Spotlight on: AIDA

Aida

At Seattle Opera May 2018

Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni

The Story

Long Story Short

Conflicted loyalties spell doom for star-crossed lovers.

Washington National Opera, Aida, 2017 © Scott Suchman

Who’s Who?

Aida, once a foreign princess, now held captive by the enemy, loves Radames.

Radames, a military leader, loves Aida despite being at war with her people.

Amneris, daughter of the king, is in love with Radames.

Amonasro is Aida’s father and—don’t tell his captors—leader of a rival kingdom.

Ramfis is a high priest.

What's Going On?

Princess Amneris has fallen for Radames, the great warrior leading her kingdom’s armies on to battle and glory. But Radames is in love with Amneris’s captive attendant, Aida, who returns his love—despite the fact that Radames’s army is attacking Aida’s own people, from a rival kingdom to the south.

Our story begins as Amneris begins to suspect the handsome captain loves Aida; under a pretense of friendliness, Amneris manages to trick Aida into revealing her feelings for Radames.

Costume designs for Seattle Opera's 2018 production of Aida. © Anita Yavich

Radames returns in triumph from battle. He brings many prisoners of war, among them Aida’s father Amonasro. Radames’s own king, grateful for his general’s valiant service in battle, declares that Radames shall wed his daughter Amneris.

On the eve of the wedding, Amonasro manipulates Aida into helping him discover Radames’s battle plans. By chance, Amneris witnesses this espionage. Furious, she has Radames tried as a traitor (although she offers him a pardon if he will love her). Radames refuses to defend himself. He is sentenced to death; Aida steals into the tomb where he is to be walled up alive, and together they asphyxiate.

Where'd They Get the Story?

August Mariette, the famous French Egyptologist, invented the plot, based on every classical tragedy he’d ever seen plus what he and his contemporaries were discovering about ancient Egypt. Verdi’s librettist for Nabucco, Temistocle Solera, may also have had a hand in outlining the libretto.

Set design by Philippe Chaperon for the premiere of Aida in 1871.

Listen For

Unforgettable Tunes

Melodies came tumbling out of Giuseppe Verdi’s extraordinarily fertile mind faster, in some cases, than he could write them down. Aida teems with catchy tunes: the rousing Triumphal March, the tenor’s tender “Celeste Aida,” the squirrely motif of Amneris’s jealousy, Aida’s nostalgic sigh for her homeland, the eerie wail of the priestess, Amonasro’s supplicant plea, even an unearthly melody for the asphyxiating lovers, buried alive at the end. It’s Verdi’s melodic gift that has propelled his music from the farmland of northern Italy to every corner of the world.

Theatrical Words

Heavenly Aida, divine shape, mystic ray of flowers and light, you are queen of my thoughts, you at the splendor of my life."

—Radames, Act I

Verdi was a great composer and a great dramatist. He didn’t write his own librettos, but he demanded from his librettists words that were concise, powerful, intense, susceptible to musical amplification, and above all suitable for the theater. In the great utterances of Aida—lines such as Aida’s “Ritorna vincitor!” (Return victorious), or Amonasro’s “Non sei mia figlia! Dei Faraoni tu sei la schiava!” (You’re not my daughter! You are the slave of the Pharaohs!), or Amneris’s “Empia razza, anatema su voi!” (Priests everywhere—my curse on you!)—Verdi causes a nuclear fusion of words and music, with correspondingly powerful results.

Tinta

Inspired by Shakespeare, Verdi strove to create a distinct tinta, or color-world, for each of his theatrical works. (Think of how Macbeth is bloody and dark, whereas Hamlet is pale and gloomy with occasional flashes of brilliant light.) To create a sound-world that might depict the barbaric splendor of ancient Egypt in the imaginations of his audience, Verdi invented a fake “Egyptian” scale and used it throughout the opera.

