Leading Brazilian actress and singer over seven decades
Bibi Ferreira, who has died aged 96, was a singer and actress widely regarded by her fellow Brazilians as their greatest stage star.
She was born Abigail Izquierdo Ferreira in Salvador, Bahia, on June 1, 1922 and made her stage debut at one month old in Manhas de Sol (“Sunny Mornings”) starring her godmother, Abigail Maiaby. Both her parents were in the business: her father was the actor, director and playwright Procopio Ferreira, her mother the ballerina Aida Izquierdo.
Abigail, or “Bibi”, as she became known, had a haphazard education, mostly on the road while her parents toured; she and her mother sang and danced with the Companhia Velasco across Latin America. At the age of five she was said to be able to play the violin, guitar, piano and several other instruments as well as anyone twice her age.
Procopio gave her a place in his theatre company, and in 1941 she made her debut alongside her father in Carlo Goldoni’s comedy La Locandiera (“The Mistress of the Inn”). She stayed for three years then formed her own troupe, the Comedy Company Bibi Ferreira, whose productions included Portuguese translations of plays by Oscar Wilde and Joseph Kesselring as well as a play written by Bibi Ferreira, Angelus.
She had already made her screen debut, in the musical revue Cidade-Mulher (1936), though the only copy of the film was destroyed in a studio fire in 1958. In 1947 she was actress/manager at the Phoenix Theatre in Rio de Janeiro when the film-making duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger invited her to appear in The End of the River, playing the girlfriend of a young boy (played by the Indian-born actor Sabu) who leaves his Amazonian tribe for the city. There was a small part for the future Carry On star Charles Hawtrey.
In 1952 Bibi Ferreira took her company to Portugal and remained there for five years, playing to packed houses. By the end of the decade, she was also hosting television shows at home: on the most successful, the long-running Brazil 60, she sang and performed with some of the biggest names in the business.
In 1962 she played Eliza Doolittle in the Brazilian production of My Fair Lady, which played for two-and-a-half years, and followed it with a run as the exuberant matchmaker in Hello, Dolly! and a spell as Aldonza, the rough-hewn barmaid with a heart of gold in Man of La Mancha.
On television, she hosted a series promoting literacy for adults, work for which she won a Best Communicator Award at a culture festival in Tokyo in the 1970s. In 1983 she starred in a Portuguese version of Pam Gems’s Piaf, and went on to stage a tribute show to the singer with which she toured Europe.
In 1985 the French government appointed her a member of the Ordre des arts et des lettres.
She had five marriages, the last, to the playwright and dancer Paulo Pontes, lasting the longest – eight years, ending with his death from cancer at 36.
She was “born to be married”, she once said, adding: “Well, marriage shouldn’t be long.”
She had no plans to retire, and asked what drove her to continue to perform, she replied: “Simple. The applause.”
One of her last triumphs was the one-woman show, Bibi Times Four, in New York in 2016. “Ms Ferreira is a chameleon known for her probing, psychologically layered portrayals and the sweeping grandeur of her singing,” wrote The New York Times.
“I am being asked how I still have the passion. How I can still get excited about performing after 90 years,” she said at the time. “People are obsessed with age. Age is just a number and mine’s not listed.”
Bibi Ferreira, who died on February 13, is survived by her daughter.