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In 2010, Amazonia: Music Theatre in Three Parts (AMT)—a three-act opera made with the Yanomami of Watorikɨ, the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM)—premiered in Germany, Brazil and Portugal with mixed reviews. The Yanomami cosmology is the basis for the theme and project of AMT, in which the Amazonian forest is the protagonist. According to the Yanomami, the Amazon is a living being that must be respected, as our future depends on finding a way to coexist with nature. AMT portrays how the Yanomami are not being heard: the Amazon’s rate of deforestation is higher than ever and some say that it might have already surpassed its tipping point.[1] AMT dramatizes this situation, denouncing the aggressions towards Indigenous people and drawing sharp contrasts between the Yanomami worldview and that of capitalist extractivism.

Apart from being a significant work of art created by Indigenous peoples alongside other ethnicities, when it was first released, it was not considered an opera per se. Instead, it was put in a separate category. Even though we understand the reasons that distance AMT from traditional operas, such as electronic music, contemporary choreography, and throat singing, we do not agree with such categorization. Thus, we analyze AMT through the lens of transculturality, music theory, its making, and the reviews it has received in order to argue in favour of its placement as an opera. To do so, one has to understand the political dimension of the spectacle.

AMT consists of three acts: Act I, “TILT,” dramatizes a letter from Sir Walter Raleigh. Act II, “The Fall of the Sky,” represents the conflict of the Yanomami shaman with the xawarari. The xawara is a destructive agent composed of epidemics and smoke; it reflects the pollution and diseases brought by Western invaders; the xawarari are cannibal evil beings, one of the forms of the xawara,[2] which, in AMT, are performed by the scientist, the missionary, and the politician, three characters who embody capitalist extractivist greed. Act II ends with the death of the Yanomami shaman, caused by the xawara and, consequently, the fall of the sky. Act III, “Amazonas Conference—in Expectation of the Efficiency of a Rational Method for a Solution to the Problem of Climate Change” is divided into three movements: “Paradise,” “Conference,” and “Entropy.” “Paradise” represents the life that permeates the Amazonian ecosystem, its biological diversity, and at the same time, the beginning of its destruction. “Conference” takes place in a multisensorial round-table set with the purpose of stopping Amazon’s ruin, and concludes with the reckoning that it was too late. In the final movement, “Entropy,” the stage elements start crumbling to dust, as if to show the end of the world. In the video below (See Fig. 1) we may see parts of AMT’s three acts:

Fig. 1

Screenshot from Amazonas, Musiktheater in drei Teilen, 8’54, excerpted from Projektdokumentation, (accessed 2 February 2022).[3]

-> See the list of figures

While AMT captivated part of the audience, some questioned whether the Yanomami had been exoticized[4] and, if that were indeed the case, whether its political message had been undermined. For instance, “musical critics were intrigued by the presence of a so-called traditional people in an opera, a European musical genre par excellence; and they wanted to know what role the Indigenous people had in a contemporary project, especially one with experimental ambitions.”[5] The audience expected “that the shamans would go up on stage and represent themselves,” which, according to Laymert Garcia dos Santos, one of AMT’s creators, placed a burden on it, since “no musical work that deals seriously with the culture of the shamans can put the shamans themselves on stage,”—it is a representation after all. Furthermore, the mistaken assumption “that the Yanomami culture is not a contemporary culture, but an archaic one, whose integration and juxtaposition within a contemporary, avant-garde musical project must fail in aesthetic criteria” weighed heavily on its reception.[6]

This assumption might have been widely shared by much of the audience, which might explain why “artistically, [AMT] was generally considered a failure.”[7] But, we believe that precisely due to this “failure,” AMT raises significant questions for discussion. As mentioned, there was expectation about the presence (or absence) of Indigenous people in an opera, which is a form of art considered to be “high culture,” and this expectation raised questions concerning the judgement of its aesthetic features and other works with Indigenous people. Nonetheless, audiences in Germany and Brazil reacted in opposite ways: the German audience was mostly repelled by AMT, while the Brazilian one promptly embraced it. AMT was presented at the 11th Munich Biennale, under the umbrella term musiktheater “for reasons specific to the musical world of Munich, which reserves the term ‘opera’ for a very particular segment of contemporary operatic works.”[8] Whether AMT is presented as an opera, or musiktheater, may sound like an unimportant issue. But, if we consider that “in engaging with opera one engages directly with the politics of culture,”[9] AMT then brings to the forefront, purposefully or not, issues of inequality in contemporary art.