The Cast

Opera-house orchestras had developed considerably over the course of the nineteenth century. Verdi wrote Aida late in his career, when singers with immense, heroic voices were finding ways to slice through those big orchestras. For Radames, you want a tenor who seems to have swallowed a trumpet. Audiences love it when Amneris blasts a hole in the roof of the theater with a voice like a laser. Aida must hold her own when singing with the two of them, but she must also float gentle pianissimi up into the auditorium, ideally tickling the hair on the backs of the necks in the second balcony with tender loveliness. And Amonasro is a “Verdi baritone,” who alternately placates unruly mobs and roars like a lion.

Where, When, & Why was this opera written?

This most Italian of all operas began with the French in Egypt. Although nineteenth-century Egypt was theoretically part of the Ottoman Empire, the Brits and the French had been competing to control the area since Napoleon’s men unearthed the Rosetta Stone in 1799. The creation of the Suez Canal, in the 1860s, was a victory for the French, and the Khedive of Egypt honored the canal’s construction by building a new opera house in Cairo.

New opera houses traditionally open with new operas, and an Egyptian subject seemed like a good idea. After outlining the plot, archeologist Mariette went back to Paris, the opera capital of the world in those days, to oversee construction of sets and costumes at the Paris Opéra. (He ended up getting stuck in Paris because of the Franco-Prussian War. Thanks to this delay, the new opera house opened with Verdi’s Rigoletto instead. Cairo finally gave the world premiere of Aida two years later. Verdi, who hated sailing, finally heard it the following year, in Milan.)

Verdi was only one of the prestigious composers the Egyptians considered; had he turned them down, next on their list were the Frenchman Charles Gounod and the German Richard Wagner.

What drew Verdi to this subject? He had written loads of operas that doubled as propaganda for Italian unification; but personally Verdi didn’t have strong feelings about Egypt or Ethiopia. He responded deeply, however, to stories about oppressive governmental or religious structures crushing fragile individual human souls. In Aida he created a work that is almost Biblical in its depiction of ancient populations at war and peace, in bondage and liberation; and at the same time startlingly contemporary in its condemnation of Fascist war-mongering and its compassion for slaves and refugees.

Depiction of the Suez Canal opening in 1869.
 

Same Story/New Lens

Realism and opera have always had a slippery relationship, and we often accept where the two diverge. For instance, in reality people don’t communicate by singing and the language of choice for people living in Egypt isn’t Italian, but we “go with it” because that’s part of the opera package.

With Aida, we often don’t see a cast that reflects the racial makeup of Egypt and Ethiopia. (In the U.S., the first African American singer didn’t sing the title role at the Met until 87 years after its world premiere.)

It is important to recognize that the barriers that were initially in place for African American opera singers continue to play a role in the field today. The company (and the industry) is aware that we have much work to do to be more representative of our community in our casts and creative teams, and our leadership is taking steps to work toward this goal.

The company does want to be clear that it is doing away with the practice of changing the appearance of our singers’ race through makeup or wigs, a practice that has been commonplace in opera. “The opera stage is perhaps the only space in American culture today where such overt racial imitation is routinely performed without comment or query,” write the editors Naomi André, Karen M. Bryan, and Eric Saylor, in Blackness in Opera. “Such a practice is all the more unusual when one recalls that the other major historical forum for blackface portrayals in America—a nation where race occupies a uniquely problematic cultural position—was the minstrel show, a locus for the establishment and reinforcement of the many negative stereotypes aimed at African Americans.” Given our American context—both our history and our present—the company is choosing to avoid this practice, given its potential offense and the painful history it evokes.

What Kind of Production is coming to Seattle?

San Francisco Opera, Aida, 2016 © Cory Weaver

Famed American director Francesca Zambello returns to Seattle (site of many early triumphs in the ’80s and ’90s, including Faust, Florencia en el Amazonas, and Tristan and Isolde) with a production recently created for San Francisco Opera. Los Angeles graffiti artist RETNA created the scenic concept, which draws inspiration from Egyptian hieroglyphics as well as contemporary design. While the opera is traditionally set in Northern Africa, our production re-imagines the classic tale in a place outside of geography or time.

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