The High Price of Fame 
in Brazil

    A common enough fate
    had befallen Brazilian singer Carmen
    Miranda that had also been shared by Bidu Sayão, Carlos
    Gomes, and several other of their fellow citizens: that of a
    tangible and totally unwarranted resentment for having made
    it big abroad without their country’s approval or consent.
    by: Joe

    Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing
    Five, Scene One: Blame It on Rio

    They booed. The audience
    had actually booed. It was unheard of, absurd to say the least, yet it was
    true. But how could it have happened in Rio, and, most disturbingly of all,
    to Bidu Sayão, the operatic sweetheart of the Southern Hemisphere?

    Not five months had passed
    since the stylish Brazilian singer’s appearance at the Metropolitan Opera
    House had caused a minor stir, and was labeled the surprise hit of the 1936-37
    season. "Miss Sayão triumphed as a Manon should," wrote New
    York Times critic Olin Downes of her 1937 mid-winter debut, "by manners,
    youth and charm, and by the way in which (her) voice became the vehicle of
    dramatic expression."

    Bidu had been chosen by
    the Met to assume the repertory of the recently retired Spanish soprano Lucrezia
    Bori, and within weeks of her initial engagement she was assigned the lead
    role in La Traviata, followed quickly by her first La Bohème.

    Now with U.S. opera companies
    on hiatus until the fall, Bidu was free to enjoy the warmer waters of her
    tropical port city, and its own extensive concert and opera-going season.
    Her ambitions there were modest, in the extreme: to please her many fans and
    admirers, as she always had, at Rio de Janeiro’s Teatro Municipal.

    She had lately performed
    in the opera Il Guarany by Gomes, and was scheduled to sing the smaller
    but no less showier secondary part of Micaela in Bizet’s Carmen, starring
    the celebrated Italian mezzo Gabriella Besanzoni, a past veteran of many a
    South American production of the work and a mainstay at the Municipal since

    Called "badly-behaved
    and impertinent" by the Met’s onetime director Giulio Gatti-Casazza,
    the high-strung Besanzoni had lucked into a society marriage with Brazilian
    industrialist Henrique Lage back in 1925. This tended to keep the temperamental
    diva anchored to the capital, with the Teatro Municipal serving as her favored

    Upon leaving the stage
    in 1939, she turned to teaching to take up her spare time. As an instructor,
    it was widely rumored that the Roman native was a superior judge of vocal
    talent—one of her private pupils would turn out to be the Carioca
    baritone Paulo Fortes.

    There was ample evidence
    to suggest by all of this that the July 1937 performance of Carmen
    in Rio would be a far from routine affair, if not a fairly exciting one. What
    actually transpired onstage could not by any means be considered unexpected,
    but the passage of time, muddled individual motives, and even sketchier personal
    recollections have a way of blurring the finer details of how and why certain
    events took form.

    The indisputable facts,
    though, were these: unable to cope with Bidu’s recent string of successes,
    the feisty mezzo-soprano organized a demonstration by the members of her claque
    to boo the prima donna into submission, and on her home turf.

    Her boisterous negative
    campaign fizzled, however, as the entire theater soon got wind of the plot.
    After Micaela’s moving third act solo, the audience erupted into a steady
    stream of applause that purportedly drowned out the offensive noisemakers,
    who proceeded to beat a hasty retreat from the peanut gallery.

    Badly shaken by the incident,
    Bidu was overheard to have declared that she would refuse all offers to sing
    in Rio de Janeiro, and, for that matter, in Brazil, too.

    Despite claims to the
    contrary, the soprano rethought her earlier position and thankfully returned
    to her native country on a few occasions near the end of the forties. She
    gave her last complete performance at the Teatro Municipal in 1950 as Mimì
    in La Bohème, but after that painful Carmen she would
    most heartily agree to become a regular member of the Metropolitan Opera’s
    list of artists—the only one from South America.

    Aside from the poor reception
    in Rio, there were other, more pertinent justifications for her decision to
    depart for friendlier Northern corridors, one of which was to be close to
    Met baritone Giuseppe Danise, the long-awaited love of her life; but the main
    reason was the volatile political situation of pre-World War II Europe.

    For Bidu, this did not
    necessarily translate into a moratorium on her stepping onto Brazil’s stages,
    but it did pose a serious threat to anyone bound for European opera houses,
    regardless of national origin. As it was, the escalating global conflict had
    put a severe damper on foreign classical pursuits, in essence restricting
    the coloratura and most other professional performers to the safer venues
    of North America for the duration of the war.

