)
In addition to the above episodes, there were powerful choral numbers, a romantic love triangle, stirring oaths, last-minute rescue attempts, and, of course, the obligatory ballet sequence — all the grand-opera accoutrements then currently in vogue that could bring an expectant audience to its feet.
In the heat of Guarany’s between-act ovations, Gomes committed the first of his many ill-advised lapses in judgment: he sold the performance rights (an action he would come to regret) exclusively to the publishing firm of Giovannina Lucca, a distrusted rival of the established Casa Ricordi, thus denying whatever benefits the opera’s box-office receipts would have allowed him to reap. He later had a change of heart and eventually signed with Ricordi for future rights to option his works for the stage.
Nevertheless, as recounted in The Viking Opera Guide, “the opera is only as Brazilian as Verdi’s Aida is Egyptian,” with music of a thoroughly conventional nature. Begging the guide’s pardon, but this opinion was not universally shared among those in the know. “The treatment might be said to belong to the Italian school,” Revs. Fletcher and Kidder acknowledged, “but there was something so new, so fresh, so breezy, so odorous with the breath of tropical forests and tropical passion, that it at once exacted the highest praises from composers like Verdi, and from the first musical cities of Italy.”
That verbiage about “something so new” and “so fresh” may have stemmed from Gomes’ inclusion of modinhas, a type of sentimental art song of Portuguese origin, and other stylistic elements, into his opera’s framework. In the analysis of musicologist Marcus Góes, these innovations “were typical of the kinds of rhythms being done in Brazil” at the time. Unknown to most residents of the northern climates, they were interspersed liberally throughout the score “in a constant search” by the composer “for tonal variety,” as well as local color and effect.
The opera’s greatest strength, however, lay in the part that music scholars and literary historians later ascribed to it in perpetuating the national foundation myth, a modern “Dido and Aeneas” story for the ages, convincingly developed and discussed in Maria Alice Volpe’s penetrating study for Latin American Music Review:
“The myth of national origin was created out of the experience of discovery and conquest, and involved the union of the Portuguese and the Indian as a necessary condition for the birth of the Brazilian nation… Carlos Gomes’ Il Guarany corroborated Second Empire official ideology of national identity by reproducing, however oversimplified, the myth of national foundation conveyed by Alencar’s novel. The nationalization of Brazilian music offered by Indianismo during the Romantic period must be seen in the light of its ideological implications. Its use of literary subjects associated with the Indian, whether the idealized noble savage or the mythified “primitive,” did not imply the use of authentic Indian music, but the participation of Indian characters as archetypal figures in mythical narratives of national foundation and identity.”
Rumored to have been of Guarani-Indian descent on his mother’s side and of mixed Portuguese-and-mulatto blood on his father’s, Gomes was no “idealized noble savage” or “archetypal figure” come-to-life. Rather, he must be deemed fortunate that his operatic adaptation of Alencar’s “mythical narrative” came about when it did, where the expectation for something so new would conveniently come together for him — as it had for his hero Verdi’s Nabucco, introduced in the same musical city of Milan more than a generation before:
“Il Guarany caused great astonishment. The intellectuals and all the musicians wanted something new, and here, suddenly, a foreigner comes on the stage with a work that had, albeit in rudimentary form, everything that everybody wanted: more dramatic cohesion, continuity of the musical discourse, music in line with the scene, new rhythms and bold harmony.”
As a separate point of departure, the wild-eyed and unpredictable composer — a stereotypical foreign visitor in a foreign land, with a hefty lion-sized mane and dark, swarthy visage — was already being derided in the Italian press as a “misanthrope” and “a primitive,” as well as “sinister” in his outward aspect. He quickly became the brunt of put-downs and snide remarks and, through his unusual appearance and actions, closely linked in the popular mind to the opera’s main protagonist.
“When something displeases him,” the supposedly reputable Gazzeta Musicale informed its readership about one of his rehearsals, “he leaps from the chair, puts his hands on his vast hair and starts to run around the stage as if possessed, screaming like a savage in alarm very similar to the Guaranis…”
This kind of scurrilous reporting did not exactly endear him to his newly formed fans. The fact that a year following Guarany’s overwhelmingly positive response in Milan, Gomes had come back from its equally triumphant booking in his home country and taken an Italian bride named Adelina — with the surname of “Peri” — to the altar only added to the speculation.
Likewise, the signal he may have been trying to send out with this fabulous New World showpiece was that Brazil, that strange and untamed backwater, could in fact be taken seriously as a place where quality art had thrived. As well, the country’s classical composers were strange and untamed men of excellence, whose work needed to be taken just as seriously. Either way, it was a most advantageous position for this strange and untamed New World artist to be in, one that encouraged him to think seriously about himself as more urban-European than rural-Brazilian.
“To my second homeland,” Gomes proudly declared, while raising his glass at an 1877 luncheon held in his honor, “the homeland of my children, to the nation that rules the world of musical art, to Italy!”
Trouble in Paradise
After Guarany, Gomes was eager to advance beyond strictly Brazilian-based story lines. He would concentrate his energies on the latest developments then taking place in his “second homeland.” As a matter of personal pride, he needed to prove to his hosts what he was capable of accomplishing on their terms. It took a great deal of conviction indeed, on the part of the self-professed “country bumpkin,” to set aside his Brazilian roots and immerse himself in the musical trends of the day — this from a man who barely spoke Italian, yet who managed to pick up both the language and the subtleties of opera in fairly short order.
Significantly, Gomes’ subsequent Italian product — Fosca (1873), his most advanced effort to date, with a plot and Venetian setting that predated his neighbor Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda by a good three years; Salvator Rosa (1874), a quasi-Verdian homage to the older composer’s grandest of grand operas, Don Carlos; and especially Maria Tudor (1879), a subject adapted from one of French novelist Victor Hugo’s least admired stage plays — all left something to be desired. They were either semi-favorably received or rejected outright by critics and public alike, and were nothing like the reception Gomes first enjoyed with Il Guarany.
The closest he came to approaching his personal best was with the popular Salvator Rosa, the most frequently performed, and most flavorful in terms of Italianate tone and content, of any of his previous attempts there. To be fair, though, his Fosca, an early experiment in operatic “realism” before the term was even in use, had been inexplicably ignored in favor of Ponchielli’s more melodious offering. Gomes labored over this work, endlessly revising it but never completely satisfied with the results. Even the participation, at the first performance of Maria Tudor, of tenor Francesco Tamagno, creator of the title role in Verdi’s Otello, and Polish bass Edouard de Reszke, whose brother, Jean, would play a crucial role in the career of the budding Bidu Sayão, were not enough to turn the tide.
Most modern researchers, such as Marcus Góes, Marcello Conati, and Lenita W. M. Nogueira, curator of the Carlos Gomes Museum in Campinas, all point to a rising nationalist sentiment in Italy during the years of Gomes’ residency there. In her essay, “O Progesso e a produção musical de Carlos Gomes entre 1879 e 1885” (“Progress and Carlos Gomes’ musical production between 1879 and 1885”), Nogueira reveals that the irascible Brazilian, now looked upon by rivals as “a kind of usurper,” had been singled out as “occupying the space [of honor] reserved for such composers as Alberto Giovannini, Cesare Dominicetti, and Franco Faccio (today practically unknown), who were,” according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper, more “deserving to be represented on the stage of the [La Scala] theater.”
Considering that, after Verdi, the composer whose works were the most performed at the same La Scala theater was Gomes himself, this was an especially backhanded rejection (but a rejection nonetheless) of the foreigner’s continued presence in the northern Italian capital. In line with this narrow-minded view, the growing question of his finances, or the lack thereof, suddenly came into play; they would continue to weigh heavily on the composer’s mental and physical faculties throughout what remained of his career.
Hints of marital strife only added to his worries. Even before the announcement of his engagement to the younger Adelina de Conte Peri, her parents had strenuously objected to the “bronze-colored savage” as a potential life partner, especially upon hearing that their daughter was pregnant with his child.
The rocky start to their union did not bode well for any long-term commitment from either party. No assault or battery charges were ever recorded; however, there was enough unpleasantness exchanged in the Gomes household to have made their home life anything but stable. “It was [as if] a lamb had been placed next to a lion,” observed former military engineer and abolitionist André Rebouças, one of the composer’s closest companions, of their uneasy relationship.
