The Goddess of the seas crossed the ocean to make her debut in New York opera. Headed by Salvadoran conductor Hugo Sanbone and the International Brazilian Opera Company, the Yemanjá Project concert took songs from the Afro-Brazilian repertoire in operatic arrangements to the Garibaldi Plaza, in New York, early September.
The open-air event, part of the Big Apple’s revitalization plan in the post-Covid world, was directed by João MacDowell and filled the Washington Square Park square, in Manhattan, with listeners who had never had contact with the Afro-Brazilian sound.
Yemanjá Project is also the first step in a larger plan that involves an original opera about the queen of the seas. “The idea comes from my desire to expand my knowledge and my area of expertise within music, within the compositional process, and within my musical investigations into Bahian, Afro-descendant, and global culture”, says Hugo.
According to the conductor, one of his motivations was “to bring representation, to be a representative in the world of Afro-Brazilian culture composition”.
The Yemanjá Project’s musical selection makes reference to the great names in the history of black art in Brazil and Bahia, reimagining songs from Ilê Aiyê to Milton Nascimento.
Hugo explains: “The repertoire is inspired by Iemanjá, Candomblé, Djavan, Rumpilezz, in all Candomblé religious ceremonies in Bahia, all the songs we have in the collective conscious and subconscious”.
For the musician, created by the accordion and the trombone in his artistic training, this is a reflection of all the Afro-Bahian rhythmic diversity and plurality.
“It’s a mestizo work, a Creole work, based on black music, the black composer. It shows what it is to be Brazilian, what Brazil is, what Brazil is like that emerged from the black Atlantic”, he says.
opera and symphony
The songs are sung by Angolan tenor singer Nelson Ebo and Brazilian mezzo-soprano Rebecca de Almeida, whose singing the conductor describes as “with an inflection, an erudite, symphonic, lyrical character”.
The diversity of nationalities and cultures, something fundamental for the performance of the concert, is also present in the orchestra’s musicians.
Hugo highlights the work of Malaysian guitarist Andrew Cheng and Uzbek violinist Anna Tsukervanik. “Ilê’s music is played by a guitarist who understands tempo and swing in a different way from ours, but he plays it and brings his contribution, his language, his accent into the composition, even though it is already ready, structured. Its interpretation gives it a peculiarity, a different meaning”, he elucidates.
“The feeling is of renewal, of re-signification, of revisiting, and of being able to approach and present what is ours from another perspective”, says the conductor about the feeling of presenting strong elements of local culture to a foreign audience and musicians.
This, which he also describes as “a cultural diffusion”, is the first step towards a larger project by Hugo that is already in development: an original opera about Yemanjá.
“Yemanjá Project exists as a workshop environment for the development of Yemanjá the opera – based on the Afro-Bahian culture, in the tale of Yemanjá, the queen of the waters. It’s going to be a story that takes place in Salvador and the United States, but it’s based on the song of our mermaid and the culture of Salvador”, reveals the conductor.
“It’s a project in which we envision a new symphony orchestra, and by the end of 2022, the opera should be completely defined, with an audition for singers, actors, dancers, musicians… It’s a project that brings me a lot of joy, and it’s challenging. We are going to have a lot of news over these years of development”, says the conductor about the production, which also has the support of the Companhia Internacional de Ópera Brasileira.
For Hugo, this is a step towards a renovation of classical music: “It will be a very innovative opera, very different from what has been presented for the last 200 years. The possibility and realization of an opera by a black and Brazilian composer, approaching Afro-Brazilian culture in the classical music scene is a challenge. It’s a goal that will be achieved,” he says confidently.
- Culture Editor: Chico Castro Jr.
- English Translation: Anatolio da Silveira