Archive for June, 2010

“Make a Sixth”

June 16, 2010

The madness has begun!  Brazil defeated North Korea yesterday 2-1 in their first game of the World Cup tournament.  The biggest sporting event in the world, every four years 32 national teams spend a month competing for the coveted Jules Rimet trophy and bragging rights for the title of best football nation on Earth.  The Brazilians are the only country to have competed in every World Cup tournament since 1930, and the Brazilians are five time champions.  In fact, they have won five of the last thirteen tournaments (and they were in the championship game in one other, losing to France in Paris in 1998). [See my blog of October 10, 2009 about futebol in Brazil.]  Brazil, win or lose this World Cup, has bragging rights like no other country.  (The Italians have won four times, and they are reigning champions having won in 2006.)  There are posters everywhere here proclaiming, “Win a Sixth” (Faz um hexa).

World Cup fever

The World Cup in Brazil is something like the Super Bowl in the U.S., but stretched out over a month (especially when the Brazilians win).  During yesterday’s afternoon game, the country came to a virtual standstill.  Government offices and many stores closed.  Several hundred thousand (including me) flocked to Copacabana beach to huge television screens and grandstands set up for the tournament.

Watching the game on Copacabana beach

The city yesterday was covered with green and gold.  Street vendors are doing a booming business in funny hats, large eyeglasses, flags, banners, and noisemakers.  Brazilian flags are everywhere.  The World Cup, in fact, is one of the most powerful examples of the formation of national identity—the topic of the book I am writing.  No matter one’s class, color, region, or local football team, when the World Cup begins, everyone is Brazilian.  Everyone is unified and galvanized cheering for their team, their country.

The multitudes watching the game at Copacabana beach

The team itself is an advertisement for the central myth of Brazilian identity—that all Brazilians, regardless of color or class, are forged out of the collision of three peoples, Africans, Portuguese, and Native Americans.  The rainbow of colors on the Brazilian team—from the pale skinned star Kaká to the dark skinned Ramires—reflects the spectrum of skin tones in Brazil as a whole.  No other team in the World Cup has the ethnic and phenotypical range of the Brazilians.  The power of television and the World Cup reinforce visually this central myth of Brazilian identity, and the team provides one of the most potent forces in the reinforcement of national identity.

Even the great poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade was dressed for the game!

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The “Beautiful Age” Theatre

June 7, 2010

Last week the city of Rio de Janeiro reopened the stunningly beautiful Theatro Municipal after more than two years of renovation work.  Built between 1906 and 1909, the theatre is one of the landmarks of downtown Rio.  It faces across the extensive Cinelândia plaza looking out at Guanabara Bay and the Sugarloaf Mountain.  On the west side of the plaza sits the stately City Council Chamber and on the east side is the broad Rio Branco Avenue with the National Library and National Museum of Fine Arts just across the street from the theatre.  Both were also built in the first decade of the twentieth century in the same architectural style, symbols of the “new” Rio de Janeiro.

Sugarloaf and Cinelândia Plaza seen from Theatro balcony

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Rio was the political, economic, and cultural capital of the nation.  The Brazilian elites consciously strived to emulate Europe, especially England and France.  During this so called belle époque (beautiful age) the elites physically transformed Rio de Janeiro much the way the Parisian elite had transformed Paris a half-century earlier.  Mayor Francisco Pereira Passos leveled sections of the city center to open wide boulevards, in particular, what today is the massive Avenida Getúlio Vargas and the street that runs perpendicular to it, the Avenida Rio Branco (known as the Avenida Central in the early twentieth century).  Many of the areas that Pereira Passos destroyed were tenements and slums in the central parts of the city and some of the displaced inhabitants migrated into the earliest favelas on Rio hillsides.

Cinelândia Plaza with Theatro Muncipal

The Theatro Municipal was built in the style of European opera houses complete with marble, chandeliers, frescoes, and gold leaf.  French and Italian designers and artisans completed much of the art work.  The restored building lacks a few finishing touches, but it is a jewel.  New gold leaf, completely reconstructed chandeliers, and restored frescoes shine and sparkle.  This belle époque opera house (with 2100 seats) also has the intimacy that is missing in so many modern facilities.  Even in the upper galleries (of the four levels), one can still feel reasonably close to the performers and the acoustics are excellent.

Exterior of the Theatro

On Friday night I attended Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore (I love Italian opera!).  As I wandered through the building admiring the renovations I wondered how different the crowd and atmosphere must have been a century earlier when the theatre opened.  Surely, the casually dressed crowd of middle-class and upper-class Brazilians looked very different than the elegantly dressed and (largely) upper-class patrons who must have attended performances in 1910.  The streets would have been filled with horses and carriages, and electric streetcars, rather than the automobiles and busses that circled the building (and the metro that runs under it).

Interior of the Theatro

I loved the performance despite the sparseness of the sets. (The director opted for striking costumes and clever placement of a large cast rather than the traditional sets.)  For me, opera is about the power of the human voice to move us emotionally, viscerally.  The performers were very good, and I went home moved.  As I stepped out of the theatre near midnight into the cool night air, the doorways of the Avenida Rio Branco and side streets had already begun to fill up with those who would spend the night sleeping under cardboard and blankets just a short distance from the gold leaf and opulence of this architectural jewel.  After three hours of the exquisite beauty of Verdi and Italian opera I was reminded that despite a century of economic growth and urbanization the social structure of Rio still looked very much as it did when the Theatro Municipal opened in 1909.