Vinícius de Moraes: 1913-1980: Songwriter, Playwright, Poet, Diplomat
Served As Diplomat In Los Angeles
His earliest popular compositions had been in old-fashioned forms such as the foxtrot, but now he came under the spell of the Afro-Brazilian hybrid known as samba, frowned upon by Brazil's upper classes but rapidly gaining adherents with its collection of dance rhythms as infectious as any produced within the African diaspora. He had both his cinematic and his musical horizons widened when he was sent to the Brazilian consulate in Los Angeles as assistant vice consul in 1946. Moraes would later serve in diplomatic posts in Uruguay and in France, but he returned to Brazil for a time after his father's death in 1950. His earliest samba lyrics date from 1953.
At about that time, Moraes experienced a flash of inspiration that joined the European and the Afro-Brazilian halves of his cultural education. As he sat at home in Rio, he told the Saturday Review, "some-where in the distance the Batucada drums were beating their samba rhythms. I was reading a French anthology of classical myths. Suddenly—boing!—the two ideas connected." By the following morning Moraes had completed the first part of the scenario that would become Orfeu da Conceição. The title, Moraes told Saturday Review, roughly meant "Orpheus Jones." The writing of the play intersected with the chaotic breakup of Moraes's arranged marriage, and at one point he lost the manuscript of the entire completed third act.
Finally produced in 1954 with music by the then-unknown Jobim, Orfeu da Conceição opened to mixed reviews but won a major Brazilian theatrical prize. Moraes had originally conceived of the Black Orpheus story as a film, and had sold the rights to a French production company. In 1956 the play was adapted for the screen by Moraes and French director Marcel Camus, with new music by Moraes and Jobim. The U.S. release, entitled Black Orpheus, won an Academy Award, and the film was honored with the top Palme d'or prize at France's Cannes Film Festival.
Black Orpheus, set in Rio during Carnival (known in the United States as Mardi Gras), adapted the mythological story of Orpheus, who tries to rescue his lover Eurydice from the realm of death through the power of song, to a contemporary Afro-Brazilian setting. In Moraes's story, Orpheus is a samba singer whose beloved Eurydice, a girl newly arrived in Rio from Brazil's northeast, meets her death in a streetcar accident. At several key junctures the Greek myth of Orpheus is overlaid with characteristically Afro-Brazilian images.
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