We, therefore, think that the way AMT defies the power structures of the musical world may be analyzed as a form of resistance. We do not conceive of resistance as a simple confrontation between the dominant and the dominated. Sherry B. Ortner recalls that “in a relationship of power, the dominant often has something to offer, and sometimes a great deal (though always of course at the price of continuing in power). The subordinate thus has many grounds for ambivalence about resisting the relationship.”[10] In asking whether the Yanomami could create an opera, or whether an opera could be considered Yanomami, we are reminded of the case of Carlos Gomes[11] (1836–1896), famous for Il Guarany (1875), a work performed from 1870 to 1884 in fourteen countries. Despite its success, the question of whether Gomes might be considered a truly national artist or a foreign artist dependent on foreign models lingered for the rest of his career.[12] The subjective ambivalence inherent to the concept of resistance may be, thus, seen as closely related to issues regarding authenticity and “the crisis of representation—the possibility of truthful portrayals of others (or Others) and the capacity of the subaltern to be heard.”[13]

All these questions are at the core of theoretical discussions regarding transculturation. Diana Taylor, drawing from Fernando Ortiz and Angel Rama, defines transculturation, on one hand, as:

the process by which symbols, discourse, and ideology are transformed as one culture changes through the imposition or adoption of another, and examines the historical and socio-political forces that produce local meanings. On the other, the theory of transculturation is a political one in that it suggests the consciousness of a society’s own, historically specific, cultural manifestations—in contact with but differentiated from other societies.[14]

Two questions undergird AMT’s production and reception: first, can mutual comprehension truly exist, and second, what can we learn from Indigenous contributions to the performing arts? This last point made the opera an object of intense discussion and negotiation between the AMT creators. Garcia dos Santos argues that AMT is more than a unification of multicultural concepts, it is “not an opera about the people, but an opera with the forest and its people.” Garcia dos Santos’ orientation implied, from the outset, that AMT was about the possibility of opening a transcultural dialogue, and not merely “an intercultural or multicultural one.”[15] For Garcia dos Santos, an intercultural dialogue would involve members of two different cultures, each in its own place; in a multicultural one, on the other hand, multiple cultures would share the same place but would not mingle. Converging with Garcia dos Santos’ argument, Taylor proposes that a transcultural dialogue involves the transformation of the subjects involved, since “both the dominant and the dominated are modified through their contact with another culture, [but] it is clear that their interaction is neither equal in power or degree, nor, strictly speaking, reciprocal.”[16]

In this article we question whether AMT could be labeled as an opera and whether it could be considered as a transcultural work. With this purpose in mind, we focus and reassess aspects of its creative process and context of reception, rather than providing a full analysis of AMT.[17] This article is structured in five parts. In the first part, we briefly expand on previous engagements of the Yanomami with art, touching upon the leitmotifs of transculturation and resistance. In the second part, we discuss the relevance of labelling a work as opera or as musiktheater. In the third part, we discuss the arguments against labelling AMT as an opera for reasons we believe are mainly political; in this section, we also draw upon previous operas (labelled as such) to demonstrate how the boundaries between opera and musiktheater are not set in stone. In the fourth part, continuing from the premise that AMT might be considered an opera, we discuss whether it is a transcultural opera and, once again, elaborate about the fluid boundaries of what might characterize a transcultural experience. In the fifth and last part, we revisit our first discussion about the importance of labelling AMT as a transcultural opera and, even without complete certainty that the category is suited to AMT, emphasize the term’s political implications.

Earlier Cultural Representations of the Yanomami

The Yanomami have commonly been represented in a pejorative way. For a long time they were depicted as “a fierce people” that only bred warriors, as proposed by Napoleon Chagnon. This idea was discredited by many anthropologists such as Bruce Albert and Alcida Rita Ramos.[18] Despite Chagnon’s often refuted view of the Yanomami, their “fierceness” lived on and was still used as an excuse for all sorts of aggression against them. Chagnon collaborated with Timothy Asch to create what became known as the Yanomamö movie series, which included the controversial The Ax Fight (1975). The violence displayed in this movie might have been a source of inspiration for Ruggero Deodato’s famous Cannibal Holocaust (1980), where the Yanomami, as well as the Shamatari, are portrayed as blood-lusting cannibals. Positive portrayal of the Yanomami would only come with Juan Downey’s movies, such as Video Trans Americas (1976), The Singing Mute (1978), and El shabono abandonado (1979), as well as Claudia Andujar’s photographs and exhibitions, not to mention Davi Kopenawa’s work, which explicitly addresses Chagnon’s allegations. But, besides their portrayal by third parties, it is crucial to discuss the ways the Yanomami themselves influenced or participated in the art production that was being composed.[19]

One relevant work that helped us interpret AMT comes from the period of cultural exchange between Eugenio Barba’s Odin Teatret, in 1976, with a Venezuelan Yanomami community, in the region of Orinoco-Mavaca. Noticeably, the result of this collaboration was unbeknownst to both sides, the researchers and the Yanomami, but, based on the results (to be explained further ahead), Odin Teatret ended up having much more than what had been firstly bargained. For instance, there were doubts if any meaningful contact could be reached because of linguistic and cultural barriers, notwithstanding, potential anthropological insights took over hesitation. Could Odin Teatret’s theatrical theory be grasped by the Yanomami? If so, could art become a more meaningful way of communication between different cultures?[20] In the next video (See Fig. 2) we may see how the experience went:

Fig. 2

Screenshot from Barter with the Yanomami, 4’57, excerpted from Theatre Meets Ritual, directed by Torgeir Wethal, produced by “Kurare” & Odin Teatret Film, 60 min, colour, 1976, (accessed 2 February 2022).[21]

-> See the list of figures

It should be noted that the exchanges were thought by many to be mostly one-sided, that is, Western communities were to act as the conveyors and the Yanomami as the receivers of “culture.” Yet, this would not accurately describe their encounter. Barba, in a conversation with the actress Julia Varley, confided that the “best definition of exchange” was given to him by the Yanomami shaman who believed they were there to “exchange energy.” He understood then that “the mechanism of exchange is not mechanical. It depends on the vulnerable balance of mutual trust.”[22] This insight resulted in numerous, yet constructive, misunderstandings. For instance, what Barba’s group thought to be “universally” humorous was bewildering for the Yanomami,[23] while tragic segments were hilarious; upon this reaction, Barba’s group reassessed their whole theatrical theory and practice by asking themselves questions such as “where do the expressive codes used by the actors come from? [...] why do they not produce the same effects in different audiences?”[24] Barba came to realize that, even though Western cultures assumed that their humour and tragedy were universal, the way these concepts were applied meant little for the Yanomami. Therefore, what started as an intercultural practice whereby the Odin Teatret would teach their ways to the Yanomami, ended up producing its opposite, a humbling experience of transculturation.

While we cannot know for sure how the Yanomami of Orinoco-Mavaca responded to the situation, we believe that at least the experience within Odin Teatret shows how much they were open and welcoming to other types of culture, a crucial counterpoint to Chagnon’s portrayal. They were ready to “exchange energy,” create “mutual trust.” Such willingness to learn and teach is a stance that may be seen in AMT. The Yanomami, in general, have been resisting abuse for a long time. One of its leaders, Davi Kopenawa, denounces how capitalist society is destroying nature and, by doing so, destroying the Earth. Had it not been for Indigenous shamans that hold the world together, it would have already crumbled. In his words, translated in lyrical passages of The Falling Sky (2013): “[S]o I entrusted you with my words and I asked you to carry them far away to let them be heard by the white people, who know nothing about us. [...] Now I would like them [words] to divide themselves and propagate over long distances so they can truly be heard.”[25] This mediation, “words that propagate,” is exemplified by Kopenawa’s book and, as we argue, continued and amplified by AMT.

Opera as a Cultural Form

Garcia dos Santos, pondering about how to better categorize AMT, as an opera or musiktheather, defends that “among ourselves, [...] we always knew we were working on a contemporary multimedia opera called Amazonas.”[26] However, the intentions of its creator and how it was received by its reviewers and audience were quite different. We believe the differences that were highlighted so as to set it apart from operas are mainly political and not aesthetical concerns, since opera:

continues to command a grotesquely inflated socio-economic position within our culture. This is because opera sits at the apex of a whole set of cultural values that are based upon the association of “high” art and class. Yet opera also offers itself as the most vulnerable point of that nexus; the point where the values of high art conventionally understood reveal themselves to be the closest to vacuity and kitsch.[27]

