We use cookies to give you the best possible experience on our site. Click here to find out more. Allow cookies

arrow Register here

Forgotten password?


Day 6: Manaus

click to enlarge 
file size
Magnificent excess. The greatest auditorium in the Amazon. Steel from Glasgow, decoration from Italy.
Michael Palin - BrazilLuiz, the portly conductor from São Paulo, taps his baton to bring the sixty-strong Amazon Philharmonic Orchestra to order. They're rehearsing the overture to O Guarany, an opera by Carlos Gomes from the hugely popular nineteenth-century novel by José Alencar. The Guarany are, or were, an Indian tribe and the hero of the story is an Indian who saves the life of a white girl. Gomes died in 1896, the year the Teatro Amazonas opened. A painting of his bust, with a winged angel protecting it, appears on the inside of the dome, next to the Eiffel Tower.

It's a lively and inspiring piece, but Luiz has things he's not happy with. As they go over it again I look into the handsome ballroom, whose parquet flooring is of such quality that visitors – and there are many – have to slide into absurdly large furry slippers before they enter. Feeling like a troll on steroids, I swish my way across and out onto the mighty, pillared balcony. The view of Manaus is quite depressing. The high-rise blocks of the 1970s are grimy and neglected. The opera house is an ornate jewel in a rough and ready city.

With rehearsals over for the morning, I've a chance to meet some of the players. They're from all over the world. Wolfgang, one of the horn players, is from Germany. 'East Germany,' he adds with deliberate mock horror effect. There wasn't much work at home for a classical musician – too many competing orchestras. In 2004 he answered an advert for a tuba player to come and play Wagner's Götterdämmerung in the Amazon.

'I looked at Brazilian culture and I loved it.' In 2005 he came over and stayed. He married a girl from Manaus and they have a son. 'Here we work to relax.' I ask Wolfgang if he spends much time up in the jungle. He screws up his face. 'I don't need to. I have snakes at home.' He explains, with much laughter, how he had to get someone to dispose of two green cobras in his garden. Which didn't sound that funny to me.

Classical music is a relative newcomer to the Brazilian music scene and when he's not playing in the Amazon Philharmonic, Wolfgang, along with Elena, one of the violinists, teaches classes of youngsters in a small room at the Sambadrome, a huge stadium where all the Carnival preparations and events take place.

Elena is from Plovdiv in Bulgaria. She's in her mid-fifties, short and stocky, with close-cut fair hair and an easy, relaxed manner. She's lived in Manaus for twelve years and has seen it change a lot. 'When I came Manaus was like a village.' Now it's grown bigger, more expensive and, she thinks, more violent. But the young cellists and violinists she and Wolfgang are trying to interest in Bruckner this afternoon are all given their tuition for free and she hopes that in a small way what they provide is some alternative to the streets. I ask her how different she finds Brazil from Europe. She spreads her arms. 'It's like another universe. The mentality here is a tabula rasa. With these children you have to begin at the very
beginning. It's quite a responsibility.'

Which, clearly, she's happy to take on.

Our hotel is north and west of the city centre, near two large army camps and the affluent strip of beach called Porto Negro, where Manaus's millionaires live. I take a walk through the car park and down to the riverbank. The Rio Negro, which rises up in Yanomami territory, has swollen spectacularly. The far bank is nearly five kilometres (three miles) away. It's just too big to take in, and it hasn't even become the Amazon yet. I content myself with nature at its more intimate, watching Oriole blackbirds, flashes of vivid black and yellow, as they chase each other in and out of the trees.
Choose another day from Brazil


  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 6: Manaus
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Manaus
  • Book page no: 38

Bookmarks will keep your place in one or more series. But you'll need to register and/or log in.


  • Music and Film
  • Day 8 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 22 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 88 
  • Pole to Pole