Brazilian 'nightingale's' curtain call sweetens doctor's life

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comNovember 16, 2013 

Dr. Carl Brinkman

Retired neurosurgeon Dr. Carl Brinkman of Sun City Hilton Head was born the son of a medical missionary, but he learned the power of redemption as an adult from an opera diva who claimed he ruined her life.

In his heart, he knew it wasn't so.

But only by odd twists of fate did he finally find peace.

Brinkman was well into his career in Portland, Maine, when he got a call from a doctor in a nearby city.

"We have a woman unconscious," he was told. "She has a right temporal lobe clot."

Brinkman gave a couple of instructions, then asked that the patient be rushed to Portland. Surgery to remove the clot was finished in the dead of night.

The next day, Brinkman got a call from the former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, Rudolf Bing. Only then did he know that his patient was one of the most popular stars of the Met in the 1930s and 1940s, the retired opera diva, Bidu Sayao.

Brinkman said his prognosis was that the Brazilian soprano would live a reasonably decent life.

"Within two weeks, she was able to go home," Brinkman said. "She was talking and walking on her own."

But he said that about a month later he got a jarring letter from the star.

"It said she would curse me until the day she died," Brinkman says years later, looking over a peaceful lagoon in his backyard. "I recall that it said, 'I could sing multiple arias. Now I can't sing 'Happy Birthday.' I was a polyglot. Now I get by with Portuguese and English. My life has been utterly ruined.' "

Brinkman said that he had a successful medical practice, and the letter became "like a thorn in my side."

Soon after retiring and moving to Moss Creek, the thorn would be removed.

It happened on his honeymoon, a good 15 years following the surgery.

Brinkman lost his wife, Dianne, to cancer shortly after moving to the Lowcountry. When he remarried, he took his new bride, Jacqueline Carlisle Brinkman, to Maine. They stayed at the Asticou Inn, a classic resort near the Acadia National Park.

When they left, Brinkman saw a small sign on Highway 1 in Lincolnville, Maine. It said, "Casa Bidu."

"Stop the car," he said.

With his wife protesting that the property was clearly posted as private, the doctor insisted and they soon came upon a beautiful house all by itself on a rocky promontory over a Maine cove.

Brinkman knocked on the door. He asked if Bidu Sayao lived there.

Yes, he was told.

"Would you ask her if she'd like to see Dr. Brinkman?" he asked.

After a short delay, he was ushered into the home. He used a photograph on the wall of Bidu Sayao with Judy Garland, George Raft and Van Heflin to convince his wife to come in the house.

In walked the tiny woman whose debut at the Met about six decades earlier prompted The New York Times to write: "Miss Sayao triumphed as a Manon should, by manners, youth and charm, and secondly by the way in which the voice became the vehicle of dramatic expression."

She walked over to Jacqueline and asked, "Are you Mrs. Brinkman?"

"Yes," came a fearful reply.

Then she said: "Your husband is the finest neurosurgeon in the country."

Bidu Sayao explained that she had been invited to an event in her native Rio de Janeiro. She said she found herself sitting at a table with six heads of state, three on one side and three on the other. She said that's when she realized she would not have been there if the doctor's skill had not prolonged her life.

It was not long before the diva passed away at age 96.

In Brazil, headlines said the nightingale had been silenced.

The nagging cry in the doctor's heart also had been silenced.

He and the diva had learned the power of redemption.

"It was the closing of a door very nicely," he said.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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