Maria Severa is, perhaps, the first fadista icon in Portugal.
She was baptized on September 12, 1820 in Paróquia dos Anjos, which is why some people say that she was born in Mouraria, where in fact, in Rua do Capelão, she lived part of her life, and where she died. But the most believed theory is that she was born in Madragoa where her mother, Barbuda (so called because she had a beard that forced her to cut her often and cover her with a scarf), a famous and feared prostitute of the Mouraria that had a tavern on Rua da Madragoa.
Then Severa beat fado with Manozinho, the oldest fado singer on that place, and Mesquita, a fado singer who was also sailor.
She lived only 26 years – from 1820 to 1846 -, but Maria Severa Onofriana, revolutionized the Lisbon of her time, and great was her fame in life and even more after her death.
The writer Júlio Dantas was responsible for this aura of fame for his novel and, later, for the play “A Severa”, which later Leitão de Barros adapted to the cinema, having been the first Portuguese sound film. Starring Dina Tereza, the film premiered in June 1931 at Teatro S. Luiz, where it was on stage for six months and was seen by 200,000 viewers.
The character of the novel, from which the myth of Severa was built, does not fully correspond to the real life of the singer who was, among others, a lover of the last Count of Vimioso. The actress Palmira Bastos who came to embody the character of Severa on stage stated that she was “the Portuguese lady of the camellias”.
Maria Severa was distinguished by the “quarrelsome” character she had inherited from her mother, but essentially by her voice and the way she sang, in addition to her slender figure. She was “tall, thin but not too thin, opulent breast, very white skin, black eyes, a lot of black hair, heavy eyebrows, very small red mouth, beautiful teeth, thin waist and small foot”, as described by a contemporary.
The painter Francisco Metrass (1825-1861) still sketched her portrait, without ever finishing it.
Severa lived in the full advent of liberalism when the end of the Old Absolute Regime began to be felt.
Her contemporaries say that they left memories written about Severa, who besides singing fado, accompanied herself, on a tuning guitar, and even wrote the poems she sang.
A companion of her, Manuel Botas, describes her peculiar way of singing: “Sometimes she kept herself melancholy, in those moments she sang with such a feeling that she made a deep impression on us”.
Severa, of which there is no voice record, is said to have been the first person to sing fados in the street and raise her problems representing the people, and the reason why fado has spread to the level of national entity that today is.
She had several well-known lovers, among them the Count of Vimioso (D. Francisco de Paula de Portugal and Castro) who, according to legend, was bewitched by the way she sang and played the guitar, often taking her to the bullfight. It provided him with a great celebrity and naturally allowed Severa greater prestige and a greater number of opportunities to show off to an audience of young people from the Portuguese social and intellectual elite.
But the social difference was never going to allow a marriage between the both and, the story says, this caused the death of Severa who died from a broken heart. She actually died poor and abandoned, of tuberculosis, in a miserable brothel on Rua do Capelão, on November 30, 1846.
Her last words are said to have been: “I die without ever having lived” – She was 26 years old.