The status of opera as an “elite” form of artistic expression allows us to highlight the tensions and forms of resistance surrounding the production and aesthetics of AMT. For instance, one of AMT’s previous sponsors was Petrobras, a company mentioned several times in the documents assessing the crimes committed against Indigenous people by the Brazilian state during the dictatorship period.[28] As Joachim Bernauer, one of AMT’s creators, explains, “it is a touchy challenge to work on [AMT] with a partner that is not just an observer or researcher, but in fact a major player in the area of environmental destruction and protection—an oil company that drills for natural resources in order to sell them.”[29] It might be said that the same banks who sponsor politically artistic manifestations are also responsible for much of the capital invested in deforestation and (illegal) mining. Some of these questions had already been posed by Bernauer in the performance’s program for the Brazilian audience:

Could one justify, from an ecological standpoint, engaging in a project of international cooperation for the conservation of the forest, even though the flights of artists and other professionals overloads the CO balance sheet? Would it have been possible to save a single tree with this opera? Is that too much to expect from an operatic project that at the same time makes a socio-political claim? Can new impulses for contemporary opera be expected from a multimedia theatre combining art-media and scenic art? And for a project like this, wouldn’t it be better and more consistent to avoid the term “opera”?[30]

In AMT’s case, both the provenance of the funding and its use were in question, for there were many accusations of AMT having squandered money.[31] For example, Moritz Eggert[32] recalls how the German public felt about the opera, especially act III:

Now, of course, we are all curious to see how [act III] will be received in Brazil. It’s no secret that this part was the most rebuked by German critics. Almost unanimously it was condemned as “too naive,” the production was compared to an educational event for adults. The ZKM team, who put a lot of work into this, had to bravely endure many scoldings, especially at the last performance in Munich, where, after half the audience had left during the performance, everyone involved in the production was greeted by cries of “Lying shit!,” “You assholes,” “Fuck you” and the slogan “Two million euros for shit!” by the audience, without any applause.[33]

To demand better use of the money is valid criticism; however, it should not only be levied against the artists, but also at the cultural institutions that profit from the production. Nothing guarantees that if the money had been spent on boats, tools, or guns, the Yanomami would have been in a better position in our society. Moreover, many facts point in other direction: without prying eyes, even in broad daylight, a massacre such as the one in Haximu[34] may happen again. If the problem is “efficient” use of money, why produce any artwork at all? Furthermore, some critics emphasized the irony that, in spite of AMT’s combative spirit, the play ended with a buffet and champagne. We fully endorse this critique but, regrettably, the tu quoque still applies for us, since we have not attended many symposiums, at least in Brazilian universities, that did not indulge in shrimp cocktail and overpriced wine. That academic events sometimes indulge in displays of status is not a good reason to prohibit them or bar someone from participating in them. Similarly, AMT’s incongruences caused enough backlash that we tend to agree with Nicholas Till’s quote: opera foregrounds the vacuities of “high” culture. But if the aim of AMT was to cause discomfort about Amazon’s future, then, by failing as an artwork, it succeeded as a critique. Either way, we are under the impression that nothing short of a masterpiece would have pleased the audience members—which is another heavy burden to put on an experimental work.

We return to the questions: Could an opera—financed by some of those who profit from Yanomami’s plight—really create meaningful communication? Could dialogue exist between the Yanomami and an encroaching society that continues to prioritize profit over everything else? Kopenawa, when asked if he thought this music-theatre work would help the Yanomami, responded: “I hope it will help a bit. It’s not much. The Amazonas Opera is making white man respect us. It is clamoring attention, so that the city people will listen.”[35] This marks the importance of access. Taylor’s arguments about José María Arguedas also apply to AMT’s situation: “[R]ather than merely revalorize the undervalorized (the Indigenous), Arguedas took the colonizer’s discourse (again, verbal and symbolic) and used it against them.”[36] Similarly, Ulrike Prinz argues:

In the end, however, we all sit in the forest. Is it the same forest for the Western opera-goer as for the Yanomami? Certainly not. But music has always had magical power in the Amazon. The missionaries of the Jesuit reductions in Paraguay were certain: with music they could easily convert the Indians. The Amazon opera is based on the opposite approach. Today, the Yanomami convert us by a host of modern media artists and musicians who act as translators.[37]

Is It an Opera?

