The magic words – On Air!
Went to a performance of ‘A Noiva do Condutor’, or ‘The Tram Conductor’s Sweetheart’ at King’s College tonight – and one of the things that attracted me was the idea of it being presented as a radio performance, c1930. (Also the title brought to mind the incomparable ‘Black Orpheus’, where Orpheus himself is a tram conductor on the line to Hades – perhaps the tram was one of the symbols of the new, highly-urbanised Rio.) The premise of the radio transmission worked really well and helped give atmosphere and context as a way into the piece. Of course I couldn’t help being swept up in the aura of a radio evocation – complete with vintage ‘on air’ sign and microphone, and ably anchored by Pedro Silva. Around the table were four notable Brazilian aficianados – Professor David Treece (translator), Dr Fred Moehn, Dr Felipe Botelho and Dr Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho (all King’s College), who discussed the piece and its wider connections to early twentieth century Rio de Janeiro society and aspirations. In the spread of samba as a kind of ‘national music’ that also embodied middle-class sensibilities, I was interested to learn of how important radio had been – imagine, before TV and YouTube, the power of national radio, broadcasting to such an enormous, transforming nation.
The performance itself was a delight – the songs are delicious (in new arrangements by Stefan Metzger that set them off beautifully), winningly performed by the soloists and the King’s Brazil Ensemble. This is music of great warmth and humour – when the overture began I immediately felt I was about to watch a silent movie! But underpinning all are wonderful, evocative Brazilian rhythms that loosen the classical aspects. Appealing, timeless melodies speak of the talent of a composer who died when he was only 27 (Noel Rosa – composer of some 260 songs – 1910-1937).
This event was part of King’s ‘Fabrication’ arts and humanities festival, and was a perfect fit for the ‘double-meaning’ of the term. It was a piece newly-fabricated from the original sources, brought to life again with great vision by Dr Vinicius Mariano de Carvalho (as conductor and prime-mover) and all involved. It’s wonderful to find there is so much to be learned and enjoyed in a piece that probably hasn’t been heard since its initial performance, and certainly not performed in the UK (it was written as a radio operetta(!) for the Radio Club of Brazil in 1935). But there was also the idea of fabrication meaning untruths – most of the characters are concerned with re-inventing themselves or at least presenting a particular, possibly fake face to the world; image and appearances are very important. It was a fascinating insight into a distant, but highly recognisable, place and time.