EXQUISITE CRAFTSMANSHIP: The opulent neoclassical Teatro Amazonas, built in 1896, features Parisian artwork on the walls and ceiling, as well as a dome adorned with 36,000 ceramic tiles in the colors of Brazil's flag
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Since arriving in town, I have been trying to get a tour of it, but the theater has been closed in preparation for the upcoming Amazonas Film Festival. Just before I leave for my three days at Juma Lodge — a jungle hotel outside the city where I was staying when I had my close encounter with the caiman — I go, uninvited, to the theater for the festival’s opening night. Trying to give an impression of professionalism, I put on the best finery I can find in my small suitcase (a pair of well-worn linen pants and a golf shirt given to me by a resort hotel), hang a camera around my neck and join the invited guests and other journalists — ones with valid credentials — as they file into the grand, floodlit venue.

To my surprise, the ploy works perfectly. Whenever I am questioned by an usher or organizer, I point to my camera and say with enthusiasm, “International press!” And whenever I face the inevitable “Where you from?” I keep it simple: “Canada!” The fact that most of the participants speak only Portuguese — and thus can’t ask any follow-up questions — works in my favor, and I end up being seated in a private box reserved for photographers.

The interior of the opera house is breathtaking — truly beyond anything that I had ever imagined. Before being seated, I walk all over the main auditorium, snapping pictures and marveling at the workmanship and sheer proportion of the place. After an awards presentation and a screening of a movie called There Will Come a Day (an Italian production filmed in and around Manaus), I wander outside to take part in a reception staged by the organizers.

Bathed in dramatic blue light, a band is singing while playing traditional Amazonian instruments — shakers, drums and a rain stick — as well as classical guitar, while the well-dressed attendees imbibe the whiskey and beer offered by a busy group of tuxedoed servers. In a sea of Portuguese, I hear one couple speaking English, and I walk over to introduce myself. The man is Donald Ranvaud, a producer “conceived in Brazil but born and raised in Italy,” who has worked on a long list of films, including the Oscar-nominated Brazilian film City of God and The Constant Gardener. He is talking to Patricia Martin, a member of the festival’s selection committee.

I ask them about the festival and its ­connection with this magnificent host venue. “This is a big town — it just happens to be in the middle of the jungle. And a place like this needs a film festival. It’s the same idea as building a theater like this,” Ranvaud explains, nodding up at the opera house. Martin finishes his thought: “Art has its place. Someone had a vision, way back. They thought, ‘We need an opera house.’ It would have been a crazy idea in the rain forest, back then, no matter how far from everything else it was.”

Crazy? For sure. But at this moment, with the band and the tuxedos and the dignitaries,­ here in the middle of the Amazon, it all seems just about perfect. I finish my beer and excuse myself, wiping away a bead of sweat from my face as I walk back toward my hotel through the heavy night heat, a snapping caiman in my very near future. 

TIM JOHNSON is a Toronto-based travel writer and editor who spends more than 300 days a year on the road and has visited 89 countries on six continents. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Globe and Mail (Canada’s national newspaper) and Air Canada’s enRoute.