AMT challenges the dominant and conventional notions of opera and shows that even such established notions need to be questioned. In terms of aesthetic reasoning, however, not calling AMT an opera is an ambiguous choice since the boundaries between traditional operas and experimental music theatre presentations are becoming less clearly marked.[38] The matter becomes complicated because some aspects of what generally constitutes an opera are subverted in AMT. For instance, in the words of Hans-Jürgen Linke, “‘TILT’ [...] comes closest to meeting conventional expectations: there are performers, a story, evidential relationships between music and text, and a duality between stage and audience.”[39]

The ambiguity in defining AMT as an opera mostly hinged, at first, on its use of technology to stretch boundaries, especially in Act III, and secondly, on the choice of not including a Yanomami performer. Regarding the first aspect, we recall that thematic and technological innovations have long been used, for example, in Hector Berlioz’ Euphonia (1844)[40] or Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins (1929), as well as contemporary examples mentioned by AMT’s creator, such as Christoph Schlingensief’s Ghost Train (2007) and The Flying Dutchman (2007), a montage of Richard Wagner’s opera. Wagner’s concepts, especially the gesamtkunstwerk, influenced AMT’s attempt to incorporate different technologies in the final work. Technology, for them, could help opsis, melos, and lexis harmonize and not overpower one another. For example, Garcia dos Santos interprets composer Tato Taborda’s conception as:

An attempt to unfold the spectacle on three levels of meaning simultaneously. On the one hand there is the metaphor of the tropical rainforest and on the other a multifaceted screen on which visions, dreams, and prophecies of the Shaman take form, whose song encompasses his own voice, the voice of the forest, and the xapiri pë. Finally, there is Tato’s ambition to make these force fields visible as well, as a representation of the structure of the Shaman’s brain. To this end, the attention of the audience is called to an experiment in audiovisual form, since the musical evolution of the piece is synchronized with the projections that play over the screens and the actions that take place on the floor of the performance space.[41]

Peter Weibel’s conception of Act III also echoes these three levels of meaning, but, in his view, the computer serves as a mediator and a unifier, since it is a “universal medium of light, image, and sound.”[42] This union might be seen in Weibel’s attempt to “make sound visible,” using synesthesia as a guiding creative principle. In Garcia dos Santos’ words, “sound-image was neither illustrative nor complementary, which meant that in our opera there would be no scenography in the traditional sense, because sound is inseparable from the image, sound is an image, and the image is sound.”[43] For example, in “Paradise,” lights flicker on and off while a tense, suspenseful E augmented chord is being played. Suddenly, a synthesizer plays the flat 5th of that previous E chord, which ends up creating a cluster between the notes B and C. This dissonant cluster, alongside the myriad of visual resources surrounding it, creates an interplay of sound and light that anticipates the tension related to the imminent arrival of the tripartite chaotic entities embodying the extractivist mentality. Their arrival is certainly chaotic and marked by a polytonal sequence of chords wherein minor and major melodies are mixed; this colourful, yet tense, soundscape is accompanied by a number of digital resources—pictures, machinery noises and whirs, mass produced bobbin sliders and steam presses—that are a way of foreshadowing what might follow. The multitude of tonalities and melodies reminds us of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911), wherein mockery is represented by a trumpet played in a different key; in AMT’s case, the insidious intentions underlying each of the extractivists on stage are presented by the shocking notes of an augmented chord they sing—an allusion to their different origins and destructive interests. Curiously, whereas their intentions are expressed by an immersive musical presentation, the openness of the Amazon as a spiritual entity idly stands before them in the background. Earth, water, and its living beings observe steadily, calmly, and openly as their structural ecosystem is to be reaped.

AMT’s theatrical nature differs from that of most operas, as it draws from technological resources more often than its predecessors. Regular opera stages are often still, whereas in AMT the use of video projections is seen all around the stage, thus allowing for more messages to be sent during its operatic movements. This is seen, for instance, in its references to the devastation brought by atomic technology in its lyrics and in the background pictures. Percussion is also somewhat different, as when it focuses on what is arriving/leaving in the scene with noises that foreshadow events or that outline the theme of the movement being played, or to be played, such as happens in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas brasileiras no. 2—Trenzinho do caipira (1933). AMT’s soundscape, however, opens broader horizons in terms of synesthetic experiences once it draws from elements from other genres, such as electronic music, bass drops, and unique industrial samples, to allow them to incorporate contemporary aesthetic concepts that would be difficult to be placed in traditional operas. The bittersweet feeling that otherwise would be expressed through static scenarios and virtuoso musical performances were brought to a different level: all of AMT’s movements make the spectator hear, feel, and see how the Amazon is being expropriated right now.

