[This interview was recorded in April, 1985. Much of it was
published in The Massenet Newsletter
the following January, hence the emphasis on this repertoire. For
this website presentation, the transcript has been completed, and
pictures and links have been added.]
Incomparable Bidú Sayão
By Bruce Duffie
“The concert of Bidú
Sayão revealed that the art of Bel Canto has not
entirely vanished. She has a very fine light soprano voice,
remarkably supple, which by careful training is capable of rendering
the most difficult selections of the old repertory with ease and
charm. What makes her talent all the more remarkable is that the
audience never has the impression of effort. She articulates
distinctly, and this is very noticeable when she is singing in
French. Clearness of diction in the French school is a powerful
means of expression, and it was not lacking in her appearance.”
So wrote Louis Schneider of the New
York Herald in 1924 under the headline “Music
in Paris.” That review, perhaps more than
anything else, sums up the special qualities of Bidú
She had a great career, and a long one because she knew what she could
and should do — and more importantly what she
could and should not do. But throughout, she had a series of
positive peaks. Appearances in both opera and concert all over
the world brought her artistry to many people. The 1954 edition
of The Grove Dictionary notes
that in 1945, Sayão was second in a
contest to find the most popular singer in the U.S.A. Now, her
legend lives on in studio recordings and broadcasts. Her version
of the Bachianas Brasileiras #5
has been voted into the Recording Hall of Fame, and the Metropolitan
Opera celebrated its Centenary by issuing the 1947 broadcast of Roméo et Juliette.
Over the course of her brilliant career, she appeared with most of the
legendary singers and conductors. She learned from those who went
before, and now tries to pass along what she can to those who are eager
to learn. Several months ago, it was my very great fortune to
have her respond to my request for an interview. She permitted me
to call her on the telephone, and she was gracious, interesting, and
animated throughout the hour.
Here is what was said . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Let’s
start out with one of your most famous roles. Tell me about Manon.
I studied the role in Paris, and was very fortunate to meet the
granddaughter of Massenet. She was a wonderful old lady, and
helped me a lot with the tradition of the opera. She put me in
the hands of the man who created the role of Lescaut. He knew all
the traditions of the opera, and it was terrific for me to learn the mise-en-scène, and the way
we should behave on the stage in that role. I learned all the
details that were wonderful for a young singer like I was at that
time. After that, I started singing that opera all over.
BD: When you sang
it in different theaters, did you keep the same traditions?
The productions were sometimes different — especially
in the big theaters — but the interpretation was
the same. For instance, the version which I learned was in the
Opéra Comique, a tiny theater with beautiful and intimate sets.
BD: How does that
role compare with others you sang?
That is one role that I love, but I also like Mimì in Bohème, Juliette in Roméo et Juliette, and
Violetta in Traviata. I
like more than just soubrette roles. My repertoire as a lyric was
very small because my voice was very light. When I started, my
voice had a tendency to go up, so I became a coloratura for many
years. Then, with a strong will, I could reach a little bit of
the lyric repertoire. But because I never forced my voice, I
could go on for thirty years of career. I would have liked to
sing all the Puccini operas, but they were too heavy for me, so the
only one I could touch was Bohème.
BD: You were very
smart to do only roles which suited your voice.
That is it. That is what I preach to the new singers of
today. “Never start with the heavy
repertoire, even if your voice is big. Go slowly and begin with
the lyric roles, and after you get to a certain age, you can touch the
dramatic roles.” But they are anxious and
want to do everything fast.
BD: How can we get
the young singers to slow down and conserve their voices?
We live in another era than I did. Today we have TV, and
everything must be televised. In my day, an opera or recital was
given to just a few people, but on the TV, millions and millions of
people can hear and see, and you can become a star with one
performance. With us, it took years to reach the heights of
BD: It took fifteen
years to become an overnight sensation!
[Laughs] That is it. The only thing we had was radio.
Late in my career, I did a little bit of TV with Firestone and the Telephone Hour.
BD: Is it a good
thing that operas are now being televised?
I think so. People get more familiar, and they become curious and
come to the theater to see it live.
BD: Tell me about
singing for Jean de Reszke.
After leaving my teacher in Romania, Mme. Theodorini, I went to Paris
to have what we called a master-class. Today, people who know
they want to sing go to a teacher and say they have a
master-class. But a master-class is when you are ready and you
need to be polished. So I went and auditioned for Jean de
Reszke. He did not accept pupils without hearing them. He
accepted me, and I went to Nice and studied with him the last two years
of his life. I learned all the chamber music because I thought I
would be a recitalist. But he felt that I should be on the stage
rather than do recitals, so he taught me Juliette, and Ophelia in Hamlet. I never did sing
Ophelia on the stage — just the aria. But
I protested that I would never get the opportunity to sing Juliette
because my voice was too small. But he told me to learn all I
could about it because one day I would sing it in France. Years
later I did with Georges Thill, and for the centennial of the Met, they
chose the broadcast of this opera (with Jussi Bjoerling) to release on
BD: Are you pleased
that this performance is now available to the public?
I think so. Of all the broadcasts, they chose that one. So,
I guess they liked it, also.
come back to Manon. What kind of character is she?
I liked to sing Manon very much. It was perhaps not my very
favorite role, but it was one I liked to sing very much because I had
studied it so carefully. It is a difficult role. In other
roles, the leading character is more or less the same from the first to
the last. But Manon changes in every act. She is a
different person [as seen in the pair
of photos below]. She starts out just like a little girl
who should go to the convent, and after she finds this boy, she went
with him to Paris. In the second act she has already lived with
him as his mistress, but she wants the luxuries. Even in the
first act she sees ladies with their jewels. She was a very
ambitious woman. She would give everything for luxury and a
BD: Is her problem
that she doesn’t know whether she wants love or
That is it. In the beginning, she didn’t
love Des Grieux enough. She gets the other proposition to be a
big lady, and have a palace and jewelry and everything she wants, so
she leaves him. In the third act, she comes out for the
Cours-la-Reine. In many productions they cut that scene, but it
is very important. In the promenade, she dresses like a queen and
sings and dances a minuet. That is her life, and her lover has a
beautiful ballet in her honor. But she still loves Des Grieux and
leaves all the luxury to rush to St. Sulpice to seduce him again.
That is a beautiful duet. But you see she is changed. Every
scene she is a different woman. Finally, after all the asking and
touching and kissing, he gives up. But he hasn’t
enough money to sustain her luxury, and his father doesn’t
want to give him money for her. So they go to gamble, and she’s
yet another woman who now wants money and more money. Then,
through complications with her ex-lover, she winds up being accused and
going to prison. All this is in the Massenet version.
Puccini doesn’t have all these scenes, so the
Massenet is more complete for me. Then, in the last act, when she
is about to die, she becomes really human. She dies in his arms
and tells him she understands what she did. She was frivolous, so
superficial, so ambitious, and she finally realizes that he was really
her love, but it’s too late. These are
important moments in Manon but she changes every minute.
Mimì or Violetta are always what they are, but with Manon, the
feeling changes a lot, and the interpretation changes a lot.
BD: Is that a
French tradition, to show the character development?
Yes. The Italian tradition is much more dramatic and much more
mature. I don’t know why, but Puccini just
couldn’t write something like champagne. Madame Butterfly is dramatic, and
the orchestration is so heavy, but she was only fifteen years
old. There are many roles I would have loved to have sung, but
God gave me a small voice which I couldn’t
change. I didn’t care so much for Elixir of Love, or Don Pasquale, but I studied them
very hard and they said that I was OK. I was a soubrette and did
things like that. I tried them, but I didn’t
like so much to be a soubrette. They called Susanna in Marriage of Figaro a soubrette, but
I never played her that way. I played Susanna just like a woman
in love with her husband-to-be. She did the little tricks to
please her boss, the Countess. It was funny since I played Rosina
before she was married (in Barber),
and then played her maid in the Mozart opera. I liked very much
Zerlina, and that one is called a soubrette, but I call her bright and
full of life, and very much in love. So I don’t
call that a real soubrette. It is a small role, but it has very
nice arias and duets and was very pleasant. Susanna is a
difficult role because you must make that role. If you don’t
act it well and sing it well, it’s a very
ungrateful role because she is on the stage constantly from the
beginning to the end. Only in the last act does she get her
beautiful aria, Deh vieni non tardar.
Before that, all the other characters have beautiful arias.
