I love opera. You have voices singing in unnatural cadences, laterally challenged men and women earnestly pretending to be dashing gay blades and gazelle-like femmes fatales, plus scenery from ancient China, Egypt or Valhalla. It is the campest of musical forms, and, like drag, it involves suspension of disbelief and immersion in a pre-arranged fantasy. It is, of course, this absolute power of the composer as an artist on a pedestal in a well-ordered world, which bore a dozen counter-movements later on.
I tagged on to a party of Americans who were taking a tour. Americans who reach Manaus are rich. And rich people can be very daft.
‘Are these pipes for the acoustics, too?’
‘No madam, these pipes are for air conditioning.’
‘Oh, they had air conditioning in the nineteenth century?’
‘No madam. They were installed five years ago.’
Somehow, the dialogue seemed apt. The Opera House is a folly of monumental proportions. Outside there is cholera and malaria, starving street children, yet we are surrounded by Alsatian tiles, English stone, Venetian mirrors, Italian marble and Portuguese sheet granite shipped to the middle of the jungle at enormous cost.
The Opera House must be seen in the context of its era. The 1890s belle époque, when Manaus boomed and the rubber barons ruled, was the apotheosis of the bourgeoisie and opera the apex of its artistic ethos: European, imperial and unquestioned. Rubber and latex were inextricably linked with the car, and the car with a brighter future; there were electric streetcars in Manaus before they appeared in most cities in the United States; there were telephones aplenty; two daily newspapers; three hospitals; special ‘ethnic’ clubs for the foreigners; chic beaches like the Balneário do Mosqueiro; regular connections via Belém to Lisbon, Le Havre, Liverpool, Antwerp and New York. The latest fashions and consumer fads reached the city on the Rio Negro almost as soon as they reached Rio.
The pink marble opera building in Manaus sealed it all. It is by far the single most famous structure in Brazil this side of the statue of Christ in Corcovado, and it is impressive in its incongruity: it simply doesn’t belong there. Hobsbawn called it a ‘bourgeois cathedral’ and he was not far off: it has, after all, a macaw-coloured green, yellow and blue dome.
And the symbolism continues: one hundred years later, its decline, along with the city of Manaus, personifies the predatory nature of those imperial values it so famously exhorted. The theatre was abandoned as early as 1912 when competition from the stolen rubber-tree seeds of Santarém started hurting, and only on its centenary, in 1996, did it become active again, when José Carreras was invited to sing in a performance whose overall cost reached one million greenbacks.
Opera did not take root in the jungle: it was foreign mimicry, it was espousal of false values – that technological progress equals ‘civilisation’ – and, like the city itself, it was cruelly deserted by the elites when there was no more money to be made.
But what a story, eh? Where is Werner Herzog to film it when you want him?