Bidú Sayão was born into a prosperous and musical family: her father, a Portuguese lawyer, died when she was five, and her mother was of Swiss and French ancestry. Her initial intention was to act, but as her mother felt this to be an improper career, singing was settled upon as a compromise. Sayão’s first teacher was Elena Theodorini, a Romanian soprano who instituted a strict regime designed to build a strong vocal technique. When Theodorini returned to Romania in 1924 as a professor at the Bucharest Conservatory, she took Sayão with her, later arranging for her to sing for Queen Marie of Romania. Theodorini then introduced Sayão to her own former teacher, the legendary tenor Jean de Reszke, with whom she studied in Paris and Nice, singing in several of his soirées.
Following de Reszke’s death in 1925 Sayão travelled to Rome. Here she auditioned for the distinguished soprano Emma Carelli, who arranged for her to work with the pre-eminent vocal coach Luigi Ricci. In 1926 she was offered a single performance as Rosina / Il barbiere di Siviglia (opposite Schipa and Galeffi) at Rome’s Teatro Costanzi, then run by Carelli’s husband Walter Mocchi. Enjoying a success with this, she added Gilda / Rigoletto and Carolina / Il matrimonio segreto to her repertoire and began to gain engagements within Italy, for instance at Genoa and San Remo. After Carelli’s death in 1928 Sayão was herself for a short while married to Mocchi, who also controlled the Teatro Municipal, Rio de Janeiro and the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, where she made her debuts in 1926 and in 1929 respectively. (She subsequently married the baritone Giuseppe Danise, whom she met in 1935). These were followed in 1930 by her debut, again as Rosina, at La Scala, Milan, where Toscanini considered her for a part in Giordano’s Il re. In 1931 she appeared as Rosina at the Opéra-Comique, Paris, followed by the title role of Lakmé; and went on to sing Juliette / Roméo et Juliette (Gounod) at the Paris Opera opposite Georges Thill. Between 1933 and 1935 Sayão sang at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, while in 1936 she appeared as Cecilia in Gomes’s opera Il Guarany with Thill in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo and as Lakmé in Washington DC.
While visiting New York as a tourist, Sayão contacted Toscanini, who by chance urgently needed a soprano to sing Debussy’s La Damoiselle élue with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. She agreed to learn it at short notice and the resulting performances were successful. Coincidentally, Lucrezia Bori had just retired at the Metropolitan Opera, leaving its management on the lookout for a replacement in Manon. After a telephone call from Toscanini to the Met’s general manager Edward Johnson, Sayão was engaged, making her Met debut in the title role of Manon in February 1937. The critic of the New York Times, Olin Downes, wrote of this: ‘Miss Sayão 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.’ Shortly afterwards she appeared at the Met as Violetta / La traviata and as Mimì / La Bohème, once again garnering critical praise.
Although Sayão also performed frequently with the opera companies of San Francisco and Chicago, from now until 1952 the Met became her artistic home: she was extremely popular in roles such as Rosina, Gilda, Juliette, Susanna / Le nozze di Figaro, Norina / Don Pasquale, Adina / L’elisir d’amore, Mélisande / Pelléas et Mélisande and Zerlina / Don Giovanni. She did not, however, enjoy a good relationship with Rudolf Bing, who took over the management of the Met in 1950, and so decided to leave, giving her final performance with the company as Manon in 1952 on tour in Boston.
Sayão made her final professional appearance singing La Damoiselle élue with the New York Philharmonic under André Cluytens at Carnegie Hall in 1957. However at the request of Villa-Lobos (and with the composer conducting) she recorded his cantata The Forest of the Amazon in 1959, having in 1945 recorded his Bachianas Brasilerias No. 5, singing the solo violin part.
Ideally suited to the key roles in her repertoire, Sayão possessed great charm on stage allied to a silvery voice. Her singing showed good taste, delicacy and refinement.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).