Sunday, January 23, 2011



It may not be as famous as La Scala but the Amazon Theatre, a beautiful opera house in the middle of nowhere, is celebrated in movies, books and magazines.
I remember visiting the Canadian ambassador to Central America  45 years ago and in the middle of a rant about how Canadians paid too little attention to Central and South America, he looked across the square in San Jose, Costa Rica,  at the old opera house and started telling me what a little jewel it was and how it was well worth a visit.
He gave me a curious look when I said I had been hearing about the opera house most of my life and it would be a delight to visit. You have it confused with the famous one in remote Brazil, he said, and so I did.
It all came back to me with a rush when I flew into Manaus where the mighty Amazon captures its tributary of the Rio Negro. Others in the fishin gparty started talking about the opera house they visited a year before.
And so I found myself at the legendary opera house left behind by fabulously rich rubber barons more than a century ago. If they had to live in the jungle, they thought, they would import the wonders of Europe to make it more palatable.
It really is the stuff of dreams. Like stepping into a shiny page of the National Geographic or watching a documentary or movie that features this grand product of the Belle Epoque era when the finest craftsmen in Europe sent their best work and the choicest materials on river boats far up the Amazon River.
Roof tiles from Alsace. Carrarra marble from Italy. The finest woods. Great glass chandeliers. Years of construction and delays before it opened in 1896 after a noted Italian painter turned the ceilings and walls into heavenly scenes.
It took me back to when I was a kid working in the town library and I discovered a thrilling travel writer called Richard Halliburton. He had been born in 1900 and disappeared on a junk sailing out of Hong Kong in 1939. He roamed a confused and depressed world between the great wars and produced books like The Royal Road to Romance where he wrote with  wonderful enthusiasm about all the famous wonders of nature and all the grand old buildings of the world.
He would have got eventually to Manaus if he had lived because the idea of  a grand theatre in the jungle was exactly the kind of adventurous construction that turned him on.
My love of travel, which endures despite the security hassles and the crowds of tourists that seem to flood any street I'm exploring, comes directly from the enchantment of reading about travel with Halliburton and the other travel bards. They are the poor man's explorers. Now we read when decades ago the more adventurous among us would have joined that expedition to darkest Africa to find King Solomon's Mines or other lost worlds.
The Amazon Theatre fell on hard times after the rest of the world found they could get by with alternatives to Brazilian rubber and for 90 years no opera singers emoted on its stage. Now there is an  opera festival every April and tour guides boast that famous musicians have graced the orchestra pit.
I was impressed by the gigantic angel that loomed out the second floor and wondered how long it had been there. Not long at all! It had been put up just for Christmas, and the Brazilians don't rush to take down their Christmas trees and other decorations which routinely seem to be among the largest in the world.
The opera house is by far the most famous attraction in Northern Brazil. The other appears to be the big fish market just up from a tangle of fishing boats filled with a glistening harvest from the great watery heart of the nation. Here we wander through ripe smells while the opera house smelled of the ages.
Sort of a Beauty and the Beast kind of day.

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