Opera in the Jungle

By Awake! correspondent in Brazil

LOOKING through the plane’s window, we see two rivers heading toward each other—the sand-colored Solimões and the cola-colored Negro. When they meet, they refuse to mix completely until six miles [10 km] farther downstream. Nearby, the plane lands in Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s Amazonas State.

“Here we have two seasons,” say the people of Manaus. “It rains every day, or it rains all day.” But the rain does not hinder the 1.5 million inhabitants from bustling about in this city of contrasts. Passing high-tech industries on broad avenues and houses and apartment buildings on hilly streets, we are soon in the congested traffic of the city center, where skyscrapers and palatial monuments command attention. We can see why Manaus was once called the Paris of the jungle. One beautiful building, though, especially captures the eye—the opera house.

“There are opera houses in many places,” says Inês Lima Daou, the theater’s director, “but Teatro Amazonas is different. It’s in the middle of nowhere.” How did such elegance come to be in the middle of the world’s largest rain forest?

The Rubber Connection

In 1669, Portuguese Captain Francisco da Mota Falcão founded a jungle fortress named Fortaleza de São José do Rio Negro. Following several name changes, in 1856 it was renamed Manaus after a regional Indian tribe called Manáos. By 1900, 50,000 people had flocked to Manaus. What drew the crowds? The Hevea brasiliensis, or rubber tree, native to the Amazon basin.

Portuguese colonists noticed that Indians were playing with heavy balls made of latex extracted from the trees. In time, the colonists saw another use for the milky fluid. In 1750, Portugal’s King Dom José was sending his boots to Brazil to be waterproofed. By 1800, Brazil was exporting rubber shoes to New England in North America. However, Charles Goodyear’s discovery of vulcanization in 1839 and John Dunlop’s patent of the pneumatic tire in 1888 propelled the ‘rubber rush.’ The world demanded rubber.

Not long thereafter, nearly 200,000 Brazilians were working as seringueiros, or rubber tappers, milking 80 million rubber trees scattered in the rain forest around Manaus.

Giddy years of wealth brought electricity, the telephone, and even a tramway to town—the first in South America. Rubber barons built mansions and dined on Irish linen, and their families went back and forth to Europe to enjoy its culture—including the opera. Before long, they wanted an opera house like the ones in Europe.

Transplanting Bits of Europe

The dream began to come true in 1881, when the city selected a site on a hill between two tributaries, next to the church and surrounded by forest. Then, ships loaded with building materials crossed the Atlantic Ocean and continued for another 800 miles [1,300 km] up the Amazon River to Manaus.

But wait a moment! Why is a dome sitting on this neoclassic structure? True, it was not part of the original project, but one of the engineers went to a fair in France, saw a dome, liked it, and bought it. About 36,000 green- and yellow-colored German tiles were used to decorate the dome.

The horseshoe-shaped auditorium accommodated 700 cane-backed chairs that were placed on the ground floor, 12 chairs in the official box, and 5 seats in each of the 90 private boxes on the upper three tiers. To secure private boxes, rich families donated 22 Greek masks, which were placed above the columns to honor European composers, musicians, and playwrights.

The illumination in the opera house makes it a showpiece. Hanging in the center of the auditorium is a huge bronze chandelier that was made in France and is adorned with Italian crystal. It can be lowered for changing light bulbs and for cleaning. The 166 bronze-based lamps with 1,630 tulip-shaped glass shades enhance the walls and show off the paintings.

Crispim do Amaral, a 19th-century Brazilian painter who lived in Paris and was schooled in Italy, took his brush to the ceiling and painted four scenes—opera, dance, music, and tragedy. He succeeded in giving the illusion of standing under the Eiffel Tower. On the canvas stage curtain, he painted an exotic theme—the meeting of the two rivers that form the Amazon. The 100-year-old curtain does not roll up but goes straight up into the dome—lessening damage to the painting.

On the second floor is the ballroom, where at each end of the room, a tall mirror of French crystal reflects 32 chandeliers from Italy. The brilliance illuminates the paintings of Amazonian fauna and flora by Domenico de Angelis, an Italian painter. For a rich appearance, columns of cast iron were plastered and painted to look like marble. Tap on the marble-looking balcony railings; they are wood. The polished floor was laid in the French method, 12,000 pieces of wood fitted together without the aid of a nail or glue. The only Brazilian feature was the wood for the floors, desks, and tables. We could imagine that everyone must have felt at home—and cool. Why cool?

Masons had laid the paving stones of the streets surrounding the theater in a latex-based substance. This cleverly muffled the noise made by the horse-drawn carriages of latecomers. It also allowed for the doors to be left open so that the breeze could blow through the cane-backed chairs to give some relief from the heat.

From Sparkling Champagne to Ominous Clouds

On opening night in 1896, fountains in front of the opera house flowed with champagne as the doors swung open. This project had taken 15 years of work and had cost $10 million. It was a grand house for grand voices. Through the years soloists and groups from Italy, France, Portugal, and Spain came to perform Puccini’s La Bohème and Verdi’s Rigoletto and Il Trovatore. Although tropical diseases such as cholera, malaria, and yellow fever caused some performers to stay away, another threat to the theater arose—the end of the rubber boom. Ominous clouds hung over Manaus.—See the box “The Kidnapping That Killed the Rubber Boom and Stopped the Opera.”

In 1923, Brazil’s rubber monopoly deflated. With lightning speed, tycoons, speculators, traders, and prostitutes packed their bags and left town, reducing Manaus to a weedy backwoods. And the opera house? The theater’s annexes became storage areas for rubber, and the stage was used for indoor soccer games!

