May 09, 2010

Opera about the Yanomami

Amazonas, the opera:  a world premiere–and a world first

A groundbreaking operatic spectacle puts Brazil's Yanomami tribe in the spotlight–and highlights the destruction of the rainforest

By Jan Rocha
It has taken four years and more than £3m to produce a remarkable production called Amazonas, a multimedia, transcultural German-Brazilian tragic opera, developed in four languages, that will have its world premiere this weekend.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of transatlantic to-ing and fro-ing was involved. Five shamans from the Amazonian Yanomami tribe took part in a workshop in Karlsruhe to explain their skills to composers Klaus Schedl, Ludger Brümmer and Tato Taborda. In turn, the composers made several trips to a Yanomami village to record the sounds of the forest.

For Laymert Garcia dos Santos, the Brazilian philosopher and sociologist who masterminded the whole thing, this epically ambitious undertaking has been a nerve-wracking experience. But the politics have made it worth it. "It is an attempt to arouse a reaction to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest through emotion, rather than through the cold numbers of statistics," he says. "It's a scientifically established fact that the forest's destruction will have repercussions on the entire planet, but this still hasn't shocked people into stopping the process. So the idea is to immerse the spectator in the situation, so they can feel with their senses what is happening and be affected by it."

One of the largest indigenous groups in the Amazon, the Yanomami have only recently had regular contact with outsiders, but they actively participated in the development of the opera. "They're not in the opera as exotic objects, or as an archaic group," says dos Santos, "but they possess ancestral knowledge which is at the same time completely relevant to the modern world."

The libretto is based on the letter sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to Queen Elizabeth I in 1595, written when he was attempting to find the mythical El Dorado. He ended travelling up the Orinoco river in present-day Venezuela, where many Yanomami now live, and described discovering the "large, rich and bewtiful empyre (sic) of Guiana."

Despite being based on a historical source, the first act of Amazonas takes place in the future, after the rainforest has been destroyed, "in a time after the end of time." In the second act, the Yanomami shaman fails to prevent the triumph of the Xawara, the evil spirits, and is killed by them; the act ends with nothing less than the fall of the sky, the Yanomami's central myth, represented here by (lightweight) panels crashing down on the audience. The final act, created by multimedia artist Peter Weibel, takes place around a conference table where politicians, economists, scientists and missionaries argue about the future of the Amazon.
Comment:  Another article described the production as a musical. That sounded silly--like a spoof you're read in the Onion. A tragic opera is more like it.

As usual, it's good to see Natives involved in the creative process. Will Natives also play the Yanomami characters? Somehow, I doubt it.

The story seems interesting, but I have doubts. Isn't the shaman's death unnecessarily fatalistic? Both the rainforest and the Yanomami are still around, after all. And are there any indigenous voices at the conference table? Or are a bunch of white people deciding the Indians' fate?

In the news recently, we've seen that Amazon Indians are willing to fight their own battles. For instance, in Dam Suspended with Cameron's Help and Cofan Leader Visits Chevron CEO. The question is whether this opera will show the Yanomami as anything other than superstitious savages battling "evil spirits."

This is a German production, which suggests an extra reason to doubt. Many Germans are hobbyists who embrace traditional Indians while ignoring modern ones. Will they recognize that some Yanomami are able to speak and act in their own defense?

For more on Native operas, see Stereotypical Black Elk "Film Opera" and Keith Secola's Rock Opera. For more on the Yanomami, see The Yanomami Scandal and Secrets of the Tribe at Sundance.

Below:  "Sounds of the forest ... Yanomami tribesmen in Brazil." (Russell Mittermeier/Alamy)


Melissa said...

After reading the synopsis and before reading your comments I had interpreted the death of the shaman as humanity's fate if we don't act soon. I did not interpret it as the death of the Yanomamis in particular.
I had (very limited) contact with Yanomamis in my youth, and (at least the ones in Venezuela) remain very isolated and have managed to retain most of their ancient ways of life (dress, housing, etc.) and beliefs. So what may seem images of "traditional" Yanomamis to you may in fact be modern-day Yanomamis.
Let's hope they are being included in the creative process, as you discussed above...

Rob said...

I've read books and articles about the Yanomami. Some have taken up Western ways (clothing, etc.) and traveled to the US. So, no...they're not all still living a purely traditional lifestyle.

Melissa said...

Absolutely, like everybody else I'm sure some of them travel and change their ways.
My godmother is a dentist and for many years traveled regularly to Amazonas state to make home visits, together with her then-husband, who was a doctor. They brought pictures and told me about the lives of Yanomamis, their beautiful art and their terrible ordeals with garimpeiros, the destruction of their forests and economic hardships. Once one of the boys they saw was interested in visiting the city, so he flew with them to Caracas and stayed in my house for a few days. He had a hard time wearing shoes, and had never seen a TV or a building before. Of course, he was a young boy and I am sure nowadays he has learned and traveled much more. Also I am sure that things have changed some since my youth, and like everybody else they get around more and some of them as a result change their ways.
However, I feel pretty confident in saying that the majority of Yanomamis who live in Amazonas state in Venezuela still retain their traditional ways of life, and that it wouldn't be inaccurate or misrepresenting to depict them this way. Also I do not think their traditional way of life is inferior to ours or that they should be ashamed of it. As a Venezuelan, I am proud that they have clung to it, and ashamed that we do not do more to preserve it and to help their economic and health situation, which is horrifying.
I do not claim to know anything at all about the Yanomamis in Brazil, and perhaps their situation is completely different.