Bidú Sayão was one of the most beloved sopranos in the entire history of opera. She was known for her ethereal, silvery tone and a stage presence of delicacy and refinement.
Born to an upper-class family, she was named Balduina de Oliveira Sayão after her grandmother. Her father died when she was five years old. She wanted to be an actress, but as going on the stage was “out of the question for a girl born in a respectable family,” she studied voice with the aid of an uncle. Her talent led her to one of the world’s leading teachers, Elena Theodorini. Some sources say an appearance in Lucia di Lammermoor at Rio’s Teatro Municipal, when she was 18, removed family opposition to her dream of singing. Sayão continued studies with Theodorini in Europe. In 1922, she became a pupil of Jean de Reszke, a tenor with one of history’s purest vocal techniques. After he died, she returned to make a stunning second debut in Rio, in 1926, as Rosina in The Barber of Seville. She sang widely in Europe, with performances in Paris at La Scala and in Rome. Toscanini, hearing her in Traviata, engaged her for her U.S. concert debut with him at the New York Philharmonic in 1935. For the next two years she performed primarily in her native Brazil. But in 1937, she was booed outrageously as Micaela in Carmen, allegedly by a claque organized by the singer playing Carmen. The outraged Sayão said she would not sing in Brazil. She joined the roster of the Metropolitan Opera, debuting in 1937 as Massenet’s Manon. Other favorite roles were Mimì in La Bohème, Debussy’s Mélisande, and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.
It was Sayão who is credited with convincing Heitor Villa-Lobos to change the solo part of Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, from violin to wordless soprano. The work became the composer’s most famous piece, and the 1945 recording the most famous of Sayão’s 35 78 rpm releases and her dozen LPs. Sayão made extensive concert tours, and endeared herself by frequently singing for wounded servicemen during World War II. She left the Met’s roster in 1951 and retired from opera in 1954. She came out of retirement three years later, at the request of Villa-Lobos, to sing on his recording of his composition Forest of the Amazon, perhaps her only recording in stereo. It may have been the act of singing this intensely Brazilian music that prompted her to relent in her ban on singing in Brazil, for she made one farewell appearance in Rio, in 1958. After that she retired with her second husband, the well-known Italian baritone Giuseppe Danise, to their home in Lincolnville, ME, a North Atlantic seaside town (Danise died in 1963). There, she lived a quiet life caring for her cats and frequently playing cards with her local friends and visitors.
The coming of compact discs prompted reissues of many of her recordings, a fact which, she told a São Paolo newspaper, made her feel “relieved,” since she had been “tormented” by the idea that all her work had been forgotten. She had a nearly fatal stroke in 1993, but recovered fairly well, considering her age of 92. In 1995, she returned to Rio for the last time, when she learned that the Beija-Flor Samba School had chosen her life story as the subject for its presentations in the great Carnival parade of that year. That was her last public appearance. She died of pneumonia, at the Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, ME, at the age of 97.
Bidu with Toscanini
Bidu with Villa-Lobos, 1958
Bidu in the 1950s