The characters in Portuguese-Canadian playwright Elaine Ávila’s Fado: The Saddest Music in the World include a young woman in search of her roots; her Portuguese-born mother, who came to this country as a political exile from António de Oliveira Salazar’s repressive government; and Lisbon’s greatest singer, Amália Rodrigues, who had her own conflicted relationship with the authoritarian strongman. But the real star of the show might be fado itself.
“I think the music really supports the emotional journey of the characters and the story,” says director Mercedes Bátiz-Benét, whose Puente Theatre company will present Ávila’s play at the Firehall Arts Centre through December 14. “So whenever a song appears, it really connects to the visceral emotions that the characters are having on-stage. So it’s really almost like the subtext—but on a very deep level, because, as you know, music can connect in a raw, visceral way with every person. It doesn’t matter if they understand the language or not; music has that way of intimately connecting to a person’s way of understanding things.”
The music, performed in Fado by singer Sara Marreiros with live accompaniment, “really lets us in on what these characters are all about”, Bátiz-Benét adds, reached on her cellphone while en route from her Victoria home to rehearsals in Vancouver.
Although it shares genetic material with Spanish flamenco and Argentine tango, fado is a uniquely Portuguese phenomenon, and its emotional content centres around saudade, a word that doesn’t have an exact analogue in any other language. Saudade connotes a very specific blend of regret, sorrow, and nostalgia—emotions that play a large part in Portugal’s national character, but that will also be familiar to anyone who has experienced the feeling of being estranged from their homeland.
As the child of immigrants, Luisa is consumed by the idea that some part of her still resides in Lisbon, and Fado follows her on a journey that takes her deep into the Portuguese capital, but also into her own family’s past. The action begins in 2000, a year after Rodrigues’s death, when Luisa makes contact with one of the fado legend’s backing musicians—who is also, as it happens, an old friend of her mother’s.
“Luisa is a singer by vocation, but realizes that she doesn’t know the music of her people,” Bátiz-Benét notes. “So she thinks, ‘What a good opportunity to go figure out who I am, and what my people are all about, by trying to learn the music of my culture.’ ”
The story of “immigration in reverse” has considerable personal resonance for the Mexican-born Bátiz-Benét. And since she debuted the play to great acclaim at the 2018 Victoria Fringe, her understanding of saudade—and fado—has, sadly, grown even deeper.
“My father passed away on opening night, so I wasn’t able to go home to Mexico,” she explains. “So this music will forever be linked to the passing of my father—and it turns out that he loved Amália Rodrigues, and I had no idea.…It’s almost like I discovered an aspect of my father’s past that I had no idea about, and I couldn’t imagine a better accompaniment for him to leave this Earth than her music.
“I can’t quite express what it is about fado music, but it really gives voice to a sorrow that’s almost inexplicable,” she adds. “But it’s there, and they’ve managed to make it into a beautiful art form. It’s quite something, really.”
Puente Theatre presents Fado: The Saddest Music in the World at the Firehall Arts Centre from Thursday (November 21) to December 14.