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A World Cup Surprise: Arias In The Heart Of The Amazon


Of all the Brazilian cities staging games at the World Cup, none is more exotic than Manaus. It's nestled in the heart of the Amazon jungle. You can only get there by plane or boat - an unlikely place to host soccer games. And there's something else in Manaus that's unexpected - a centuries-old theater and opera house. NPR's Russell Lewis took a break from soccer and paid a visit.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: The first thing you notice about the Teatro Amazonas is how lovely it is. Then the beauty melts away and it's what you hear.


LEWIS: Walking into the 700-seat auditorium is like stepping back in time. The theater is luxurious, built during a period of opulence by plantation owners during the rubber boom of the late-1800s. There's marble from Italy, bronze from Belgium, steal from Scotland. Paintings and wall-to-wall tapestries hang throughout. The theater's exterior dome is covered with 36,000 ceramic tiles, splashed in the colors of the Brazilian flag. Construction took more than a decade and its first performance was in 1897. But the boom times didn't last. In the early 19th century, Manaus's economy stalled. The wealthy left. Eventually, the theater closed its doors, used just occasionally over the next few decades. But then, this happened.


(German spoken.)

LEWIS: German director Werner Herzog featured it in his 1982 film "Fitzcarraldo" about a rubber baron who wants to build an opera house in the jungle. It doesn't seem unusual today - a theater in a city of almost 2 million people - but think back, centuries ago, carving out the Amazon forest to create something like this. So that's why - in the late 1990s - the state government stepped in to encourage the creation of a Philharmonic Orchestra. After years of sitting dormant, today the opera house is used all the time. Chris Frake from Tampa, Florida had just walked out after a tour.

CHRIS FRAKE: It's pretty much original. It's like way, way old. The wood - it creeks around when you walk up there. The paintings - they look all original. They're real old. I mean, it's pretty neat.

LEWIS: Today, it attracts musicians from all around the world, hosting festivals and staging monthly performances from Opera to classical music, even rock 'n roll. Roberio Braga is the secretary of culture in Amazonas State. He says an opera house like this is important.

ROBERIO BRAGA: (Through translator) Society is not only built by engineers, lawyers, and professionals as such. The artists and art itself has a very important function in society. It gives hope and a sense of place. Arts are important to fulfill a place in one's life.

LEWIS: The Teatro Amazonas, a jewel of the Amazon and for thousands of World Cup fans - an unexpected treat in the steamy jungle. Russell Lewis, NPR News, Manaus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.
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