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The announcements at Rio de Janeiro’s main international airport are voiced by Iris Lettieri. (Antonio Guerreiro)
The announcements at Rio de Janeiro’s main international airport are voiced by Iris Lettieri. (Antonio Guerreiro)

The breathy voice of Rio’s airport returns to lift passengers’ spirits Add to ...

Airports are grim places in this day and age, and Brazil’s offer the usual scenes of confiscated water bottles and unshod business people. But with only a few weeks left before the World Cup, airports here are also full of dust, harried construction workers and snaking lines of crabby travellers.

Rio de Janeiro’s main international airport was, until a few weeks ago, an exception. Travellers who braved the lines and the dyspeptic air conditioning system could relax in the waiting area soothed – some even confess to being, well, titillated – by the announcements. (Yes. The announcements.)

Listen to Iris Lettieri

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There was no muffled automated Tannoy in Galeão, as the airport is known. This airport had a husky-voiced temptress who told travellers, “Flight Eight-ah Six-ah Thu-reee departing now for Noooowark.” And Newark seemed suddenly like a charming destination. Gate 5 was seductive; the final boarding call was positively thrilling.

The announcements were recorded by Iris Lettieri, who was the sultry voice of Rio’s airport for 38 years.

Then came the World Cup, and privatization, and the abrupt end of Ms. Lettieri’s airport career. Managers informed her that they were ending all contracts, as they prepared to hand over Galeão to its new owners, and they installed a standard computerized announcement system.

And with that, the spark went out of Rio travel; now, there was only scaffolding and bitterness.

But among Ms. Lettieri’s stalwart fans, it has emerged, is Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio. “That voice is a must, right?” the mayor told Rio reporters during a public outcry about the change. “You hear that ding dong [the chime that precedes an announcement], and there comes that soft, almost sexy voice, just like Rio itself.”

The mayor felt her absence so keenly that he directed Oderbrecht, the firm managing the newly privatized airport, to reinstate her. “I asked for her job back. It was absurd.”

For good measure, Mr. Paes also made her the voice of the city’s new bus rapid transit system.

“He said that he thought my voice was such an important symbol of Rio that he promised to make it protected cultural heritage,” said Ms. Lettieri, 72, who was born and raised in the city.

Ms. Lettieri was a newsreader and voiceover artist when she was tapped by the government agency to do Galeão’s announcements. Those were so popular that she was hired to do more cities; she was also the voice of Sao Paulo’s airport and other major tourist destinations. (Only Rio is bringing her back.)

She bristles at the suggestion that her announcements are “sexy. ”

“It was the press who labelled it as sexy,” she snapped. “It was never meant to be sexy. People tend to think every woman who knows how to place their voice and has a deep voice sounds sexy. I don’t really understand why.”

In fact, her intention was simply to calm nervous fliers. “I read the text in several different ways, with different tones, and they picked this one, because it was very clear speech, with very smooth, calm timing, that would make passengers lose their fear of planes. To make people who are scared feel safer, calmer.”

Guilherme Tostes, a Rio accountant and frequent traveller, says it worked: He calls her announcements “therapeutic.” And without them, the airport is like “feijoada [the national dish of bean stew] with no beans.”

“Her voice is an icon of the city, part of any man’s dream,” he said. It evokes some of the happiest moments of his life: “an unforgettable trip, the glamour of Galeão in the late ’70s and early ’80s, my father arriving from a long trip abroad.”

As a child, Ms. Lettieri took classes from her mother, a voice and elocution teacher. She always dreamed of being a doctor, she says, but once accompanied her mother to the national radio studio when she was to perform; she asked to try the recording equipment to see what her voice sounded like. Days later, she got a call from a local radio station who had heard the clip, asking if she wanted to be part of a program. Commercials followed, then acting, then the newsreader job.

She was once nationally renowned, Ms. Lettieri says, but the lack of privacy was wearying and she gave it all up, except for the airport announcements. She does the job from home: The airport tells her what she needs to say, she records the clip, and e-mails it.

And she continues to receive fan mail – “so much flattering e-mail” that suggests her retreat from the public eye has not been total.

“It makes me proud, to get famous … for doing something very simple, announcing the flights in an airport. It was very surprising, the way it got people’s attention.”

Mr. Tostes dreads the inevitable day when Galeão eventually switches to computerized voices. “Her silence,” he said, “will be the sign of an airport, a city, a country that no longer exists.”

Listen to Iris Lettieri’s boarding call

With a report from Manuela Andreoni, Special to The Globe and Mail

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