Note from BW of Brazil: The story below is cool for three reasons. 1) It’s great to see one of our favorite actresses, Isabel Fillardis active again. 2) In a previous article about her, Isabel revealed her concern about her third pregnancy because she is a carrier of a rare form of epilepsy that has affected the life of her second child. In great news, on December 28th, the actress delivered a healthy baby boy about a month premature via a C-section. According to the actress’s mother Sônia, her third child looks just like his brother. 3) In a developing musical, Fillardis will embody a little known but important black opera singer from the 18/19th century period whose accomplishments should be recognized and celebrated. Black women making a living in music are generally pushed into the genre of Samba music and still today it’s difficult to find many Afro-Brazilian women who have crossed over into the more lucrative realm of popular music. Today’s feature is also a great follow up piece and contrast to the story of another Afro-Brazilian woman whose talents were respected in the world of classical/opera music although she wasn’t able to truly reap the rewards of her talent due to her skin color.
Isabel Fillardis will portray Lapinha, an opera singer and actress who captivated Dom João VI
Four years ago, the actress Isabel Fillardis received on her cell phone an image sent by her husband, engineer Júlio Cesar, who took a photo of the black and white image of Joaquina Maria da Conceição da Lapa, better known as Lapinha, hanging on the wall of a bar on Avenida Mem de Sá. Struck by the similarity between herself and the girl in the portrait, Isabel went to Google seeking information about the mulata. On Wikipedia, the page for Lapinha was full of question marks regarding the dates, but the information was enough for Isabel to become enchanted with the historical character: “She was the first opera singer in Brazil to gain international prominence and one of the first women to receive authorization to participate in public performances in Lisbon (Portugal).”
Since then, Isabel dug through the archives of the National Library, devised the project of a musical show and invited Lázaro Ramos to direct it. The premiere will be in the second semester of the year.
“I want to introduce to today’s society this wonderful character, whose story, for some reason, was kept in the eighteenth century,” says Isabel.
The movement to recover the memory Lapinha is not restricted to the theater. Coincidentally, the singer who charmed Dom João VI (1) became the theme of a samba school this year. The Inocentes de Belford Roxo, of Grupo de Acesso, will feature “O triunfo da América — O canto lírico de Joaquina Lapinha (The triumph of America – The opera song of Joaquina Lapinha)” in their parade developed by Carnival producer Wagner Gonçalves, in the Marquês de Sapucaí (2). Lapinha would have been the theme of the Beija-Flor samba school. But as the Nilópolis organization opted to do a parade in honor of José Bonifácio de Oliveira Sobrinho, or Boni, Laíla – who is the director of harmony for Beija-Flor and director of the Carnival of Inocentes – suggested it the theme for Belford Roxo.
“Like 90% of Brazilians, I had never heard of Lapinha,” says Wagner Gonçalves, who began to seek scholarly articles, found a book by the the musician and researcher Sérgio Bittencourt-Sampaio, Negras Líricas — Duas intérpretes negras brasileiras na música de concerto (Black Opera Singers – Two black Brazilian interpreters in concerto music) (published by 7Letras) and became an expert on the subject. “I discovered a beautiful story: this woman broke a lot of taboos in the time in which she lived, between the very end of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century.”
In a 2011 interview, Bittencourt-Sampaio would go on to confirm that Lapinha was the first black woman to find immense success in opera music. Although there had been others before and after her, they garnered far less prestige. In Europe for example, mulatas were nearly nonexistent in the world of opera.
Amid the research, the Carnival producer ended up bumping into Isabel Fillardis. The conversation came, the conversation went, and the actress, who gave birth to her third child a month ago, will portray Lapinha in the Inocentes parade.
“It’ll be a warm-up for the musical,” imagines Isabel, who last week visited the headquarters of the school in Cidade do Samba for the first time and talked about her admiration for the personality. “In addition to talent, Lapinha had great charisma. She won over royalty aroused many passions, registered in poems. And even had free passage between Brazil and Portugal, according passports of the era.”
