LISBON — One clear blue morning last October, professional opera singer Ana Maria Pinto boarded a bus at 6 a.m. in her hometown in Portugal's north and made her way to an 18th century colonnaded courtyard on this capital city's riverfront.
It was Republic Day, a national holiday, but President Anibal Cavaco Silva's annual speech was closed to the public for the first time. Financially beleaguered Portugal is often hit by anti-austerity protests, and Lisbon's beleaguered officials wanted to avoid confrontation.
So Pinto waited patiently outside.
Then, as Cavaco Silva delivered his closing remarks to an invitation-only crowd, security guards eased open the courtyard's wrought iron gates. Surprised by the opportunity, the soprano rushed in, took a deep breath and drowned out the president in song.
"You could see on all their faces that they were really confused! Because I was singing opera, you know?" Pinto, 32, recalled in a recent interview. "They were like, 'OK, maybe this is part of the protocol.' And then at the end they asked me, 'Is this part of the event?' And I said, 'No, this is my protest!'"
Security whisked away the president, and stunned dignitaries hesitantly applauded. Pinto's impromptu performance of a popular anti-fascist folk song was featured on all the evening newscasts.
From that day on, Ana Maria Pinto has become a household name in Portugal. She's the new face — and voice — of the country's protest movement. Pinto, who has starred with opera companies across Europe and performed in the continent's great halls, now also headlines at outdoor street demonstrations, leading choirs of regular folks venting their anger over Portugal's economy.
Unaffiliated with any political party, Pinto has resurrected patriotic Portuguese songs in defense of those she believes are suffering most in Portugal's recession: the poor, elderly and unemployed.
"I'm just a normal citizen, like any of my countrymen who don't agree with everything that is going on with politics. I just have this strong instinct of protecting what I love," Pinto said, sipping coffee at Martinho do Arcada, a downtown Lisbon cafe that's been a hangout for Portuguese poets and revolutionaries for 230 years. "I lived seven years in Berlin [studying opera], and this distance gave me a very strong feeling of what it is to be Portuguese. I do deeply love my country."
Already Western Europe's poorest country, Portugal is suffering its worst recession since democratic rule began here in the mid-1970s. The country's jobless rate has more than doubled in five years and is approaching a record 18%. The average paycheck, for those lucky enough to earn one, is about $1,000 a month. Deep budget cuts tied to Portugal's $104-billion bailout from the European Union have meant that the tax burden on many has doubled.
Yet unlike the streets of Athens, where anti-austerity demonstrators sometimes toss Molotov cocktails, or Madrid, where people blockade the parliament, their Portuguese counterparts sing 1960s-style protest songs.
"You won't fight austerity by throwing stones in the street. You need to be clever," said Pinto, whose willowy, soft-spoken manner masks the physical confidence of someone who has stood on many a stage. "There's also no use in calling names — the president is this or that. No, just concentrate on the facts. There's enough evidence of how bad things are here!"
Many of the protesters take inspiration from their country's 1974 Carnation Revolution, a peaceful military coup that ended a long-standing dictatorship and led to Portugal's withdrawal from its African colonies. At the time, people flooded the streets and inserted carnations into the muzzles of soldiers' rifles. The flowers are now common at anti-austerity protests in Lisbon; Pinto sometimes tucks one behind her ear.
The contrast is informed by recent history, said Pedro Lains, an economic historian at the University of Lisbon's Institute of Social Sciences.
"You have to take into account that Greece had a civil war in the 1940s. Spain had a civil war in the 1930s. 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," Lains said.
A popular card game in Lisbon's cafes is called Here Comes the Troika, featuring a deck with intricate caricatures of top politicians. The winner is the one who has amassed the most imaginary wealth and political influence when the troika card — representing Portugal's creditors, the IMF, European Central Bank and European Commission — is played.
Portuguese anger over the economy often manifests itself in the creative arts — in Pinto's case, music.
Among the protest songs the opera singer has popularized is "Acordai" (Wake Up), a ballad written by the late Fernando Lopes-Graca, a 20th century Portuguese composer and Communist Party member who used music to campaign against the Portuguese dictatorship.
An amateur video of Pinto leading a choir of street protesters in a rousing rendition of "Acordai" on the steps of Portugal's parliament last year went viral on YouTube.
"I have goose bumps just thinking about it! Because it's so beautiful, the music, and it comes from the heart. If you hear the speeches of politicians, they're empty of meaning. But the power of poetry is that the words are like enlightenment," Pinto said. " 'Acordai' is about waking up and conjuring up the courage to have a voice and say something."
The song Pinto belted out at the presidential event last fall was another of Lopes-Graca's anti-fascist folk songs, "Firmeza."
"It means 'firm' — a person who is steady," Pinto said. "It talks about being yourself and not allowing someone who is above you to abuse you."
It's that sentiment that motivated Pinto to break out of the rarefied world of classical music and join her compatriots in the streets. She even bought her own megaphone.
"Every demonstration that I go to, I take my megaphone. I've used it a lot of times — a lot of times! I decided to write the word 'Truth' on one side, and then on the other side there's a dove," symbolizing peace, she said.
Pinto's latest project is the Intervention Choir of Porto, a choral group she founded and named for her hometown. Open to all, the choir rehearses on Saturdays and performs at public protests nationwide. Its mission is to advance the spirit of the protest Pinto carried out when she interrupted the president.
Frayer is a special correspondent.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times