Sunday, March 20, 2005

Wagner's Ring on the Amazon:
A Survival Guide

Interior of the Teatro Amazonas

After I reviewed their performance of Goetterdaemmerung for Opera News magazine last year, several people have contacted me requesting information about the Amazon Opera Festival's presentation of the first integral Ring Cycle in Brazil, taking place on May of 2005 in Manaus (a large city in the heart of the Amazon jungle) . Indeed, I am planning to attend this Ring presentation myself, and since I am now in the final stages of planning my own trip, I actually have information that I can share.

This Ring will take place at the fabled Teatro Amazonas, which was prominently featured in the film Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog. I'll try to post reports from the Amazon once I'm there, during the actual performances, if I am able to find a reliable net connection I can use.

I'm going down with a handful of close friends for this Tropical Ring; there will be about six of us and now we have gathered all contact info, prices, etc. of the services we will be using ourselves. Some European tour operators are offering some very expensive packages for this Ring -- in excess of 2000 British pounds, as much as the costs of attending the Bayreuth Festspiele -- so for my group, I decided to contract services directly with the locals. Note that I am not a tour agent: this information is provided as is, it is entirely your responsibility to re-check facts and tailor this info to your needs.

I also found out that the Festival did not issue a Festival brochure, they're making do with an MS Excel chart. If you are contemplating a trip, here's an overview of some info you'll need.


Cycle I: May 7,8,10,12
Cycle II: May 14, 15, 17, 19 (this is the one we're going to)

(Rheingold is the new production; the creative team's Die Walküre was first seen at the Festival in 2002; Siegfried in 2003; and Götterdämmerung was staged last year.)

Brunnhilde (Maria Russo) and Siegfried (Sergei Liadov)

The Gibchung's clinic


I don't have a complete/confirmed/updated cast list yet. In the Festival's previous productions Brunnhilde was the excellent Maria Russo; young Siegfried was Alan Woodrow; "old" Siegfried was Sergei Liadov; Wotan was Licio Bruno; Fricka was Celine Imbert; Hagen was Stephen Bronk; the incestuous twins Sieglinde and Siegmund were the excellent Laura de Souza and tenor Eduardo Alvarez. Alberich will be the Brazilian bass Pepes do Valle. Most of the supporting roles are by national and South American singers -- names familiar to audiences of the opera houses in Rio, Sao Paulo, and key South American venues such as the Teatro Colon.

The conductor for this Festival will be Luiz Fernando Malheiro (the Festival's artistic director), and the director and set designer are assigned to be the British team of Aidan Lang and Ashley Martin Davies.


The Festival Orchestra is made up largely of musicians recruited directly from the Eastern Europe by the state's Secretary of Culture, at the time of the Festival inception almost a decade ago. Since Manaus lacked music conservatories and or formal Music Depts. in their colleges, the selected candidates were also given permanent working contracts and teaching positions at local schools and colleges. Some of their pupils are now reaching professional status, and have begun joining the festival orchestra as full professional members as well. Of course, the instrumental requirements for a Wagner orchestra being what they are, the Festival will be contracting additional musicians from the large orchestras in Rio and São Paulo.

* TICKETS: [THIS IS COMPLICATED! Ask me for help if you are serious about going.]

How to obtain tickets if you don't live in Manaus: Call up the theater and request that they send you a ticket ordering form, which is actually not a form at all, but a list of performances and ticket prices. (I suppose I can send you a copy of mine, but only if you're really need it.)

Select the tickets you want using the ticket ordering form (the form does include a seat map/plan of the theater), then add up the cost. You have to make a deposit (via wire, or in person) at an agency of Brazil's Bradesco bank, to the following payee:

Account no: 220.698 – 6
Branch no.: 482 – 0

Obtain a receipt for your deposit. Then, fax the bank receipt to the Teatro Amazonas, (92)622-1880 along with your seat/date request/preference. Note that VISA, AMEX and MC are NOT ACCEPTED. Ticket prices ranges from US$2 for a top floor lateral seat (purple section, see below) to a top price of about US$20 for the best box/orchestra floor seats, at current exchange rates. Assuming the American dollar doesn't keep failing, the whole Ring at the highest ticket price should set you back about $80 bucks -- enough to buy you half an admission to a single opera at the Ring in Chicago or Seattle this season.

Teatro Amazonas seat map

Beyond that, please cut the box office staff some slack -- this is after all one of the most remote regions in the developing world. At the MET, SF Opera, Bayreuth, etc., lousy patron services are unexcusable. However, civil servants in Manaus have no obligation to know what service levels opera patrons from North America and Europe expect -- they're just not trained that way.

You can also ride with the locals


And I don't mean that on-line CD shop.

Easiest way is to fly via any major American carrier (UA, Continental, American, Delta) into Rio de Janeiro (GIG) or Guarulhos (GRU) in São Paulo, then catch a flight on one of the national airlines (Varig, TAM, Gol) to Manaus (MAO). This is what my group will be doing. You'll probably have to make a connecting flight thru Brasilia to get to Manaus, RT ticket GIG-MAO-GIG, if purchased in advance, is about $300-$400 in economy.

I heard that there is a local flight from Caracas, Venezuela (which is served by major U.S. carriers), via one of those obscure regional South American airlines that use propeller powered planes. But I didn't look into that option, since my group actually wants to spend a few days in Rio de Janeiro.

