The Opera House was supposed to be a center of culture in the middle of the Upper Amazon Basin, a jewel of the arts to rival the great theaters of Europe. And, in spite of its strange history, it is. The day I visited, local school children were touring the building. The Amazonas Philharmonic was scheduled to perform later in the week. The gift shop was doing a brisk business.
Construction began on The Opera House in 1884. Its first performance was held in 1897. But by 1921, it stood empty and abandoned, a victim of the sudden end of the Rubber Boom that ran from the late 1800’s to about 1910.
The Rubber Boom
Natural rubber comes from the Pará tree, native to South America. When the harvester makes “V” cuts in the tree, the sap drips down and forms lumps which are refined into latex.
Ancient peoples at least as far back as the Olmec in Mexico (3500 years ago) used rubber to make waterproof textiles, boat patches, containers, and the ball they used in ceremonial games. Because untreated rubber tends to lose its shape, they added sulfur to harden it.
However, the Portuguese who took the natives’ land starting in the 1500’s never asked for their advice about handling rubber, so it remained a mystery until Charles Marie de La Condamine explained the benefits of rubber to the Academie Royal des Sciences in France, in 1751. He showed it could stretch and return to its former shape and could withstand being immersed in water without being affected. In 1770, Joseph Priestley added that it was good for erasing pencil marks on paper. Then Francois Fresneau discovered turpentine was a rubber solvent. But it wasn’t until 1839 that Charles Goodyear discovered “vulcanization” by accident. He left a ball of rubber and some sulfur on the stove and found, in the morning, that the rubber was both charred and hardened.
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and more particularly the birth of the auto industry in the 1890’s, demand for rubber soared, especially for belting, gaskets, matting, gloves, adhesives, elastic in garments, and car tires. South America was its main source, particularly Brazil. As the money flowed in, the landowners’ greed, competition, and brutality grew. Natives did the work and saw no profit. When they rebelled, suppression was quick and deadly. Since wild rubber trees are widely dispersed, Portuguese land owners acquired huge swaths of land, mostly by using private armies to terrorize the inhabitants into working for them. Their tactics included cutting off dissidents’ hands and displaying them.
Thinking plantations of rubber trees would make more money than individual trees in the jungle, the owners cleared land and planted hundreds. But their trees died from a leaf blight that was fed by close proximity. So the “rubber barons,” as they were called, went back to wild rubber trees. The sap was tapped from the trees, collected, refined, and shipped down the Amazon to the Atlantic Ocean, and from there, to the world. And they could charge whatever they wanted since they controlled most of the available rubber supply.
It’s hard to appreciate how much money these men amassed in a short time. Because the Rio Negro’s tannin-rich water turned their white shirts tan in the wash, they sent their laundry to France or Portugal to be washed, ironed, and perfumed, then returned by ship, a round-tip that might take months. In the middle of the hot, humid rainforest, they still wore starched European style clothes and made their homes showplaces of European wealth, with fine paintings, sculpture, inlaid woods, marble, decorative tile-work, and enormous mirrors. Both men and women wore jewels and fine fabrics that rivaled those sported by royalty. They were the highest per-capita buyers of diamonds in the world. When they found the clip-clop of horses on the cobblestones distracting, they
ordered bricks made with rubber that would muffle the sound. They are still visible near the Opera House.
Rubber-boom Manaus boasted electric lights, 16 miles of streetcar tracks, and a telephone system.
Buoyed by a belief in Social Darwinism that declared some men were more successful because they were innately superior, the barons indulged in contests of wealth. If one had a fine yacht built, another ordered two. One kept a tame lion in his villa. Another claimed he watered his horse with French champagne. In addition to a wife, a baron might take dozens of natives as sexual companions.
So what would be a fitting place for these incredibly rich people to go, to see and be seen? The theater, of course. In 1884, construction began on an audacious project – a palatial opera house. To complete it, they had to hire architects, artists, designers, and painters, get various exotic woods from the Amazon basin, and import roofing, art, and furniture from France, as well as marble from Italy and steel from the British Isles.
Light came from 198 chandeliers. The reception room (pictured below) featured elaborate inlaid woods and large mirrors placed on opposite walls that provided the viewers with endless repetitions of their image.
The dome required 36,000 decorated tiles and special supports. The painted ceiling portrayed the spirits of music, dance, and drama. The grand curtain depicted the Meeting of the Waters, where the dark water of the Rio Negro meets the lighter water of the Upper Amazon
In 1897, the opera house opened with a performance by Enrico Caruso in La Gioconda. The barons had lured the brightest star in the opera world to the middle of the jungle to sing for them in their beautiful theater. Clearly, they were meant to be where they were and to do everything they had done.
