From Sayão to Saudade: Brazil's Contributions to Opera

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 - 03:24 PM

WQXR
Brazilian-born soprano Bidú Sayão as Manon in 1937, the role in which she premiered at the Met. Brazilian-born soprano Bidú Sayão as Manon in 1937, the role in which she premiered at the Met. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera Archives)

In 2012, I published an article in this space about opera and the Olympics. While watching some of the splendid athletic achievements in Rio this past week, I thought to myself that Brazil, a large and remarkably musical nation, is a bit of an underperformer when it comes to opera. This is not to say that Brazil is without opera, but the art form has not achieved the glory and fascination with which it is held further south in Buenos Aires, Argentina, whose Teatro Colon is one of the world’s temples of opera. I adore it.

South America does have an opera tradition born primarily of its colonizers and immigrants. The Spanish brought some interest in the art form, but it was the Italians, who arrived in South America (especially Argentina) in huge numbers in the last decade of the 19th century and the first one of the 20th, who built the chief theaters and made up most of the audiences. I have attended performances at the Teatro Solis in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Teatro Municipal in Santiago, Chile. Both have excellent traditions, and Santiago often heard stars such as Renata Scotto and Aprile Millo, as well as Chileans Ramón VinayVerónica Villarroel and Cristina Gallardo-Domâs. 

The Portuguese did not bring much opera tradition to Brazil, and while there are Italian and German communities in the southern part of the country, they did not influence the growth of opera as they did in neighboring nations. There are three notable opera houses in Brazil. The Theatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro opened in 1909. I have seen a couple of operas there, but nowadays, little is done because of budgetary and other considerations. It has one of the most beautiful restaurants I have seen in any theater, with deep blue tiles and an exotic design that could be a setting for Aïda or Idomeneo. São Paulo also has a Theatro Municipal, which opened in 1911 and bears some resemblance to the Vienna State Opera. Opera performances are infrequent there as well.

Probably the most famous opera house in Brazil is the one in Manaus in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. It opened in 1896, with La Gioconda, when Manaus was a wealthy city thanks to the rubber harvested nearby. When rubber began to be produced elsewhere, especially in Asia, Manaus fell on hard times, and the theater closed in 1924. It has only opened fitfully, but the impoverished city cannot afford to sustain an opera season. Yet it is the most visited site in Manaus when tourists go there. Werner Herzog’s ambitious 1982 film, Fitzcarraldo, is not a retelling of the construction of the Amazon opera house (where it was partially filmed), as is often said, but a fantasia about ego, opera and madness that is riveting all the same.

Say “opera” and “Brazil” to most people and, almost certainly, the response will be Bidú Sayão (1902­–1999), The soprano, born in Rio, made her Met debut on Feb. 13, 1937 as Massenet’s Manon, replacing Lucrezia Bori. The review by W.J. Henderson in the New York Sun did not exactly shower her with praise but did not dismiss her either: “She has a light voice of sufficient power and range for the music of Manon … her singing in general showed musical quality and a knowledge of the style of the opera … Nothing Miss Sayão did or sang was of impressive magnitude, but … accepting the standards now prevailing at the Metropolitan, this was a pleasing debut.”

Sayão went on to have a Met career marked more by popularity than variety, performing 12 roles, including soubrette parts such as Adina, Norina, Rosina, Susanna and Zerlina. She also got to do parts with more dramatic heft, including Gilda, Juliette, Mélisande, Mimì and Violetta. And of course Manon, with which she began her Met career as well as concluded it, on tour in Boston on Apr. 23, 1952. Her final performance at the Met was as Mimì two months earlier. In the 1980s, she said she abruptly ended her Met career because, "I am proud, and I did not want to wait until I was asked to leave."

Sayão lived in Italy and France as a young woman, learning the languages and cultures of those countries. She put them to good use throughout her career. Once she arrived at the Met, Sayão only performed in the Western Hemisphere, almost exclusively in New York but also in San Francisco and occasionally in South America. She last visited her homeland in 1995, at the age of 93. In New York she lived in the Salisbury Hotel near Carnegie Hall and also had a home in Maine, where she died and her ashes were scattered.

She was so popular in New York in the 1940s that a comic book was created that depicted her life story, including her parents’ refusal to let her become an opera singer (a generous uncle privately funded her lessons), her debut in Rome as Rosina at the age of 19, success at La Scala (where Toscanini heard Sayão and later engaged her to sing Debussy in concert with the Philharmonic Society in New York) and ultimately her Met debut. 

Sayão is depicted in a large and famous portrait by Curtis Ether that one often sees in the Met’s Founders Hall gallery. Despite an immense sky-blue background and her bright dyed red hair, it is Sayão’s small but radiant face that inevitably commands your attention. She was a favorite of my father, who told me that this painting accurately evokes who Sayão was. 

Just about everyone I’ve encountered who heard Sayão sing melts at the mention of her name. She apparently had a genuine charm and developed a circle of friends and fans who were loyal to her for the rest of her long life. At the Met’s Centennial Gala (Oct. 22, 1983), she received a huge ovation as one of the honored artists invited to sit the stage. I met her a couple of times in the 1980s, and I too was entranced even though I never heard her perform. 

Sayão knew Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887–1959), a fellow native of Rio, and was perhaps the foremost interpreter of his songs. He was the most famous Brazilian composer, and his works often were written in a classical idiom and showed influence of Wagner, Puccini and, especially, Bach. His most popular songs were the Bach-inspired Bachianas Brasileiras, which he conducted when they were first recorded in 1945 in New York, with Sayão singing and Leonard Rose playing the cello. Sayão also performed some of his songs that communicated saudade, that special Brazilian emotion that I would call nostalgic sadness. 

While Sayão spent most of her life and career in New York, Villa-Lobos was an ongoing presence in Brazil and created education programs in major cities that helped fuel musical development and literacy in his nation. His music was championed by pianist Artur Rubenstein. 

Villa-Lobos wrote some 2,000 works, including 12 symphonies. He wrote an opera in 1956 called Yerma, based on a play by Federico García Lorca. It did not have its premiere until 1971, at the Santa Fe Opera with a cast that included Frederica von Stade. Here is a recording of that performance. Yerma received its Brazilian premiere in Rio in 1983. 

The most famous Brazilian opera singer today is baritone Paulo Szot, who was born in São Paulo in 1969. He scored a huge success in 2008 as Emile De Becque in a much-lauded revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center directed by Bartlett Sher and co-starring Kelli O’Hara. He won a Tony and other theater awards for his portrayal. Instead of pursuing a leading-man career on Broadway, he returned to opera and made an important Met debut in 2010 as Kovalyov in The Nose and has returned for major roles in Carmen, Die Fledermaus, Manon and The Death of Klinghoffer.

Just as Sayão, Villa-Lobos and Szot left Brazil to advance their careers, especially in New York, so too did composer João MacDowell. He created the International Brazilian Opera Company in New York and is its artistic director. MacDowell has composed three operas and many other acclaimed compositions. The first act of his next opera, based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, will be performed at New York’s Scandinavia House on Nov. 10 and 12. The IBOC has also fostered the work of composers Luigi Porto and Thiago Tibério. 

It says a lot about New York that it can be a hub of Brazilian opera. If you walk on West 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, you will find restaurants where you can eat feijoada, the Brazilian national dish; practice your Portuguese; and buy the latest samba recordings. Ask people there about Sayão, Villa-Lobos, Szot and MacDowell, and they will pat your hand, smile a Mona Lisa smile and get a slightly sad glint in their eyes. And then you will understand the meaning of saudade.

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