The couple filed for separation in June 1879 after eight years of marriage, with Adelina retaining custody of their five children. Infidelity was cited as the cause for the breakup, even though “irreconcilable differences” would have been more indicative of a deeper divide that existed not only between Gomes and his estranged wife, but also in the nation that ruled the world of musical art.
Sad to say, there would be no happy outcome to either story from this point on.
(End of Part Two)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* Scalvini had previously supplied the rapidly maturing composer with the text, in Milanese dialect, for a musical revue called Se Sà Minga (“One Can Never Know”) from 1867. It became a modest hit and spurred Gomes on to write another one, Nella Luna, in 1868. These early stage works served the strategic purpose of keeping the composer’s name and music alive, and on everyone’s mind, until his official operatic debut a few short years later.
“Ring” in the Works
It must have been hard for the dwarf Alberich to have given up his most prized possession, but at the end of four long nights of titanic music drama even the Nibelung’s potent ring had finally found its fateful way back to the bottom of the Rhine River.
Perhaps, in this instance, the still-flowing Amazon River could serve as a modern Brazilian equivalent to Richard Wagner’s fictional German stream and provide some form of symbolic restitution: for the real “gold” that was missing from the once-decrepit Brazilian national opera may also have been returned to its rightful owners, i.e., those talented and lucky souls hungry enough to have pursued their operatic dreams to their ultimate fulfillment.
And who might these souls be? That’s an excellent question. We might also wish to inquire about another, more fundamental issue at hand: what is the real future of opera in Brazil today? Along with the opera goes the health and well-being of classical music and high culture in general, with (ultimately) the preservation and dissemination of their musical heritage as a possible, and doable, long-term goal.
These are serious matters that have been probed and poked about many times before, but until now no real solution has been forthcoming. We shall, however, deal with the former problem first, namely that of potential rising stars on the Brazilian operatic horizon.
In truth, the floodgates of operatic opportunity have previously been flung wide open to reveal a brand-new generation of Brazilian-born professionals. There now appears to be a modest surplus of superbly skilled stage performers willing and able to heed the call — a minor miracle in itself — with most of them strategically placed to take advantage of their pending international status.
A few are already known quantities to Brazilian opera-goers: conductor Roberto Minczuk; bass Luiz Ottávio Faria; soprano Cláudia Riccitelli; baritone Paulo Szot; bass-baritone Lício Bruno; mezzo-soprano Céline Imbert; and tenor Fernando Portari. Their individual contributions have raised the standard of operatic performing inside and outside their home country.
The Best is Yet to Come
A formidable French-horn player since early youth, and a graduate of Manhattan’s prestigious Juilliard School of Music, São Paulo-born Roberto Minczuk (of Ukrainian ancestry) learned the orchestral ropes from the bottom up under the tutelage of such experienced musical hands as maestro Eleazar de Carvalho and composer-conductor John Neschling, who, in 2001, wisely tapped his young protégé to act as co-artistic director and principal guest conductor of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (Osesp).
Shuttling back-and-forth from his native Brazil to various North American and European venues, Minczuk was eagerly courted as well by the management of the New York Philharmonic to become its new associate conductor for 2002-2003. His most recent appointment was as music director of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, commencing with the 2006-2007-concert season.
Minczuk’s operatic credentials include stints at the houses of Berne, Basle, and Lyon, and both Municipal Theaters of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. An unexpected career highlight for him was a surprise 2004 Latin Grammy Award, in the Best Classical Recording category, for his live rendition (with Osesp) of the symphonic works of Brazilian bossa-nova king, the inimitable Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Having made his operatic debut at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”), opposite fabled Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi — talk about starting out at the top — carioca native Luiz Ottávio Faria went on to further grace the world’s stages, from Lisbon, Mexico City, Montreal, and Vienna, to the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park, where he co-starred in an acclaimed revival of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town.
His wide-ranging repertoire has covered a whole slew of standard and not-so-standard bass roles: Zaccaria in Verdi’s Nabucco, Marcel in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, Alvise in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (at Carnegie Hall), Lycomides in Handel’s Deidamia, and the Innkeeper in Humperdinck’s rarely performed Königskinder (“The King’s Children”).
Faria made room on his crowded 2005 calendar for several key engagements, including those of the Captain of the El Dorado in Daniel Catán’s florid theater-work Florencia en el Amazonas, for Seattle Opera; and three performances each of Nourabad in Opera Carolina’s production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, in Charlotte.
At a mid-April 2002 performance in Rio as the blind king Timur in Puccini’s Turandot, Faria divided the Municipal’s illustrious stage platform with his beautiful Brazilian colleague Cláudia Riccitelli, who played the sympathetic slave-girl Liù.
A green-eyed, strawberry-blonde from the Southeastern city of São Paulo, Riccitelli has put her stunning good looks and penetrating voice to purposeful use in such pivotal assignments as Pamina in The Magic Flute, Nedda in Pagliacci, Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann, the title role of Gomes’ Fosca, and the priestess Adalgisa in Bellini’s bel-canto masterwork Norma, in the rare, original soprano scoring of the part.
In addition to being a committed recitalist (with Benjamin Britten’s celebrated song-cycle Les Illuminations given prominence), Cláudia has appeared as a soloist in a wide variety of demanding sacred-music parts, among them Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mozart’s Coronation Mass in D minor, the Magnificat of Johann Sebastian Bach, and Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, which helped launch the newly refurbished Sala São Paulo Concert Hall, in July 1999.
She also participated in composer Carl Orff’s hedonistic choral showpiece Carmina Burana alongside a fellow paulistano, the gifted Paulo Szot.
Tall and lithe, the second-generation Polish descendant Szot has had a distinguished overseas career of his own, after first completing his musical studies in Krakow and Warsaw, where he made his official debut. The baritone went on to gain critical notices abroad with such flamboyant stage personalities as Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Rossini’s Figaro in The Barber of Seville, Marcello in Puccini’s La Bohème, and Belcore in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love.
Szot’s initial interpretations in his home country included the villainous Gonzales in Il Guarany, the gentlemanly protagonist in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the title-character’s mercenary brother Lescaut in Massenet’s Manon (which he also performed at the Met Opera in 2011) and the swaggering toreador Escamillo in Carmen, a character he naturally gravitated to, and triumphantly took to the stage of the New York City Opera in 2003.
In 2008, he captured the plaudits of Big Apple audiences with his heart-on-sleeve portrayal of Emile de Becque in the Lincoln Center revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, winning a coveted Tony Award for his efforts. Szot made his highly-anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut in the 2009-2010 season with a new production of Dimitri Shostakovich’s rarely heard The Nose.
His first foray into heavier Wagner territory led to favorable reviews for his smoothly sung Biterolf in the controversial Werner Herzog staging of the opera Tannhäuser, for Rio de Janeiro, in June 2001.
The principal, lower-voiced lead of Wolfram in that production was undertaken by another Brazilian singer, the carioca-born Lício Bruno, who gained well-merited recognition in 2005 for his glowing portrayals (“noble and warm-voiced”) of Wotan and the Wanderer, in the first-ever Amazonas Opera Festival presentation of the complete Ring cycle by Wagner.
Previously in Rio, Bruno sang the role of the evil knight Telramund in the same composer’s Lohengrin in 2004. Hopefully, he will not be typecast in this more strenuous vocal Fach, for the previous spring he was an absolutely smashing four villains — Lindorf, Coppélius, Dappertutto, and Dr. Miracle — in Jacques Offenbach’s unfinished masterpiece The Tales of Hoffmann.
The part of Wotan’s harried mate, Fricka, in the Amazonas Ring was faithfully re-enacted by mezzo soprano Céline Imbert, another native of São Paulo, and herself a past veteran of several Wagnerian excursions, chief among them the goddess Venus, in Herzog’s re-working of Tannhäuser; and the troubled Valkyrie Waltraute in Götterdämmerung, for Manaus, in both 2004 and 2005.
Imbert has achieved noteworthy successes with the likes of Carmen, Delilah, Dido, and Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow, the so-termed “sexy sirens” of the operatic stage, in addition to challenging soprano sojourns (in Madama Butterfly, Andrea Chénier, and Tosca) early on in her vocal career.
She performed the part of the forceful Queen of Samarcanda, Odaléa, in the May 2002 Amazonas Opera Festival revival (note complete, including the Act II ballet) of Gomes’ long-forgotten final opera Condor, directed by maestro Malheiro and starring carioca tenor Fernando Portari.
