Winds of change were blowing in Egypt when "Aida" was written. 1869 saw the opening of both the Suez Canal and the Cairo opera house. Ismail Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt at that time, was a great admirer of all things European and the opening of the opera house was one of his grand projects to integrate Egyptian and European culture. His dream was to open the opera house with a premiere performance of a work by the era's most famous contemporary opera composer - Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi, then at the top of his career, turned this proposal down and the opera house opened with a performance of "Rigoletto" instead. Yet the viceroy was used to getting his will and he tasked his agents to get Verdi to agree to write an Egyptian-themed opera, whatever the cost. A perplexed Verdi finally named a vast sum - 150 000 francs - as his fee, but even this did not force the viceroy to abandon his plans. What clinched the composer's agreement however, was the claim that if the maestro would not deign to write the opera, they would take the same offer to Wagner or Gounod. Hot-tempered Verdi's pride would not allow this and reluctantly he agreed, saying: "If someone had told me two years ago, that I would be writing an opera for Cairo, I would have called him insane ... yet now it seems I am the one, who has lost his mind."
"Aida" premiered on December 24th 1871 and remains one of Verdi's most beloved operas. Like many masterpieces, "Aida" is in many ways shackled by its fame. Thus it is known as the epitome of pompous opera - according to the traditions of Grand opera, "Aida" comes accompanied with massive decorations, exotic costumes, splendid choral scenes and dance acts. All the stops are pulled out to create an astounding spectacle. Yet the tinsel pomp of the pyramids tends to lull the audience's alertness and too often tends to overshadow themes, which are really important in the opera and are also topical in today's society. The viceroy of Egypt commissioned Verdi to write a fascinating nationalist spectacle, to glorify the history and might of the state, but the stubborn composer had other plans. Verdi stayed true to himself and weaved into "Aida" themes that mattered to him - national oppression, an anti-war and anti-class divisions message.
As a matter of fact, Verdi never visited Egypt and in his correspondence he has mentioned, that he could never admire the ancient Egyptian civilization that based its accomplishments on slavery and authoritarian power. More than Egyptian resplendence, what captivated him in "Aida's" libretto was the powerlessness of man before the machine of the theocratic state. "Aida" takes place in a world where state and church are joined into one all-powerful institution. These differing approaches are very much evident when comparing "Aida's" initial synopsis by the Egyptologist Auguste Mariette with the opera's final version. Whereas in the original synopsis the Ethiopians are unambiguously cast in the role of the aggressor, in Verdi's version they are seen more as a repressed nation, attempting to defend their country as freedom fighters against a powerful neighbor's occupation forces. Thus the war between the two countries - the martially dominant Egypt and lesser Ethiopia - forms the background of the opera. The theme of war happened to be very topical in Europe at that time, as in 1870 war broke out between France and Prussia, which also delayed "Aida's" premiere.
Under this top layer however is hidden a deeply personal drama: an almost equally intense battle is joined between the daughter of the Egyptian king, Amneris and the Ethiopian princess Aida for the love of the Egyptian commander Radames. Aida and Radames are drawn to each other, but in a state where "Death to the different!" is the dominant slogan, this relationship is doomed. The relationship of two of the "pure-blooded", Amneris and Radames, is approved and favored by the state, yet it lacks reciprocal affection. The conflict between the three protagonists gives the opera its acuity - sooner or later all three are faced with a choice: either remain true to their homeland or choose love. Through these characters Verdi spreads before us the variegated palette of human relationships - faith, love, hate, manipulation, hope(lessness) and betrayal. It turns out that the opera thought to be the most spectacular paradoxically ends up being quite intimate.
After the lights go out, the opera kicks off with the male protagonist Radames, who is aflame with his desire to go to war for his country. Like the soldiers of the First World War, he takes up arms not reluctantly, but enraptured with the idea of defending the fatherland. The manipulative state apparatus has convinced him that war against the Ethiopians is a noble and right cause. Only after returning from the battlefield does this house of cards collapse and Radames sees that those who stood on the other side of the front lines were not violent "barbarians" and "infidels", but men just like him. As musicologist Ralph P. Locke notes, his character need not necessarily be a soldier: "He could be anyone who for too long has believed in a corrupt, violent system, hoping to change it from the inside!”. The Egyptian princess
Amneris is a woman scorned; this feeling of abandonment pushes her to a path of questionable actions, manipulation and lies. But not only that - as a princess of Egypt Amneris also embodies the tendency towards exaggeration by wielders of absolute power. Her (self )destructive actions clearly indicate how absolute power, particularly one merged into a "holy alliance" with religious authority, inclines towards abuse and corruption. Yet Amneris is also the only one to question the primacy of state interests... only to find out that individual suffering is trivial before the despotic apparatus of state. Even if the individual is a princess.
The Ethiopian princess Aida on the other hand embodies in the opera the central values of civil society: respect for individual freedoms and human dignity. The princess, reduced to the station of a slave, is constantly torn apart - the heart's desires on the one side, duties as the princess of a conquered nation on the other. Having studied different recordings, Locke comes to an interesting observation - up to the mid-20th century, the various treatments of Aida's role speak of the protagonist's abrupt personality and strategic mind, the Aidas of the recent decades however are, much like Puccini's heroines, more resigned and passive. This role does indeed grant the performer great latitude for interpretation, for Aida is an unusually mysterious figure for a titular character. Many times she chooses silence, when she could speak - for instance she responds nothing to Amneris' provocative questions and only after Amneris and Radames have cast their effervescent emotions before the audience, can she no longer keep her silence. And when a messenger brings tidings from her native land and the people call for a bloody campaign against her brothers, she limits herself to a few muted syllables. Her inner struggles do break free from behind the dam when she alone is left on the stage. Then manifests Aida's bipolar wavering between hope and despair - the question of how to make peace between one's own opposing emotions? Only at the very end does she free herself from her self-inflicted burden of duty, dare to give in to her desires and find happiness. Aida does gain peace, but pays for this with her mind. Only after sinking into delirium is she freed from her nightmares.
We see thus how the personal struggles of each character are layered with the broader background of social problems. As an active member of the Italian liberation movement, Verdi supported in his operas the rights of oppressed peoples to rise up against their persecutors and in "Aida" too he stands for those same ideals. Aida and her father Amonasro are captives in a foreign land, which gave the composer a wonderful chance to once again insert his convictions into music. In this opera, Egypt is likened to the European empires of the 19th century, while the Ethiopians represent their colonial possessions. Although the text states that the Ethiopians are the aggressors who have invaded a foreign land, the musical material clearly indicates that the opposite is true. Blaming the other party for one's own sins is a fairly familiar rhetoric device from the demagogic arsenal of states with imperial ambitions. A direct quote from a speech by the Prussian king was inserted into the Egyptians' choral number at the composer's wish, as Verdi himself saw a clear parallel between the Egyptians of "Aida" and the contemporary Germany of Bismarck. Toying a little further with this idea, we can find comparisons which make the staging of "Aida" particularly telling nowadays: the generalizations present in the opera apply to any and all authorities which rule with "blood and iron". In this sense the Egyptian state, as presented in the opera, bears similarities to the Soviet Union, Putin's Russia or North-Korea, where state policy focuses not on civil liberties and human rights, but fetishizing military might and systematically manipulating patriotic feelings. Accompanied by heroic music, the choir shouts xenophobic slogans like "Death to all foreigners!" and that the war is justified by "God's will".
And thus PromFest's "Aida" has no painted pyramids and bronzed slave boys, it is instead an attempt to explore the limits of the grand political spectacle, which casts nations into the whirlwind of war and changes the fates of hundreds at a whim. PromFest's "Aida" will have a happy ending - giving hope that a way out has to exist even from the most hopeless situation. And the opera is ended, fittingly, by the character who changes most during the events - the Egyptian princess Amneris, saying to the audience, the cast but most of all to herself: "Peace!". An appeal which gains a profound significance in the uncertain world that surrounds us.