Another option for the adventuresome is to get a Brazil Airpass from TAM or Varig, $400-$500 gives you four or five flight coupons, which allows you to criss-cross between the various exotic destinations in Brazil. This is a huge country (larger than continental U.S.) so flying is really the only way of covering these distances.


There is a wide range of accommodations, but the top establishment serving the international clientele is the Hotel Tropical owned by Varig Airlines corporate conglomerate. This is where my party is planning to stay.

The disadvantage of this particular place is that it is a little far from downtown (a 20 min taxi ride, about US$10); but the advantage is that it is a comfortable, scenic resort style complex with international service levels, next to the acidic waters (i.e., no mosquitos) of the majestic Rio Negro. The resort has its own river dock, with water and air taxi service and tours.

Costs for accomodation at current exchange rates at the Hotel Tropical is about $100 per day for a basic single apartment, $120 or so for a double, when booked through the local agent that I'm using. Her name is Cristina, and she also happens to be doing the hotel bookings for the Ring's cast, and the out-of-town Festival staff. I can provide you with her contact info if you're interested, but unfortunately no one in her office speaks English.

You can go much cheaper using business hotels downtown, but you kinda have to know what you're doing, and do your own research.


Meeting of the waters

On days when there is no opera in the evening, there are extraordinary day trips to be taken into the mighty river, and explore the otherworldly fauna and flora from the countless tributaries. A particularly impressive phenomena happens when the dark colored waters of the Rio Negro meet with the light and muddy waters of the Rio Solimões, to form the great Amazon River proper. The two-toned waters run side by side for several miles, before mixing.

Peaking waters

Also, the Amazon rises about 40ft at its peak seasonal tide; and the wildlife (mostly birds, snakes and monkeys on trees; weird gigantic fish, alligators and pink dolphins in the rivers) becomes concentrated to the very top of the trees, so they're easily viewable by boat. The flora specimens are also impressive, particularly the Victoria Regias, a giant water lily that can grow to nearly 10 feet in diameter. The river's water levels peak around late June and July, when the oppressive summer heat starts. I think May is a good time to go, because the waters are fairly high, and the heat is still not as severe as in the summer.

Nature's show

The sheer scale of the land and geography in the region nurtures a fertile sense of wonder. It is the site of the second largest folkloric celebration in the country (after pre-Lent Carnival), the Boi-Bumba. The Boi-Bumba celebration is actually mentioned in a song that Kathleen Battle sings in that cotton-candy CD, "Pleasures of Their Company," issued by EMI before they canned her contract.

There are an estimated 30 or so tribes in the Amazon region which still have had no contact with western culture, but many of the indigenous populations have essentially turned into the urban poor of Manaus after contact with civilization. Since the record of contact is so poor, Brazil's federal office for indigenous affairs currently has a hands-off policy, of avoiding contact at all costs with remote tribes.

During opera days, you can visit the town itself. Manaus is a city of 1.5 million inhabitants, and it has an interesting history. The Amazonas state (the largest State in the Brazilian federation, encompassing the bulk of the Amazon basin and comparable in size to the entire Western U.S.) is investing heavily on museums, libraries, film, music, literary grants, and various festivals, as a strategy for regional development in tandem with its growing eco-tourism economy. These initiatives are offered as an alternative to more destructive, exploitative uses of the rainforest economy, and represent a cornerstone strategy by the state's new generation of leaders, headed by the 38-year-old new governor, Eduardo Braga. The lavish opera house is the city's calling card and the festival is iconic of this effort. It was built from the wealth of 19th century rubber extraction economy -- back when the Americans and the Germans were beginning to mass manufacture cars, and needed rubber for tires -- before rubber was synthesized from petroleum distillates.

By the way, you can see pics from my last trip here.


* Safety: The usual travel advice applies. There is a lot of poverty around, but it is my personal opinion that Manaus is many times safer than Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, or NYC for that matter. Rio and São Paulo have a better tourist infrastructure than Manaus, though.

* Health: Read the Centers for Disease Control web page for the most current advice for South America pertaining to disease outbreaks and vaccinations recommendations. The CDC recommendations seem really a bit of an overkill to me, but use your judgement and make your best decision. Personally, I would only take this many vaccinations if I had a compromised immune system, or if I were in ill-health BEFORE the trip.

Diarrhea is usually the most common travel ailment, so try to drink bottled water whenever possible, and go easy on exotic raw food -- but really, no need to avoid it all together. Load up on vitamins several weeks before your trip to booster your immune response, and if you catch anything you'll recover pretty fast. The locals have immunity to most of local strains of infections diseases, but we tend to have better overall health, from proper medical care and nutrition.

Speaking of infections diseases, HIV/AIDS infection rates in Brazil have made a slow, but decisive descent from the peak epidemic levels into endemic ones, thanks to effective and well designed HIV intervention programs, targeted at high-risk populations -- so very successful that their interventions are being modeled by the WHO for implementation in other countries. However, even at endemic levels the numbers are still very high, and you must use prophylactic protection if you are planning to have sex with locals.

Happy adventures. E-mail me if you have specific questions, but keep in mind that I may not have the answer to that which you seek.

© 2005 C. Chang

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