New York Times, Sept. 20, 2016

Bibi Ferreira speaks in the cultivated, theatrical voice of an English dowager, the result of British schooling when she was a child. It’s not the sound one would expect to come out of the mouth of an actress, singer and director whom Brazilians have called their greatest living woman of the stage. But in performance, Ms. Ferreira is a chameleon known for her probing, psychologically layered portrayals and the sweeping grandeur of her singing, not to mention her energy. Having worked nonstop since the age of three, she has earned a rest, but even at 94, the ambition rages on.
When she turned 40, recalled Ms. Ferreira in a Manhattan hotel room last week, people began remarking on her advancing age. “Then I was 50. Then I was 60. Then I was 70, and I thought, well, this is silly. I feel fine. People are worried about me, and they shouldn’t be. Now I’m 94 and I sing better every day, I understand things better, I’m better with people. I can still make a show.”
At 90, she made her New York concert debut — something she’d been too busy, she said, to tackle earlier. Now Ms. Ferreira is back. This week at Symphony Space, she will give two performances of her latest one-woman show, “Bibi Times Four,” in which she salutes Frank Sinatra, Édith Piaf, the Portuguese fado queen Amalia Rodrigues and the Sinatra of the tango, Carlos Gardel.
She likes to turn the spotlight on her peers. But in an NPR interview, Maria Bethânia, an iconic singer who was directed early on by Ms. Ferreira, proclaimed her importance: “Everything she does has helped Brazil with its identity.” Running her own theater company in the 1940s, Ms. Ferreira launched bold new works and playwrights. She brought dramatic plays to Brazilian TV and presented artists on her own talk/variety shows. In 1975, during the country’s dictatorship, she starred in the musical play “Gota d’água” (Drop of Water), a parable of Brazilian poverty and injustice, based on “Medea”; it was written by her husband, Paulo Pontes, and featured a score by Chico Buarque, an enemy of the censors. In 2003 she was saluted in the Carnaval parade. Eight years later, a theater award was named after her.
Today, of course, she needs more help than before. Ms. Ferreira, who lives in Rio, leans heavily on a team of assistants, led by her producer, manager and sometime singing partner Nilson Raman, an ex-model. While speaking, she clutched the Jesus medallion that hung from her neck.
Onstage, her frailties fade. According to the Brazilian author and musical authority Zuza Homem de Mello, “People do not believe she can still do a two-hour show with plenty of voice, looking like a tall and beautiful woman, the opposite of what she is. You don’t see in any country a woman of her age doing the things she does.”
Gut ambition was in her genes. It came from her Portuguese father, Procópio Ferreira, who was acclaimed as Brazil’s greatest actor; and her mother, Aída Izquierdo, a Spanish ballerina. “My mother hated the word ‘nothing,’” she said. “‘Bibi, what are you doing?’ ‘Nothing.’ ‘Nothing? You have a piano to touch, a violin to play and you say you have nothing to do? Will you please go and study?’ I danced, I sang, I played five instruments, I spoke five languages.”
A 2013 book, “Bibi Ferreira, A Life on Stage,” by Mr. Raman and Marcus Montenegro, details the triumphs that followed. Her flair for adopting a sprawling range of guises shone through in the Brazilian production of My Fair Lady, where she played the lead role of a Cockney flower girl; later she starred as a busybody American widow in Hello, Dolly! and a Spanish prostitute in Man of La Mancha.
But for many critics, her crowning glory was an elaborately staged tribute, launched in 1983, to Piaf, her idol. “She was the real voice,” said Ms. Ferreira, “singing on the streets, never learning music. She only cared about two things: love and love.”
Making room for it in her own life has been a challenge. Like Ms. Piaf, Ms. Ferreira was a magnet for handsome men. By her count — details are vague — she married five. The last of these unions, to Paulo Pontes, ended after eight years, when he died of stomach cancer at 36. The earlier ones crumbled quickly.

“I was born to be married,” she explained. “But I have a great flaw. I’m very jealous. And that made things difficult for everybody.” Her fame and ambition didn’t trouble her husbands, she claimed. “After all, I always lifted them up. Not the contrary.” She paused, then thought of a punchline: “Well, marriage shouldn’t be long!”
Work, she admitted, is all that really mattered to her. “You know what?” she said, “I haven’t had one thing that wasn’t a success in my career!” She laughed at her endless self-doubt. “I’m still asking everybody how I was! It has to go well. I have to work very hard on it. I have to pay attention to every little thing.” She hangs on the critiques of her musical director, Flávio Mendes. “He pushes me. He said, ‘You think that you are singing that note well. You are not. That diaphragm that you have there — use it!” In the end, she said, “you have to trust people, and most of them you don’t trust. There’s one thing you trust. And that is the applause.”