BRAZIL’S FAT LADY CAN’T
BRAZIL’S FAT LADY CAN’T
Intermezzo: When the
Stars First Came Out
As the soprano concluded
the last of her encores, and was savoring the applause of an appreciative
American 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, and motivated by his administration’s
bold dedication to the policy of the "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 stated, "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. debut in the Shubert’s 1939 musical revue "The Streets of Paris,"
a show that also 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 newspapermen, 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 no, and I say money,
money, money, and I say turkey sandwich, and I say grape juice," and
These two radically distinct
responses, and seemingly unrelated occurrences, would come to denote to the
Brazilian artistic community that, for a precious lucky few, living and working
in North Americaeven while earning fame and fortune on her streets and
in her theaterswould prove to be a most illusory pursuit.
They would also serve
to teach multi-talented Brazilians 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 Brazilian 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.
Act Four, Scene One:
Prima Donna Par Excellence
Formally trained in Brazil
and Europe, deeply influenced by the 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
She was born in Rio de
Janeiro on May 11, 1902 to a socially prominent upper-class family, which
relocated to the beachfront district of Botafogo when Bidu was 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
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 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
This aspect of her early
career struggles was charmingly captured in a 1940s comic-book depiction of
her life entitled Boast of Brazil. In it, the young 14-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 was "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, 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 Scalawho personally thought
the girl too immature, and the voice too small, for such a serious undertaking.
Nevertheless, Bidu persevered,
and with patience, practice and stubborn persistence 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
decision in 1918 to retire from teaching and return to her native country
coincided with the end of World War I; it also gave good cause for the adventurous
Bidu to accompany her instructor back to the Continent, the first time the
blossoming prima donna had ever been away from her family.
The time she spent abroad,
however, was indeed fruitful, as Bidu applied for and was admitted to Jean
de Reszke’s famed 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 long before
Caruso’s debut there, and was a fixture at the house for many years prior
to his retirement in 1904. He would be the next to take on the role of surrogate
father to the little Brazilian novice, helping to refine and perfect her diction,
and instructing her in the long-lost tradition of French singing style and
"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 (the score) 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."
– Bidu Sayão
With 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.
The couple ran the Teatro
Costanzi in Rome, and since 1910, Mocchi had also been responsible for the
opera performances at the Teatro Municipal in Rio, as well as the summer seasons
at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.
Mocchi took quite a fancy
to the young Brazilian beauty, as did his 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 official European debut at the Teatro 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 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 contracted her for several seasons at São
Paulo’s Teatro Municipal, where he had previously accepted the management’s
offer of a full-time directorship.
Bidu went on to perform
there in various works, including the part of Sister Madalena in the opera
of the same name by, of all people, her uncle Alberto, 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 rife with romantic speculation.
Irrespective of the rumors that might have been generated by the proximity
of these two individuals, fate would inevitably thrust them even closer together,
for 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 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.
They tied the knot soon
afterward, and remained constantly devoted to one another until Danise’s own
departure from this world in 1963. He was 19 years her senior.
Act Four, Scene Two:
The Brazilian Bombshell Bursts onto the Scene
Amazingly enough, Bidu
Sayão was a close contemporary of another popular entertainer, the
exceptionally-gifted Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, better known by her
professional name as Carmen Miranda.
Born in the town of Marco
de Canavezes in Portugal on February 9, 1909, Carmen came to Brazil with her
family when she was not yet two, and grew up in the city of Rio, at about
the same time that Bidu was learning to climb trees in her backyard.
She was called "Carmen"
in honor of the Spanish protagonist made famous by the eponymously titled
Bizet opera, or so the story goes. Otherwise, her connection to the art form
was minimal, if non-existent.
She, too, was the offspring
of a well-to-do family. In her father’s case, he was the owner of a successful
wholesale produce business, after first starting out as a barber (!), although
some sources are in disagreement over this.
But whatever the family’s
financial condition had been, the naturally plucky and irresistible personality
that characterized the young Portuguese immigrant was already in evidence.
Little Carmen left no doubt as to what her future aspirations might be: she
would tell everyone that she was predestined by the entertainment Muses for
a career on the stage and in the movies.
Like most working-class
youngsters in Brazil at the time, she was forced to quit school at an early
age to go into the business world, holding down a variety of low-paying jobs,
including one as a chatty salesgirl, and another as a "singing"
store clerk, which resulted in her being fired by an irate boss for deliberately
distracting her co-workers.