Another former member of Rio’s star-filled Tannhäuser outing — he sang the secondary role of the minstrel Walther von der Vogelweide — and a stylish interpreter of the Mozart canon as well, Portari is no stranger to off-beat vocal opportunities, as his involvement in the April 2003 premiere of Villa-Lobos’ Magdalena in Manaus, a work never before seen in the composer’s homeland since its brief Broadway run a half century ago, would unquestionably make known.
Portari’s “firm and clear-toned” voice, along with his “roly-poly” form, are the featured attractions in Arthaus Musik’s DVD release of a 2008 Venice production (updated to the 1950s) of Puccini’s Viennese-flavored La Rondine, directed by Graham Vick and co-starring Italian soprano Fiorenza Cedolins.
Equally as impressive was the tenor’s forthright participation (as King Ferdinand of Spain) in an historic preservation project, put out by the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ, or Federal University of Rio), of the massive symphonic oratorio Colombo by Antonio Carlos Gomes — a first-of-its-kind, all-digital stereo release of the full, unexpurgated music score.
To do the work the justice it most assuredly deserved, a number of special effects were employed throughout the recording process, including offstage choruses, real cannon shots, marching bands, and a carillon of clanging church bells.
The deluxe edition of this rarely heard magnum opus even boasted a complete ninety-six-page brochure insert, with libretto in three languages (Portuguese, Italian, and English), in addition to numerous session photographs.
But the most promising (and unusual) discovery of them all — a 35-year-old male newcomer with the rather disarming name of Marconi Araújo — is a rare countertenor commodity indeed, a sensational operatic find, who hails from the Northeastern city of Olinda.
Previously trained, at an early age, as a conductor and musical-choral director in his hometown, the University of Wyoming master’s degree candidate was a surprise first-place finisher in the prestigious Sixth Annual Bidu Sayão International Vocal Competition, held at the famed Teatro da Paz Opera House in Belém do Pará, in the spring of 2005.
It was the first time a native singer of his extraordinary vocal abilities had ever been awarded such a fabulous prize inside Brazil — and in a voice category not especially well regarded there to boot.
Not only was the reward recognition long overdue, but was an exceptionally hard-fought battle for the talented young artist, every step of the way. “In Brazil, there is a negative preconception of countertenors,” Marconi explained. “Many people believe it is not a real voice and it’s difficult to find a teacher who will accept you. More than anything, I would like to change the operatic environment in my home country so other countertenors can have careers there.”
The very genuine, and unstated, difficulty present — insomuch as it might pain some heterosexual alpha males out there to hear it — could be the rather lame and reprehensible notion in the country that real men should not be singing in such a “high-lying” vocal manner. This is contrary to the musical evidence put forth by such long-established stage-pros as Ney Matogrosso, Cazuza, and Milton Nascimento, to whom falsetto and head-tone were a matter of course.
Still, a universally respected (and acceptable) operatic role model, along the dignified lines of the celebrated David Daniels-variety, may do much to alter this prejudicial perception. Marconi seems to feel it would.
“I am hoping that this will help other countertenors succeed in Brazil,” he confided. “This victory is changing the lyrical environment of our country. Maybe it will open the door to a new revolution.”
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
In this second installment of my series on teaching English in Brazil, I discuss the many challenges and problems of giving in-company lessons to employees.
Riding to Work
I go to the corner bus stop, which is about two blocks from my apartment in Zona Norte (The North Zone), and wait for the bus. I don’t have long to wait, for there are dozens of buses roaring down the avenue, one after the other — all of them spewing forth thick, black smoke as they screech to a halt in front of me.
I hop onto a bus that’s marked “Praça da República.” Thank goodness it’s not as crowded as some of the other buses arriving, all of which appear overstuffed with passengers hanging on for dear life by their fingertips and toes, and from all sorts of precarious perches and makeshift openings.
There are several points to ponder before you take on an outside teaching assignment: first, the travel time it will take you to get from one class to another; second, the form of conveyance, whether by foot, car, bus, subway or private van, that will get you there; and third, which part of the city you intend to teach in vis-à-vis where you live, or where you need to be for your next class.
This last point may be the most significant, for it directly impacts on the number of teaching jobs you are able to handle at any one time, and will tend to hold true regardless of where you live.
You can’t conceivably teach a class in Morumbi, for example, if you reside in Guarulhos; similarly, you can’t effortlessly go from a late afternoon engagement in Vila Leopoldina to an early evening lesson in Santo André, as the distances (and traffic congestion) will be too great for you to reach your destination within a reasonable length of time, particularly during rush hours.
What’s considered a reasonable length of time? That’s a good question, and not always an easy one to answer. I’ve known teachers to travel upwards of two or more hours to get to a class or teaching assignment, and very haphazardly at that. You, however, must decide for yourself what is the easiest, most comfortable, and most convenient travel time for you — and for how long you would be willing to commit to such a schedule.
Keep in mind that the daily commute, especially in the big cities, can grind you down before you know it, and, in the long run, may affect the physical state of your health and your emotional well being.
In my own case, if the potential students were more than an hour or so away by bus and/or subway, I would invariably decline the teaching assignment. It wasn’t worth the added stress of confronting traffic trauma or road rage for a few infrequent lessons a week, no matter how much the student or language school was willing to pay me.
Remember: if you are offered much more than the going rate for a particular teaching assignment, then something is not quite right. I would question it strongly.
Teaching in one’s own home or apartment can be a more viable option for the English language instructor whereby you forgo having to face the many rigors of public transportation — but your earnings potential will be severely limited, as will your teaching opportunities.
If this restriction appeals to you, then by all means go for it. However, most teachers juggle numerous job assignments at once, both inside and outside their homes, partly due to the additional income these can bring you, partly because of the inherent job diversity, but mostly out of financial and economic necessity.
Rates and Things
Which leads us into the next issue for teachers: that of how much to charge students for your wonderful classes. What’s the standard going rate for in-company lessons? And for that matter, what’s the hourly rate for teaching at home? That all depends on a wide variety of tangible and intangible circumstances.
Suffice it to say that São Paulo is the unquestioned Mecca for teaching English in the country, and because of this elevated status your rates perforce will be higher there than for most other regions.
Expect to charge less — significantly less, in some cases — if you live outside the city limits. Conversely, the cost-of-living index in another city or state may be considerably lower than in the major overcrowded urban centers. This is the inevitable and expected tradeoff of living and working in a less hectic environment.
As a general rule of thumb, the rates for private in-company lessons vary from about R$ 35 to R$ 55 reais per hour, sometimes even more. You may find that your classes are somewhat longer when you teach at a corporation (with the average duration lasting about an hour and a half) than when you have them at home. In that case, add on an extra 30 minutes to your standard hourly rate to arrive at an acceptable amount.
When in doubt, just negotiate a mutually agreeable figure with your prospective pupils. They will appreciate your having taken the time, and their personal financial situation, into consideration before your teaching fees are etched in stone. I knew a teacher who basically charged whatever her students could afford. There was one catch to this winning arrangement: she was already financially secure and only took up the teaching profession for the fun of it.
Of course, the vast majority of English teachers will definitely not be occupying such a privileged position, and will need to charge their students accordingly.
Payment for your classes is due in advance and for the entire month. For instance, on July 1, or whenever you meet with your students for the first session of the month, you will ask for the entire month’s fee for your services. There are exceptions to this and many other regras do jogo (“rules of the game”), but know upfront that this is the normally accepted and customary practice for all private teachers in the country, no matter the field of expertise.
For teaching at home the rates can be anywhere from R$ 25 to R$ 60 reais per hour, or higher. The considerations here are the neighborhood that you expect to live and teach in (of very high importance), the aforementioned financial condition of your students (equally important), and whether or not they have long-term aspirations regarding learning the language. These are some of the most tangible and quantifiable factors surrounding the topic of rates.
The more intangible ones all revolve around the current state of the Brazilian economy, which, as you may (or may not) be aware, is in perpetual flux. For now, things have stabilized somewhat and the currency under the Lula and Dilma presidencies has recovered some of its former buying power. But like most things in Brazil, the leading economic indicators cannot always be counted on to remain healthy and strong for very long.
