Madame Butterfly

Lithograph of the Mayan City of Tulum, by Frederick Catherwood

From the first volley of ‘ta-ta-ta-taaa’, Beethoven’s fifth spirited me away and struck untouched emotional chords. The musical drama conjured that night, within a mysterious triangle formed by the conductor’s extravagant flourishes, the paper enshrining Beethoven’s genius, and the musicians’ trance-like dexterity, was matched by the grandeur and opulence of its surroundings: the marble statues, gold and crystal chandeliers and intricate murals paying homage to the world’s greatest composers. The music and architecture suggested one of the iconic opera houses: the Scala in Milan, the Paris Opéra, the Bolshoi in Moscow or the Colon in Buenos Aires. However, something felt out of place…a discordant note in the flawless elegance of those legendary venues: the curtain depicting the meeting of the waters, the glacial air being pumped around the hall, a rhythmic fluttering in my peripheral vision. It was the fluttering that wrenched me from my musical meanderings and demanded my attention. It took a while for my senses to focus, groggy from the ecstasy of the music, and to process the image: dozens of butterflies weaving mysterious patterns in flashes of red and blue around the hall, as if searching for the best vantage point to interpret Beethoven’s magic.

The Teatro Amazonas opera house was the jewel in the crown of nineteenth century Manaus, the apogee of a building boom that scattered imposing neoclassical buildings around this small provincial town lost deep within the Amazon jungle. Hitherto, the town had been a collection of mud huts little known beyond a few adventurous merchants plying lonely trades up the Amazon River and its tributaries. All that changed from 1867 with the opening of Amazon river ports to the international rubber trade. Brazil enjoyed a virtual monopoly for the next forty years, peaking in the early 1900s at average yearly exports of 20,000 tonnes driven by the new mass-production lines in the car industry. Manaus, as both the province’s capital and its most strategically placed port, was at the heart of this boom; an influx of riches transformed the city into Brazil’s leading commercial centre and exponent of all the latest in technology, design and architecture. It was even touted to replace Rio de Janeiro as the country’s capital.

The rubber barons sought outlets for their new-found wealth, building palaces in a range of European styles and demanding the same trappings of modernity and sophistication enjoyed by Europe’s wealthy classes. The city’s governors matched these ambitions by giving the city an architectural grandeur in keeping with its new-found commercial status and glorified themselves in the process. The greatest builder was Governor Eduardo Gonçalves de Ribeiro whose works included hospitals, schools, churches, a covered market, a palace of justice and Brazil’s first electric street lights, all funded from a 20% tax on rubber exports. “I found a village. I made of it a modern city”, boasted de Ribeiro. The opera house was his crowning glory, costing two million dollars (equivalent to at least 50 million dollars today) and the product of Europe’s finest craftsmen and materials: iron work from Glasgow, 60,000 tiles from Alsace-Lorraine for the cupula, crystal chandeliers from Venice and Carrara marble for the pillars. To bring the theatre to life, 20,000 dollars was spent annually on gifts to lure the finest performers to the Amazon.

However, the butterflies accompanying the concert are a reminder that no amount of wealth, ambition or human ingenuity can keep the jungle totally at bay. Humanity’s ability to impose order on the natural world has its limits. Sometimes, rather than recognising these limits and living in harmony, humankind wages war on nature and the inevitable casualties ensue. In a startling 2014 report, the WWF highlighted that half the world’s wildlife has disappeared over the past forty years, while the recent hunting of Zimbabwe’s most emblematic animal, Cecil the Lion, by an American dentist from Minnesota represents the contempt that some individuals have for animal life.

Lithograph of Mayan City of Copan, by Frederick Catherwood

While nature has suffered many blows at the hands of humanity – from the extinction of the dodo through a 20% reduction in the Amazon rainforest since 1970 to the melting of the polar icecaps – nature has wrought its revenge by reclaiming the monuments of great civilisations following their decline and fall. Western explorers who visited Mayan ruins like Copan or Chichen Itza in the 1800s, after hacking their way through the jungle, found them wrapped in nature’s embrace. Illustrations by Frederick Catherwood, in the wake of explorations with John Lloyd Stephens in the early 1840s, provide perhaps the most vivid depiction of the jungle’s victory: stone strangled by tree roots, foliage covering the faces of temples, steps split by plant stems, temples crowned by mini-forests, and vines crawling vertically and horizontally in all directions. The war rages on and has intensified over the past 100 years. During this time, according to the IPCC, humanity has heated the planet by about 1.5 ºF and the worst-case forecast is for temperatures to rise by a further 4 ºF by the end of this century. Nature has responded by battering us with catastrophic events like the 2004 boxing day tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

The recently-concluded Paris Agreement, as the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal, offers hope that humankind will finally call a truce with nature and work towards a sustainable peace. It remains to be seen how nature responds, bearing in mind that some scientists still maintain that extreme weather events remain within long-term trends and are not indicative of an inevitable decline of our planet’s eco-system. And what if the Paris Agreement should fail to be implemented sufficiently to bring lasting change? It is hard to envisage the consequences for earth, but in a worst-case scenario might we even see the war transferred to other planets? As the conductor waves his hands in a final flourish and the symphony crescendos towards its climax, one question sticks in my mind: will the butterflies stop entering the opera house one day or will the music stop, the curtain come down and the jungle reclaim its prize?

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