Whereas the polytonality in AMT can be seen as a sound resource to represent bad intentions, the polytonal unison presented in the defenders’ singing represents the confluence of positive intentions of those who work towards Amazon’s protection. While the relationship is not as tense as in the first part, and the melody is less shocking, it proves itself to be unnerving, once different registers and melodic lines are used to employ different scientific points of view. While these melodic lines clash, a number of scientific facts and data are projected on a screen so as to show how much would be lost if the Amazon were to disappear. Warnings about the consequences of going beyond tipping points are shown in the background while one of the elements that symbolizes life, the colour green, slowly fades away, announcing the end of this act.

“Entropy” begins with a sheer amount of fire and destruction on the screen in the background. The videos and pictures represent how much of the Amazon is being destroyed, while the polytonal sound quality again evokes the extractivists, by having a whirring machine punctuate the musical scene. AMT’s microtonal, digital, and experimental composition music might refer to previous operas, such as Alois Hába’s Mother op. 35, which extensively explores polytonality. Hába’s approach to composition is relevant to our argument towards labelling AMT as an opera because he was one of many who transcended what was formerly popular in opera composition, such as dodecaphonic and serial harmonic works; yet, his work was still qualified as “opera,” despite having many differences when compared to previously established operatic works of his time.

Like Hába’s compositions, AMT defies common conceptions of what qualifies as multimediatic spectacle commonly known as “opera.” Weibel affirms that the “opera was born as a multimedia art form—a web of relations between image and movement, between theatre and music.”[44] Therefore, incorporating new audiovisual equipment was something done to unfold new dimensions in its own expression. Nonetheless, according to Garcia dos Santos, Weibel did not conceive the third part of AMT as a “contemporary opera in the conventional or established meaning of the term. In Weibel’s vision, “the work was an opportunity to explore, in a radical manner, the powers that information technology and technoscientific knowledge open up for the renewal of what we used to call opera, or, if you prefer, theatre-music.”[45]

Technoscience, here, is seen as a new reality that conflates science, engineering, entrepreneurship, politics, and the military.[46] Technoscientific ways of thinking are prevalent in the Brazilian Amazon, for instance, when large-scale mining is heralded as the only salvation for the region. But sometimes, the same science (as an institution) may also be an ally to the Amazon region and to the Indigenous people. This shifting position can be seen in AMT when the scientist is an antagonist in Act II, and an ally in Act III. Nevertheless, as Garcia dos Santos points out, for “contemporary technoscience, the [Amazon] forest is, above all, information; and it is not by chance that biologists and ecologists compare it to an immense library being lost, before even the ‘books’ of nature have been read.”[47] But despite the potential benefits:

the accumulated technoscientific knowledge about the forest does not seem to have the power to influence decisively the course of predatory development carried out by civilized peoples; while on the other hand, the traditional knowledge of the Indigenous peoples turned out to be operative in ensuring the coexistence and the sustainability of a positive relation between nature and culture—but it seems that “whites” are incapable of hearing what the indigenous people are saying.[48]

When part of the technoscientific institutions decry the irrationality of “burning” the forest, the argument boils down to saying that the region and the people who inhabit it should be “preserved,” for their genetic material might be useful someday. This kind of argument might seem to be favourable towards Indigenous people, but only insofar as what is currently happening is even worse, with outright dispossession and genocide. Garcia dos Santos has himself participated in discussions about the Brazilian law of biotechnology and access to genetic materials; for him, to maintain the logic of patenting Indigenous traditional knowledge is to make their knowledge always as subsidiary, as raw material for technoscience.[49] What comes in question here is the value given to Indigenous and to technoscientific knowledge.

This question was posed by Joachim Bernauer: “Isn’t all work with Indigenous people in danger of being misinterpreted as a folkloric event? [...] Can shamanism be characterized as state-of-the-art technology?”[50] Nowadays, the suggestion that these two types of knowledge are intimately related is taken up by Brazilian science fiction, especially through the subgenres of amazofuturism and Indigenous futurism. But this is already anticipated in AMT when it labels itself as a transcultural opera. With this, AMT tries to dislodge what is seen as important and valuable knowledge about the Amazon region.

It might not be an exaggeration to say that the result was “a reconfiguration of opera as a genre and a mode of human expression.”[51] The very essence of what an opera is—a multimediatic expression—is fulfilled in AMT’s spectacle. There is not, however, a consensus when it comes to defining AMT as an opera. We acknowledge that categorizing it as “theatre-music” does not diminish its importance or impact. Notwithstanding, the question remains, once AMT has achieved all that an opera is supposed to, once it has successfully mixed different media into one spectacle, why not call it an opera? The reasons, in our view, are mainly political.

