NEW YORK — "I was not born in 1902, like some of the books say. My God! Isn't 79 old enough? I show you my passport!"
It is the birthday of Bidu Sayao, one of the most enchanting lyric sopranos ever to grace the stage of the Metropolitan.
In her New York hotel suite, which is filled with flowers and cards from colleagues and fans, the soprano gives a long interview between parties.
She flirts with a young photographer, "Make me look 69, darling, and I give you a kiss."
She has to be cajoled into the photos, "On the West Coast, they haven't seen me since I was young!"
She needn't worry. Trim in green slacks and a flowered print blouse, she looks a very good 60 and remains as feminine as she ever was on stage. "You like my eyes? The eyes were always good.
"I was born in Rio and was christened Balduina, after my grandmother. For some reason, she was called Bidu and so was I.
"I was three-quarters Portuguese and one-quarter French Swiss. My father died when I was 4, so Mama and my older brother brought me up and very strictly. I was a difficult, shy child.
"The men in the family were all doctors and lawyers. An 'artist' was no profession. When I was 8 or 9, I performed monologues to entertain family and friends. I wasn't pretty or good in school. I started to sing little songs my uncle would teach me, but I wanted to act, not sing. The family was horrified.
"Finally Mama took me to a teacher, when I was 12. She was a Romanian, Elena Theodorini, a soprano who had settled in Rio. Though I didn't have much of a voice, I was very musical. How I envy those people who are born with the voice already there. I went four times a week and for the first year I only did exercises, like the Marchesi ones. I fantasized what they might mean.
"My second year I was given little songs and I learned to read music. The third year I had arias, only leggiero and coloratura. At the time my credo was established. The voice has to be like a string of pearls, the same from top to bottom, seemingly effortless, natural, flexible, using all the colors with expressiveness and clarity of diction. Bel canto isn't just for Rossini; all composers need bel canto."
At this point, when she was 16, Theodorini took her protege to Bucharest, to sing for Queen Marie privately. The queen was so impressed she had the girl sing for the then-Crown Prince of Japan, Hirohito, on a state visit.
The next stop was Paris, chaperoned always by Mama. There she auditioned for the legendary tenor and matinee idol, Jean de Reszke. She thought she only would do recitals, but De Reszke knew she was destined for opera.
"You will sing Juliette," he told her. Four years later she did just that in her debut at the Paris Opera with Georges Thill. During the two years she spent with De Reszke, she performed in his soirees musicales for the height of Parisian society.
The next stop was Rome. Though she had not one role in her repertory, she auditioned for soprano Emma Carelli, now impresaria of the Rome Opera. Carelli was impressed enough to put her in the hands of Luigi Ricci, probably the best coach in Italy at the time.
She was given one performance as Rosina in "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" and told a contract would depend on what happened. There was no rehearsal. Her colleagues were Schipa and Galeffi. She was 18.
It was a success and she added Gilda in "Rigoletto" and Carolina in "Il Matrimonio Segreto" to her repertory. Her climb was rapid; she was singing all over Italy. She returned to Paris in 1928 for her debut at the Comique as Lakme, followed by Manon and Rosina. Then on to the Opera for Juliette and Gilda.
In 1934, she made her debut at La Scala as Rosina, and, in the process, met Arturo Toscanini.
He wanted her to do a Giordano premiere, "Il Re," but, she said, he soon showed his interests were more than musical. After a coaching session which included as many passes as operatic instructions, Sayao walked out. She was removed from the cast.
That same year while singing "I Puritani" and "La Traviata" she met the great Italian baritone Giuseppe Danise, 26 years her senior and nearing the end of his career. By this time Sayao had married Walter Mocchi, a powerful manager who was the widower of Emma Carelli (who had died the year after Sayao's Rome debut). The marriage was dissolved.
Danise became the most influential man in Sayao's life--husband, teacher, manager, coach, protector. He died in 1963.
Sayao, along with Danise and Mama, first visited the United States as a tourist in 1936. While in New York she decided to see if Toscanini carried any grudge. She telephoned him and he immediately asked her if she knew the Debussy "La Demoiselle Elue" which he wanted to do with the Philharmonic. She studied the part, auditioned--without one interruption--and was hired.