Hatstand Opera in Manaus Brazil – yes, really!

Hatstand Opera soprano Toni Nunn on stage at the Teatro Amazonas, Manaus.
Hatstand Opera soprano Toni Nunn on stage at the Teatro Amazonas, Manaus. In shorts.

When the England team kick off on Saturday in the sparkling new Arena da Amazonia, the coverage is bound to show the other great building in this riverside city in the rainforest, the Teatro Amazonas, commonly known as the Manaus Opera House.

And we’ve sung there.

OK, Toni and Kirsty sung there, for about five minutes one morning in January 2000, after sweet-talking a tour guide to let us stand on the stage rather than just look from the seats. It was truly amazing, a guilded glory that had only relatively recently been rescued from neglect, and so appropriate for the snippet of ‘La Traviata” Toni sang (the guide was suitably impressed).

Originally built with money from the rubber boom (the cobbles outside were coated with rubber to stop the sound of carriage wheels disrupting the performance), the Teatro Amazonas is almost entirely an imported building. The marble and the Murano glass chandeliers came from Italy, the ceiling tiles from Alsace and the steel pillars were from Glasgow, albeit painted to match the marble. The curtain may have shown the local  “Meeting of the Waters”, where the sandy-coloured waters of the Amazon River (Rio Solimões) run alongside the dark waters of the Rio Negro, but it was painted in Paris.

When we visited as part of a cruise down the Amazon (which Toni won in a Classic FM phone-in competition), Brazil didn’t seem very proud of Manaus. The coach had its curtains drawn as we travelled from the airport, as the drive down to the docks and our waiting ship passed through some of the poorest areas. The cruise firm advised us to carry US dollars and only visit certain tourist shops, advice we ignored and having stocked up on some Brazilian currency from a bank guarded by men with submachine guns, we headed into town.

We walked along streets with hugh blocks acting as stepping stones, for when the water rushed like a torrent don the hillside. We wandered past incongruous Christmas decorations of giant plastic Santas, before reaching the opera house with its elegant tree-lined square and verandas. We were the only people on the guided tour, and our young guide was utterly charming, but it was somewhat surreal. To emerge blinking from this chandeliered European building, and then later to watch swarms of lean fit men unload the river boats with every necessity of modern life from food to fridges, is probably the same contrast football fans will see between the shining new football stadium and the raw jungle they flew over to get there.

Just as cruising the Nile isn’t really seeing Egypt, stopping off at ports along this mighty river wasn’t really seeing the Amazon as such, but it was seeing a slice of Brazilian life that was changing rapidly, adn we’re so glad we saw it. We’ve posted some of our pics of that trip at our Hatstand Opera Facebook page – enjoy!