The turn of 20th century was a wondrous era for the Amazonian region of Brazil. Flush with money from exports from its rubber plantations, the region flourished–particularly the capital city of Manaus. Here wealthy rubber barons tried to recreate the lavish lifestyle of the European elite, and what better way to do so than with an opera house, built in the middle of the rain forest: the Teatro Amazonas.
Construction began in 1884, under the supervision of Italian architect Celestial Sacardim. No expense was spared: roofing came from Alsace, furniture from Paris, marble from Italy, and steel from England. On the outside of the building, the dome was covered with 36,000 decorated ceramic tiles painted in the colors of the Brazilian national flag. The inside was decorated by Italian painter Domenico de Angelis.
The first performance was given on January 7, 1897, with the famous Enrico Caruso singing. Some say that entire opera house was built just to lure him to this remote corner of the world, so that the rich rubber barons of Manaus could hear him sing.
With the invention of artificial rubber, Manaus lost its main source of income. The wealthy left town, and the opera house closed down. There wasn’t a single performance in Teatro Amazonas for 90 years, excepting its cameo appearance in Werner Herzog’s movie Fitzcarraldo. But in 2001 the new populist government of the province decided it would try to revive the glory of the Teatro Amazonas, allocating 1.5 million pounds a year for this task (in a province where 60 percent of the population is poverty stricken and illiterate).
The plan worked and the Teatro Amazonas has become the home of an unlikely musical scene. Tempted by the promise of high salaries, many of the best musicians from impoverished countries, especially those of Eastern Europe, decided to move to Brazil to perform at the Teatro Amazonas.
Today, 39 of the 54-member Amazon Philharmonic orchestra are from Bulgaria, Belarus and Russia. The theater is also the location of an annual film festival.