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Opera Singer Becomes (Soprano) Voice Of Protest In Portugal

For embattled Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva, Oct. 5 started bad, and then got even worse.

Presiding over a ceremony for Portugal's Republic Day, the president raised the Portuguese flag in front of a crowd of dignitaries. But by accident, the flag was upside down.

The ceremony, held in an 18th-century courtyard near the Tagus River, had been closed to protesters. But near the end of the president's speech, security guards opened up the gates.

Protesters rushed in, including Portuguese opera singer Ana Maria Pinto, who proceeded to drown out the president in song.

"I wanted to speak to the Portuguese and sing for them. Just do it! Have the courage to have your own voice!" Pinto, 31, told NPR in a recent interview.

But she recalled feeling nervous that October morning, confronting her nation's leaders: "The only thing I felt was my heart beating — all my body was my heart beating."

Security guards huddled around the president and whisked him out of the courtyard. But the remaining dignitaries were flustered.

"You could see on their faces that they were really confused, because I was singing opera," Pinto said. "At the end they asked me, 'Is this part of the event?' And I said, 'No, this is my protest!' "

From that day on, Ana Maria Pinto has become a household name in Portugal. She is the new face — and (soprano) voice — of the country's protest movement. A regular at street demonstrations, Pinto is leading choirs of regular folks venting their anger over austerity — the strict budget cuts and tax hikes tied to Portugal's bailout by Europe.

Protests, With Flowers And Songs

While anti-austerity protesters throw Molotov cocktails in the streets of Athens or blockade parliament in Madrid, their Portuguese counterparts are singing songs in the street, 1960s-style.

Pinto conducts members of the Intervention Choir of Porto, a choral group she founded to use music as a form of nonviolent civil disobedience. They perform at protests nationwide.
/ Courtesy of Ana Maria Pinto
Courtesy of Ana Maria Pinto
Pinto conducts members of the Intervention Choir of Porto, a choral group she founded to use music as a form of nonviolent civil disobedience. They perform at protests nationwide.

"The Portuguese people are not violent, and that's not because we are weak," Pinto said. "It's a different nature."

Portugal's anger over austerity is more melancholy, less fiery, than other southern Europeans. And part of the reason for that is history, says economic historian Pedro Lains, who teaches at the University of Lisbon.

"You have to take into account that Greece had a civil war in the 1940s. Spain had a civil war in the 1930s," Lains says. "Portugal had a very important civil war as well, but in the 1830s — much earlier. And since then, things have been more or less settled."

Some Portuguese protesters take inspiration from their country's 1974 Carnation Revolution, a peaceful military coup that ended Portugal's dictatorship and led to a withdrawal from its African colonies.

At the time, ordinary citizens flooded the streets and inserted carnation flowers into the muzzles of soldiers' rifles. Carnations are still common at anti-austerity protests in Lisbon today.

Among the songs Pinto has introduced at such protests is "Acordai," Portuguese for "Wake Up." It's a ballad written by the late Fernando Lopes-Graça, a 20th-century Portuguese composer and Communist Party member, who used music to campaign against the former Portuguese dictatorship.

The song Pinto belted out at the president last fall was another of Lopes-Graça's anti-fascist folk songs, "Firmeza."

"[It means] firm — a person who is steady," Pinto said, translating the lyrics from Portuguese. "It talks about being yourself and not allowing someone who is above you to abuse [you]."

Bringing Her Own Megaphone

It's that sentiment that motivated Pinto to break out of the rarefied world of classical music and join Portugal's burgeoning street protests. She even bought her own megaphone.

"I'm just a normal citizen," she said in an interview at Martinho da Arcada, a downtown Lisbon cafe that's been a hangout for Portuguese poets and revolutionaries for 230 years. "I just have this strong instinct of protecting what I love, and I do deeply love my country."

NPR accompanied Pinto back to that courtyard overlooking the Tagus River, where she interrupted the president's speech, and asked her to sing the same song again.

"This is the first time I've been here since October, and a lot of things have happened since then," she said wistfully. Portugal's unemployment rate is approaching a record 18 percent, and poverty is rising.

But the movement Pinto started here is growing. She recently founded the Intervention Choir of Porto, in her hometown in northern Portugal. It's a choir that rehearses every Saturday and performs at street protests nationwide. Its mission is to advance the spirit of the protest Pinto carried out by interrupting the president last October, using music as a tool for resistance.

"I think I feel some peace now," Pinto said. "Somehow I can see a bit of light there, at the end. It feels good."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
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