Luckily for her, and for
the labor market, Carmen was snapped up by several local radio stations while
simultaneously cutting her first records for the Brunswick label. She eventually
landed a contract in 1928 with RCA Victor, later with Odeon-Brazil and American
Decca. Her large recorded output of popular songs, sambas, and other more
obscure material would reach into the literal hundreds.
Some revisionist authors
have described her early singing style as a Carioca version of Elvis
Presley, that is, of a poorly educated white person with a modicum of musical
talent who just so happened to incorporate the soul and substance of African
descendants into her entertainment vocabulary, and in the process made them
virtually her own.
While the jury may still
be out on Elvis, it is an unfair indictment in the case of Carmen Miranda.
In the first place, she was neither poor nor uneducated, nor was she a "pale"
imitator of a prevailing ethnic trend; in the second, the growth of choro,
marcha, maxixe, modinha, and samba had already spurred
on many of Brazil’s early songwriters and composers to write down and interpret
them as far back as 1915, most strikingly by Ernesto Nazaré, Chiquinha
Gonzaga, Pixinguinha, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, joined later by the likes of
Noel Rosa, Ary Barroso, João de Barros, and Dorival Caymmi.
Carmen’s particular genius
was in taking the basic raw elements found in this multitude of musical styles
and thoroughly reinvigorating the form by applying to it her own unique blend
of crystal-clear vocalism, rapid-fire verbal patter, and razor-sharp rhythm.
This would ultimately lead to her creation of a black-white composite of the
streetwise baiana, an endearing (and idealized) cultural by-product
of Northeastern Brazil, accessible to even the most sophisticated of theater-minded
She would develop this
character further in her later domestic and 20th Century-Fox film
work, but for now she strived hard to concentrate on her nightclub routines
with younger sister Aurora. The two of them would appear frequently throughout
the thirties at the Cassino da Urca in Rio, and usually backed by the Bando
da Lua combo.
Such bubbling effervescence
as Carmen Miranda seemed to exude should have been a veritable shoe-in for
the nascent Brazilian film industry; and, true to form, she soon appeared
in her first feature O Carnaval Cantando no Rio, in 1932, although
she sang in only one musical number. A Voz do Carnaval was released
the following year, along with Alô Alô Brasil and Estudantes
(both 1935), Alô Alô Carnaval (1936), and Banana da
Terra (1939), where she introduced moviegoers to her Bahian alter ego.
During one of her many
flamboyant performances at the Urca, visiting American impresario Lee Shubert
decided to hire the flashy entertainer for his new Broadway extravaganza,
to premiere in New York in the summer of 1939.
The stage was now set
for the Hollywood phase of Carmen Miranda’s showbiz career, a change not as
readily accepted, or as welcomed, by fellow Brazilians as her "O que
é que a baiana tem?" (What is it that the Baiana has?)
Act Four, Scene Three:
Enter Arturo Toscanini and the Old Met
That most formidable of
early 20th Century classical musicians, Italian conductor Arturo
Toscanini, would once again influence the direction of Brazilian opera by
his fortuitous intervention in the burgeoning American career of soprano Bidu
There exist several versions
of their fabled encounter, but suffice it to say that the notoriously demanding
maestro may have been moved by the Brazilian singer’s sensitive portrayal
of the consumptive Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La Traviata, given in
1935 at Milan’s historic Teatro alla Scala, where Toscanini had once served
At a formal reception
for the diva in 1936 at Town Hall in New York City, Toscanini introduced himself
to Bidu, and immediately piqued her musical interest in a work she had not
previously performed in: French composer Claude Debussy’s poetic cantata La
Demoiselle Élue (The Blessed Damozel), originally written for mezzo-soprano,
a voice category the normally stratospheric coloratura was unaccustomed to.
Undaunted by the challenges
inherent in this offbeat proposal, Toscanini offered to coach "la piccola
Brasiliana" in the difficult piece, and even recommended an alternative
higher key for her comfort, to which he likewise supplied a revised vocal
score. Needless to say, Bidu was hooked by this rare chance to work with the
renowned Italian taskmaster, and willingly swallowed the bait.
With the experienced hand
of Arturo Toscanini leading her and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra
and Schola Cantorum Singers, Bidu Sayão made an auspicious Carnegie
Hall debut in the Debussy work on April 16, 1936, to rave reviews in the press.
