The Universal Opera


Verdi’s Aida transcends culture and time


By Patrick Summers, Artistic & Music Director
Margaret Alkek Williams Chair


There is an ancient Egyptian obelisk at the center of St. Peter’s Square in Rome, an anachronistic tourist casting its silhouette upon the surrounding pavement. What is it doing there, you might ask? The obelisk, which sports a Latin inscription instead of Egyptian hieroglyphics, was acquired by Caligula during the Roman occupation of Egypt, so it predates the Christian era and shares no spiritual symbolism with where it now stands. Does its nearly two millennia in Italy make it Italian, or is it still Egyptian?

Some similar questions could be asked of Verdi’s extraordinary 1871 opera Aida, indisputably one of the greatest operas ever written.

Is Aida an Egyptian work of art because of its characters and setting, or is it Italian, because of its composer and the language spoken by each of its characters? Or is it perhaps partly French, because of the origin of the scenario on which it is based, or because Paris and not Cairo was the center of 19th century studies of Ancient Egypt? Is Aida a somewhat worn operatic love triangle, or is it a timeless allegory of how war crushes lives? Aida is all of these things, and the generations who have hummed its thrilling melodies or delighted in its iconography—and those who have recently re-written it into a musical by Elton John—have all collectively made it a work of universality. The late 19th century loved theatrical settings that were exotic and unknown to the western countries where opera was predominant: the point of the settings wasn’t our differences, but our human similarities. Opera is a huge cultural melting pot.

Composers are attracted to subjects for varying reasons, and many artists try to work out in art what they can’t in life. Verdi’s Aida aligns with several themes that appear in each of his 25 operas: the relationship of fathers to daughters was especially poignant for him because he lost his only two children, two daughters, before either saw a second birthday. He was drawn to characters at war between public duty and private passion, so the wartime world of Aida would have appealed to him. Aida’s Egyptian setting, though, was likely a secondary consideration, present solely because Aida was commissioned for the grand opening of the Khedivial Opera House in Egypt, an opera house constructed to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. Over time, Aida’s Egyptian setting has become a more primary focus for some and a huge inspiration to designers to create all kinds of fanciful Egypts—none of them realistic. The opera is set in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, somewhere between 1975 and 1650 BC, when obviously any music now known to us would be anachronistic. This broad setting of Aida leaves enormous creative room for a director, making it the perfect project for a fertile theatrical mind like Phelim McDermott’s, who directs our new production.

In casting and performing Aida, the first person we consult is Verdi himself. Since he has been dead since 1901, how do we do this? In the most joyous possible way, we go to the score and deeply explore the demands he put there, trying to connect ourselves with him and his time. The extraordinary thing about Verdi is that all of his wishes are so clear and trying to reach his demands is the most thrilling aspect of a live Verdian performance.

There are a few hallmarks to great singing, and they have always been rare: to sing Verdi with distinction, one must have first a unique sonic imprint—a fingerprint in sound. Opera happens in natural sound without the help of microphones, so a singer must also have considerable amplitude. This doesn’t simply mean a “loud” voice, because vocal quality is not measured in decibels but in resonance, depth, and beauty. Tonal radiance must be combined with great heart—a gifted singer should make you cry from the sheer beauty of what they are singing. Everything an accomplished singing voice can do—fast notes, long sustained notes, rafter-ringing fortissimos, and rapturous soft singing—is required in Aida as well as in the other opera of our winter repertoire, Donizetti’s La favorite. Another important emblem of great singing has to do with words and what a singer’s voice does to them. Verdi was fanatical with singers about the color, shape, and clarity of words; his scores are painted with the colors of words. All great acting in opera is rooted in singing and an actor’s intimate relationship to text: everything in opera begins with the voice, and all of opera’s many other arts extend outward from singing, which remains paramount. Acting in opera is not about a singer’s looks, weight, ethnicity, or sexuality, but about the universal empathy required to connect with another human life. Opera singers of all backgrounds, identities, and perspectives can and must be represented on stage, so that our audiences can see themselves and others through the breathtaking kaleidoscope of human empathy.

A great production of an opera, whether traditional or avant-garde, is striving to relevantly connect with a contemporary audience. It can succeed if it builds a clear bridge between our modern life and whatever the composer placed within the work in the first place—an arc between “now” and “then.” In a live art form like opera, a singing actor is going to be sought more for their ability to bring a character alive both musically and vocally from within. In other arts, especially those that last forever like film or photography, the need for authenticity is quite different, and obviously not focused on any live demands. That Verdi happened to write five roles in Aida that only a few artists in any generation are capable of singing obviously multiplies the intricacies of casting it, particularly if one views the score as a kind of constitution or roadmap to something more universal than its setting. Constitutions aren’t nations, just as maps aren’t cities, but like a musical score, they do give us a common starting place, and they command a deserved respect for their guidance.

Happily, Aida exists for us to enjoy. Like that ancient obelisk in Rome, with its Latin script set into ancient Egyptian stone, Aida now mysteriously watches over the centuries. They both invite us to understand them better with each passing year and to hopefully learn something about ourselves as we do.