Susanna has little duets and things, but not any big aria like the
others. So sometimes the audience is tired, and the critics have
gone because it’s late, and then she has her
BD: Is Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro a little
like Rosina was in The Barber of
Yes, that’s correct — a little
Spanish girl full of life. I also loved very much recitals.
BD: More than opera?
[Hesitating] Almost. I loved recitals because I was alone
and could sing in different languages. I could express with my
face all the beautiful words. I sang some operatic arias
sometimes because the audience asked so much for them, but I was very
well-prepared, especially in the French repertoire. I also sang
lots of Spanish things, and I did lots of Villa-Lobos. [A typical program is shown later on this
webpage.] The recording I made of Bachianas Brasileiras #5 won an
award. They gave me a beautiful scroll. I am happy that now
all the sopranos perform and record this work.
BD: Your recording
with the composer is one we often play on WNIB.
He created that for me! I heard it in Brazil in the original
version for eight ’celli and solo violin.
It was not for voice at all, but I fell in love with the melody and
wanted to sing it. Villa-Lobos said no, but I said yes, and here
in America he made the arrangement. He wrote some words himself
for the middle part, and said I could hum the other sections, with the
mouth closed and the sound coming from the nose. He wanted to
make a recording to see how that would sound, so he could decide if I
could take it around on my concerts. That is the record that we
made, and after that, everyone started to sing it because it is so
BD: What is your
opinion of the current group of singers?
Thank God we have many beautiful singers today. After this
generation, what will happen I don’t know, but we
still have beautiful voices today. We don’t
have as many as in my time, but there are still some good voices.
BD: Do you feel
that we are losing a tradition?
Well, ‘tradition’ is a
word that doesn’t exist anymore. I heard
the tradition because the generation before mine was all
celebrities. I learned with them to listen, and went to them for
advice, but today we don’t find this any
more. The new singers don’t go to the old
singers and ask advice. Sometimes I go to the opera and I don’t
enjoy the new productions which are so different from my time.
Today the star is the director. We see Zeffirelli and Ponnelle,
and after that comes the conductor, and then come the singers.
People today go for the production and they don’t
care if it’s a good singer or a star singer or a
mediocre singer. For them it’s the
same. In my time, during the war, the Metropolitan was so poor
that the sets were in pieces. The only new production during the
regime of Edward Johnson was Marriage
of Figaro. He had the production built and gave us the
costumes. This was the only one where we did not wear our own
costumes. Normally we never used any costumes from an opera
house. We had our own — from the wigs to
the shoes. Today the singers are so fortunate because they don’t
put one penny in any costumes, and they are gorgeous. They cost
fortunes and the singers get them for nothing.
BD: But isn’t
the production more unified if one person has designed the sets and the
Today, the costumes go with the production, and the artists lose their
personality. The stage directors teach you every movement, every
step, everything you do. If you have to take a glass of water,
you have to do it the way that want you to do it. I never could
have worked with them because I was an instinctive actress. I had
my personality, and my colleagues were the same. Certainly, when
we would rehearse we’d know which door to come
from and which door to go out, and where we’d
find our colleagues, but the interpretation, the movements, were
BD: So you would
learn the role and the interpretation, and not expect the opera house
to give you much direction?
Yes. Today, the directors are the stars, and they want the
artists to move in a certain way. Sometimes the artists don’t
feel it that way, and when you don’t feel it that
way, how can you be spontaneous and real? I don’t
think it’s possible. I’m
very happy I’m retired because I couldn’t
work in this way at all.
BD: Did you ever think
of directing an opera yourself?
[Laughing] No, never, never! I have no ambitions of
that. I was spoiled because in my time I heard the greatest
Toscas, the greatest Aïdas, the greatest Traviatas, and everything
was so wonderful. We would go for the artists, not for the
scenery or the stage. We would go for the music — for
the conductors and for the composers and for the singers.
BD: Is there any
way to strike a balance with great scenery and great singing?
Perhaps. We still have great singers today — not
too many, but some are first-class. There are not too many
tenors, but we do have Domingo, Pavarotti, and Alfredo Kraus whom I
admire immensely. We also have mezzos and sopranos who are
first-class, very beautiful, but I don’t want to
mention names because I might leave one out!
BD: So we don’t
have a lot of great singers these days?
No, not a lot.
BD: But we have a
lot of singers!
