When Money Grew on Trees
When Money Grew on Trees:
The Rubber Boom and the Creation of an Opera House in the Jungle
By Rex Fuller, Written for Opera Colorado
“Florencia Grimaldi’s brilliant voice will reopen a theater’s dormant lock,” declares Riolobo as the El Dorado departs the docks in Leticia, Colombia. In Daniel Catán’s opera, Florencia is headed downstream to one of the most remote urban locations on earth, a frontier city built a thousand miles inland in the center of the Amazonian jungle, to sing on the stage of a glorious opera house built at the peak of Brazil’s rubber boom in the late 19th century.
Rubber was initially viewed as an amusing if useless novelty. However, natural rubber would ultimately come to drive the world economy for a time and still plays a major role in manufacturing. Money from fortunes built by the rubber industry would also come to play a major role in the cultural life of South America.
Rubber was first introduced to Europeans in 1526 in the form of a game. Andrea Navagero, a Venetian ambassador to Spain, was fascinated by a game called “ullamaliztili”, a team sport played by native people in the new world. More interesting than the ball game being played was the ball itself, made of a substance no European was familiar with. The curious elastic material was made by boiling the sap of a tree native to the equatorial jungles of South America.
Though the properties of rubber were fascinating, they were seen as being of little practical use for centuries. In the 1820s, there was an attempt to make waterproof shoes and other garments out of rubber, but the material was too unstable. In cold weather, it would seize up and crack; in hot weather it would melt. It wasn’t until 1844 when Charles Goodyear discovered a process to “vulcanize” rubber by adding sulfur to the natural sap that the commercial world would see the value of this remarkable material. (Incidentally, Goodyear died in poverty. Another entrepreneur created the Goodyear Rubber Company and named it in Goodyear’s honor. His family never saw a penny of the fortune.)
Once rubber could be stabilized, the rubber market exploded. Maverick businessmen rushed to the rainforest where money seemed to grow on trees. As the home of the only rubber plants in the world, South America had a monopoly on all rubber production and the demand was high. The Port of Manaus blossomed in the tropical forest at the confluence of the Negro and Amazon Rivers and became a regional powerhouse.
It is frequently said that at the time it was more expensive to live in Manaus than to live in Paris. Since there were few accessible stones in the Amazon basin, the citizens of Manaus imported cobblestones from Portugal to pave their streets. No excess was too great. The wealthy would even send their shirts to Europe to be laundered. This is an astounding fact when you realize the only possible way to reach the city was by ship. Even today, the only options to reach Manaus are by boat or by air; there are no roads that reach the city.
Much like the citizens of gold rush-era Central City, Colorado, who wanted to prove their sophistication to the world by building an opera house in their frontier town, the Brazilians built the Teatro Amazonas at the top of one of the four hills that dominate their city. “Teeming bordellos, liquor-soaked cafes, cowboy-style barroom brawls – Manaus was the very model of a turn-of-the-century boomtown,” wrote Charles C. Mann in his recent book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.
The opera house was a monument to cultural refinement. Mann described it as “a preposterous fantasia of Carrara marble, Venetian chandeliers, Strasbourg tiles, Parisian mirrors, and Glasgow ironwork. Finished in 1897 and intended as an opera house, it was a financial folly: the auditorium had only 658 seats, not enough to offset the cost of importing musicians, let alone the expense of construction. Wide stone sidewalks with undulating black-and-white patterns led downhill from the theater through a jumble of brothels, rubber warehouses, and nouveau-riche mansions to the docks: two enormous platforms that rode up and down with the river on hundreds of wooden pillars.”
The fortunes of Manaus rose and fell with the rubber trade. By 1910, the industry was finished when rubber seeds were smuggled out of the country and rubber plantations began to spring up in Malaysia at the same time that a deadly fungus infected the rubber trees of Brazil. What was once a boom town fell on hard times and the opera house closed. According to reporter Christina Lamb in the London Daily Telegraph, there was no opera in Manaus for nearly 90 years. “The rubber barons went back to Europe and for years the theatre sat rotting in the tropical heat. Sporadic attempts to renovate and reopen it sputtered out. The stage was used as a football pitch, the auditorium as storage for petrol.”
In the late 90s, a new governor was elected and decided to reopen the grand opera house. A new opera festival was created as well as an annual film festival. The festival has continued for fifteen seasons every April and May. Many performers have migrated from Bulgaria, Belarus and Russia to perform in Manaus – often a difficult transition as singers need to adjust to the climate and musicians must prevent their instruments from splitting open in the oppressive humidity and tropical heat. Creating an opera festival in Manaus is a challenge where more than half the population lives in grinding poverty.
Over the years, the opera house has taken on a patina of legend, playing a part in popular culture. The opera house appears in the first scene of the 1982 Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo where a would-be rubber baron dreams of building a fortune so he can bring opera to the Amazon. Played by a manic Klaus Kinskey, the scene features him desperately paddling a canoe into Manaus so he can see his idol Enrico Caruso perform at the opera house in the jungle.
A pivotal scene in Ann Patchett’s recent novel State of Wonder takes place at the Teatro Amazonas. “The point of an evening at Teatro Amazonas was not so much to see the opera as it was to see an opera house,” she wrote. “The building itself was the performance, the two long marble staircases curving up in front, the high blue walls piped with crisp white embellishments, the great tiled dome that must have been torn from a Russian palace by a monstrous storm and blown all the way to South America.” Patchett goes on to describe the inside of the opera house as “a wedding cake, every intricately decorated layer balanced delicately on the shoulders of the one beneath it, rising up and up to a ceiling where frescoed angels parted the wandering clouds with their hands.”
To some visitors, the Teatro Amazonas is so unlikely, it must appear to be a mirage brought on by a tropical fever. As Patchett’s character observed, “There was no real explanation for how such a building was conceived for such a place. Marina thought of it as the line of civilization that held the jungle back.”