Founded in 1997, the Amazonas Opera Festival is a prestigious instance that has opted, since its inception, for programming operas from the traditional repertoire and contemporary titles. The Amazonas Theater in Manaus is, since its last restoration, the stage that hosts the festival. In this new edition of Teatro del Mes, we tell its story.
At the beginning of the film Fitzcarraldo (1982), by the German director Werner Herzog, the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus makes a stellar appearance; Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald’s character—known as Fitzcarraldo—an eccentric Irish adventurer and merchant obsessed with opera, approaches the theater, eager to hear tenor Enrico Caruso, the star in Verdi’s opera Ernani, sing.
“We come from Iquitos, 1,200 miles downriver, I had to row because my boat’s engine broke down […] For two days and two nights I have rowed to see Caruso at least once in my life,” says Fitzcarraldo, played in the tape by Klaus Kinski. In front of it stands the facade of the Teatro Amazonas, characterized by a rounded pediment, with reliefs that adorn the surface and rows of three-story columns that support the entire structure.
Fitzcarraldo’s encounter with the Teatro Amazonas illustrates the determination with which audiences flocked —and still do— to this opera house. The scene also shows how this building became one of the main historical remnants —and current tourist and cultural attraction— of Manaus, a city located in the middle of the Amazon, which flourished thanks to the rubber industry during the 19th century and became the “Paris of the jungle”, an emblem of the Brazilian belle époque.
Manaus, the “Paris of the Jungle”
The Amazonas Theater is located in front of Plaza San Sebastián, next to the parish in honor of this saint, in the heart of Manaus. It has a capacity of 701 seats, houses the Amazonas Philharmonic Orchestra among its stable bodies and, annually, hosts the Amazonas Opera Festival, the main lyrical instance of the regional state that makes Manaus the epicenter of opera in Brazil .
The history of the Teatro Amazonas goes hand in hand with the history of Manaus. In the 17th century, Portuguese settlers founded the San José de Río Negro fort. This rural detachment was a strategic point for the Portuguese empire, since it was located at the confluence of the Negro and Amazon rivers.
After the independence of Brazil in 1822, the captaincy of San José de Río Negro obtained the status of a town and, in 1848, it was baptized with the name of Manaus, a tribute to the Manaus tribe, the original inhabitants of the area. Between 1890 and 1910, the city was the center of the rubber rush, a social, economic and cultural process that attracted waves of Brazilian, French, Italian and English migration, among others, and caused an explosive increase in wealth.
Manaus became a pole of imposing and luxurious buildings, parks, squares, gardens with fountains and statues, granite walkways and imported lioz stone from Portugal. Eduardo Ribeiro, the charismatic regional governor at the time, ensured that all reforms and urban planning met the modern standards that the wealth accumulated by the rubber boom could allow.
An aura of belle époque hung over the opulence that the seething Amazonian bourgeois society demanded for itself. A building was necessary for the enjoyment of culture and opera. To seal his legacy, Ribeiro undertook to complete the construction of the Teatro Amazonas, begun in 1884 under the direction of the Italian architect Celestial Sacardim.
“I started with a town and turned it into a modern city”, were Ribeiro’s words to establish himself as an icon of the modernizing yearnings that characterized different Latin American nations around the turn of the century. However, his term as governor ended before the lavish opening of the theater.
A witness to the golden age of Manaus
After almost 20 years under construction, the Teatro Amazonas finally opened its doors to opera. On the night of January 7, 1897, an eager crowd of people turned out for the performance of La Gioconda, by Amilcare Ponchielli.
The theater itself was also putting on a show. For its construction and ornamentation, Italian Carrara marble was imported, which was used in the columns, stairs and statues; steel from Glasgow foundries to support the walls; and from Alsace came the materials to roof the building.
Inside, the furniture brought from Paris in the “Louis XV” style stands out, the fresco paintings by Domenico de Angelis that cover the walls and the main curtain by Crispim do Amaral, entitled The Meeting of the Waters, stands out for its Representation of the union of the channels of the Negro and Solimões rivers. In the columns that surround the public are located the masks that honor different composers and playwrights of history such as Aristophanes, Molière, Mozart, Rossini and Verdi.
In addition, the theater was within the most modern standards for its time. “Each of the six hundred seats had its own ventilation system to overcome the humidity and heat, something that was not enough to convince Enrico Caruso to travel there to inaugurate it,” says journalist Jorge Álvarez in an article for the cultural magazine La brújula verde on the history of theatre.
In its early years, the Teatro Amazonas attracted different Italian and French opera companies, giving Manaus an important status as a cultural reference in Brazil and Latin America. However, the splendor of the city would not last long; Around the middle of the 20th century, the rubber exploitation industry moved to Asia because it offered cheaper costs and greater extraction efficiency.
Manaus entered a period of economic withdrawal; investment plummeted, much of its population moved elsewhere in search of work, luxury imports came to a screeching halt, and urban decay forced many of the opulent buildings to be abandoned. The Teatro Amazonas was no exception, since as much as its brilliant periods elevated it as a magnificent opera house, its abandonment for years also left it adrift as a witness to the golden age of Manaus.
The Amazon Opera Festival
After being restored three times—in 1929, 1974, and between 1989 and 1990—the Teatro Amazonas returned to being the home of artistic performances in the early 2000s under the governorship of Amazonino Mendes. Currently, the theater hosts several stable bodies: the Amazon Philharmonic Orchestra, Amazon Choir, the Amazon Dance Corps, the Amazon Chamber Orchestra, the Amazon Guitar Orchestra, Amazon Band and the Amazon Folkloric Ballet.
The Amazonas Opera Festival (FAO), for its part, found a new home in the Amazonas Theater to receive both national and international opera productions. Founded in 1997, the festival was the first of its kind in Latin America and a very important benchmark in Latin America.
In addition to presenting traditional operas such as Madame Butterfly, Dialogues of the Carmelites, La Traviata or Carmen and carrying out the feat —unique in Brazil— of presenting the complete cycle of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung, the event has opted for an important renovation of the repertoire: he has programmed titles such as Lulú by Alban Berg; Madeleine by Heitor Villa-Lobos; Ça-Ira by former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters; or, recently, O corvo and Moto-continuo, which establish a dialogue between media and lyrical arts.
Directed by Flávia Furtado, the Amazonas Opera Festival has welcomed more than 4,000 artists and technicians and has received more than 370,000 people who have attended the different editions, held between April and May of each year. In its 24th edition, held in April and May 2022, the principal conductor of Coral Amazónico, Otávio Simões, commented that “the public can expect diversity as always, diverse and far-reaching themes. The FAO will always present different themes for different types of groups, for all ages, and everyone can come and see the Amazonas Opera Festival.”
The Teatro Amazonas was born and raised in a period of opulence and prosperity. It was abandoned in times of crisis and economic distress. The cinema, in the hands of Werner Herzog, revalued it and showed it to new audiences in the 1980s and, finally, the space found its renaissance. Today, the Teatro Amazonas is not just a witness or remnant of a golden age, but a living building that blends the historical with the modern and that, once a year, is the setting for an opera festival that attracts the eyes of the entire world.