Taking advantage of the
increased exposure her New York appearances had provided, Bidu spent the next
several seasons commuting to and from her native Brazil, and her soon-to-be-adopted
North American homeland. She gave innumerable performances on both continents,
but paid particular attention to Brazilian shores, by some accounts appearing
in as many as 200 different locales spanning the length and breadth of the
Upon her return visit
to the States, the board of the Metropolitan Opera (at Toscanini’s insistence)
tapped the busy soprano to appear in a part not generally associated with
South American artists: that of Jules Massenet’s wholly and beguilingly Gallic
young heroine, the beautiful and coquettish Manon Lescaut.
Although he himself no
longer had any direct involvement in running the company, Toscanini nonetheless
proved relentless in persuading the Met’s stodgy leadership to take on the
Brazilian nightingale for this plum assignmentthis despite the fact
that Manon was not a role that required the kind of vocal fireworks that Bidu
was then capable of, nor was it yet a regular staple of her core repertoire.
Fortunately for the Met,
the singer had been slowly expanding her roster of parts to encompass the
more lyric roles of Violetta in La Traviata, Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo
et Juliette, and Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème, even
before she had met her second husband, Giuseppe Danise. It was to Danise’s
lasting credit, however, that he was able to confidently guide his wife further
along this newfound path, thereby stretching her usual list of soubrette parts
by including more dramatic vocal opportunities.
This admittedly opened
up fresher avenues for Bidu to explore, now that she had been performing ad
infinitum the same well-worn roles of Lucia, Susanna and Rosina over the entire
course of her career, even though audiences still flocked to see her in them.
With her authentic French
diction and remarkable ability to breathe dramatic life into increasingly
complex characters, Bidu Sayão was ideally poised to conquer the stages
of North America, just as she had done in Europe and Latin America for the
last 10 years.
Finally, on February 13,
1937, on a cold and wintry Saturday afternoon, the captivating Brazilian soprano
stepped out from behind the golden curtain and into the warm glow of the stage
at the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and 39th Street,
to bask in a well-deserved ovation for her premiere performance in Massenet’s
Manon. She delivered what many of her staunchest fans would come to
regard as her most elaborately prepared, most fully realized, and most passionately
heartfelt portrait to date.
Manon would go on to become
her third most requested role (22 performances in all) during her Met tenure,
lagging behind only Susanna and Mimì (46 performances each), and Violetta
(with 23), in number of times sung.
It is noteworthy to point
out that Bidu Sayão had established a firm foothold on the legitimate
Broadway stage two years and four months before Carmen Miranda was to do so,
and a full three years prior to Carmen’s own footprints were to be permanently
enshrined on Hollywood’s immortal Walk of Fame.
Sources & Recommended
"A Bidu Sayão
Album: 1902-1999," from the Metropolitan Opera Archives, www.metopera.org/history/week-990920.html,
Academia do Samba: "Bidu
Sayão e o Canto de Cristal,"
"Cultura e Conhecimento:
Prima Donnas," www.brasilcult.pro.br/teatro/painel31.htm,
"Ecco! Bidu Sayão,"
Iosue, Giancarlo, "Beyond
the Bananas," Brazzil Magazine, February 2003, www.brazzil.com/pages/p136feb03.htm.
Dibbell, Julian, "Notes
on Carmen: A Few Things We Have Yet to Learn from History’s Most Incandescent
Cross-Dresser," The Village Voice, October 29, 1991.
"Opera Shop: Bidu Sayão," www.bassocantante.com/opera/sayao.html,
Jackson, Denny, "Biography
for Carmen Miranda," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com.name/nm0000544.bio,
Jackson, Paul, "Obituaries:
Bidu Sayão, 1902-1999" Opera News Magazine, New York, June
"Silenced Nightingale," Brazzil Magazine, March 1999, www.brazzil.com/pages/p11mar99.htm.
Sachs, Harvey (editor
and translator), "The Letters of Arturo Toscanini," Knopf Publishers,
New York, 2002.
São Paulo ImagemData,
"Bidu Sayão," www2.uol.com.br/spimagem/bidu/melhor.html,
Stevenson, Joseph, "Bidu
Sayão," All Classical Guide, www.allclassical.com.cg/acg.dll?p=acg&sql=1:50887~C,
Warrack, John, and West,
Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford University Press, Oxford,
New York, 1992, updated 1994.
Joe Lopes, a naturalized
American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York, where
he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil
with his Brazilian wife and daughters. In January 2001, he returned to the
U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of
all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan
of classic films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.
2003 by Josmar F. Lopes
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