UNC T-Shirt at the Teatro Amazones
My first experiences with opera were at the Little Theater of the Rockies at Colorado State College [now UNC] in the 1950s (first from growing up in the area and finally while attending CSC). It is little wonder that this early obsession led me to seek out opera houses around the world. I graduated from CSC in 1965 in art and history and again in 1969 with an MA in art. I later graduated from Arizona State (Ph.D.), Colorado State (M.Ed.) and California State University, Los Angeles (M.A. Learning Handicapped) as well. My list of attended opera houses includes L'Opera (Paris), The State Opera House Vienna, the Bolshoi Theater (Moscow), the Sydney Opera House (Australia), Convent Gardens (London), and opera houses in San Francisco, Santa Fe, Central City, St. Petersburg (Russia), Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Madrid, Barcelona, Ljubljana and Buenos Aires. I attended the most interesting opera house of all in May in Manaus, Brazil. The Teatro Amazones was completed in 1896 in the middle of the Amazon jungle when Manaus was rich with rubber money and the opera house was literally an opera palace among huts in a little river town on the Rio Negro as it fed into the Solimoes River to form the Amazon. The Werner Herzog move Fitzacarraldo begins with Sarah Bernhardt and Enrico Caruso performing in Verde's Ernani as Bernhardt gingerly ascends stairs with her wooden leg to be helped by Caruso to complete the finale as we see the soprano (in the wings) doing a voiceover for Bernhardt. In the later dialogue in the movie, it was commented that Bernhardt was an actress and couldn't sing and that: "Everyone in town was talking about her wooden leg." With the fall of the rubber market, the opera house was unused for over 70 years, and then it was refurbished in 1974 and again in 1990. The brochure for the opera group I toured with warned of seeing monkeys, giant anacondas, fierce piranhas, steamy jungles and torrential rain to adventurously attend the jungle opera house. Incidentally, there is no record that Caruso or Bernhardt ever performed at the Manaus Opera House.
Day tours of Manaus and to the meeting of the waters completed the adventurous opera weekend. The Rio Negro is black in color, less dense, acidic, slower moving, and calmer than the Solimoes – the two rivers run side by side for miles before blending. After seeing the brown river next to the black one and feeling the temperature difference of the two, we visited jungle villages (one floating and one simply flooded) where we walked into the jungle, ate at a floating restaurant and finally held and bonded with an anaconda, a baby alligator and a small sloth. Another adventurous treat was, with bamboo pole and a rope tied to a bait fish, catching the formidable Pirarucu (largest fish of the Amazon) that would thrash on the rope until pulled in uncomfortably out of the water and would then simply drop off the rope.
I really didn't expect to see great opera at the famous opera house but was pleasantly surprised. Although the first opera, Puccini's Tosca, was billed as a staged opera, it came off as being a true opera only with projected sets. The orchestra was excellent and the intimacy of the smaller opera house with sitting on the main floor (I'm used to sitting in upper balconies) made the sound significantly better than I'm used to. Also the use of chorus of over 80 members including 60 children, whom I later found out were from the poorest neighborhoods in Manaus, made the production a truly moving and memorable experience.
The second opera, Mozart's The Magic Flute, was a fully staged opera and was also well done with the added attraction of my having a more personal contact with the performers and the director since they were staying at the same hotel where we were staying. We visited with them daily in the elevator and hotel lobby.
Although the opera house and Manaus are in a period of transition at this point, I feel that both are emerging to be a desired destination for travelers and opera fans in the years to come. I happened to be wearing my UNC T-shirt for the day on the Amazon.
David L. King
Special Education teacher (retired)