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Brazil 137 Chapter 4 Parsifal on the Periphery of Capitalism The city of São Paulo is noisy, chaotic, and larger than life, but few would describe it as elegant. Still, it seems oddly apropos that one of the most rec‑ ognizable landmarks in this megalopolis of soaring skyscrapers and favelas is an opera house known simply as the Theatro Municipal. Postcards dis‑ seminate images of its façade, a jumble of neobaroque and art nouveau styles with nubile sylphs, delicate stained glass, and hoary atlases who shoulder columns crowned by the words Música and Drama. Tourists wander down the stepped terrace along the building’s edge, stopping to gaze up at the mus‑ tachioed visage of Carlos Gomes, the Brazilian composer whose opera about the love of a noble savage and a Portuguese colonizer’s daughter was once the toast of Milan. Only a handful of the metro area’s 21 million inhabitants will ever enter the door, let alone see the stage, yet the small plaza where it stands is a popular spot for political protests to begin or end, a site where the destitute often congregate in the middle of the night like an ironic comment on the beauty wrought by the bourgeoisie. Although the stage of the Theatro Municipal has seen its share of opera stars, one of the principal reasons for its renown is its status as the birthplace of the Brazilian avant-​ garde. The tale has been told many times: over the course of a week in the middle of February 1922, a group of artists and writ‑ ers came together in São Paulo’s premier performance venue to overthrow the passadistas of the old imitative order. Emiliano di Cavalcanti and Anita Malfatti set up easels in the foyer, turning crystal chandeliers and gold filigree into a backdrop for canvases awash in rude colors and unconventional lines. Victor Brecheret’s bust of Christ with his hair in braids sent the classicists scurrying away in disgust. Meanwhile, in the sumptuous auditorium where Enrico Caruso had wowed the crowds just five years earlier in Carmen and Tosca, all semblance of decorum disappeared amid a cacophony of whistles, hoots, and catcalls.1 Graça Aranha, a man far too old to plead youthful folly as an excuse (he was pushing fifty-​ four), scandalized his colleagues in the Brazilian Academy of Letters when he walked onstage to give the opening speech. The next day Menotti del Picchia upped the ante in a rousing defense of the new art, illustrated with readings of poetry and prose by a lineup 138 Chapter 4 that included Sérgio Milliet and Oswald and Mário Andrade as well as a dance by one Yvonne Daumerie. At some point the composer Heitor Villa-​ Lobos showed up with a shoe on one foot and a slipper on the other: he later chalked it up to gout, but critics were so appalled by his attire that they nearly forgot to comment on the “African” and “indigenous” elements in his dances for piano. The only part of the program on which the upstarts and their naysayers could agree was Guiomar Novaes—­ the essence of pianistic perfection as always, even if she did obstinately insist on playing a few num‑ bers by Debussy, that old Romantic. Some who tell the tale of the Week of Modern Art miss the irony entirely, but for scholars of theater it sticks in the craw: Brazilian modernismo was “born” in a theater, yet it engendered no new theater of its own. Sábato Magaldi and Maria Thereza Vargas attribute the absence of teatro modernista to the fact that, “being a synthesis of artistic elements, it presupposes the prior renewal of the arts that compose it.”2 By this logic, avant-​ garde theater can only ever be belated. Even so, the lack might be felt less keenly if the Theatro Municipal didn’t loom so large in narratives of modernismo, if the participants and later critics didn’t continually return to the primal scene, and if the stage at its center hadn’t been built for an art so irrevocably tied to the Belle Époque. The artists later known as modernistas chose to make their break from within the carapace of the established order, but perhaps theater would have spoiled the tenuous illusion of a rupture between the old and the new; maybe something about the sight of bodies trying to enact experimental forms on an operatic stage would have...


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