The Manaus Opera House: The Theatre of the Amazonian Jungle

In the midst of the Amazon Rainforest lies a truly enchanting piece of Renaissance architecture. The Manaus Opera House (also known as The Amazon Theatre) is a working historical landmark that currently accommodates the Amazonas Philharmonic and plays host to the annual Amazonas Opera Festival. We take a look at its cultural heritage and the role it has played in the development of the city of Manaus.

The initial idea to create an opera house in Manaus was by Antonio Jose Fernandes Júnior, a member of the local House of Representatives with a passion for opera and the arts. Inspired by the Belle Époque period, which began in 1871, Fernandes Júnior proposed to build a theatre in the heart of the Amazonian jungle. At that time, the city of Manaus was undergoing a wealthy phase due to the extraction and commercialisation of rubber, known as the ‘rubber boom’. As a result Manaus (its name in the native tongue meaning ‘mother of the gods’ ) became one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and began to construct many grand buildings including the Amazon Theatre. Fernandes Júnior’s dream was to make the city a centre for the arts and a culture capital of Brazil.

Work on the building started in 1884, and took a total of 15 years to complete with several pauses between 1885 to 1892. There were problems with funding from the state and the county’s extreme climate also caused issues. The Italian architect Celestial Sacardim planned the theatre in the Renaissance style, while state of the art design included the installation of electrical lighting. Many of the materials were brought from all over Europe to create the theatre; the roofing tiles came from Alsace, France, while furnishings in the style of Louis XV were imported from Paris. From Italy came Carrarra marble for the stairs, statues, and columns, and the steel walls were ordered from England. Not only materials but also artists were imported for the theatre’s creation, with the Italian artist Domenico de Angelis painting the decorative panels that sit on the ceiling of the auditorium and audience chamber. These works of art depict scenes of music, dance, drama, and act as a homage to Carlos Gomes.

The Manaus Opera House is a treasure trove housing 198 chandeliers, 32 of which are made from Murano glass. The curtain, with its painting,The Meeting of the Waters, was originally created in Paris by Crispim do Amaral, and depicts the junction of the Rio Negro and the Solimões to form the Amazon. The dome of the building is covered with 36,000 decorated ceramic tiles set in a mosaic design depicting the Brazilian flag. The theatre opened on 7 January 1897 with a presentation of La Gioconda by the Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli.

Much like the Manaus Opera House, the city’s history consists of good and bad phases, not fully reaching its potential until the late 19th century. Although Manaus enjoyed unparalleled wealth at the time of the theatre's construction, the city later fell into extreme poverty. This was due to rubber trees being planted by the English in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Africa with much cheaper prices, resulting in the loss of the Brazilian monopoly. During this period the theatre also fell into disrepair, but it never failed to open its doors to its visitors. The local economy rebounded in the 1950s and the landmark underwent major renovations, resulting in the well preserved condition it is in today.

The Manaus Opera House remains an integral part of Manaus’ and Brazil’s history. Unforgettable performances from the Italian opera and music world have been unveiled here, with big names leaving their mark on the Amazonian theatre. Today it plays host to many events including the Amazonas Film Festival, drawing in film critics and independent directors from all over the country. The theatre also contains a small museum to help illustrate its rich history. Items on display include original building plans and objects from artists who performed here.

By Eleanor Cunningham

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