Aida, the twenty-third of Giuseppe Verdi’s mostly canonical twenty-eight operas, takes place in ancient Egypt, and was premiered in modern Egypt in 1871. Verdi, though he did not attend, was dissatisfied with the first production. He had hoped that members of the "general public" would see the show, but instead the audience consisted only of “invited dignitaries, politicians and critics.”
Back then, Egypt did not have a popular audience for opera like in Europe, the art form’s native soil, but “in his old age,” writes music critic Alex Ross, “Verdi styled himself a man of the people, a self-taught peasant genius.” He once said that “the box office is the proper thermometer of success.”
Today, Aida is produced almost every year by the Cairo Opera House company. When I attended last weekend, the audience contained American embassy and NGO staff, Europeans, a few recognizable Egyptian public intellectuals (including writer Alaa Al Aswany), and other Egyptian well to do.
I went with three Americans and two Egyptians. None of them had ever attended an opera before, but one of the Egyptians, John, was particularly excited, and had gelled his hair and worn a freshly pressed suit and tie. As we walked to the opera, he kept asking me the proper audience conduct and wondered how he would understand the story. I told him that a translation would be projected, and that I was sure he’d fit in just fine. “I will be absolutely quiet, not a word,” he said.
Giuseppe Verdi turned down the offer from Egypt's then leader Khedive Ismail to write Aida, prompting organizers to threaten approaching Richard Wagner with the commission. He finally agreed, and a hundred and forty years later Aida is the most often performed opera in Egypt. Its original links to European colonialism have survived anti-colonial revolts, three revolutions, several monarchs, and leaders inclined towards socialism, pan-Arabism, capitalism, and now, perhaps, something new.
There was nothing “new,” however about this year’s staging. Despite the ostensibly redesigned sets and costumes, I found myself imagining that I was watching the exact same spectacle that premiered to dignitaries and diplomats in 1871. The golden breastplates glittered in pillars of light shooting out of jumbo hieroglyphs, the headdresses and robes were so big and flowing that to move in them, much less sing, must have taken a lot of practice. At one point, the military hero Radames was wheeled in on a platform with light shooting out the back, equal parts ancient hero and Liberace.
The less savory details felt out of another time too. The Ethiopian slaves wore hay waste-bands around dark brown body suits to imitate darker skin and dreadlocked afro-wigs. Their king, the powerfully voiced Egyptian baritone Mostafa Mohamed, wore black face.
Khedive Ismail commissioned the work while enjoying an influx of funds as the world’s cotton markets swung in Egypt’s favor (the American civil war took out the competition in Dixie). Verdi’s commission was a small sum next to Ismail’s broader efforts at the time to redesign parts of Cairo to look like Paris, full of traffic circles, wide European boulevards, prim gardens, and a big, sparkling new opera house.
The literary scholar Edward Said wrote about Aida as a prime model of ‘Orientalism.’ “Aida embodies, as it was intended to do, the authority of Europe’s vision of Egypt at a moment in its nineteenth-century history,” he thought, and since, it has had an “egregious appeal to audiences and directors alike, who take it as an opportunity to do more or less anything so long as it is excessive and full of display.” In a 1930's Cincinnati production, eleven live animals among the cast.
But in addition to reinforcing Europe’s vision of Egypt as an ancient spectacle around the world, Aida has come to reinforce Egypt’s vision of itself, as a place that was spectacular before anywhere else.
Government-funded cultural institutions have used Aida throughout the years to assert their ability to match European artistic achievements. Nasser’s Ministry of Culture founded the Cairo Opera Company in the 1950’s, and they made Aida their flagship, performing it in front of the pyramids and at a temple in Luxor, as well as in Belgrade in the 1960’s. This all happened just as Nasser was trying to counter Islamic opposition groups. Harkening back to the Pharaohs was another way to harken back to a picture of a national Egypt not bound to the Islam.
Egyptian directors of Aida have none of the pretenses to experimental production that have been attempted in the U.S. and Europe. They aspire to a perfect copy of the original, and audiences keep coming back again and again. I spoke with a former diplomat who had seen the show four times.
Conductor Nayer Nagui led the orchestra through lilting, fragile flute melodies and icy string passages just as dynamically as he charged through the big military brass marches. Although the singing was uneven, Reda El Wakil, the High Priest, brought a force and clarity even to the most hushed, subtle lines. Elena Baramova, the non-Egyptian of this year’s two Aida’s, pitched her high, crystal voice above the others and yet could still preserve anguish in a thick waves of chorus passages.
The fourth act dragged into its second scene, a bit past the three-hour mark. My eyes were tired from the golden grandeur and the major arias had mostly finished, leaving the romantic but adrenaline-free final scene in the death chamber. I looked over and John’s eyes were wide open, his chin resting on his hands, and he stayed alert and awed until the curtain fell.