    Still, the sad truth remained
    that Bidu Sayão was hurt, and it showed in her deliberate avoidance
    of Brazil as a routine layover spot.

    As for Besanzoni, she
    would stay noticeably closed-mouth on the subject of her actions on that particular
    evening. We can only speculate at this point as to her convoluted reasoning
    behind them.

    They indeed had a lot
    to do with the perceptive singer’s suspicion of an unofficial snub by the
    Metropolitan Opera during the 1919-1920 season, a period in which she was
    asked to take on many of the same roles as the house’s resident workhorse,
    the stalwart Austro-Hungarian artist Margarete Matzenauer.

    According to various accounts,
    Besanzoni became convinced that her Teutonic rival had somehow bribed the
    claque to despoil her every Met appearance. Curiously, reviews from that time
    seem to corroborate this notion: there is a marked indication that an organized
    and clearly exaggerated favoritism for Matzenauer was at the heart of the
    anti-Besanzoni faction; and, in the Italian’s own blunt assessment of things,
    "the `German’ did everything in her power, including the impossible,
    to prevent me from being hired by the Metropolitan."

    Her past ill treatment
    in the Manhattan press, plus the unfavorable reaction of Met Opera audiences,
    might well have gone a long way toward fanning the mezzo’s future flames of
    envy with regard to Bidu’s growing popularity there.

    We may never know for
    certain, but Besanzoni’s overly paranoid sensibilities do serve to explain
    some of the later green-eyed behavior attributed to her and unreasonably extended
    to the tiny Brazilian warbler.

    Scene Change: Carmen
    Goes Bananas

    As bad as this experience
    may have been for soprano Bidu Sayão, it was nothing compared to the
    cold shoulder offered by her own callous countrymen to Brazil’s cultural ambassador
    of the war years, the exciting (and excitable) Carmen Miranda.

    The Brazilian Bombshell’s
    runaway success on the New York stage during the 1939-40 Broadway show season
    had only begun to whet the appetites of post-Depression era audiences starved
    for more novel and adventuresome musical fare.

    It promptly segued into
    Carmen’s American movie debut in the musical comedy Down Argentine Way,
    which starred Betty Grable and Don Ameche. Released in late 1940, this first
    of several 20th Century-Fox productions featuring the exotic performer
    was an immediate smash with enchanted movie audiences.

    Whether she played Argentines,
    Cubans, Mexicans or Brazilians, film fans clamored for more of Carmen, and
    the Fox Studios wisely obliged, signing the lively songstress to a generous
    six-figure salary that would soon make her the highest paid female entertainer
    in the United States:

    "Hollywood, it
    has treated me so nicely, I am ready to faint. As soon as I see Hollywood,
    I love it!"

    – Carmen Miranda

    But just before her Hollywood
    career took off in earnest, Carmen and her Bando da Lua paid a return visit
    to Brazil, and to the Cassino da Urca, the Rio de Janeiro nightspot that was
    the scene of their earliest stage triumphs.

    Expecting to be greeted
    as they had been in the States, i.e. with wide-open warmth and fully appreciative
    affection, they could not have been more confounded by the chilly atmosphere
    that waited for them inside.

    There have been many theories
    put forth for Carmen’s overly cool reception at the Urca, from the unusually
    stuffy society crowd present, which included the wife of conservative strongman
    Getúlio Vargas (allegedly, one of the singer’s former lovers), to the
    range of material chosen for the affair, an innocuous combination of sambas
    and Carnaval march favorites peppered with Tin Pan Alley pop confections.

    Yet these few paltry explanations
    ultimately fail to provide a truly satisfying glimpse into the ambivalent
    feelings conveyed by Rio nightclub audiences toward the baffled diva and her
    song troupe.

    Ostensibly, a common enough
    fate had befallen Carmen that had also been shared by Bidu Sayão, Carlos
    Gomes, and several other of their fellow citizens, particularly when confronted
    with their own notable achievements away from Brazilian soil: that of a tangible
    and totally unwarranted resentment for having made it big abroad without their
    country’s approval or consent—as if these were absolutely necessary to
    affirm one’s position at home, or anywhere else.

    "To be successful
    outside of Brazil," sociologist Roberto da Matta observed, "is considered
    a personal offense to Brazilians."

    This simple yet insightful
    analysis was never more accurate than when applied to the seesawing musical
    endeavors of Carmen Miranda. After several critically panned appearances,
    the crestfallen singer and her band withdrew for a two-month rest, a period
    principally taken up by the group to revamp its basic song structure into
    something that more closely resembled an overt form of social commentary.

    With that in mind, Carmen
    emerged from her isolation brandishing a buoyant new number, "Disseram
    que eu voltei americanizada" (They say that I came back Americanized),
    in the faces of her previously unresponsive patrons.

    A cracklingly lyrical
    defense of her supposed conversion to American ways, and mockery of some distinctively
    Brazilian ones, this cleverly written topical ditty was a huge hit in Rio,
    and recatapulted the star to the top of her seaside area stomping-ground.

    But the damage to her
    unshakeable self-esteem had been done. Had she really turned her back on her
    own people? Had she abandoned the poor favelados (slum dwellers) she
    had so sympathetically sung about, for the easy money and get-rich-quick ventures
    of greedy Northern capitalists? Had she sold off her highly-prized charms
    so cheaply to New York audiences, for a fleeting grasp at personal gain, as
    they all claimed she had?

    None of these charges
    were true, of course, but the negative aspersions that continued to be cast
    at Carmen while she was holed up in Rio would only strengthen her iron-willed
    resolve never to perform in her country again—and to pin her future career
    hopes on North America.

    Disappointingly, the remainder
    of her Hollywood film product would consist of a mixed bag of garish Technicolor
    spectacles (That Night in Rio, 1941; Weekend in Havana, 1941;
    Springtime in the Rockies, 1942), ridiculous tutti-frutti headgear
    (The Gang’s All Here, 1943), and uninspired comedic romps (Copacabana,
    1947; A Date With Judy, 1948), culminating in an ignoble guest effort
    in the 1953 Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis spoof Scared Stiff.

    While they proved financially
    lucrative at the box office, these projects were eminently unworthy of her
    talents, which extended past her familiar hip-swinging milieu to fashioning
    and designing her own elaborate wardrobe and that of her band-mates.

    In spite of the risk to
    her carefully constructed stage image, the mid-career tradeoff of her Latin-based
    musical livelihood for the uncertainty of Los Angeles’ fickle film community
    was a chance that Carmen Miranda was only too willing to take, and never given
    enough credit for doing so.

    In giving up her uniquely
    Brazilian identity for an all-purpose, stereotypical compilation of ersatz
    Latinate femininity, she acquired a definitive degree of international recognition—along
    with a hefty amount of notoriety, as that infamous wartime snapshot of Carmen
    without her underpants would plainly reveal.

    Moreover, the drastic
    modulation of her inbred Brazilianness, mingled with the bland indifference
    her compatriots had detachedly shown her at the Cassino da Urca, deeply affected
    Carmen’s inner psyche; it eroded as well what little pride she had left in
    her American accomplishments.

    These in turn would serve
    as the absorbing subject matter of innumerable books, articles, and publications,
    in addition to a revelatory cinematic study, Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is
    My Business (1994) by Brazilian filmmaker Helena Solberg, about the entertainer’s
    later life struggles.

    Highlighted by an abusive
    1947 marriage to American movie producer David Sebastian, a longtime dependence
    on uppers and downers, a miscarriage, depression, hypochondria, electroshock
    therapy and more, Carmen’s mounting personal misfortunes would conspire to
    bring about her mental and physical breakdown sometime in late 1954.

    Her prescribed method
    of treatment involved a four-month period of rest and recuperation in Brazil,
    her first trip there in 14 years, spent mostly in seclusion at the Copacabana
    Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro.

    She returned soon after
    to the U.S. to quickly resume her busy nightclub and television schedule—too
    quickly, some would say, leading to a silent heart attack as she finished
    taping a strenuous dance sequence for The Jimmy Durante Show on August
    4, 1955.

    Later on at her Beverly
    Hills mansion, in the early morning hours of August 5, her lifeless body was
    found. She had expired prematurely at 46, the victim of cardiac arrest.

    Act Five, Scene Two:
    The Brazilian Nightingale Flies Away

    Carmen Miranda’s shocking
    end and tumultuous Rio de Janeiro funeral produced a staggering outpouring
    of grief in the country—a vivid example of pent up guilt feelings for
    the way the nation had treated the dearly departed movie icon when she was

    It also struck a darkly
    foreboding chord with Bidu Sayão, Brazil’s other international musical
    exponent, and a fervent follower of the once energetic entertainer.

    Only a month before, Bidu
    had mourned the loss of her first husband, the late Walter Mocchi, recently
    interred in a Rio cemetery. And, in a manner of speaking, she had witnessed
    the slow passing of her own Metropolitan Opera career, what with her having
    to contend with a regime change at the company she had so long been associated

    The new administration,
    put in place in October 1950 and headed up by crusty general manager Rudolf
    Bing, was peculiarly unreceptive to the popular Brazilian singer’s request
    to perform in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, one of
    her Gallic specialties.

    Bing, it seemed, had an
    aversion to the standard French repertoire, but his firm support of Verdi
    and Puccini, and outright backing of the Mozart canon, gave Bidu renewed hope
    that she would be given a fair stab at the meatier items on the Met’s operatic
    menu of works.

    Such was not to be. She
    sang in only four presentations of Bohème, the last of which,
    dated February 26, 1952, was her adieu to the house. It was followed two months
    later by a final April 23 performance on tour in Boston, as Manon, the role
    of her Met debut.

    "I was too proud,"
    she would later remark, "and I did not want to wait until I was asked
    to leave." It was commented on at the time that Bidu Sayão had
    left the Metropolitan at the top of her form, and with few regrets.

    Cutting back on her operatic
    appearances, she limited her future assignments to the concert hall, but wallowed
    joyfully in her newly-acquired freedom away from the lyric stage.

    In the same year as Carmen
    Miranda’s wedding in Beverly Hills, Bidu and her husband Giuseppe Danise had
    purchased a home off the Maine coast reminiscent of her family’s littoral
    abode in Botafogo. They called it Casa Bidu. After her retirement from the
    Met, she and Danise would spend considerable time there together, interspersed
    with occasional sidetrips to the Salisbury Hotel in New York City.

    But more shattering news
    arrived in January of 1957: Arturo Toscanini, mentor, admirer, advisor, and
    supporter, died at his home in Riverdale, New York, at the ripe old age of
    89. This was too much for the sensitive soprano to bear, as she now resolved
    to terminate her singing career before the year was out.

    Bidu bid a fond farewell
    to concertizing in the same historic location (Carnegie Hall), singing the
    same lyrical showpiece (La Demoiselle Élue by Debussy), and
    with the same orchestral forces (the New York Philharmonic) as those of two
    decades prior, when she was first introduced to American audiences by the
    incomparable Italian-born maestro; except that on this occasion, the
    program in question was in the capable hands of a noteworthy Frenchman, the
    conductor André Cluytens, who would solemnly assist Bidu in drawing
    a final curtain on the predominantly classical cycle she had begun for herself
    back in the spring of 1936.

    "It’s hard to quit,"
    she told the New York Times, "but how much better to do it when
    the public remembers you well. Now I could smoke, stay up late at parties,
    and catch a cold."

    Within a few years of
    that defining concert, second husband Giuseppe Danise would join the celestial
    ranks of the other prominent figures in Bidu’s life: uncle Alberto Costa,
    soprano Elena Theodorini, tenor Jean de Reszke, impresario Walter Mocchi,
    maestro Arturo Toscanini, and composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, a lifelong collaborator
    and close personal acquaintance.

    All had made an incalculable
    contribution to her profession and art; while each had received their just
    reward, Bidu continued to be feted, honored and fawned over for years to come
    by ardent aficionados both here and in her native homeland.

    With all that she had
    seen and done in her field of choice, what was there left to say about Brazil’s
    most exalted opera personality?

    Taking note of her award-winning
    1945 Columbia Records rendition of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.
    5, and her status as a major interpreter of that composer’s works, along
    with those of the less familiar-sounding Reynaldo Hahn, Hernani Braga, and
    Henri Duparc, Bidu’s many stage and recorded milestones went far beyond the
    norm for a native-born classical performer of her time.

    In fact, there was no
    denying (or even downplaying) her importance as a pivotal player in the development
    and spread of opera, in and around the Brazilian landscape.

    Although some critics
    would go so far as to admit that her (and Carmen Miranda’s) peak period of
    activity spanned the length of U.S. involvement in the Second World War—with
    its emphasis on the Good Neighbor Policy and the resultant rationing of the
    gene pool of foreign artists—it was not supported by the evidence.

    Orchestral Interlude:
    Life is a Carnaval

    But what was it that made
    the little diva so endearing to opera buffs? What carefully guarded secret
    had she possessed that so inspired the loyalty and admiration of even the
    most hardened of music critics?

    On the whole, it can be
    safely stated that, in almost every respect, the lovely lyric singer exuded
    that rare and indefinable star quality known as charisma; which, added to
    her matchless stage deportment, manifested itself in the purity and ease with
    which she projected her small but penetrating instrument, beautifully contained
    within a miniature yet finely sculpted framework, and perfectly suited for
    the nobility and majesty of only the most dramatic of theatrical contrivances—namely,
    the opera.

    With her usual self-effacing
    modesty, Bidu Sayão saliently, and quite succinctly, summed up her
    own precious vocal artistry in a 1989 radio broadcast interview:

    "I had something
    appealing. I don’t know what. The sincerity of my singing. I give my heart.
    I give my soul. I give myself."

    She gave of herself one
    last time, when, in 1995, the Beija-Flor Samba School of Nilópolis
    invited the elderly but still determined petite dame of grand opera to appear
    in the annual Rio Carnaval parade.

    Bidu’s life story had
    been selected as the school’s theme of that year, and she was more than happy
    to accommodate, as it provided the bona fide Brazilian charmer with a legitimate
    excuse to visit her Cidade Maravilhosa (Wonderful City) one last time.

    Her attire was that of
    a typical Northeastern baiana, the only conceivable dress she could
    have worn under the circumstances—and a most fitting personal tribute
    to the memory of Carmen in her prime.

    With that simple gesture,
    two otherwise incompatible entertainment forms had, for one brief instant,
    successfully melded into a singularly grandiose display. For what is Carnaval
    and opera, anyway, if not outsized representations of all that we would like
    for reality to be? Characteristically, Bidu stole the show.

    On March 12, 1999, after
    a brief illness, soprano Bidu Sayão permanently left the world spotlight.
    She died at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Maine, two months short
    of her 97th birthday.

    Her death brought to a
    quiet close a most remarkable chapter in Brazilian musical history, one that
    Bidu had so conspicuously made her own.

    "During her career
    days, she held audiences in the palm of her hand," remembered Schuyler
    Chapin, ex-Commissioner for Cultural Affairs in New York City and a former
    general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. "Whether on the opera stage,
    the concert hall, a living room, or just in conversation,…she was, hands
    down, one of the public’s favorites."

    But the length of an individual’s
    physical life did not necessarily translate into longevity in the public’s
    mind, especially where it concerned the new and unconventional in music.

    Alas, few of the current
    generation of Brazil’s knowledgeable music lovers have even heard of Bidu
    Sayão, much less been made aware of her past classical attainments.
    Yet ever more enthusiastic devotees of Música Popular Brasileira have
    become thrilled all over again by the flashing eyes, the free-flowing arm
    movements, and the fluttering vocal tones of that too short-lived curio named
    Carmen Miranda. A major reappraisal of her body of work appears imminent and
    overdue, and is sure to follow in the wake of this modern reevaluation.

    In the brief time she
    spent with us, Carmen’s entertainment and musical legacy had apparently won
    out over, or even surpassed, Bidu’s now overlooked ones.

    Indeed, her tragic, unforeseen
    demise and subsequent reacceptance into contemporary Brazilian cultural society
    can be read, should we choose to, as the final triumphant victory over her
    earlier career adversity.


    Sources &
    Recommended Reading:

    "Biografia: Carmen
    no date.

    "Cultura e Conhecimento:
    no date.

    Cunha, Milton, "Bidu
    Sayão e o Canto de Cristal," Academia do Samba,,

    "Death Notices:
    Bidu Sayão," The Times Mirror Company, Los Angeles, 1999.

    Dibbell, Julian, "Notes
    on Carmen: A Few Things We Have Yet to Learn from History’s Most Incandescent
    Cross-Dresser," The Village Voice, New York, October 29, 1991.

    Gilman, Bruce, "Viva
    Carmen!" Brazzil Magazine, Los Angeles, June 1996.

    Giron, Luis Antonio,
    "A Carreira de 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, Emerson,
    "Silenced Nightingale," Brazzil Magazine, Los Angeles, March

    "Obituary: Bidu
    Sayão," The New York Times, New York, March 13, 1999.

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

    Terré, Roberto
    Di Nóbile, "Cómo era Gabriella Besanzoni?",

    Thomas, Tony, and Solomon,
    Aubrey, The Films of 20th Century-Fox: A Pictorial History,
    The Citadel Press, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1979.

    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 ©
    2004 by Josmar F. Lopes

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