In the entire time I taught in São Paulo, I was only able to raise my rates once, and that was back in 1997, when the economy was still considered relatively robust. And the course of the economic headwaters has a way of changing rapidly, sometimes overnight — as with the devaluation of the real in 1998. You and the rest of the population have little to no control over these aspects, so don’t spend time worrying about them: just know that they exist and may possibly interfere with the fair practice of your livelihood.
Bear in mind, also, that if you raise your rates too often or too high, you may lose the very students you hope to keep or attract, as well as get yourself into deeper financial straits than you may already be in. Don’t put up roadblocks to what could be a highly satisfying business relationship for you and your learners before you’ve had a chance to reap the full benefits.
Like the president of the Central Bank or the head of a major utility company, you should carefully review your proposed monetary modifications against the potential downsides before you contemplate passing along any rate hikes to your customers. And make no mistake about it: your students are your customers, and should be treated as such.
In addition, as a self-employed teacher you are also entitled to paid holidays, regular days off, and a reasonable vacation allowance. These must be made clear to your students before you accept any teaching assignment. This means that if you decide to take the months of January or July off for leisure time, you will still be paid the full amount of your monthly fee. Comparably, if your students decide to go on hiatus for a spell, they will need to pay for the entire month in advance in order to reserve their spots on your busy calendar.
Both students and teachers need to be flexible here, for this part of the negotiations can — and will be — a particularly sticky one to overcome. I’ve had students suddenly quit on me, the sole reason being their refusal to pay for my vacation time. And, as much as I sincerely regretted it, many times I had to bear this loss of income in silence before I would compromise what is a basic and fundamental right of all workers, i.e., to take time off to recharge one’s batteries and to be fairly compensated for it.
On the flip side, there are federal, state, and municipal employees who have not had any adjustments to their wages in quite some time. Unemployment in the country, especially in the large cities, may remain high. There will be plenty of student cancellations for you to deal with — and many of them permanently so — due to this precarious state of affairs.
There will also be thousands of native and non-native speaking teachers of English out there, just waiting for a chance to pick up the discarded strays and add a new aluno (“student”) or two to their busy agendas (“schedules”). You could be in a perfect position to profit from the turbulence. It’s all in how you view the situation.
Teachers must take all of these variables, including both the known and unknown aspects, into advisement when planning for their own financial contingencies.
First Class of the Day
The bus ride to the Centro (“downtown”) is a long but uneventful one, and that’s always a welcome sign. I walk over to the PriceWaterhouse building, register at the reception area, grab my crachá (“visitor’s badge”) from the security desk, and go upstairs to my classroom, which is on the fifth floor.
It’s 7:30 a.m., but no one’s showed up yet. That’s no surprise. It was as early for the students as it was for me, but I usually tried to arrive for class before they did. It doesn’t look good for teachers to be late as it shows a definite lack of respect or seriousness of purpose on their part. Students, however, can always be fashionably tardy.
Ten minutes go by, and then Lidia appears. She’s a teaching colleague of mine who lives just minutes away by subway, but can never seem to get to class on time. As she stifles a yawn, we talk about our respective weekends. After a minute or two, a few stragglers finally come forth to fill up the classroom, which is really more of a conference area.
It’s been a veritable battle to find a decent place to hold a class. Recent remodeling and expansion have displaced the only remaining offices available for teaching purposes. There are days when I have to play a regular round of ring-around-the-rosy with my students, as we march from one room to another in a never-ending search for empty office space, only to be told that a likely looking classroom has already been booked for an eight o’clock meeting.
Today’s class is no exception. Just as the session is about to begin, a secretary pokes her head in to announce that we can’t use the room because of an early morning conference with the department managers. So it’s back to the drawing board, as we vacate the premises in another futile quest for an empty classroom.
But thanks to the intercession of one of my students, an office miraculously materializes on another floor, only now we’re down to 60 of the original 90 minutes allotted for teaching time. We take the elevator to the second floor and quickly head for the empty classroom before someone else takes it over. Turning the knob, I realize that the door is locked. My student runs off, down the hall to fetch the key.
After what seems an eternity she returns with a bombeiro (or fire marshal), who fumbles for a few minutes with the keys on his enormous key ring until he locates the right one. He opens the door and we all file in, thanking him profusely for his timely assistance.
We attempt to follow the course book, but after this morning’s escapade no one seems particularly interested in class work. We decide instead to spend the next fifteen minutes talking about the weekend, the current political climate, and the latest films to hit the local multiplex, as well as other topical subjects, before moving on to the lesson. As this is an intermediate class, we’re able to discuss a much wider range of topics than usual.
These types of frustrating situations are by no means widespread, but you will find they occur more often in-company than anywhere else.
I had a student, a financial analyst in the portfolio department of Bradesco Securities, who was prevented from having further classes with me because of the questionable practices of her fellow coworkers.
Apparently, some of the employees of her department had abused the privilege of taking in-company classes by never showing up for sessions; yet they would put down on their time sheets that they were late for work due to having been delayed at class. Bradesco’s response was to institute a policy whereby all adult learners of English had to take lessons at an accredited language school outside the office — in other words, no private classes were permitted on company property.
Clearly, language instructors cannot be taken to task over this egregious example of jeitinho brasileiro, or the Brazilian method of “bending the rules.” But no matter how comical they may appear to be, these kinds of circumstances can — and quite often do — have a cumulative effect on the motivation and morale, not to mention the heightened frustration levels, of both teachers and students, who want nothing more than a peaceful and permanent place to hold an English class.
More often than not, the sharp-eyed professor is forced to improvise a tailor-made solution by employing something Brazilians call jogo de cintura, which, for most foreigners, is best translated as the ability to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds by “thinking outside the box,” what we business types used to refer to as the old “song-and-dance.” Acquiring and mastering this enviable technique can definitely help to smooth over some of life’s more effort-full patches when they do occur.
Even still, it cannot be considered a perfect solution to this perplexing problem, an example of the Catch-22 situation (you need a classroom to teach in, but one cannot be found; therefore, you cannot teach; yet your students still need to be taught; so you set out in search of a classroom), and one that was never satisfactorily addressed in any of the companies I rendered services to.
The Breakfast Club
Due to the daily diversion of having to find an empty classroom, some of my more resourceful students decided at one point to meet me at a coffee shop or restaurant in order to hold an impromptu “study” session, while we enjoyed an aromatic sip of Brazilian coffee, or a piece of that delicious French bread.
“Coffee Class,” as it came to be called, was most helpful to break the ice for new students or to get to know the ones you have better — but it could be a real chore for professional teachers.
In the first place, there’s no way to teach anything at a coffee shop. You can’t use classroom materials or learning aids if you have to stand up constantly and gulp down your stimulant; you can’t make meaningful conversation, or work on your students’ pronunciation, if they answer you with a baguette protruding from their mouths; and you can’t assist in your students’ struggles with the latest phrasal verbs if the many onlookers who step up to the counter keep interrupting by asking the attendant for another cup of carioca (a small and very strong espresso).
A restaurant or luncheonette is better than a coffee shop for regular early morning lessons. At least you can sit down for an hour or more and concentrate on a particular grammar point.
Try to choose a place that’s clean and decent for yourself and your charge, but not too pricey. If you’re lucky some students may even pay for your breakfast, courtesy of their company’s meal ticket or voucher program. This is a very welcome benefit that can save financially strapped teachers some extra change. Be sure not to overlook it.
And be cognizant of your surroundings. Looking for a place to sit near Praça da República, Avenida São João, or (heaven forbid) Praça da Sé, can be fairly intimidating. Be cautious and observant at all times, evenings as well as mornings. This is sound advice for any urban-dweller regardless of country or city.
In-Company Horror Stories
There are five minutes remaining in the class, but some of my students give indications they have to leave, so we adjourn the already shortened session and say our mutual goodbyes.
“Bye, gang,” I tell them, over the din of morning greetings and bits of hallway conversation. “See you on Wednesday. Oops, I almost forgot. Please sign the attendance sheet on your way out. Thanks a lot.”
“Bye-bye, Joe, see you later,” they intone in unison.
Most of the students I taught in-company were pleasant, eager, unfailingly polite, and from the upper-middle-class stratum of Brazilian society. Some were also very good speakers of English due to certain situational advantages (i.e., frequent overseas forays, high school in the States, parents who were native speakers) that their coworkers further down the economic food chain were not exposed to.