The historical importance of Lapinha, in the opinion of Sérgio Bittencourt-Sampaio, goes beyond the musical context:
“No Brazilian actress managed such triumphs, especially at that time, abroad. Therefore, Lapinha became an example of an independent woman who made a living with art. Despite having two conditions that, in theory, would hinder her career, ie, being a woman and mulata, she was able to show the countries the value of her talent. She was the first Brazilian actress and singer to reap triumphs outside of our borders.”
The parade of the Inocentes de Belford Roxo will show, in a playful way, the trajectory of Joaquina Lapinha. Four floats will represent four stages of the singer and actress who, according to Sergio Bittencourt-Sampaio, was born in Minas Gerais and, after the decline of mining, moved to Rio de Janeiro, where she started working in the 80s of the 18th century. The first car will represent her origins and African heritage; the second, Ouro Preto (Minas Gerais) and musical origin, the third, the Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, in Lisbon; and the fourth, the Rio Carnival homage to her with blacks playing violins in a samba rhythm.
“The theme has a political footprint that there’s no way to deny. I’m a black Carnival producer telling the story of a black opera singer. The stories are condensed,” says the producer.
Wagner recalls that Lapinha suffered immense racial prejudice. She had to cover her face with pó de arroz (rice powder) (3) before going on stage, as the account of the era made by the Swedish traveler Carl Israel Ruders, reproduced in books, shows: “Joaquina Lapinha is a mulata and daughter of a mulata, for which reason she has very dark skin. This drawback, however, was remedied with cosmetics. Outside of that, she has an imposing figure, good voice and very dramatic sentiment.”
When he was seeking a face to use as a basis for sculptures of Lapinha, the producer found a single reference: the painting that was hanging on a wall in Lapa (the tavern closed two years ago) and captivated Isabel Fillardis. But this “portrait”, it is good to note, is a fruit of the imagination of painter and graphic artist Mello Menezes. To date, no accurate picture of the singer has been found. There are just posters and flyers that registered their appearances.
“There are explicit references to her presence in Lusitanian lands. This proves her performance in concert in Lisbon at the Real Teatro in San Carlos, including her employment for a period of six months in the early nineteenth century. In Rio, meanwhile, there are references to her role in a cast of amateurs in a theater located on Rua do Passeio in the late eighteenth century, and emphasizes her performance after her return from Portugal in 1805, at the Ópera Nova after the arrival of the Portuguese court – says the master in music Alexandra van Leeuwen, creator of inscription about Lapinha in the Dicionário Biográfico Caravelas (Caravelas Biographical Dictionary), who is completing a doctoral thesis on the subject at Unicamp (in Campinas, São Paulo).
Alexandra, who did research in institutions in Brazil and Portugal, explains that it is difficult to reconstruct the history of Lapinha since documentary sources are scarce:
“The biographical sources do not allow us to identify a life story with a beginning, middle and end.”
Sérgio Bittencourt-Sampaio says that, in reality, memory of Lapinha and admiration for her persisted until almost the end of the nineteenth century:
“In books about Brazilian music, she is rarely mentioned. Several factors contributed to this. In the first place, her career ended around 1813, when there was no structured musical criticism in Brazil. Second, with the development of opera in the time of Dom Pedro II, the singers of success came from Europe, and hardly an afrodescendante (African descendant) actress would appear on stage in a prominent position or even of minor importance.
No one knows what year Joaquina Lapinha was born or what year she died. But 2014 is adding up to be the year of her rebirth.
1. King of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves from 1816 to 1822. Source
2. The Sambadrome Marquês de Sapucaí or simply Sambadrome is a parade area located in downtown Rio de Janeiro where samba school competitions occur every year during Rio’s Carnival.
3. It appears that the idea of Afro-Brazilians needing to don “rice powder” to advance into certain “whites only” areas was a common practice as recently as the 20th century. This practice is generally associated with black soccer players but this history of Lapinha shows that the practice went beyond the realm of athletics.