Oh yes. Everybody sings! I serve as a judge for auditions
and there are hundreds and hundreds of singers. It’s
a kind of an epidemic.
BD: Then why are we
not finding so many great ones?
I don’t know. Many times I hear a beautiful
voice, but they don’t sing well. They don’t
feel, they don’t interpret. Perhaps we don’t
have enough good teachers. I don’t
understand it. I don’t want to hurt the
feelings of the new generation because they are so intelligent,
extremely intelligent people. They sing in many languages with
much facility. They are so musical and they have beautiful
voices, but they will never become big stars like Joan
Sutherland, or Marilyn
Horne, or Leontyne Price. They are singers, but not
artists. I make a distinction there. To be an artist is
very difficult — much more difficult than just
BD: What is it that
makes an artist?
It’s something you cannot learn. You must
be born with it. You must sing with your heart and your soul more
than with your brains and vocal cords. It must all come together,
but from the heart. You express everything you say. Often
there is a lack of diction. They don’t pay
attention to the words they say. When it comes from your heart,
the words make the interpretation. Opera is drama or comedy, but
it is theater. I always used to say that opera for me is just
like magic, illusion, poetry, passion, humanity, and fantasy. If
you have all of these, then you make opera and it is delightful.
Otherwise it can be very boring.
BD: Does opera work
Some — the ones with lots of recitatives.
Now they have those titles they put on top of the stage. I’ve
not seen them, but they use them at the New York City Opera and in San
Francisco. Terry McEwen [then
the Manager of the San Francisco Opera] says they are a terrific
success because people can read it in English while they sing in
Italian or in French or in German.
BD: This coming
fall we will get our first look at them here in Chicago.
Mme. Sayão: I’ve
never seen them, but I have the impression that if I start to read, I
will lose what goes on onstage. Just like when I see a movie in a
language I don’t understand, I read the
translation and I lose so much of the acting because my eyes are with
the words. This is just my own impression, and I may be
completely wrong, so I am very curious to see a performance with those
subtitles. But operas with lots of recitatives could use it, and
also the Wagner operas with so much talking. I don’t
speak or understand German, and I want to know what Wotan says to
Fricka and all those big, big conversations. If I understood it,
I would enjoy it much more. So I guess that for people who don’t
understand Italian or French, having it in English helps a lot.
But for Verdi or Puccini or even Massenet, people go to see those
operas and they read the libretto ahead of time, so they know the
story. It’s so funny to hear those in
English. At the Opéra in Paris, I sang Rigoletto in French, and it was the
most horrible thing you could imagine! I also sang Bohème in French at the
Opéra Comique, and it was very bad. The translations are
BD: As an artist, how
much preparation do you expect from the audience?
I imagine that the audience should be prepared when they go to an
opera. They may not be musically literate, but they should at
least know the story, to know what goes on. Then if you like the
music, you will come back and become a fan. I have the impression
that the new audience today doesn’t have the
tradition from the past, so they go to see the spectacle. The
Metropolitan can take a risk with these lavish productions. In
their new production of Tosca,
they change the set in front of your eyes just like magic! It is
really marvelous. Other operas are just as good, but other
theaters will not be as good because they don’t
have this kind of machinery.
BD: You saw this Tosca live in the theater?
Yes, I went to the premiere.
BD: Did you also
see it on television?
Yes, and it lost a lot. We have a small screen, so everything is
reduced. You see just a little part, but in the theater you see
everything. The singing and the acting were OK, but the scenery
was not the same as it was live in the theater.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of opera?
I think so, but we need new composers. Right now opera is living
on the old composers. When they give Verdi or Puccini or Massenet
or Wagner, it is sold out. But when a new work is given, the
theater is not sold out. So we need composers who write beautiful
things — not just recitatives and things we don’t
understand, but things with melody for everybody. They are
writing operas these days, but, for instance, I saw Lulu. I like the play, but
the music I didn’t understand. It’s
very atonal. There were no arias or duets, just recitative and
talking with the notes [sprechstimme].
But I am old-fashioned... [Both laugh]
nothing wrong with being old-fashioned! Let me go the other
way. Is there a place on the stage today for Handel operas?