AMT—A Transcultural Opera?

Fig. 3

Act I (top half), Act II (bottom half), Program SESC-SP [21–25 July 2010], 2015, p. 62.

-> See the list of figures

Act II draws upon the throat singing technique. The voice of the shaman, played by Christian Zehnder, has twenty-four different output devices representing his connection and unison with nature, whereas the Western representatives have only one, but are empowered by the xawara. This is represented dramaturgically by having the xawara moving, acting, and occupying a bigger space on the stage than the shaman, who remains static:

The choice of an overtone to perform the role of the shaman, a strategy frequently used in ethnic music, was a judicious and effective one, according to music critics such as Claus Sphan. The costume conceived by Nora Scheidl conveys no ethnic attributes save for a discrete arrangement of feathers, which he holds in one of his hands. His powerful voice is distant from the registers of Western music, but also from the singing of the Yanomami shamans, which he does not intend to assimilate.[52]

We believe we should begin this section with the element that caught our eyes when first studying AMT—the audience’s disappointment upon discovering that the Yanomami shaman was played by a Western actor when the expectation was that a shaman would represent himself. Perhaps, as Taylor argues, “the single most important obstacle to the reception of Latin American theatre outside the geographical or academic area of study, is not so much that this theatre seems different, but that it looks oddly the same, that is, recognizable.”[53] Here, the body of the actor is a privileged performative locus. For instance, Taylor, in what she calls embodied performance, points out that “the bodies participating in the transmission of knowledge and memory are themselves a product of certain taxonomic, disciplinary, and mnemonic systems. Gender impacts how these bodies participate, as does ethnicity.”[54] Even though there are pervasive elements of the Yanomami culture in this piece, the portrayal of their corporality was limited to pictures and the presence of some Yanomami in the audience. It is obvious that a Yanomami portraying a Yanomami is better; but, to have a white actor play a Yanomami was at least a valid, even if somewhat contradictory, choice that helped AMT comment about Amazon’s future: the connection and shared responsibility of all.

Part II of AMT was meant to be different from the version previously described in this article. In a production from 2008, a group of shamans performed a shamanic ritual amidst the spectacle (at the 11th Munich Biennale), but afterwards AMT’s organization found that this sort of event was unsustainable for a number of reasons: “the complexity, beauty, and power of shamanism, as the highest expression of cosmology and the Yanomami culture, had to be articulated in another manner.”[55] This leads us to think that maybe their performance could not be accepted as part of an opera because of Western theatrical conventions and time constraints, which made it impractical (after all, if it takes too long, as opera usually does, who would pay for the babysitter’s overtime?). The producers therefore chose to put a non-Yanomami performer in the role of the shaman and reorganize the grounds of the spectacle, mingling the audience with performers and hence bringing all involved closer to one another, as if they were into some sort of collective trance.

Opera has long had a ritualistic aspect, as Gary Tomlinson suggests: “[O]pera from the 1600s on has taken the form of a repeatable enactment of relations between its creators and audience on the one hand and the metaphysical realms they conceive, on the other. But the logic of these rituals has changed according to the changing cultural circumstances.”[56] To understand that opera has this ritualist aspect implies that both the Yanomami and Europeans, at least in theory, could actually belong in an opera. This is not to mean that the Yanomami could be easily accepted in such works. For instance, since the nineteenth century opera has lost much of its hybrid characteristics and colourful characters (such as pirates, thieves, etc.), and the fantastic begins to be “displaced by the domestic—or, if the old stage-figures survive, they do so […] in an altered and diluted form that makes them proper subjects for ‘play’.”[57] As Barry Emslie puts it, these different figures are domesticated, so:

The exotic is not so threatening because it can be utterly enjoyed elsewhere. It does not matter that the experience is shown to fail, for it retains its bitter-sweet quality as remembrance. The problem for European culture is much sharper when the multicultural threatens to become an intrinsic feature of domestic society. Then the exotic must be tamed and dressed up in order to pre-empt any evocation of the enemy within.[58]

Thieves and pirates are decontextualized, domesticated so they can be safely “seized”; but in AMT’s case, the decontextualization of the Yanomami shaman could have been a strategy to create discomfort. When transculturation takes place within the Western subject’s consciousness, when the public “see” the “other,” it becomes itself, it becomes an intolerable reflection: Will I be treated the same way the Yanomami are being treated now? This transformation of the Yanomami/White shaman highlights this issue:

In fact, it becomes more clear every day that the tragic destiny we reserved for the Yanomami—and for all Indigenous people—was only a prefiguration of what we are inflicting on ourselves today and on a planetary scale. Lévi-Strauss prophetically anticipated this situation when denouncing “the regime of internal poisoning” in which we are drowning ourselves: “[...] from now on we’re all Indigenous, we’re doing to ourselves what we did to them.”[59]

The absence of a Yanomami performer did not seem to bother Kopenawa, who in an interview with Deutsche Welle commented on the opera:

I thought it was fine. It reminded me of what happens to our group, to other communities, too. But I thought it was good that it happened here [in Germany]. The play is not only for me, but for everyone who was there. I saw a Xawara [...], imitating the way white folks arrive in our communities and say things, promising material things—axes, fishnets, pants, pans—to weaken the Indigenous peoples.[60]

The insidious nature of the promises that the xawara make, something that the Yanomami know very well, is represented by the confrontations between the shaman and his nemesis. An example of such confrontations can be seen when the xawara displace objects, or move through smoke screens, entering and exiting the stage so as to bring the audience a feeling of invasion.[61] Audio samples of chainsaws, engine noises, and “pornographic sex complete the audio citations, reinforce the interaction with the Xawara.”[62] The result of the conflict is that, little by little, the voice of the shaman is drowned out. The xawarari then erect a totem: a symbolic building that “defeats” nature by muting the shaman.

Fig. 4

Act II, Program SESC-SP [21–25 July 2010], 2015, p. 47.

-> See the list of figures

While it is possible to interpret the death of the shaman as a past transgression of Western society and the end of the connection between culture and nature, we see it as a warning. As stated by Garcia dos Santos, the shaman’s death is a sign of a catastrophe that has already begun: “[C]atastrophe is not coming. Catastrophe has already arrived.”[63] The conflict portrayed by this opera is the beginning of our current tragedy, the fall of the sky is but another outcome of the catastrophe that had already been carried out. Furthermore, “we are used to thinking, and even accepting, the disappearance of Indigenous peoples and the tropical rainforest, the disappearance of their world, but not, obviously, the disappearance of our own.”[64] Is that the reason why a white Yanomami shaman is so discomforting? Even with its downsides, the second part of AMT, which is the most indebted to the Yanomami, elicited positive responses in some of the reviews. For instance, Augusto Valente states that “it is one of those rare moments when the promise of gesamtkunstwerk—the total work of art—is actually fulfilled,”[65] granting it a special place in opera, but the question of whether AMT is a “transcultural opera” still remains.

Final Remarks

In AMT, many resources are mobilized to help citizens of Western society understand the grim future that might lie ahead. By delivering a synesthetic experience that helps spectators understand the cultural depth of the Yanomami and the collapse that has, insidiously, been taking place in the Amazon rainforest, AMT challenges a way of thinking about the Amazon, one that sees it only as a field for extractivist endeavours, and the most common assumptions about Indigenous peoples. It attempts to rewire our society.

No doubt, these are all pressing matters and there is a long and tortuous way ahead of us. AMT may represent a small act of resistance by the Yanomami, but it is the legitimization of their endeavours and this legitimization is essential for them to be heard. João Paulo Barreto Ye’pamahsã has some insights that may shed light on AMT’s importance. Ye’pamahsã, in a conversation with Luiz Davi Viera Gonçalves, recalls how much Indigenous people have been exoticized. For instance, visitors became confused when they saw João’s uncle or father at Bahserikowi Centre of Indigenous Medicine at Manaus because they expected an exotic image of the pajé (shaman). This sort of expectation takes a heavy toll on Indigenous imagery, according to Ye’pamahsã: “[S]o, when I say decolonize, this is it, when we really want to take up these differences, the best way is to engage in a dialogue, as we are doing here, as some artists are doing; we can do a lot of good things, why not do an Amazon Opera?”[66] He does not specifically mention AMT, but the idea behind it is similar; that’s why the Yanonami “enter the opera,” because “if the main character of the opera is the Amazon forest, the Yanomami are spokespersons that can make us accede to the forest’s spirit; they are the ones that warn us about the forest’s demise. The threat of this irreparable loss causes grief in the Yanomami, [...] but what they say is that the grief of the forest is also our own grief.”[67]