‘Bravo, bravo!’ The conductor laughs and wipes away the sweat on his bald head. The standing ovation from the audience continues and the musicians return to their seats. While the audience turns silent, the sounds of the Polovtsian Dances by Borodin fill one more time the magnificent hall of the opera house. Under a roaring air-conditioning, tourists and locals are listening to the music, hypnotized, while outside the tropical night hangs over the city like a warm blanket.
An opera in the jungle, it may sound strange. But in the famous opera house of Manaus, in the middle of the Amazon, the thousands of kilometers of jungle seem very far away.
On a very hot Tuesday afternoon, Marc and I visit the building for the first time. We get a private tour of a somewhat nervous guy who constantly looks at his watch. He’s probably afraid we’ll gaze at the magnificent decor for too long.
Because you can easily call that decor exorbitant. In 1884 they started building what was supposed to become the ‘jewel of the Amazon’. It would take 12 years before the opera was finally finished. Because only the best of the best was good enough. Stairs of Carrara marble, steel walls from Britain, chandeliers from Murano glass, a huge painted tailor-made canvas from Paris on the ceiling and several sorts of wood that were carved in Europe. All designed by an Italian architect.
Everything was possible in Manaus during the rubber boom. In the 19th century the demand for rubber exploded. At that moment the rubber tree that produces latex (the white stuff from which they extract rubber) only grew in the Amazon. Cities like Belém, Porto Velho and Manaus became filthy rich because of the growing demand and the rubber barons could swim in their money. They supposedly gave their horses champagne to drink and their laundry was done in Europe: nothing seemed impossible. And so it happened that in the middle of the jungle eventually a real opera house emerged. The statement was clear: mankind had conquered nature.
But the seeds of the rubber tree were stolen by an Englishman and eventually rubber plantations emerged in British colonies in Southeast Asia. This meant the end of the rubber monopoly of the Amazon at the beginning of the 20th century. The price of rubber imploded and Manaus lost its main source of income. A brief revival during World War II also couldn’t turn the tide. Poverty rose. But the opera house, the symbol of the once wealthy jungle city, was still there in all its glory.
Two days after our tour we visit the building again. This time to attend a concert of the Amazonas Philharmonic Orchestra, based in the Manaus opera house. And then, in this strange theatre in the middle of the jungle, it happens. Maybe it’s because of the heath, maybe not. But I’m enchanted by the sounds of the opera.
Since that moment the Polovtsian Dances are on repeat on my iPod. And every time I listen to it, I’m back again. Back in the opera house, back in Manaus. For me, opera and the jungle will be linked with each other forever.