These socioeconomic distinctions, while not as readily apparent in more mainstream American business life, can be quite noticeable in class-conscious Brazil. They can manifest themselves in both intricate and disarming ways, such as in how your students speak, dress, look or act.
Like most normal individuals in a group situation, adult learners of English can appear at times to be manipulative, bossy, gossipy, childish, selfish, domineering, quarrelsome, jealous, suspicious and, above all, petty. Although they are generally respectful of the teacher, they do not always hold their compatriots in the same regard.
Granted, employees of firms are under a great deal of pressure nowadays to be ever more productive, but they are also overly preoccupied with making measurable improvements to their language skills.
This added level of stress can lead to some annoying personal habits, even to bizarre emotional behavior. It’s reality television brought to vivid life, as you suddenly discover that some of your formerly tolerant student body begins to express blatantly belittling opinions of their working-class brethren, while other, less stable members exhibit definite paranoid-schizophrenic tendencies.
One of my students was a manager who loved to take up class time with her personal pet peeves, and forced everyone to look at her huge album of photographs from her many overseas trips. Another manager was absolutely convinced her superiors were watching her every move, and was in a perpetual tizzy over some callous complaint the senior partner had made about her work. One time she broke down in abject resignation over her job situation, right before the start of class. It took a Herculean effort on my part to put her back together again in time for the lesson.
And then there was Luiz Antonio. His was a most “amusing” case: a bright, overachieving auditor of about 30, he missed over half his lessons due to too many late-night numbers-crunching sessions. When he eventually decided to show up for class, he complained that we were still covering the same subject matter:
“Why we are yet in that topic?” he griped.
“What do you mean?” I asked, puzzled.
“Last time I here, we do same thing, prepositions. Why never we can go in to new topic?”
I then proceeded to berate him in a fruitless attempt to make him take some responsibility for his frequent absences, as well as his total lack of desire to do even the slightest bit of homework — and if anyone needed help with his prepositions, Luiz Antonio was a prime candidate.
It was a losing battle, but from it I learned a valuable lesson, and one I must impart to all my readers: do not try to force your students into coming to class or doing their lessons. They are much too busy worrying about their careers to be able to keep up with homework.
Yet, if given half the chance, they will readily grasp at any straw as an excuse for their lame language performance. The only thing that teachers can do to circumvent this situation is to document the absences as a way to substantiate the students’ inability to pass the course or to go on to the next level.
Here’s one more “horror” story for the record. Since ours was an early morning class, Luiz Antonio would often interrupt the lesson by throwing his head way back, opening his mouth widely, and emitting a long, protracted — and very audible — yawn.
I politely hinted to him that somebody in the room needed to get some extra sleep before showing up for class, but my subtle asides went unheeded. Since he was an infrequent visitor to class at the time, I didn’t concern myself too much with his antics.
Finally, a teaching colleague of mine, who taught Luiz Antonio at another level and who did concern herself with his outlandish behavior, put a stop to his diurnal display by informing him that he was being offensive to her and disruptive to the other members of the group; that if he continued to gape in that offensive fashion she would personally escort him from the room herself.
Given that my colleague’s rebuke was a bit harsh, it did help to curb the yawning problem to everyone’s satisfaction. Everyone, that is, except good old Luiz Antonio, who promptly quit coming to class soon after that exchange, and then went so far as to file a formal complaint against my colleague with the head of the language school.
An English language instructor must adapt to the ever-changing rules of classroom etiquette in order to successfully deal with the heavy workloads of overburdened adult learners. The teacher must learn to handle the few troublesome types with the deftness of a seasoned camp counselor, and endeavor to lead the students back to the main reason why they are taking classes in the first place: to learn English, not to receive ad hoc psychoanalysis or hand-holding at others’ expense.
(To Be Continued…)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
Boo!!! It’s that time of the year again, folks, when all we want out of life is to be frightened out of our wits at Halloween (Well… some of us do, anyway). And Universal Pictures has heeded the call. Yay! They’ve re-released their “Classic Monsters — The Essential Collection” on Blu-ray disc. Yikes!!
This is a not-to-be-missed assortment of fun (tongue planted firmly in cheek) fright flicks, guaranteed to make your hair stand on end. All right, maybe they’re not as frightening as they once were — and over the years, the majority of these creature features have lost a good deal of their shock value and “bite.” Nevertheless, they’re always worth a second or third look, mostly for their well-founded status as undeniable screen classics.
Packed with trivia, memorabilia, insights, interviews, making of’s, and beaucoup bonus material, this collection will have you up nights (!) as you wade through the treasure trove of extras. Just don’t drive any stakes through that classy packaging art, okay?
As an added enticement, I’ve provided brief write-ups of the individual items included in this truly worthy set. As Edward Van Sloan once told curious audience members, in the spoken introduction to James Whale’s Frankenstein, “I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you.”
Huh! Now that’s an understatement. (It’s okay to cover your eyes during the scary parts, friends. But don’t worry, I won’t tell…)
The first of Universal’s Monster Classics is this Tod Browning-directed picture, based on a Broadway stage production of Bram Stoker’s novel. Starring Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi, who just happened to have been born in the same Transylvanian district as the bloodthirsty Count Dracula (how’s that for a coincidence?), it’s a labored, slow-moving effort, ponderous in spots and overly talkative, with some of the acting clearly belonging to another era entirely. Despite the lulls, the film comes “alive” (so to speak) anytime Lugosi is on screen. His darkly sinister stare and imposing presence and height are his most prominent features. But the best emoting of all comes from supporting player (and Universal staple) Dwight Frye as the crazed, fly-eating Mr. Renfield. Excellent camera work by Karl Freund, the misty atmosphere no doubt heightens the Gothic mood. The only thing missing is a decent film score. That said, the opening snippet from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is about all we get. The collection also features an alternate score by Philip Glass with the Kronos String Quartet, as well as a Spanish-language edition. With David Manners, Helen Chandler, Herbert Bunston, and Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing.
Having scored a direct hit with Dracula, Universal offered the part of Frankenstein’s Monster to Lugosi. He turned it down flat (“There’s no dialogue!” he was reputed to have cried). In his place, contract player Boris Karloff (real name: William Henry Pratt) was tapped for the role that forever changed the course of his life and career. Certainly Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup lent a huge helping hand in securing this picture’s place among the immortals. Colin Clive is the anxious Dr. Frankenstein, our modern-day Prometheus, who flawlessly captures the scientist’s mad obsession with creating life from dead bodies (his resemblance to comic Jim Carrey is uncanny). Clive was a chronic alcoholic who died prematurely in 1937, only two years after Bride of Frankenstein was released. The flick is a tad “livelier” than Dracula, lacking a memorable score to enliven the proceedings (that would be taken care of with the next two installments, Bride and Son of Frankenstein). Fortunately, this version restores previously cut footage of the Monster throwing little Maria into the lake. With Edward Van Sloan, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Frederick Kerr, Lionel Belmore, and Dwight Frye as Fritz.
The Mummy (1932)
Karl Freund went from cinematographer to film director with this stylish, Art Deco-derived fright flick. When the movie was originally released, it had only been a mere ten years since the incredible discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb (along with its highly publicized “curse”), so the novelty of the find was still very much on audiences’ minds. Contrary to popular belief, Boris Karloff (as Imhotep, the resurrected Mummy of the title), appears in only one scene wearing the dead man’s bandages, but for a precious few seconds. His piercing gaze, as well as his slow loping gait, were emblematic of Karloff’s acting style, which would take hold in subsequent fright features. It’s another slow one, we’re sorry to add, but the chilly atmosphere compensates somewhat for the lack of action. With the Universal stock company of players, including the ubiquitous Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, along with Zita Johann, Leonard Mudie, Arthur Byron, and Noble Johnson (the Native Chief in King Kong) as a Nubian Slave.