Oh yes. Now is the tri-centennial, but in the time of Handel and
Gluck and Mozart, and all those great, great geniuses, the opera houses
were small. There were only a few in the orchestra and the
singers were specialists in that technique. The important thing
was the technique. Handel is full of agility and cadenzas, more
than even big lines of melody. The singers were trained just like
a violinist or cellist or flutist. They were human
instruments. Today we don’t have those
little tiny opera houses. They showed the opera house of that
time in the film Amadeus.
How can we get voices today like Malibran and Pasta and Grisi? We
don’t know just what they sounded like, and they
only sang in small theaters with small orchestras, and did not risk
their voices in big places with big orchestras. So perhaps those
voices were not as big as we think they were.
BD: Then does opera only
belong in a small house?
Mme. Sayão: They
only began to build big houses at the end of the nineteenth
century. Before that, the opera houses mostly belonged to the
kings and emperors. They had their own opera houses, and the
composers wrote for those spaces. When you play The Secret Marriage by Cimarosa, it
needs a smaller theater. I sang that work very often
in Italy. It is a jewel just like Mozart, but it needs a smaller
theater. When you put those kinds of operas on in the
Metropolitan or the State Opera of Vienna or La Scala, they lose so
much. Even if the acoustic is good, the intimacy is lost.
The movements and expressions of your face are lost in the big opera
houses. In Italy, they have the Piccola Scala which is a small
opera house, and they used to give those works there.
BD: We have a small
theater, the Civic Theater, which is right next door to the big house,
and everybody wishes they would do more in that house. The Opera
School of Chicago has done some works there, including The Secret Marriage! [The Opera School of Chicago was
established in 1973, and among its earliest productions were some newer
works such as The Rakes Progress (Stravinsky), The Turn of the
Screw, and The Rape of
Lucretia (Britten), as well as Il
Ciarlatano [The Charlatan] by
Domenico Puccini (1772-1815), the grandfather of the well-known verismo
Handel and all those things would be perfect in that kind of small
BD: Did you change
your technique at all when you sang in different sized houses around
Oh, no, no! I always sang with what I had. It is the
acoustic that counts the most. Even though my voice was not big,
everybody could hear me in all the opera houses I sang, thank
God. But this was because I had good schooling, and I studied
very hard, and I succeeded. The new Metropolitan seems very good,
but in the old Met, there were spots which were very good and you could
hear very well. Chicago has very good acoustics, and I loved
singing there very much. I think it is very good, and everybody
BD: What about the
two houses in Paris?
Oh they had beautiful acoustics. The Opéra Comique was
small, just the size I told you for those older works. The big
Opéra had so much rococo design. There were too many
draperies and too much crystal. It was too heavy, but even so,
the acoustic was good. In Italy, every opera house was beautiful,
and in South America, too, especially the Colón in Buenos
Aires. There you could whisper. You can hear the most
delicate sound. In my country of Brazil, we have a small theater,
but the acoustic is beautiful. It is a very pretty opera house,
all marble and bronze. Everything is very pretty.
BD: Tell me more
about singing here in Chicago.
I used to sing in Chicago [Barber in
1941; Pelléas (the
first performance in Chicago since Garden in 1931) and Traviata (wearing a gown in the first act studded
with what were reputed to be diamonds from her family’s diamond mines
in Brazil, according to Opera in Chicago by Ronald Davis) in 1944; Manon and Traviata in 1945], and when the
Lyric Opera of Chicago re-opened in 1954, I was almost retired from the
Met, just doing recitals, but Carol Fox convinced me to be in the cast
of Don Giovanni with Rossi-Lemeni.
Carol had been my friend for many years in New York, so I could not say
no to her. I sang Zerlina for the opening night, and it was a
beautiful evening. [A photo of
the full cast is on the webpage with the Interview of Rossi-Lemeni
(linked above).] I will never forget that. I love
Chicago and I love the audience. They are so wonderful.
BD: Was it special
for you knowing that you were opening a new company?
Yes, I thought it was very important. I then came back to
celebrate her 25th anniversary with the opera. It was a gala with
a beautiful dinner, and I was introduced on the stage. I never
saw such a gala in my life! I met many old friends of mine.
BD: Thank you so
much for speaking with me today. You have been most gracious.
Thank you for calling me.
© 1985 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on April 1,
1985. A portion was published in the Massenet Newsletter in January,
1986. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1987 and 1997.
The transcription was completed and slightly re-edited in 2017, and
posted on this
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.