Not Just Jungle: Opera in Brazil's Amazon Cup City
Friday, June 20, 2014 - 05:21 PM
Inside the Teatro Amazonas, the familiar chords of a signature aria from Bizet's "Carmen" resound among elaborate woodwork and Murano chandeliers. Outside, less than a half-kilometer away, the Rio Negro's inky waters flow toward the Amazon River, and flocks of raucous parrots settle into treetops for the night.
The Teatro Amazonas is the symbol of Manaus, a city carved out of the rainforest, still so remote it can only be reached by plane or boat even though it has grown to over 2 million inhabitants.
With Manaus playing host to four World Cup matches, the Belle Epoque gem a must-see for the 52,000 foreigners who flooded in for the tournament, including Sunday's match between the U.S. and Portugal.
The theater was a lavish vanity project of the rubber barons, whose plantations briefly catapulted Manaus into the ranks of the world's wealthiest cities in the late 19th century and whose history of opulence and neglect mirrors the metropolis' boom and bust fortunes.
"I came here for the first time in 2009," said Cristina Gallardo-Domas, the Chilean-born soprano who recently played the title role in "Carmen" to the packed, 689-seat house here. "It was like discovering a diamond in the Amazon rain forest."
A legislator initially proposed the theater in 1881, toward the start of the rubber boom. Ground was broken in 1884, but construction dragged on for 12 years because of disputes with contractors.
Only the finest materials were used - marble and Murano glass ferried in from Italy, steel from Britain and bronze from Belgium. The Brazilian flag-themed green, yellow and blue tiles on the dome were sourced in France's Alsace region. The mosaic sidewalks surrounding the building - the same graphic black-and-white wave pattern famous on Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach - were made from stones brought from Portugal. (A thick layer of local rubber covered the mosaic-embellished driveway to muffle the clanking of passing carriages.) Even the wood, culled from Amazon trees, was shipped back and forth to Europe for processing.
Legend has it that during its heyday, the theater was disparaged in some circles because of how often leading ladies from European troupes on tour eloped with local rubber barons.
The period of glory was brief. The theater was largely abandoned after the rise of rubber plantations in Asia burst Brazil's rubber boom in 1912. Visiting European productions dried up, as did the public - particularly following radio's arrival in the Amazon in the 1930s.
During World War II, the theater was transformed into a warehouse for rubber and oil shipments bound for Allied troops in Europe.
Another rough patch for the theater came during Brazil's 1964-85 military dictatorship. Then painted a dull gray, it was mostly shuttered, hosting only the odd graduation ceremony.
But the state government launched an initiative in 1997 to breathe new life into the theater by founding the Amazonas Philharmonic Orchestra and an opera festival attracting top international productions. Layers of paint were removed to reveal the building's original salmon hue.
The opera festival's 17th edition wrapped up two weeks before the World Cup began, but the annual Festival Amazonas de Jazz was pushed up this year to coincide with the tournament. Ten concerts are being held in the theater as part of the June 26-30 festival.
The theater is also open for guided tours. Held Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the 20-minute tours cost about $4.50 per person.
"There is so much history in these walls," marveled Marta Cabrejos, an 80-year-old retired art professor. "I never miss a show."