Glorious Times Again

Thereafter, Manaus turned into a starting point for ecotourists who came to explore the rain forest’s mysteries. Others came for a few days to hold a snake, feed a parrot, or pet a sloth. Restoration of the opera house would make Manaus an appealing attraction of a different kind!

Therefore, in 1974 the theater underwent a costly make-over to preserve the original style and to make technical improvements. Cleaning cloths went over the lights, mirrors, and furniture. Technicians installed a hydraulic system to move the orchestra pit up and down. They gave the stage a new floor and the backstage new sound, light, and video equipment. They installed air conditioning on the ground floor under the chairs.

Then the symphony orchestra from Rio de Janeiro brought culture back to the theater. Later, the famed ballerina Margot Fonteyn graced the stage by dancing Swan Lake and left her ballet shoes showcased in the theater’s museum.

For more comfort, beauty, and safety, further touch-ups were necessary. After exhaustive research and careful planning, 600 workers and 30 technicians swarmed the theater for four years. They found the original rose color under eight layers of paint. The dome needed refacing. Off came the old tiles. They were replaced with similar new tiles made in Brazil. The chairs were reupholstered in red French velvet. Scalpel and brush were used to touch up the sensitive art objects and paintings. Unfortunately, humidity had damaged the art work in the hallways, so a jade-green Chinese brocade was chosen to cover the panels. Furthermore, termites had made themselves at home in the wood columns and balcony railings. To get rid of them, 3,640 gallons of insecticide were injected into the wood.

In 1990, there were grand voices in a grand house again. Brazilian soprano Celine Imbert’s arias and Nelson Freire’s piano recitals ennobled the theater.

Was that a bell? Yes, it’s the chime warning that the performance will start in five minutes.

“To commemorate the 100-year-old Teatro Amazonas,” says theater director Daou, “we invited the renown tenor José Carreras. He tested the acoustics (‘perfect’).” That evening ended with a dance in the ballroom. The festivities continued with the visit of conductor Zubin Mehta, tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and an Argentinean group that presented the colorful opera Carmen.

That was the three-minute chime. We’d better take our seats.

All day long the 60 employees have been running around behind the scenes to prepare for the show. And they will have more shows—jazz concerts, folk shows, and plays. But tonight, it is a ballet.

The one minute chime. Hush.

So when are you coming to the opera house in the jungle?


The Kidnapping That Killed the Rubber Boom and Stopped the Opera

In 1876, Henry Wickham, a young English adventurer, devised a scam that punctured Brazil’s rubber boom. With the help of Indians, he “kidnapped” 70,000 prime Hevea brasiliensis seeds gathered from the Amazonian forest, loaded them aboard a steamer, and smuggled them past Brazilian customs on the pretext that they were “rare plant samples for Queen Victoria.” He nursed them on the boat crossing the Atlantic and raced them by special chartered train to the greenhouses of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England, where the seedlings sprouted a few weeks later. From there, they were shipped to Asia and were planted in the swampy soil of Ceylon and the Malay Peninsula. By 1912, the seedlings had grown into disease-free rubber plantations, and by the time those trees began to produce latex, says one source, “Brazil’s rubber boom [had gone] forever bust.”)


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Back to Basics in the Fight Against Malaria

With the world’s attention focused on civil wars, crime, unemployment, and other crises, malaria deaths are hardly the stuff of prime-time news. Nevertheless, almost half the world’s population, says the World Health Organization (WHO), lives today under the threat of malaria, and some 300 million to 500 million people fall ill with it each year, making malaria “the most widespread of all tropical diseases and one of the most lethal.” How deadly?

Every 20 seconds someone dies of malaria. That figure adds up to a death toll of over 1.5 million victims each year—a number equal to that of the entire population of the African nation of Botswana. Nine out of ten malaria deaths occur in tropical Africa, where most victims are young children. In the Americas, WHO registered the highest incidence of malaria in the Amazon area. Deforestation and other ecological changes have left a growing trail of malaria victims in that part of the world. In some of Brazil’s Amazonian communities, the problem has now become so serious that more than 500 out of every 1,000 inhabitants are infected.

Whether in Africa, the Americas, Asia, or elsewhere, malaria hits primarily the poorest population groups. These people, notes WHO, “have the least access to health services, can least afford personal protection and are the furthest from organized malaria control activities.” Even so, the plight of those poor is not beyond hope. In recent years, says TDR News, a newsletter on tropical-disease research, one of the most promising methods to prevent malaria deaths has become more available. The name of that lifesaver? Insecticide-impregnated bed nets.

Net Gains

Though using bed nets is a back-to-basics solution, Dr. Ebrahim Samba, director of WHO’s Africa office, told Panos Features, a newsletter of the Panos Institute, that trials to test the effectiveness of bed nets in the fight against malaria have shown “very exciting results.” In Kenya, for instance, using bed nets impregnated with biodegradable insecticides has cut overall deaths, not just malaria deaths, among children under five years of age by one third. Besides saving lives, “nets could radically reduce the burden on health services” because fewer patients will need hospital treatment for malaria.

One problem, however, has yet to be solved: Who pays for the nets? When people in one African nation were asked to contribute, most declined. And no wonder, for people living in countries that spend less than $5 (U.S.) per person a year on health care, even a mosquito net—with or without insecticides—is a luxury. However, since this method of prevention will cost governments less than treating malaria patients, UN experts note that “it would be a very cost-effective use of scarce government funds to distribute and fund impregnated bednets.” Indeed, for governments, providing bed nets may be a way to save funds. For millions of their poor citizens, though, it is much more—it is a means to save their lives.

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