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Actor and singer Bibi Ferreira is 91 years old. She's still performing to packed houses in her native Brazil and beyond. Her outspoken fans range include superstar soccer player Pele and Liza Minnelli. In fact, many consider her the single-most important theater actor in Brazil. Betto Arcos caught up with her in Rio de Janeiro on the eve of Ferreira's trip to New York for a performance at Town Hall.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: At the Casa Grande theater in Rio, a few blocks from the famous Ipanema Beach, Bibi Ferreira belts out a classic song by Edith Piaf to an adoring audience.


BIBI FERREIRA: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: Bibi, as Brazilians fondly call her, has been performing on stage and television for most of her life. Her father, Procopio Ferreira, was Brazil's most respected stage actor and he invited his daughter to join his company when she was a teenager.

FERREIRA: When I was still 17, I opened with my father at the Teatro Serrador here in Rio de Janeiro, on February the 28th of 1941. And I opened with a classical play by Carlo Goldoni, Italian, "La Locandiera." It was a great success because it was interesting to see the great Procopio presenting his daughter.

ARCOS: Three years later, she started her own theatre company in Rio. She performed and directed all over Brazil and before long, her career had eclipsed that of her father. In 1962, she was contacted by the American producers of "My Fair Lady." They wanted to stage the musical in Brazil, and they needed someone who could act and sing.

FERREIRA: I made a test. Funny, making a test after years and years of working as a professional. But I made a test for the Americans.

ARCOS: She got the part and "My Fair Lady" broke records in Brazil, playing in theaters for two and a half years.


FERREIRA: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: After this success, she took the lead in "Hello Dolly," and a few years later "Man of La Mancha". These musicals ushered in the era of large theatre productions in Brazil, with Bibi at the forefront. In 1970, she directed a musical about beloved composers Dolores Duran and Antonio Maria. One of the leads was superstar singer Maria Bethania. She says Ferreira cast a huge shadow on the Brazilian stage.

MARIA BETHANIA: (Through Translator) Bibi has been very important for Brazil. Everything that she does has helped Brazil with its identity. She is a master of theatre, of the stage, of the arena, as she likes to call it.

ARCOS: Bethania says working under Ferreira's direction had a major impact on her career.

BETHANIA: (Through Translator) Bibi taught me about the stage, and about respect, dedication and how risk teaches you about life.

ARCOS: In the mid-1970s, Bibi Ferreira performed the lead in the musical "Gota D'Agua."


CHORUS: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: It was written by her husband Paulo Pontes with songs by the renowned singer and songwriter Chico Buarque. It was inspired by the classic Greek tragedy of Medea.


FERREIRA: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: "Gota D'Agua" is set in a favela, a slum in Rio. It's a tragic portrait of people living in poverty and Ferreira says she took a risk bringing it to the stage.

FERREIRA: I said that's going to be a terrible flop. Imagine, this tragedy, killing the kids and all that.

ARCOS: But once again, it was a success and Ferreira followed it with another challenge. Her agent had gone to New York and brought back a play about Edith Piaf. But Ferreira felt most of Piaf's songs were too tragic and she didn't think Brazilians would come out to see the show. One day, a friend of hers, a Piaf fan, sat her down to listen to the French singer.

FERREIRA: He said come down here. I want to show you something. He said, well, Piaf is not only a singer of drama, my dear, you are wrong. And what she put first, "Milord."


FERREIRA: (Humming) Very happy.


FERREIRA: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: In May of 1983, Bibi premiered the play "Piaf, Uma Estrela da Cancao" - "Piaf a Star of Song" in Rio. She toured Brazil and took it to Europe. Two years later, the French government awarded her the Commendation of Arts and Letters."


FERREIRA: (Singing in foreign language)

ARCOS: This year, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Edith Piaf's death and the 30 years she's been performing the show, Ferreira started a new tour. Singer Maria Bethania says she's not surprised that Brazilians have enjoyed this show for so long.

BETHANIA: (Through Translator) Bibi singing Piaf is spectacular and we understand it and applaud it. What Bibi does is great.


ARCOS: After Ferreira's performance at the Casa Grande theatre in Rio, Carlos Carneiro, a fan who'd taken a four-hour flight from Fortaleza in northern Brazil just to see Bibi, couldn't contain himself.

CARLOS CARNEIRO: (Through Translator) I had the opportunity to see her in Fortaleza 15 years ago. She was already singing Edith Piaf, and today she was spectacular, marvelous, really great, incomparable.

ARCOS: Bibi Ferreira is returning to New York to perform Piaf at Town Hall, but even at the age of 91, she's ready for a new challenge.

FERREIRA: I'm playing Sinatra. At the end of this show, I say now I'm going to give you a trailer of next year's show. So, I sing two songs of Sinatra. They adore it. They sing it with me. It's beautiful. So, I believe Sinatra is going to be even a greater success than Piaf has been in my career.

ARCOS: At the rate she's going, she's got plenty of time to develop her next act. For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.


FERREIRA: (Singing in foreign language)

GONYEA: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

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