By Joe Lopes
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 Luiz Bonf, the shy piano-playing Tom Jobim, and his hard-living partner, Vinicius de Moraes, into latter-day Franz Schuberts for their unique songwriting skills.
Orpheus in the Underworld
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 Villa-Lobos.
It was a vigorous, soul-stirring piece cobbled together from the scattered remnants of his stillborn Hollywood film score for the MGM 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, only 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 Orfeu da Conceião 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 Bonf 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 Bonf, 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 sweep Msica 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,” for more on this fascinating 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?
Going on the Record
In the year 1960, the country’s capital underwent a dramatic change from the old Portuguese-dominated center of Rio de Janeiro to the futuristic metropolis of Braslia.
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 seductive young charms of the sensuous new kid on the block, the statuesque “Girl from Ipanema.”
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 pass.
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 in the land.
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 answer 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.
Shunned in the early 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.
Still, the not-so-subtle shifting of musical tastes in the 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 Bonf, Astrud Gilberto, Baden Powell, Srgio Mendes, and their work, by a plethora of entranced American players, among them guitarist Charlie Byrd, saxophonists Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, flutist Herbie Mann, pianist Vince Guaraldi, harmonica expert 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 bygone days of Carmen Miranda, almost to the point of over-saturating 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.
It was sadly prophetic too of the complicated course Brazil’s opera singers would inevitably take with regard to their own future lack of stability in the post-bossa nova period.
Plenty of Pop Stars
So where had all her 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 quintessential role model, Bidu Sayão, from the international operatic scene?
One possible explanation may lie within the pop field itself. As irreconcilable as it might 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 revolutionary changes brought about by 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 ngela Maria, three individual stylists who could be construed as direct descendants of the vocal tradition previously laid down for them by French chanteuse Edith Piaf, and American jazz specialists Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan – impressively 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 “Mame,” 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 noted, 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 in Italian is referred 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-blooming 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 Partir” (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 unmerited) 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 derailed 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 called “Canzone Per Te” (A Song for You), aimed squarely at Brazilian youths’ recurring obsession with Italianit, 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 song candidates, thus securing for himself (in Brazil, anyway) the perennial and undisputed title of “The King” of pop (Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson aside).
The Brazilian Ratings Battle: “I Want My MPB”
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 televised 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 same 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 musical format, was convincingly described in matter-of-fact 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, Wanderla, Chico Buarque, Jerry Adriani, Renato e Seus Blue-Caps, The Fevers, and Ronnie Von, to be joined by Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee, Edu Lobo, Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethnia, Gal Costa, and Tom Z, in addition to Italian pop favorites Rita Pavone, Gigliola Cinquetti, Gianni Morandi, Jimmy Fontana, and others, would reign supreme (for a time) 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 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 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 thrived in a few isolated corners of the country – invariably introduced by contracted visiting artists, foreign conductors, and outside producers – it would continue to be systematically clobbered into the back-pages of the obituary section by the envious demigods of Brazilian popular music, once they grabbed hold of the entertainment headlines.
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 barren road will lead to for the opera in Brazil is anybody’s guess. But I’m hedging my bets to state, outright, that even bossa nova – the so-called “classic” bossa nova we’ve all come to know, love and appreciate – will also not be around the country much longer.
Alas, it would appear that, sooner or later, all goods things do indeed come to a bittersweet ending. It’s just a question of when.
Copyright 2004 by Josmar F. Lopes