Down the Rio Negro a bit from Manaus are the ruins of a town that was started but never finished. Apparently, some powerful people grew unhappy with the status quo in Manaus and decided to form their own community. They imported marble, granite, and ceramic tile, then started construction on several ornate homes and a chapel. But the settlement failed before the houses were completed. Today, the jungle is reclaiming the space, moving in over the decorative tile and marble steps. The reason for the settlement’s collapse is unknown, but a small, family cemetery near the buildings hints at disease, perhaps Yellow Fever, which was common in the area.
Back in Manaus, the party lasted until their grip on the market failed. An Englishman did what the rubber barons thought was impossible: he smuggled rubber tree seeds out of Brazil. In 1876, when the barons were just beginning their meteoric rise, Henry Wickham shipped 70,000 seeds to British colonies in Malaysia and India, a number so high it suggests he had help from some locals. The exact arrangement has never been explained, and the “rubber theft” is still something of a touchy subject in Manaus.
After some initial difficulties, the English efforts in India and Malaysian paid off. By 1909, Brazilian rubber production dropped to only 50% of the world total. In 1918, only 20 percent.
Manaus’s fortunes fell even more abruptly than they’d risen. The lights that once illuminated its buildings and streets went dark. The tram stopped. The telephone lines went quiet.
The rich fled with what money they had left. The theater was forgotten. By 1921, visitors said it housed only bats, bugs, and vermin. Aside from a brief appearance in a Werner Herzog film, it lay abandoned and decaying for over seventy years.
In the 1970’s, the Brazilian government decided to put money into reviving some remote settlements, including Manaus. It’s still in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest, with no overland road access due to seasonal flooding. Visitors arrive by boat or plane. But after the establishment of a Free Zone with its appealing tax incentives, businesses moved in. National and international investment followed. It’s now the sixth largest economy in Brazil, fueled not by rubber, but by shipbuilding and fishing, as well as trade in wild fruits like acai, guarana, and cupuacu, plus Brazil nuts, beer, soap, and petroleum products.
As the city’s fortunes improved, successful businessmen wanted to reclaim the best of the city’s past. A coalition of investors joined government agencies in funding the rehabilitation of some Gilded Age buildings, including a number of historic homes, the library, and the central market, the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa (pictured), built in 1882, which still does a booming business in fruits, vegetables, spices, and fish.
But the star of the revival was the Opera House, which has become a symbol of the powerful present more than the colonial past. In 2001, the provincial government allocated funds to lure top musicians to play in the Amazonas Philharmonic. Today, the completely restored Opera House hosts orchestras from around the world, as well as jazz bands, rock bands, and dance troupes. Jack White, of the White Stripes, was a featured performer in 2004.
Regular people who would never have been allowed inside the theater when it was built now look on it with pride. The brutal oppression that allowed the rubber barons to amass their wealth is seldom mentioned. Instead, the locals claim this striking building as their own. They’re proud of it. They support its concerts and relax in its gardens. It represents their city’s endurance and quality, and therefore theirs.
Tours of the Opera House (about $8.00 per person) include a visit to the grand theater hall and the reception area, as well as a costume display. Book ahead for an English-speaking guide. If this is the start of your Upper Amazon tour, you’ll find it adds an interesting perspective on the area’s history.
Sources and interesting reading:
“A Brief History of Rubber,” Mongabay, https://rainforests.mongabay.com/10rubber.htm
Cunningham, Eleanor, “The Manaus Opera House: The Theatre of the Amazonian Jungle,” The Culture Trip, 10 November 2017 https://theculturetrip.som/wouth-america/brazil/articles/the-manaus-opera-house-the-theatre-of-the-amazonian-jungle/
“Manaus,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manaus
Morton, Ella, “Teatro Amazonas,” Atlas Obscura on Slate, 14 January 2014, www.slate.com/blogs/atlas_obscura/2014/01/14/teatro_amazonas_the-unlikely_opera_house_in manaus_brazil.html
Ramm, Benjamin, “The beautiful theatre in the heart of the Amazon rainforest,” BBC.com. 16 March 2017, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170316-the-beautiful-theatre-in-the-heart-of-the-amazonian-rainforest
Other information courtesy of the tour guides at the Manaus Opera House and background provided by our Road Scholar group leaders
Photo of the Mercado Adolpho Lisboa from Wikipedia. All other photos by the author.