The Invisible Man (1933)
Claude Rains made his first motion picture “appearance” (in a manner of speaking) with this fascinating film version of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novella. This is the ultimate mad-scientist-on-the-loose epic to end all epics, with enough megalo-maniacal dialogue (“Power to make men grovel at my feet!”) and ironic twists of dark humor (“Here we go gathering nuts in May”) to satisfy any sci-fi fan. What made this feature so great, after all, were the astounding special effects for the period, painstakingly done with plaster models, process photography and double exposures. When Rains, as Dr. Jack Griffin, takes off the bandages that bind his head, he reveals… absolutely nothing. Top that, Industrial Light and Magic! Directed by James Whale, who also did the previous year’s Frankenstein. With lovely Gloria Stuart (The Old Lady in Titanic), William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O’Connor, Holmes Herbert, and E.E. Clive (Colin’s dad) as Constable Jaffers.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
It’s been called the greatest horror picture ever made – no faint praise for British director James Whale, whose iconic monster movie this is: a first-rate, and far superior, sequel to his earlier Frankenstein. Yes, it’s sentimental in spots, even downright cloying in its manipulation of the audience’s feelings for and identification with Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Yet, for the last 80 years it cannot help but wipe the floor of the competition. Colin Clive repeats his role as the restless Henry Frankenstein, who is threatened and cajoled by the eccentric Dr. Pretorius, a wild-eyed Ernest Thesiger (a fey stand-in for the director), into creating a mate for the lonely Boris Karloff. Jack Pierce’s superb makeup job for both the Monster and his titular Bride (Elsa Lanchester, in a dual role, as author Mary Shelley as well) has passed into screen legend. Expressionistic sets, bizarre camera angles, and eerily comical secondary characters – in particular, the whiny-voiced Una O’Connor, the slow-witted E.E. Clive, and the sympathetic Blind Hermit (charmingly played by O.P. Heggie) – add up to a smashing good time for all. Featuring Valerie Hobson, Gavin Gordon, Reginald Barlow, Mary Gordon, and the ever dependable Dwight Frye as Karl.
The Wolf Man (1941)
“Even a man who’s pure in heart and says his prayers by night / May become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” A medieval ode of Eastern European origin? Not exactly: this catchy little poem was the invention of screenwriter and author (turned director) Curt Siodmak. But it set the right tone for one of the 1940’s favorite film monsters: the Wolf Man, played with anguish as well as charm by the young Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney had the added advantage of having had a father who practically thrived on his long association with the horror genre (not for nothing was dad known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces”). Junior, whose given name was Creighton, was also the only actor to have played the Wolf Man, a.k.a. Lawrence Talbot, in all of Universal’s subsequent sequels. Directed by George Waggner, and makeup by (you guessed it) Jack Pierce, with Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Patrick Knowles, and Bela Lugosi as (who else?) Bela the Gypsy.
The Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Proving that Technicolor was no guarantee of box-office success, this sound version of Gaston Leroux’s Gothic tale (first filmed as a silent with the inimitable Lon Chaney as the ghostly apparition) features Claude Rains again as a rather kindly Phantom. His makeup is the weakest of Jack Pierce’s monster get-ups, though, and a big letdown for fans familiar with Chaney’s earlier death’s head figure. There’s decidedly more opera here than phantom, too, as the movie spends an inordinate amount of screen time on a silly romance between baritone Nelson Eddy (in solid voice), beauteous Susana Foster (his vocal equal – and then some!), and jealous police inspector Edgar Barrier. The opera scenes are excellent nonetheless, and provide a colorful backdrop to the secondary plot line involving poor old Claudin (couldn’t they have given Rains a better name than that?) as an aging violinist put out to pasture before his time. No wonder, what with all the comic relief among the scene-stealing supporting cast of Leo Carrillo, Hume Cronyn, J. Edward Bromberg, Fritz Feld, Steven Geray, and Fritz Leiber as composer Franz Liszt.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Though not part of Universal’s original monster contingent, the titular Creature (alternately played on land by Ben Chapman, and in water by champion swimmer Ricou Browning) became part of the new generation of screen demons with this tightly scripted, expertly executed sci-fi shocker. Filmed in simultaneous 3-D and flat versions, the story takes place in an uncharted region of the Amazon (the so-called Black Lagoon), where scientists Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and Julia Adams (in a white bathing suit, no less) have dropped anchor, in full research regalia, in order to study the fossilized remains of the supposedly extinct Gill Man. Little do they realize that the Creature is very much alive and well, and has set his sights (and claws) on the luscious Ms. Adams. It’s not quite Beauty and the Beast, but this will do for now. Great underwater photography and a terrific film score by Hans J. Salter, who was Universal’s resident composer of science-fiction and horror thrillers. Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space) directed, with veterans Antonio Moreno, Whit Bissell, Perry Lopez, and Nestor Paiva as Lucas.
Happy Halloween, everybody!!!
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
In Los Angeles, meantime, Vinicius de Moraes’ old film-making buddy and ex-comrade in arms, director-actor-producer Orson Welles, had been experiencing quite a few clashes of his own with authority figures and the body politic in relation to the final cut of his B-movie Touch of Evil.
The original distributor, Universal Studios, had wrestled the picture away from the onetime “boy wonder,” presumably for his having squandered his time, and their money, over the endless editing process — a habit-forming mode of operation taken from the well-worn pages of the Welles playbook. Universal then went ahead with re-fashioning the work to its own, less critical standards.
Basically, it was reduced to a pitiable, if not altogether indecipherable, 93 minutes of convoluted screen blather. Fortunately for all concerned, Welles left the studio a lengthy outline — a remarkably lucid, 58-page memorandum detailing how he wanted the piece to be remembered and preserved.
His wishes prevailed in the end, and, in 1998, after almost 40 years of a butchered and unrepresentative edition in continuous art-house circulation, the cult favorite was made available to fans in its pristine form — or as close to it as was humanly possible, given the lack of the director’s imposing presence to oversee the reconstruction effort.
Because of the tender loving care belatedly lavished on it, Welles’ Touch of Evil was universally acclaimed (no pun intended) as a motion-picture classic, one of the best of a long line of crime dramas known generically as film noir, or “dark film.” It was fated to be Orson’s last hurrah as far as Hollywood-style productions were concerned.
Even with that long-ago blast from the cinematic past, it was a sure bet that amateur magician Welles would conjure up fewer and fewer celluloid surprises of any lasting value or worth for the duration of his career. He finally left the celebrity limelight, on October 10, 1985, after having expired of complications brought on by heart failure and extreme overweight.
As for his former friend Vinicius, he had cashed in his own chips a few years before in July 1980. Not a particularly large man to begin with — unlike the magnificently corpulent Welles — the unprepossessing poet, playwright, and performer nonetheless spent the last decade of his life expanding his artistic horizons by touring Europe and South America, while adding to his waistline and girth.
He grew his hair out and even started wearing horn-rimmed glasses, which gave him the unflattering visage of an unkempt tortoise. He had the unusual habit as well of shedding wives at the slightest provocation. In total, there were nine Mrs. Moraes, with enough assorted flings and fancies scattered about the halls of the Civil Registry to make the average cidadão sit up and take notice.*
Despite their later bedraggled looks and somewhat sullied reputations as maverick auteurs, neither man saw his mutilated vision made whole again in his lifetime. Welles did regain a modicum of admiration and respect with the posthumous re-release of the “definitive” version of Touch of Evil. Could the same not be done for Vinicius’ theater piece Orfeu da Conceição, or its more celebrated offshoot, the movie Black Orpheus? Who would come to the venerable Brazilian bard’s aid and rescue his carioca tragedy from an ignoble end?
In a faint echo of what ultimately took place with Touch of Evil, help arrived more than 40 years after the fact — and in a not totally unexpected form, at that — in the sense that renewed interest in reviving the original inspiration for Marcel Camus’ Carnival-based Black Orpheus would come from a native filmmaker of note. Not just any filmmaker, mind you, but one of the master craftsmen of the classic Cinema Novo period (and beyond): Alagoan writer-director Carlos “Cacá” Diegues.
Along with Caetano Veloso and other impressionable personalities of their age group, Diegues, whose family relocated to Rio when he was still a young boy, had been fortunate to catch both the musical play and the movie at the time of their respective premieres.
“Seeing that play at the Teatro Municipal as a teenager in 1956 was one of the principal formative cultural experiences of my life,” Cacá revealed to The New York Times. “It not only touched me deeply; it [and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Rio 40 graus – ‘Rio 40 Degrees’] made me discover things about Brazilian reality I had not imagined before and helped set me on the road to this life I have as a maker of films.”
Diegues had a less sanguine opinion about the prize-winning 1959 movie version: “Black Orpheus is not an exploitative film. You can see that it was made with real affection and enthusiasm. Camus fell in love with Rio and its culture, but he made a superficial film about something he didn’t really understand.”
