At The Dallas Opera, we are busy preparing to present one of the grandest of all grand operas later this month: Giuseppe Verdi's Aïda. This work is among the most popular in the operatic repertoire, and is often mentioned as one of the "ABCs" (Aïda, Bohème and Carmen) that draw significant audience interest—especially single ticket buyers. The opera is certainly not performed frequently because it is easy; the first tenor aria alone ("Celeste Aïda"), coming as it does with no warm-up, is one of the most challenging in the repertoire. Verdi's Aïda even inspired a Tony Award-winning, and long-running, Broadway musical by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice, which made its Broadway debut in 2000. So what makes this opera so immensely popular?
Ancient Egypt has inspired, puzzled and challenged artists for centuries, in part because of the rich legacy of pyramids, monuments, tombs and artifacts that still survive, not to mention written records in the form of temple inscriptions and papyri. It's easier to comprehend the Egyptians extraordinary "superpower" status when we realize that contemporary society is about as far removed in time from the birth of Christ as the Roman Empire was from the construction of the pyramids. Another factor is the distinctive style of ancient Egyptian visual arts and iconography, which was extensively codified in the 19th century as the science of archeology developed. The fact that ancient Egyptian society remained relatively stable for 3,000 years meant that this civilization bequeathed an enormous legacy of art and architecture, as well as more mundane evidence of life in ancient times.
I think for many contemporary opera goers, the opera storyline may seem like a pastiche, more like Bizet's Pearl Fishers than a drama based on any collection of known facts. However, the original intent was to write a historically plausible drama, and archeologists' knowledge of ancient Egypt had grown enormously since the early 19th century.
Meanwhile, the story behind the libretto is almost worthy of an opera itself. Auguste Mariette was the cousin of artist and explorer Nestor L'Hote, who had accompanied Jean-François Champollion—the decipherer of the Rosetta stone—on various explorations and adventures. When Nestor died, Auguste sorted through his papers including those covering his travels with Champollion, and became, like so many others in the 19th century, intoxicated with Egyptian art and culture. He worked his way up to a minor appointment in the Louvre in 1849, and traveled to Egypt in 1850 to purchase rare artifacts. While in Egypt, he toured temple sites and developed a friendship with Bedouin tribesmen, who led him to the now famous site of Saqqara. In 1851 he began a series of remarkable discoveries at Saqqara, Memphis, Karnak, Dendera, Edfu and many others. He also worked to set up the Cairo museum in 1863. One my favorite artists of the period, Scottish painter David Roberts, produced a spectacular set of prints in six volumes between 1842-1849 following his trip to Egypt in 1838. He, like so many Western artists of the period, also helped to create huge interest in this sophisticated and complex civilization.
In 1869, at the request of the Khedive, Auguste Mariette wrote a brief plot for an opera. Camille du Locle expanded the plot into a full scenario, and Verdi began work on the score with a libretto written by Antonio Ghislanzoni. Mariette and Du Locle also developed sets, costumes and jewelry for the world premiere, which took place in 1871. At the time of the opera's creation, Auguste Mariette was arguably one of the most knowledgeable men alive about ancient Egypt, and the intent was to showcase an imagined, yet believable, set of events on stage. This approach was in stark contrast to, for example, Mozart's The Magic Flute, which drew extensively on Egyptian images and iconography as a convenient cover for Masonic ideals. The Magic Flute was based on a much more slender knowledge of ancient Egypt, written as it was around 80 years earlier than Mariette's scenario, and—most importantly—before the discovery of the Rosetta stone, the key that cracked the hieroglyphic code.
Today, Aïda is often used as an opportunity for opera companies to build huge sets and to emphasize the spectacular aspects of this art form. The "Triumphal March" can easily number 200 people, including chorus, principals, supernumeraries, and—in some cases—live animals. One question I am regularly asked is whether TDO will be including elephants in our production; the Aïda of popular imagination is still influenced by the world premiere in which a dozen live elephants appeared on stage. One can only imagine how much reinforcement the stage required! Camels are sometimes incorporated into contemporary productions and promotional events for the opera, but they are awkward to handle on stage and can be nasty to patrons; I know of one incident when a camel deliberately sprayed a patron's designer dress at a promotional event, and that was that. We're taking a pass on animal talent for this particular production, but Michael Yeargan's stunning set designs will be beautiful nonetheless.
It is the glorious music, of course, that ensures Aïda's enduring success. There are a number of famous arias in the work, many of which are used as audition pieces. These include not only Radamès' "Celeste Aïda," but also Aïda's "Ritorna vincitor" in Act I and "O cieli azzurri" in Act III. Verdi's gift for melodic invention is pervasive throughout the work. Amonasro's "Ma tu, Re" is one of my favorite baritone passages; in a few lines of music Verdi creates a truly memorable melody that you can't help but sing in the shower. The buoyant trumpet theme in the Grand Finale of Act II is both energetic and tuneful; Aïda's nostalgic duet with her father beginning "Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamente" is exquisite; and Aïda's more chromatic passage "Latrà foreste vergini," which she sings to persuade Radamès to flee Egypt with her, is both musically sublime and emotionally persuasive.
The opera also incorporates several important dance segments, including the sacred dances of the priestesses in Act I, the dance of the Moorish slaves in Act II, and the dancing-girls in the Act II finale. The dances are dramatically unified with the work, unlike much of 19th century opera, which ensures that dance is retained as an important element in virtually every production of Aïda.
I have mentioned several important duets above, but there is one more to savor. In the final scene, Aïda and Radamès sing the same pitches separated by an octave in "O terra addio"; this approach reinforces the close connection between the lovers, and their expectation to be united in the afterlife. Wagner used a similar approach in Tristan und Isolde. By matching rhythm and certain words in parts of the Act II love duet, "O sink' hernieder," the composer conveys how close the lovers are linked both emotionally and physically. Verdi's bold use of the major seventh in "O terra addio" (one half step short of an octave) adds drama to the final scene, and the musical tension imparted by the dissonance resolving to consonance adds great expressive power. It is interesting to note that this same expressive melodic pattern is used in reverse in the famous song "Bali Ha'i" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific (octave to major seventh, resolving to the octave).
(Here is Maria Callas and Richard Tucker performing "O terra addio" at La Scala, on EMI Records, available on iTunes.)
Despite the pressures facing many opera companies to reduce costs and showcase smaller works, I'm confident that Aïda will continue to be performed regularly by opera houses around the world, and embraced enthusiastically by contemporary audiences. The gorgeous music, pageantry, exoticism and grand scale of the work make it simply unmissable.
Due to the work's great popularity, TDO will perform Aïda six times: October 26, 28, 31 and November 3, 9 and 11, 2012. Conducted by TDO's Mrs. Eugene McDermott Music Director, Graeme Jenkins, the performances feature acclaimed soprano Latonia Moore, Italian tenor Antonello Palombi, Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva, and American baritone Lester Lynch, directed by Garnett Bruce. This production boasts sets in epic Egyptian style by award-winning designer Michael Yeargan and lavish costumes by the Dallas Opera's late Resident Costume Designer, Peter J. Hall.
Only a major opera company has the resources to produce an Aïda. Don't deny yourself this opportunity to experience Giuseppe Verdi's Egypt for yourself.
◊ Here is Latonia Moore performing the role of Aida at the Hamburg State Opera in 2011:
◊ And here is Moore singing "O patria mia" at the Metropolitan Opera in 2012:
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. His first column can be seen here, the second is here, third here, fourth here, fifth here, sixth here, seventh here, eighth here and ninth here.