Bidu Sayao was a Brazilian soprano whose gossamer voice and vivacious personality made her one of the most popular stars of the Metropolitan Opera from the late 1930’s through the 40’s,
Sayao was constrained by her relatively small voice to the lyric and coloratura repertory, often expressed regret that she could not sing such heavier roles as Tosca and Butterfly. But her interpretations of Manon, Violetta in ”La Traviata,” Mimi in ”La Boheme” and Susanna in ”Le Nozze di Figaro,” among other roles, received consistent praise, with critics stressing her expressiveness, sensibility, girlishness and excellence of phrasing.
Balduina de Oliveira Sayao was born on May 11, 1902, into a wealthy family in Rio de Janeiro. Although her childhood dramatizations in front of a mirror convinced her that she had a future as an actress, the family conviction that it was a metier for loose women dashed that hope. Piano lessons, too, were a decided failure, but when she was 13 a music-loving uncle helped arrange lessons with a celebrated former soprano, Elena Theodorini.
After several years of study and appearances at the court of Romania, her teacher’s native country, Miss Sayao studied recital repertory in France with the world-famous tenor Jean de Reszke. An eventual audition in Rome led to an engagement as Rosina in ”Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” and by her late 20’s she had sung at many opera houses in Europe and South America.
Arturo Toscanini, who was preparing an all-Debussy program for the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra — precursor of the New York Philharmonic — engaged the young soprano whose years in France had perfected her pronunciation, and gave her one week to learn ”La Demoiselle Elue.” A short time later the Metropolitan Opera, which had recently lost Lucrezia Bori, a stalwart of French repertory, to retirement, invited Miss Sayao to sing the title role in ”Manon” in February 1937.
In The Times, Olin Downes wrote of the debut, ”Miss Sayao triumphed as a Manon should, by manners, youth and charm, and secondly by the way in which the voice became the vehicle of dramatic expression.” The singer never again left the Western Hemisphere. The Met was her base, the San Francisco Opera her alternate headquarters and South America the only foreign territory to hear her in live performance.
A month after her first Met ”Manon,” Miss Sayao sang the lead role in ”La Traviata.” Two weeks later she sang her first ”Boheme” in the house.
In all, the soprano sang more than 200 performances of 12 different roles at the Metropolitan. She made several opera and song recordings and gave many recitals. In December 1943 she and the baritone Lawrence Tibbett were soloists with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Artur Rodzinski for the inaugural concert at the City Center of Music and Drama. The United States Government decorated her for her many performances in Army camps and hospitals during World War II.
Sayão’s most famous recording was The piece, ”Bachiana Brasileira No. 5,”, in part a vocalise, was transcribed for her by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos.