Bidú Sayão (1902-1999)

Un bel di vedremo
Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini

Bidu Sayao “The very special gifts of Bidú Sayão singled her out and made her one of a kind: the fragility of her instrument, crystal clear, which cut like a diamond across a large orchestra; the exquisite delicacy of her phrasing; her innate sense of the stage, which created a thousand and one nuances; and a feminine pertness that was totally irresistible.”
—Lanfranco Rasponi

Bidú Sayão was born in Brazil. She wanted to be an actress, but, she once related, “in Rio de Janeiro at that time going on the stage was absolutely out of the question for a girl born in a respectable family,” so she began vocal study instead. She studied with Elena Teodorini, following the Rumanian soprano when she returned to Europe. Sayão made a few concert appearances in Rumania, then went to study with Jean de Reszke, who helped her refine her technique and taught her to sing the text.

Sayão had this to say about her studies:

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 when I took on many of the Debussy scores. . . . [The] dazzling mad scene [from Hamlet by Thomas] which became a must on my concert programs, 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 Sayao After de Reszke’s death Sayão proceeded to Rome and auditioned for Emma Carelli, who after a successful singing career was running the Teatro Costanzi (later Teatro Reale), and who had a knack for discovering voices. Carelli sent her to Luigi Ricci to learn repertoire. She made her début as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia in Rome, which remained her base for several years.

She appeared in Genoa, San Remo, the Colón, and Rio’s Municipal. She sang her first Lakmé at the Opéra Comique and her first Roméo et Juliette at the Opéra with Georges Thill. She also performed with him in Brazil’s national opera, Guarany, in Rio and São Paulo. Sayão remarked that Thill “was the last of the great French tenors—another tradition gone down the drain.”

In 1937 she enjoyed a tremendous success as Massenet’s Manon on her début at the Metropolitan, initiating a New York career that lasted until 1951, in the lyric and coloratura soprano roles such as Gilda, Rosina, Gounod’s Juliet, Millicent, Violetta, Mimi, Norina, Adina, Zerlina and—perhaps most memorably—Susanna. She exuded feminine charm, warmth and refinement on stage, singing with pure, silvery tone and enlivening soubrette roles without recourse to soubrette mannerisms. She retired from the stage in 1958. (paragraph from Martin Berheimer)

Perhaps her most famous recording is the Bachianas No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos made in 1945. The piece was originally for violin and eight cellos, but Sayão suggested to Villa-Lobos that she sing the violin part, without words, and with humming. Though he was reluctant, he agreed to try it, and the crew assembled at a recording studio. According to Sayão, she and the cellos did the piece once and Villa-Lobos decided the result did not require a second take.

Bidú Sayão died last year. Following is a tribute I came across. (I think this was mechanically translated, so I edited for clarity; some of the phrases defy interpretation, so I have left them as I found them):

Silenced Nightingale

Writer Mário de Andrade, who nicknamed Bidú Sayão “The Nightingale,” painted her in poetic colors: “She has an admirable voice with an impregnating allure. She proves that a bird’s soul can escalate in passion.” Brazilian nightingale Bidú Sayão is quiet now. She flew away March 13, at age 96, after fighting pneumonia in Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Maine, USA. She lived in Lincolnville, Maine. Sayão had moved to the area, bitter with Brazil and the treatment Brazilians gave her. She asked to be cremated and her ashes spread in Lincolnville Bay just in front of her house.
The soprano, admired by Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) who called her la piccola brasiliana, was one of the best prima donnas the world has ever known. Her first performance in the US happened in 1936. From the late ’30s through the ’40s Sayão was one of the most popular stars of the New York Metropolitan Opera. She was decorated by the U.S. government for her performances for soldiers during World War II.
She was born Balduína de Oliveira Sayão in the Rio beachside neighborhood of Botafogo on May 11, 1902. Balduína was named after her grandmother and also adopted the Bidu nickname that her mother had. The artist was only 5 when her father died. Her mother Maria José Sayão would be her biggest inspiration and her only monetary source during the beginning of her career. She later complained that no school, company, or government department would help her when she was starting. She carried some resentment for Brazil all her life, but at the same time preserved her Brazilian identity, refusing for example to seek American citizenship.
She was a mere 18 when she first appeared at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro interpreting Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Her work received rave reviews. After that she went to Europe and in 1922 was admitted in Nice, France, to the school of renowned Polish tenor Jean de Reszke, with whom she learned the delicate way of singing that would become her trademark. After starring as Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in Brazil, in 1926, she was invited to Rome and signed a contract with the Constanzi Theater. Soon she went to the Paris Opéra and then to La Scala.
Sayão’s American career began in 1937 following a successful two-year tour in Brazil during 1935 and 1936. In New York she interpreted 12 roles in 13 seasons, including among others Violetta, Rosina, Gilda and Mimi. She was petite, not pretty and with a little voice, but she won the hearts of her public by the intensity of the emotions with which she interpreted her roles.
Her last presentation on a stage was in 1954. Four years later, however, at the request of friend Villa-Lobos she agreed to record Floresta Amazônica, conducted by the famous composer himself. After that she retired.
The musical piece that became her biggest success was her role in Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas No. 5, which was recorded in 1945. Sayão was Villa-Lobos’s favorite interpreter. She became also famous for playing Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Her last trip to Brazil was in 1995 when she was paid a tribute by Escola de Samba Beija-Flor, which chose her story to present during the Carnival Parade. She participated parading on one of the floats. The singer had plans to return to Brazil for a last time on her 100th birthday in 2002 and had invited her long-time manager and friend Hazel Eaton to go with her on this trip. In an interview with daily O Estado de S. Paulo, Eaton revealed Sayão was very happy with the recent release by Sony of her old recordings. She felt relieved for not having been forgotten by people after so many years, something that tormented her during the last few years. [I recall the Bachianas was still the rage in the late 1960s.]
In her last performance at the Rio Municipal Theater in 1937, she was intensely booed. It’s been said that the jeering was orchestrated by jealous Gabriela Besanzoni Lage, a famous Carmen who couldn’t accept being outdone by the diminutive Bidú. The singer didn’t go back for tours in Brazil any more and when her singing career ended she gave up living in Brazil, buying her house in Maine.
Married twice—first with manager Walter Mocchi, 40 years her senior and then in 1935 to famous Italian baritone Giuseppe Danise, who died in 1963—she preferred to spend her time with her cats and playing cards with friends.

Schuyler Chapin, Commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs, NYC and former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera recalls “the petite and enchanting Bidú Sayão who, during her career days held audiences in the palm of her hand, whether on the opera stage, the concert hall, a living room, or just in conversation. . . . At the Met, her clear, bright soprano and winning ways as an actress caught my imagination when I was a teenager and first heard her in 1937 as Mimi. I fell in love, but ran into headlong competition from my father, who’d lost his heart earlier that same year when she’d made her debut as Manon, the only opera he ever really liked. I fantasized about this elusive butterfly for years, enjoying her in a variety of roles—Rosina, Zerlina, Norina, Violetta, Juliet, Melisande, Manon, Manon Lescaut, Susanna, and especially her incomparable Mimi. During the fifteen seasons she sang at the Met she was, hands down, one of the public favorites. When, during my time as general manager, we finally met, I was totally unprepared for her wry humor and saucy conversation. She is still an extremely attractive woman who flirts outrageously and makes the man she’s with feel as if he’s the only person in the world. Very, very good these days for the somewhat squashed male ego.”

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