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175 Chapter 5 Phonography, Operatic Ethnography, and Other Bad Arts Werner Herzog’s avant-​ garde classic Fitzcarraldo (1982) is a film about a man who undertakes an absurd quest to build an opera house in the Amazonian jungle. Its eccentric protagonist is also a phonograph fanatic. For all viewers know, Fitzcarraldo’s only experience of “live” opera consists of a few furtive minutes during the opening sequence when he arrives at the Teatro Amazo‑ nas in Manaus, Brazil, to see Enrico Caruso perform the final death scene from Verdi’s Ernani. Back in his home base of Iquitos, Peru, an even more remote outpost on the capitalist frontier, he lugs around a Victor Talking Machine and plays recordings of Caruso for the local indigenous children, a parrot, and a pig. For the blond, blue-​ eyed maverick, these recordings fuel the desire to repeat the feat of the operatic entrepreneurs in Manaus and lure his idol ever deeper into the Amazon—­ to reattach the Voice to a visible body in another far-​ flung place. His audience, on the other hand, has no experience or knowledge of the operatic ideal, and what they hear (or so the film suggests) is not the aural reproduction or representation of a prior performance on a distant stage, but the auratic voice of a divine machine. The phonograph, however, fails to convince the local rubber barons who control the capital on which the realization of Fitzcarraldo’s dream depends. Perhaps they know the boom is about to bust—­ rubber production had begun to shift to Asia by this time—­ or perhaps they sense that the apogee of opera has already passed. Whatever the reason, they would rather feed dollar bills to their carnivorous fish than invest in a lasting monument to art. So Fitzcarraldo sets sail down a tributary of the Amazon on an improbable mis‑ sion to establish a rubber plantation deep in the heart of a region known as Cayahuari Yacu—­ “the land where God did not finish Creation.” As the ship advances into the territory of headhunting jíbaros, the intrepid explorer and his crew are surrounded by the beating of drums and ritualistic cries, sounds whose source is enveloped by the thick foliage and invisible to the eye. His terrified men abandon the ship, and out of desperation Fitzcarraldo fights fire with fire: he mounts the phonograph on the prow and projects His Master’s 176 Chapter 5 Voice into the vast unknown. Just as he is about to concede defeat and turn around, his observers emerge from the trees in canoes and approach to offer him their labor, having taken him for the white god of their legends who has returned to finish his work—or so Fitzcarraldo believes, though he has an inkling that something is amiss, a suspicion that the only mind ensnared by this fantasy of a god who needs no means of coercion other than a beautiful voice might turn out to be his own. Sure enough, the indigenous crew cun‑ ningly foils his plan, leaving it unlikely the opera house will ever be built. The film, however, redeems this failure in one final twist when Caruso and his fellow cast members arrive all the way from Manaus and sing a Bellini opera from the deck of the battered ship for the rubber barons, children, pig, and all. On the evening of May 11, 1927—­ two decades or so after Fitzcarraldo’s spectacular failure, if fictional and factual chronologies can be compared—­ another man with an affinity for opera embarked on a journey up the Amazon. In the previous chapter, which revolved around the Week of Mod‑ ern Art held at the Theatro Municipal in February 1922, the rising stars of São Paulo’s self-​ declared vanguard hailed Mário de Andrade as the Brazil‑ ian counterpart to Parsifal: a mixed-​ race, vaguely queer variant of the hero of Wagner’s last opera who wanders the wild forest in search of the Holy Grail. Now, as if to make good on his sobriquet, the knight-​ errant of mod‑ ernismo joined a group of locals and foreign tourists aboard a steamship on a three-​ month-​ long excursion that set sail from Rio de Janeiro and skirted the northern coast before venturing into the interior. Along the way he recorded his impressions of Belém, Solimões, Maceio, and Manaus—­ though strangely, he took no note of the Teatro Amazonas, perhaps because the opulent opera house had fallen...


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