In reference to Orfeu, his own later 1999 film adaptation, written in collaboration with Hermano Vianna, Hamilton Vaz Pereira, Paulo Lins (Cidade de Deus – City of God), and João Emanuel Carneiro (Central do Brasil), the director commented to another publication about the unpopularity in Brazil of the first film version of the tale.
“It offered a certain utopian vision of the reality in a Brazilian favela,” Diegues insisted, “and perhaps people of that era could not identify with it. Perhaps prejudice had something to do with it as well. And if middle class people of today associate poverty with crime, imagine in the fifties, when the film by Camus was released.”
Righting the “wrongs” to Orfeu da Conceição (revived in Rio, in 1995, by actor-producer Haroldo Costa, the original protagonist) by treating it as a parable of urban blight, with a mass-cultural outlook and streetwise aesthetic to match — complete with mobile phone devices, deadly drug dealings, police shootouts, and the like — and featuring a hip-hop, rap-flavored funk-music score under the guidance of fellow Northeasterner Mr. Veloso, was paramount to the director’s contrasting in-your-face approach to Camus’ fondly remembered oeuvre.
“My version,” Diegues argued, “is much closer to the play by Vinicius, whose plot was part of the social context of Brazil.”
Closer, yes, but with a crucial difference, one the veteran filmmaker took additional pains to perfect: “Of course, at this point, in 1998 [when Orfeu was still in post-production], it wasn’t exactly the same as Vinicius’ play, as it was written, nor was it the film I imagined when I first saw the play. Much time has passed — the shantytowns aren’t the same, I am not the same, the world is not the same. Even cinema is not the same, so the movie is not the one I would have made in 1956.” That goes without saying. “This is a film about Rio at the end of the century,” he concluded, “not the Rio of 1956.”
Bad mouth the French flick if you must: it was still, in Caetano’s grudgingly honest analysis of the drama, “not only a moving modern and popular version of the Greek myth but also the revelation of the paradisaical country in which it was staged.”
Careful What You Wish For (You Might Just Get It)
Like it or not, there was a downside to Diegues’ long-simmering predilection for putting a more contemporary face to Camus’ idyllic vision of Rio, in that every time a beloved screen classic is redone in another moviemaker’s image — Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes and Peter Jackson’s King Kong are two examples that come to mind — it stands to be compared with the unassailable original. In that regard, Orfeu was no exception.
To put it bluntly, the Orpheus legend happened to be one of those recurring motifs that have managed, in both theory and practice, to adapt themselves almost too readily to other media — most egregiously to the operatic, cinematic, and theatrical art forms.
Why, then, would the maker of such distinguished international screen fare as Xica da Silva, Bye-Bye Brazil, Subway to the Stars, and others, risk his already assured motion-picture legacy on a story that, arguably enough, had been better told by others?
“It would be a serious mistake to see Carlos Diegues’ Orfeu as a remake of Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus,” wrote New York University film scholar Robert Stam, in as much as Latin poet Ovid’s update of the oft-repeated tale, recounted in his compilation Metamorphoses, could hardly be termed a mere replica of his predecessor Virgil’s original retelling.
“It’s keeping Vinicius’s first idea,” granted Caetano Veloso, “bringing the myth of Orpheus to the carioca shantytowns, but the ones existing today: there is a strong sense of realism, but at the same time [it] is very much a myth.”
The words “myth” and “realism,” as used here by Caetano, were the cornerstone of Cacá’s “got-to-get-it-right” project from the start, its primary purpose for being. These themes were explored in the official statement the Brazilian film director issued just prior to his movie’s unsuccessful New York debut in August 2000:
“Brazil’s image abroad had been largely associated with Carmen Miranda’s joyful and exotic extravagance. From 1959 onwards, this image has been replaced by the romanticism of Black Orpheus: a happy people, its back turned toward civilization, living, dancing and singing songs in a dreamy landscape. Since then Brazil has changed significantly, and this is what Orfeu addresses. Brazil has developed; it is now the world’s eighth or ninth largest capitalist economy. Yet, at the same time, it is one of the world’s most socially inequitable societies, with a massive gap between the poor and the rich.”
This corresponds closely to Vinicius’ earliest confrontation with this issue. From the foregoing, then, it would appear that Diegues had taken two giant steps backward in generational time, in acknowledging the appalling lack of progress within Brazil’s socioeconomic sphere as well as conceding to the current dilapidated state of the Brazilian union, so eloquently put forth in the latter half of his essay:
“Abandoned by the government, without urban services, hospitals, schools or any other sort of welfare benefits, [the poor communities on top of Rio de Janeiro’s hills] are today infiltrated by drug dealers who strategically control these impoverished areas, creating a state of constant war with the police and amongst themselves.
“Meanwhile, growth and progress have tamed the anarchy of Rio’s street carnival, turning it into an overpowering, for-profit, televised show that takes place in a stadium… Besides Carnaval, new artistic and musical experiments arise from the favelas: a fusion of traditional samba with hip-hop, a new form of political protest carried out by composers of these communities. And it is within this explosive atmosphere, in this steaming pot of fresh human and cultural experiences that Orfeu takes place.”
At the time of its writing, this kind of socially-minded missive would have fallen predictably on deaf ears, as it had for Orson Welles and Vinicius de Moraes before it. Nevertheless, we can see that it not only had much in common with the carioca poet’s 1956 declaration of his indebtedness to Rio’s black population, but a good deal more to do with Glauber Rocha’s now-classic 1965 treatise “An Aesthetic of Hunger,” an indispensable guide to the Cinema Novo mind-set (“Violence is hunger’s most noble cultural manifestation,” he once touted).
Banished from Diegues’ personalized view of Orfeu were those quaint notions from the country’s nationalistic past, the slogan Brasil, ame-o ou deixe-o (“Brazil, love it or leave it”) for one. In its place was the grim reality of present-day slum life, which poor people couldn’t very well have banished even if they wanted to; filled more than ever before with the stifling cries of hopelessness and despair his friend Vinicius would have been thoroughly appalled at, not to mention all the blemishes and contradictions a megacity-gone-wild could muster. The carioca hills were alive, all right, but with the devastating sounds of gunfire:
“It is an ode to the energy, the love and creativity that survive in the midst of violence and misery, within a complex social web where it is easy to identify injustice, but very hard to differentiate good from evil and to draw the line between them.”
The more things try to change in that persistently troubled corner of the globe, the more stubbornly they cling to life.
(End of Part Three)
* It was said that his favorite songwriting partner, Tom Jobim, once asked how many times The Little Poet intended to marry, to which Vinicius casually replied: “As many as necessary.”
Walk on the “Weill” Side
“I have never acknowledged the difference between ‘serious’ music and ‘light’ music. There is only good music and bad music… the great classical composers wrote for their contemporary audiences. They wanted those who heard their music to understand it, and they did.”
— Kurt Weill, in an interview in The New York Sun, February 1940
“It seems to me that the American popular song, growing out of American folk music, is the basis of the American musical theater… it is quite legitimate to use the form of the popular song and gradually fill it out with new musical content.”
— Kurt Weill, in a letter to music critic Olin Downes, 1949
Two quotes, two different occasions, two strikingly similar views on music’s universality and appeal. Both of these enlightened commentaries — spaced almost a decade apart, as they were — issued forth from the mouth of a German-Jewish immigrant to the U.S. noted for his enthusiastic embrace of American citizenship, in spite of Old Country ties to Europe.
Nevertheless, his candid claim to the Sun could have been tailor-made to fit the most recent addition to the twentieth century’s stagnant operatic repertoire, Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas — a 1996 Latin American homage to a fictional Fat Lady that has become rightly popular with contemporary audiences, as well as reflecting the “good” music we’ve come to expect from this hemisphere’s dwindling supply of classical composers.
Without a doubt, anyone hearing this fabulous score in the flesh can easily come away to understand, and be moved by, its emotional impact on listeners. In like manner, Weill’s riposte to critic Downes concerning the symbiotic relationship between popular song and musical theater also embraces the notion, so strongly held by writer-musician Michael Anthony Lahue, that “music, in the post-modern world, has become increasingly inter- and multi-disciplinary, [with] Brazilian musicians and composers commonly active in both the popular and the classical genres simultaneously.”
