Unpaid Rio orchestras play the blues

When Filipe Moreira, principal dancer at the Rio de Janeiro ballet, takes to the stage, his grace and athleticism wows the audience. But his toughest challenge is surviving 14 hour days as an Uber taxi driver.
Like the more than 500 other members of the Theatro Municipal in nearly bankrupt Rio, the lithe, super-fit 36-year-old hasn’t been paid properly since mid-2016.
So Moreira started driving a cab. Others teach, some live off their savings, and some rely on food donations from the public — a monthly basket of pasta, cooking oil and other non-perishables.

“We’ve lost the minimum conditions for making a living,” Moreira said in the ornate Art Nouveau theater at the centre of the Brazilian city which only a year ago was hosting the Summer Olympics. Severe recession and embezzlement by politicians and contractors ahead of the 2014 World Cup and South America’s first Olympics have eviscerated public services in Rio state.
Police, hospitals and schools operate on shoestring budgets while infrastructure projects lie half-finished. At the Theatro Municipal, one of the country’s finest ballet and opera companies, salaries, which average about 5,000 reais ($1,500) arrive at least two months late.
The December bonus hasn’t been paid at all.With his ballerina wife also unpaid and a five- year-old son to raise, Moreira had no choice but to sign up for Uber in March — a job, he says, that went against a lifetime “dedicated to art, to dance.” As the lead dancer he’s meant to be rehearsing daily, going to the gym and doing Pilates and physiotherapy. Instead he found himself stuck behind the wheel of his mother’s car — six days a week for two months.
“The body of a dancer is like a high level athlete….When we stop training we start to fatten, losing our form,” he said.
Moreira estimates that it takes up to three months to recover for every month away from his rigorous physical regime.
A portion of one late salary finally came in this month — just 700 reais from a 7,000 reais paycheck. “That’s enough to eat with,” Moreira said. “But how do we pay the bills.”
There’s an even worse situation at the private-public funded Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, which performs in the same Rio theatre house, a Parisian-style building where the audience sits on soft red chairs under a great chandelier.
Founded in the 1940s, the BSO has toured and recorded worldwide, playing with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Mstislav Rostropovich and Jose Carreras.
Today, the orchestra is silenced, its 2017 season essentially cancelled after eight months without salaries and no sign of a bailout from the corruption-riddled state and federal governments. Some OSB musicians joined Uber, while others keep their heads above water by playing at weddings and small shows.
A few busk. They also share the food donations at the Theatro Municipal, where the supplies are piled chest high in a storage room on the ground floor. Viola player Deborah Cheyne, vice- president of the musicians’ union, says that bad management, not just a lack of cash, has doomed the orchestra in its 77th year — much like the wider meltdown across Rio and Brazil.
“It’s the result of a moral crisis,” said Cheyne, 53. “A little snapshot of the general one.”
This week performers at the Theatro Municipal responded to the crisis in the only way they know — with powerful music.
The four performances of Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” a pulse-quickening and colourful combination of full orchestra, dance and opera, played to a packed house.
At the end, the musicians joined the singers, dancers and technicians on stage to ecstatic applause. Ballet director Cecilia Kerche, 55, said “Carmina Burana,” a repertoire standard, was no substitute for the theater’s gutted 2017 season.
But at least they were briefly doing what they love. “We put on this show so that we can be on stage again,” she said.
“Many of our colleagues are literally in poverty, without enough to eat,” said Ciro D’ Araujo, 41, who sings in the chorus. “We wanted to show that we are ready to do what we’ve been contracted to do.” In the thunderous final moments, the choir belted out “O Fortuna,” a song about life’s spinning wheel of fortune.
The audience gasped: ballerina Viviane Barreto had appeared center stage — eight months pregnant. Swaying to the crescendoing music, Barreto, 35, caressed her belly.
The other dancers closed in to protect her, a symbol of a more hopeful future.
“Fortune, like the Moon, changes,” the chorus sang. Then the curtain came down.
Between cries of “bravo!” and “encore!” an angry chant erupted: calls for the resignation of President Michel Temer and Rio state Governor Luiz Pezao. — AFP