Bidu and Carmen: Two Brazilian Charmers

     Bidu and Carmen: Two Brazilian 

    by: Joe


    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
    so on.

    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 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 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
    her fame.

    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
    of 16.

    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 Scala—who 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
    the theater.

    Theodorini’s resolute
    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
    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…(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
    as director.

    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 assignment—this 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,,

    Academia do Samba: "Bidu
    Sayão e o Canto de Cristal,"
    , 1995.

    "Carmen Miranda:
    no date.

    "Cultura e Conhecimento:
    Prima Donnas,",
    no date.

    "Ecco! Bidu Sayão,",
    no date.

    Iosue, Giancarlo, "Beyond
    the Bananas," Brazzil Magazine, February 2003,

    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.

    Higginbotham, Carlton,
    "Opera Shop: Bidu Sayão,",

    Jackson, Denny, "Biography
    for Carmen Miranda," Internet Movie Database,,
    no date.

    Jackson, Paul, "Obituaries:
    Bidu Sayão, 1902-1999" Opera News Magazine, New York, June

    Luís, Émerson,
    "Silenced Nightingale," Brazzil Magazine, March 1999,

    Sachs, Harvey (editor
    and translator), "The Letters of Arturo Toscanini," Knopf Publishers,
    New York, 2002.

    São Paulo ImagemData,
    "Bidu Sayão,",
    no date.

    Stevenson, Joseph, "Bidu
    Sayão," All Classical Guide,,
    no date.

    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

    Copyright ©
    2003 by Josmar F. Lopes

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