Apropos of the above, the likeliest question to be posed now is this: why has there not been a work written about a fictional Fat Man — a Brazilian Fat Man, for that matter — to entice lower and middle-class patrons, along with their more “sophisticated” opera-loving counterparts, into revisiting their local theaters after so many unproductive years in limbo?
In a word, such an attractive stage subject would be pure manna from musical heaven to the average blue-collar type, not to mention a major cross-section of Brazil’s avid theatergoers, still curious enough to take a chance on a domestic working-class drama they could more readily absorb and grab on to.
How about a play starring a character from the country’s cultural past, say, the 1940 war years? A fellow straight out of its most famous natural urban setting; that takes place in the city’s colorful lowlife section, specifically the old bohemian district of Lapa, a neighborhood once populated by loose women and loose morals, petty thieves and petty scoundrels, and even more perilous law enforcement officials?
A world reminiscent of the one German playwright Bertolt Brecht and his collaborator, the redoubtable Mr. Weill, so brilliantly encapsulated in their 1928 “cabaret musical,” The Threepenny Opera — itself a decadent Weimar Republic takeoff on English poet John Gay’s 1728 masterstroke, The Beggar’s Opera, and still widely regarded by reviewers as the “granddaddy of all the singing, stinging portraits of fat societies on their eves of destruction.”
It just so happens that such an extravaganza already exists. In fact, on August 15, 2003, the work celebrated the 25th anniversary of its world-premiere engagement (at the Carlos Gomes Theater, no less) in the region of its ignoble “birth,” lovely downtown Rio de Janeiro.
The piece in question, with the rather crude title of Ópera do Malandro (“The Street Hustler’s Opera”), was revived by the team of Charles Möeller and Cláudio Botelho (Cole Porter: He Never Said He Loved Me) — the Brazilian equivalent, shall we say, of the Great White Way’s Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim (A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd), or, from a previous generation, Robert Wright and George Forrest (Song of Norway, Kismet).
It could only have been conceived by a true, native-born Carioca — and who better to have brought the spectacle to vivid life than one of Rio’s most celebrated talents: singer, songwriter, poet, playwright and producer, Francisco Buarque de Hollanda, better known to his fans as Chico.
Indeed it was that in 1978, a full half-century after its bawdy Brecht-Weill predecessor held Berliners in thrall before Hitler’s troopers stormed their way in to the city, and nearly 250 years since the original bowed in Britain during the reign of George II, did Malandro make its initial impression on an unsuspecting — and still military-governed — Brazil.
Described as a landmark of Brazilian musical theater, it established the publicity-shy Mr. Buarque (who incidentally had spent his formative years in dual residency among the denizens of São Paulo and Rome, respectively) as a “true innovator on the national arts scene.”
The show’s premise, a localized adaptation of the two earlier versions of the tawdry tale, features criminal Max Overseas — a stand-in for the notorious Macheath, or Mack the Knife of stage, screen and popular-song fame — pitted against Duran, the fearsome proprietor of Lapa’s houses of ill repute, with Lúcia and Teresinha set up as rival love interests, and a fifth major character, the transvestite prostitute Geni (“Jenny”), thrown into the stew as Max’s ultimate betrayer.
With such memorable numbers as “A Volta do Malandro,” “Viver do Amor,” “Teresinha,” “Folhetim,” “O Meu Amor,” “Palavra de Mulher,” “Geni e o Zepelim,” “Pedaço de Mim,” and the seven-minute-forty-six-second finale “Ópera” (based on the “Toreador Song” from Carmen and other operatic war horses), this irreverent pastiche cleverly mixes the sexy tangos and chords of the era with seventies-style sambas-canções and sugary pop ballads. Bragged the play’s musical director Cláudio Botelho, “No recent musicals, not even those on Broadway, have had as many hit tunes as this one.”
Produced on what most insiders would consider a shoestring budget (“At the start, we didn’t even have money for bus fare,” Botelho recounted), it boasted a cast of 20 singers and actors, twelve full-time musicians, 75 specially crafted costumes, and a three-tiered revolving stage platform.
Turning Back the Musical Clock
As the name alternately implied, however, Malandro might have spelled a good deal of trouble in Rio city right from its opening night, a time just after severe artistic repression had placed the still reeling Brazilian nation firmly in the grip of the military.
Always a foil of the dictatorial regime’s restrictive right-wing policies, the leftist-leaning Chico, along with dozens of other politically active performers, including musical colleagues Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, was forced to confront the rigid censorship practices heaped upon his creative output.
Consequently, many of Chico’s productions from that period, among them Roda Viva (“Live Wheel,” 1967), a story about a popular singer feasted on by his fans; Calabar (1973), a historical pageant about a Portuguese traitor to the crown; and, most especially, the biting Gota d’água (“The Last Straw,” 1975), a modern reworking of the Jason and Medea legend from Greek mythology, drew the ire of the ruling class, what with their unique blend of social satire, ironic wit, and keen, metaphorical observances of life under the generals — themes that were guaranteed not to win him friends in high places.
In the middle of this political maelstrom, Chico resolved in 1969 to cool things down a bit with the brass by leaving Brazil for a brief self-imposed European exile. Returning a year later to Rio, he found the country still under the Army’s sway and only slightly less intolerant of his polemic song structures.
Having so far succeeded in thumbing his nose at the authorities — an attitude dictated by his standing in Brazil’s intellectual community, to include lyricist Vinicius de Moraes and his own father, historian and sociologist Sérgio Buarque de Hollanda — the unrepentant Chico kept up a steady stream of compositions (“Apesar de Você,” “Bolsa de Amores,” “Samba de Orly,” “Acorda Amor”) that barely passed muster with the censors.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, he had realized the need to break loose from his previous pathway and venture forth into uncharted territory, first as a children’s book author (Chapeuzinho Amarelo – “Little Yellow Hat,” 1979), a film-score composer (Bye Bye Brasil, 1980), an untested screenwriter (Saltimbancos Trapalhões, 1981; Para Viver Um Grande Amor – “To Live A Great Love,” 1983), and — his versatility now in full display mode — a best-selling fiction novelist (Estorvo, or “Turbulence,” 1991).
Once a purveyor of so-called protest material that was, in the words of New York Times writer Larry Rohter, “full of untranslatable puns and double meanings,” he resisted the urge to constantly wear his social conscience on his sleeve and devoted himself instead to the creation of those “undulating sambas and love songs brimming with romance” that were symbolic of the next phase of his multifaceted career — o arroz e feijão (“the rice and beans”), so to speak, of his lasting fame and fortune.
As Chico himself later put it, “Even the handful of my songs most often cited as examples of political resistance,” those individual numbers that relied upon “artifices that seem incomprehensible today,” were, after all, “sambas with a happy sound. People may be protesting, but they are dancing while they do it.”
“In that sense, Chico’s songs are more traditional than the bossa nova,” wrote Mario Osava in Arts Weekly Brazil, “which reflected the euphoria of the prosperous and growing middle class in Rio’s beach neighborhoods in the 1950s and early 1960s.”
This was quite removed from the disillusionment prevalent throughout the remainder of the sixties, on into the seventies and beyond. Paradoxically, with the government’s later (and welcome) change of attitude toward his work, Chico went on to become “the towering figure of national unanimity,” as commented upon by fellow entertainer Caetano Veloso, “the fabulous and seductive composer-singer. He was also the great synthesizer of bossa nova’s modernizing advances with the hopes for a return to the traditional samba of the thirties.”
Danish-born columnist Kirsten Weinoldt, who has written extensively on the subject of Brazilian Popular Music, agrees with Caetano’s shrewd assessment of his colleague: “[Chico’s] first love were the traditional sambas of Noel Rosa, Ismael Silva, and Ataulfo Alves,” the very icons of the 1930s he grew up listening to and enjoying in his carefree youth.
While nostalgia has played a conspicuous and crucial part in the show’s successful stage run, both in Rio and abroad, it can also be argued that Ópera do Malandro was Chico’s first real attempt at a return as well to those earlier, simpler musical times — a bid, as it were, for his own personal trip down memory lane in his use of the form of Brazilian popular song and his subsequent filling it out with new musical content, as composer Weill once practically suggested.
Whether by design or not, what many failed to detect at the time of Malandro’s debut was the overpowering (and much downplayed) allure of the German theater on Buarque’s writing and art, particularly the philosophy present in the plays of Weill’s onetime stage-partner, Bertolt Brecht.
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes