Bossa Nova Killed Opera in Brazil

     Bossa Nova 
Killed Opera in Brazil

    The sultry new sounds
    that bossa nova actively came to encompass
    would give an entirely fresh and original slant to the much-maligned
    term "modern classical music," literally transforming guitarist
    Bonfá, the shy piano-playing Jobim, and his partner Vinicius de
    Moraes, into latter-day Franz Schuberts for their songwriting skills.
    by: Joe

    Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing—Epilogue

    In 1959, almost two years
    after she had officially left the concert platform, Brazilian opera singer
    Bidu Sayão returned from her self-imposed retirement to participate
    in the recording of a new work entitled A Floresta do Amazonas, written
    by her close friend and fellow compatriot, the staggeringly prolific Heitor

    It was a vigorous, soul-stirring
    piece cobbled together from the scattered remnants of his stillborn Hollywood
    film score for the movie Green Mansions.

    But despite the presence
    of Brazil’s greatest living classical composer and his favorite native songbird,
    the album failed to catch fire with fans and quickly went out of print. Villa-Lobos
    himself was to pass away on November 17, a few short months after the recording
    was completed; for her part, Bidu would never again step into a gramophone
    studio, nor would she perform before a live paying audience.

    In that same year, the
    revitalized Brazilian motion picture industry, soon to be known as the Cinema
    Novo (New Wave) movement, would test its fledgling wings by becoming the
    proud beneficiary of a more exceptional multicultural event: the worldwide
    release of French director Marcel Camus’ production of Orfeu Negro,
    or Black Orpheus, as contemporary English-speaking audiences would
    come to know it—a movie based on the musical play penned by Carioca
    poet Vinicius de Moraes.

    A multi-award winner and
    surprise international hit, the film’s extraordinarily influential soundtrack,
    co-written by musicians Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim, with an
    able assist from lyricist Vinicius, would help launch the coming bossa
    nova invasion of the early to middle sixties.

    The sultry new sounds
    that this style of world music actively came to encompass would give an entirely
    fresh and original slant to the much-maligned term "modern classical
    music," literally transforming guitarist Bonfá, the shy piano-playing
    Jobim, and his hard-living partner de Moraes, into latter-day Franz Schuberts
    for their singularly unique songwriting skills.

    Their historic collaboration
    would help sweep Música Popular Brasileira (or MPB for short) into
    a whole other musical realm, permanently changing the face and focus of jazz
    and other forms of popular entertainment for years to come (see my article
    "Jazz Can’t Resist Brazil," in the online Brazzil magazine,
    for more on this subject).

    While this was all well
    and good for the pop and tourist trades, where did it leave the opera? What
    would happen to the over 300-year-old art form in Brazil, now that its feasibility
    had been suddenly called into question?

    In Act Two of my continuing
    series on "Brazil’s Fat Lady," I wrote that in 1960 the country’s
    capital underwent a dramatic change from the old Portuguese-dominated center
    of Rio de Janeiro to the futuristic metropolis of Brasília.

    As an unfortunate consequence
    of this move, Brazil’s major theaters and government-sponsored opera houses
    were relegated to a perpetual state of penury, if not outright impoverishment.

    Opera, as it had been
    presented and performed in the land of Carnaval and samba, was in danger of
    going the way of the dinosaur; it was gradually being forced to make way for
    the sashaying young charms of the seductive new kid on the block, the statuesque
    "Girl from Ipanema."

    Going on the Record

    With extinction unavoidably
    looming, there simply had to exist a more practical method for preserving
    the rich cultural heritage (or what little of it there was) of the Brazilian
    national opera, not to mention the outstanding creative contributions of so
    many of its finest proponents, before this cataclysmic event would come to

    The only way this could
    be done was through the medium of recordings—ironically, the same technology
    that was threatening to displace opera’s intellectual preeminence.

    Why threatening? Had not
    Bidu Sayão, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Camargo Guarnieri, Francisco Mignone,
    and dozens of other classical artists committed their best-known interpretations
    to long-playing disc? Had not the prized theatrical works of Carlos Gomes,
    Alberto Nepomuceno, and Henrique Oswald been given the deluxe three-record
    treatment on the major international labels?

    Hardly, is the brutally
    honest response to those queries. While even at the zenith of her European
    and American opera career, Bidu Sayão had left only a comparable handful
    of recorded extracts from her most popular stage parts, with very little in
    the way of complete works preserved for posterity.

    Her only commercially
    available complete opera recording (made in 1947) was a version on Columbia
    of La Bohème, with colleagues Richard Tucker, Frank Valentino,
    and Salvatore Baccaloni, and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan
    Opera conducted by Giuseppe Antonicelli.

    The album was re-released
    a few years ago on compact disc by Sony Masterworks. It was a fine, even nostalgic
    production, but paled in comparison to the classic renditions presided over
    by Arturo Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham, and Tullio Serafin.

    Another of Bidu’s signature
    roles, that of Norina in Don Pasquale, was launched into the market
    only via a private, off-the-air transcription from 1940, and featured Baccaloni,
    Valentino, and tenor Nino Martini in the leads, with Gennaro Papi as conductor.

    Much later, the Met itself
    would issue two wonderful, live broadcast performances from the forties as
    lavish gift sets for its subscribers: the first, from the 1940 revival of
    The Marriage of Figaro, starred the ever-beguiling Bidu as Susanna,
    with matinee idol Ezio Pinza as her Figaro; the second, from a 1947 production
    of Roméo et Juliette, had Swedish tenor Jussi Bjoerling’s impassioned
    Roméo serenading the soprano’s sparkling Juliette.

    But as far as satisfying
    consumers with her thoroughly rounded (and much-admired) portrayals of Violetta,
    Gilda, Lucia, Manon, Mélisande, Micaela, or even Rosina, record companies
    looked to other, more "familiar" names to fill the Brazilian singer’s
    studio shoes—Licia Albanese, Erna Berger, Lily Pons, Victoria De Los
    Angeles, and Lucine Amara—familiar, that is, to New York record-buying

    In truth, the rationale
    for this decision was quite simple: as regrettable as it may have been for
    her legion of loyal followers, the closing portion of Bidu’s career with the
    Met and other leading opera theaters had coincided with the advent of the
    33S‡long-playing record, occurring sometime around the years 1948-1949.

    Moreover, the initial
    releases of an exciting newcomer named Maria Callas (first on Italian Cetra,
    then on England’s EMI/Angel Records) had spurred renewed interest in the once
    neglected bel canto masterworks, as did the recitals of early-period Verdi
    on Decca/London by the superb spinto Renata Tebaldi, her main rival
    in the opera house.

    Commencing in the early
    1950s, these two aspiring young artists began to record the standard soprano
    repertoire (Tosca, Mimì, Violetta, the two Leonoras, Aïda, Butterfly)
    over an impressive ten-year span. In doing so, they joined another dominant
    vocal personality of the time, Czech diva Zinka Milanov, who had previously
    signed with RCA Victor, in the hopes of giving the paying public a solid run
    for their operatic money.

    Callas, Tebaldi, and Milanov.
    This phenomenal recording triumvirate, accompanied by their usual stage-partners
    Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, and Jussi Bjoerling, proved to be a
    highly potent combination for millions of classical record buyers in North
    America and abroad.

    Their standing in the
    classical music world, however, would make it extremely difficult for past
    opera luminaries, such as the diminutive Bidu Sayão, to successfully
    compete with on any conceivable basis.

    Shunned in the fifties
    by an intransigent Met Opera management, poor under-represented Bidu was left
    holding the bag, as it were, by this intolerable state of recorded affairs—a
    disappointing casualty in the complete opera album wars.

    Luckily for collectors,
    her varied interpretations of Brazilian folk tunes, art songs from France,
    Portugal and Spain, arias from Italian, French and Brazilian opera, and lyrical
    Brazilian and French showpieces, written or arranged for her by Villa-Lobos,
    Hernani Braga, Reynaldo Hahn, and others, have been beautifully restored by
    Sony, with all of the selections undergoing miraculous sonic transformations,
    enhancements that have contributed enormously to their shelf-life, as well
    as to their future enjoyment.

    The Girl of the
    Golden West, and Other Recorded Oddities

    The not so subtle shifting
    of musical tastes in the early 1960s from the classical to the pop arena,
    with pop steadily encroaching upon opera and, irrevocably, gaining the upper
    hand, was uppermost in the minds of record producers, and clearly reflected
    in the preferences and patterns of the album-buying public of that period,
    both in Brazil and in the United States.

    The times were indeed
    changing, as evidenced by the increased attention being paid to native performers
    Tom Jobim, João Gilberto, Nara Leão, Luiz Bonfá, Astrud
    Gilberto, Baden Powell, Sérgio Mendes, and their work, by a plethora
    of entranced American players, among them guitarist Charlie Byrd, saxophonist
    Stan Getz, flutist Herbie Mann, pianist Vince Guaraldi, harmonica exponent
    Toots Thielemans, and many others.

    Pointing the way toward
    this newly expansive musical plain, bossa nova, samba, and (to a lesser
    extent) other varieties of MPB, experienced a near cosmic explosion on American
    airwaves, and in record shops, not seen since the heyday of Carmen Miranda,
    almost to the point of oversaturating the imported music mart all too quickly
    and too soon, according to some critical ears.

    Nevertheless, once firmly
    committed to this unalterable path, Brazil’s homegrown talent (and, more importantly,
    her audiences) would never again go back to the way things were—the notoriously
    volatile Brazilian economy would surely see to that, never allowing for the
    majority of its citizens the experience of such First World amenities as regular
    concert-going, the purchasing of vast quantities of classical music albums,
    the attending of live opera performances, or the listening of classical records
    made famous by native-born artists.

    In all fairness, it must
    be added that the U.S. record industry was experiencing many of the same trials
    and tribulations with respect to the marketing and selling of the classical
    repertory as Brazil was, only on a more calculated scale.

    Once most of the standard
    works were more than adequately represented on LP, record companies had nowhere
    else to go except to engage in a treasure hunt for rare and undiscovered "gems"
    that might still have gone unnoticed in some obscure backwater of the unrecorded

    A perfect illustration
    of this was the concurrent 1958 release of two competing stereophonic versions
    of composer Giacomo Puccini’s Italo-American "spaghetti Western,"
    the opera La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), based
    on playwright David Belasco’s turn-of-the-century stage spectacular.

    At the time, this infrequently
    performed work—more a provocative, whole-tone experiment by the renowned
    Italian melodist than a true successor to his previous Belasco influence,
    Madama Butterfly—had been given an inferior rendering (on Cetra)
    of a 1950 radio broadcast from Italy’s RAI network, with an even more ineffectual
    roster of unknowns doing it a disservice.

    It cried out for a modern,
    technologically advanced production, with a cast of equally distinguished
    stature to promote it; but instead of one new stereo recording, EMI and Decca
    treated a reticent buying public to two.

    The full story behind
    these differing releases need not be retold here, but let it suffice that
    EMI’s project was originally to have featured an exceptional, all-star lineup
    to include the divine Maria Callas, leading man Franco Corelli (three years
    before his Met debut), and veteran baritone Tito Gobbi, with the full forces
    of the Teatro all Scala of Milan, under the direction of Lovro von Matacic.

    What finally emerged from
    these sessions was a disheartening blend of substitute singers: alongside
    famed Wagnerian Birgit Nilsson, a last-minute replacement for the departed
    Callas, EMI enlisted the aid of the incongruously cast João Gibin,
    a barrel-chested Brazilian tenor who later changed his name to the more Italianate-sounding
    Giovanni, in lieu of the formerly announced Corelli; second stringer Andrea
    Mongelli subbed for Gobbi, another ideal cast member to have been dropped
    from the proceedings.

    In volume three of the
    book Opera On Record, reviewer Edward Greenfield went on to blithely
    praise Gibin’s "beautiful shading of tone and dynamic" and his "very
    distinctive timbre," which were welcome but decidedly unexpected compliments,
    given the tidal wave of sound registered by that titan of the turntable, tenor
    Mario Del Monaco, on the rival Decca set.

    In spite of this lone
    favorable assessment, negative criticism of the whole misguided EMI venture
    doomed the album to backorder oblivion; it was sadly prophetic, too, of the
    complicated course Brazilian opera singers would inevitably take with regard
    to their own future lack of stability in the post-bossa nova period.

    Incidentally, nothing
    further in the way of commercial recordings was ever forthcoming from Gibin,
    only a few sporadic appearances in the States, including a debut at San Francisco’s
    War Memorial Opera House in the mid-sixties, followed by a solitary Metropolitan
    Opera assignment as Radames in Aïda a few years later.

    Aside from Bidu, the only
    other Brazilian-born, classical vocal artists to be captured by the microphones
    with any degree of consistency over the years have been, coincidentally enough,
    two lyric baritones.

    An exceptionally versatile
    artist, with a "pure, limpid tone, and a gorgeously pliant natural instrument,"
    the handsome singer Paulo Fortes made his operatic debut in 1945 as Germont
    in La Traviata, at the Teatro Municipal in his native Rio de Janeiro.

    For the next half-century,
    Fortes would enjoy an immensely diversified entertainment career, appearing
    with many of the major stars of the day (i.e. Callas, Tebaldi, Gobbi, Di Stefano,
    Del Monaco, and Beniamino Gigli) on the stage, as well as performing on radio,
    in television, and in the movies.

    He sang throughout most
    of Latin America, and even traveled abroad to Italy and Portugal, but preferred
    to stay close to his home base in Rio. In fact, prior to his death in January
    1997, Fortes held the house record for making the most appearances at the
    Municipal of any artist that had ever sung there.

    His only two complete
    recordings were of Gomes’ Il Guarany in 1959, presented in the original
    Italian, and the same composer’s symphonic cantata Colombo from 1963,
    both for Chantecler. The latter piece, heavily cut, was recently issued in
    CD format on the Master Class label, but is primarily of historical interest.

    A trio of thrice-familiar
    Puccini operas, made in Bulgaria, of all places, for the budget label Frequenz—one
    of Tosca with soprano Raina Kabaivanska, tenor Nazzareno Antinori,
    and conductor Gabriele Bellini; another of Madama Butterfly, again
    with Kabaivanska, Antinori, and Bellini; and a third of Manon Lescaut
    with the same team—co-starred the Brazilian baritone Nelson Portella,
    a favorite with European audiences of the early eighties and nineties.

    The possessor of a warm
    and mellifluous singing voice, Portella’s parts in these frequently performed
    soprano showstoppers, while fairly involving dramatically, could hardly be
    termed as true theatrical tours de force.

    Opposite his splendid
    recorded competitors—and there were many to contend with, to be certain—the
    vocally lightweight Portella came off as a dependable but dull routiner, an
    also-ran before he ever left the starting gate.

    Plenty of Pop Stars

    So where had Brazil’s
    myriad opera talents migrated to all these years? Why were there so few classically
    trained singers around to fill the empty stage left vacant by the departure
    of that prima donna par excellence and quintessential role model, Bidu
    Sayão, from the international operatic scene?

    One possible explanation
    may lie within the pop field itself. As irreconcilable as it may seem to us
    today, Brazilian power vocalists of the 1950s-1960s typically personified
    the penchant for over-the-top delivery that was so strongly in vogue at the
    time: they were considered the ne plus ultra of the Latinate-style
    of pop singing much favored in South America’s largest country—at least,
    until the arrival of bossa nova and MPB.

    Among female interpreters
    of this type were the legendary Dalva de Oliveira, the husky-toned Leny Andrade,
    and the creamy-voiced Ângela Maria, three individual stylists who could
    be construed as direct descendants of the vocal tradition previously laid
    down for them by the French chanteuse Edith Piaf, and the American jazz specialists
    Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan—extraordinarily moving artists in their
    own right, epitomizing the raw brand of this emotional, all-or-nothing approach
    to popular songs that had so imbued Brazil’s own version of the hit parade.

    On the distaff side, there
    were Agnaldo Rayol and Agnaldo Timoteo, two charismatic male performers who
    possessed powerful, tenor-like voices, with all the requisite richness and
    passion necessary for full-throated vocalizing of the operatic kind.

    One of them, Agnaldo Timoteo,
    was widely acclaimed for two solid hits from 1968, the romantic "Meu
    Grito" (My Cry) and the tender "Mamãe," a sweetly sentimental
    paean to Brazilian mothers everywhere. The other, Agnaldo Rayol, with his
    fluffy, pompadour hairstyle and choirboy good looks, physically resembled
    the once fashionable African American pop crooner, Johnny Mathis.

    Mathis, it should be pointed
    out, had taken up serious vocal studies near the start of his career, but
    abandoned his operatic pursuits in the mid-fifties in favor of the more lucrative
    song sphere. His smooth-as-silk ballad style became instantly recognizable
    through the liberal use of head tone and falsetto, whereas Rayol’s
    more robust sound can best be described as having a cutting edge to it, what
    Italians refer to as squillo (pronounced skwee-lo, and not to
    be confused with the Portuguese word for squirrel).

    Squillo is a term
    used to identify the visceral, penetrating ring in the upper-middle to top-third
    of the male tenor voice, a somewhat indefinable trait not all members of this
    voice category can lay claim to.

    Ideally, Rayol had this
    quality in spades. Why he chose the popular song route over a possible career
    on the operatic stage, after having been blessed with such a remarkable, God-given
    endowment, is not immediately clear, but that he had the right equipment in
    his larynx is absolutely without argument.

    Like Frank Sinatra and
    Tony Bennett before him, two immortal American singers who went through numerous
    ups-and-downs in their long musical pathways, Rayol had a late-flowering vocal
    resurgence characterized by his warbling of the trenchant main theme to the
    hugely successful soap opera Terra Nostra, "Tormento d’Amore"
    (Torment of Love), sung as a duet with Welsh singing star Charlotte Church.

    Their 1998 Italian-language
    recording of the number was an unparalleled cultural phenomenon in Brazil,
    and was, undeniably, Rayol’s most financially prosperous pop foray in years,
    resurrecting his sagging singing career at a relatively late stage in his
    professional life.

    It also sounded in eerie
    imitation of an earlier 1996 Euro-pop confection, "Con Te Partirò"
    (Time to Say Goodbye), recorded jointly by tenor Andrea Bocelli and soprano
    Sarah Brightman. That trite tune spirited the blind Bocelli to the top of
    the crossover charts, where he has encountered substantial media coverage
    ever since, however debatable (or unwarranted) that may be.

    This was not the first
    time that an Italian popular song had heightened Brazilian awareness of this
    crowd-pleasing musical sub-genre.

    A major event of thirty
    years prior, one that did much to signal the final transition over into the
    pop world, and, nearly single-handedly, to derail the classical "gravy
    train" in the country, once and for all, was the participation in the
    1968 San Remo Song Festival by Jovem Guarda (The Young Guard) emblem
    and Brazilian pop sensation, singer-songwriter Roberto Carlos.

    His winning entry, a sappily
    written love song by Sergio Endrigo, was a Neapolitan-inspired romanza,
    "Canzone Per Te" (A Song for You), aimed squarely at Brazilian youths’
    recurring obsession with Italianità, and the obviously partisan
    Mediterranean judges of the contest.

    At that fortuitous moment,
    however, O Rei Roberto proved that he could deliver the finished goods
    as well as, if not better than, most of the mediocre talents that had comprised
    that year’s list of ignoble song candidates, thus securing for himself in
    Brazil the permanent and undisputed title of "The King" (Elvis Presley

    The Brazilian Ratings

    As it eventually played
    out, the real struggle for audience attention had already begun to be waged
    on Brazilian television during the mid-1960s, in the form of live broadcast
    song festivals, but with a slightly different angle: it was not to be a battle
    between opera (or classical music) and pop at all, but between the burgeoning
    Brazilian rock and MPB factions.

    This openly competitive
    situation, brought about by the rivalry of these two popular entertainment
    forms, quickly led to their becoming a regular weekly feature on the major
    networks (TV Excelsior and TV Record) of the time.

    Strangely, this type of
    domestic programming has even permeated the pop culture of North American
    television, what with the recent rebirth of "song contests" recycled
    as reality shows (American Idol and Pop Diva) ruling much of
    the TV-ratings game of late.

    In Bahian singer Caetano
    Veloso’s candid look at the era, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution
    in Brazil (Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, New York, 2002), the consuming,
    all-pervasive influence that was exerted on promoters, performers and viewing
    public alike, by this new and highly attractive format, was convincingly described
    in this fashion:

    "After this (1965)
    festival, producers at the other broadcasting company were also more receptive,
    and initiated a kind of programming that would transform television as much
    as music. The idea of song competitions had been borrowed from the San Remo
    Festival in Italy, but in Brazil, after the success of the first one, it
    was to acquire different characteristics and carry a different sort of weight.
    Elis Regina’s performance had shown the owners of TV Record how broadly
    appealing MPB could be with the Brazilian public, the scope of its potential
    audience as well as prestige… MPB started to be taken seriously in
    Brazil, in every sense: from the specifically musical aspects to the literary
    and the political, there was an aura of mission connected to the songs."

    As a result of this sudden
    flash with success, fast-rising pop-rock artists of every description and
    persuasion, including Roberto and Erasmo Carlos, Wanderley Cardoso, Wilson
    Simonal, Elis Regina, Jair Rodrigues, Wanderléa, Chico Buarque, Jerry
    Adriani, Renato e Seus Blue-Caps, The Fevers, and Ronnie Von, to be joined
    later by Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee, Edu Lobo, Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia,
    Gal Costa, and Tom Zé, in addition to Italian pop favorites Rita Pavone,
    Gigliola Cinquetti, Gianni Morandi, Jimmy Fontana, and others, would reign
    supreme (for a time, anyway) as the New Young Guards of the Living Room.

    In the same, inexplicable
    manner that Carnaval and samba had meshed into a feverish, tropical goulash
    of colorful rhythmic delights, Brazilian rock and popular song had somehow
    come to terms and agreed to peacefully "coexist," in that genuinely
    affecting way that the Brazilian people seem to have of digesting non-native
    musical forms—and, most intriguingly, of turning out lush, finger-snapping
    oeuvres of deceptively simple structure, despite the presence of so much political
    turbulence and economic turmoil, particularly during the military years of
    the mid-sixties to early eighties.

    Although opera (and by
    that, I mean Italian, French, and German opera) had continued to thrive in
    a few isolated spots in the country—invariably presented by contracted
    visiting artists, foreign conductors and outside producers—the demigods
    of Brazilian pop music, once they grabbed hold of the entertainment headlines,
    would systematically and conscientiously throttle the classical competition
    into the back-pages of the obituary section.

    And they still refuse
    to let go, as witnessed by the disastrous decline in new and complete opera
    recordings, and by the rapid slimming down of the classical recorded repertoire
    by the prime international record labels.

    Where this bare road will
    lead to for the opera in Brazil will be the subject of my final article in
    this series.

    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 and contemporary films. You can email
    your comments to

    Copyright ©
    2004 by Josmar F. Lopes

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