Verdi’s Aïda in a Community Opera Production

Last weekend we had the pleasure of getting tickets to the production of Aïda put on by the Opera by Request opera company in Toronto. Andrea Naccarato, one of our friends, sang the role of high priestess, so we had to attend (and what a pleasure it was)! Aïda is perhaps one of the grandest operas to be staged and, set in ancient Egypt, how could I not be excited?

The opera was staged at the College Street United Church, a church located at College and Bathurst in Toronto
The opera was staged at the College Street United Church, a church located at College and Bathurst in Toronto

Productions of Aïda

To us today, Aïda is as much a synonym of ancient Egypt as it is of grandeur, of pomp, and of the world of the great past. Commissioned in the 1860s by then Khedive, Ismail Pasha, of Egypt, it was to join in the festivities around the opening of the Suez Canal and celebrate the inauguration of the Opera House in Cairo for 1869. He recruited then director of the Ancient Egyptian Museum at its location at Bulaq, Auguste Mariette, who was to ensure its successful production – the perfect man for the job. Having worked in Egypt since 1850 and the discoverer of the Serapeum at Saqqara, Auguste Mariette was well-versed in the world of ancient Egypt. For this opera, he drew inspiration from the many temples around him and, after some early challenges by the Khedive to convince Giuseppe Verdi to compose the music for the opera, Mariette finally did succeed to sway his favour. After some unforeseen delays, Aïda finally hit the stage at the Cairo Opera House in 1871.

Stage design from the Premiere of Aïda at Cairo Opera House from 1871 showing the entrance to Thebes (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris - after Humbert et al, Egyptomania, p. 427)
Stage design from the Premiere of Aïda at Cairo Opera House from 1871 showing the entrance to Thebes (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris – after Humbert et al., Egyptomania, p. 427)

For the plot, grandeur was also ever present: we meet Pharaoh as ruling over a vast empire, the army commander, Radames, who rides into battle to quell the Ethiopian threat, and the daughter of the Ethiopian king, Aïda, subject of Radames’ love, while slave to the Egyptian princess, Amneris, who loves Radames. This love triangle is the corner stone of the opera and may see inspiration in the fatal triangle of Cleopatra, Marc-Anthony, and Julius Caesar or the devotion of Isis to her husband, Osiris. It is a plot made for opera.

Radames (Paul Williamson) on the left with the High Priestess (Andrea Naccarato) on the right with the Music Director (Bill Shookhoff) in between
Radames (Paul Williamson) on the left with the High Priestess (Andrea Naccarato) on the right with the Music Director (Bill Shookhoff) in between

The wealth and splendour of Egypt is reflected perfectly in the triumphal march, which takes place after Egyptian armies lay waste to those of Ethiopia. Captured soldiers and craftsmen walk in submission before the victorious eye of the army commander Radames and Pharaoh near the palace in Memphis. In one such majestic adaptation by the prestigious Metropolitan Opera in New York, we can witness the power of Pharaoh during the march:

Aïda Up Close and Personal

It is against this backdrop of grandeur that I walked into the church for the production. It was a community church in the heart of Little Italy, not some fancy, exquisite theatre only hosting glamorous productions. The audience was not composed of diamonds and tuxedos, but comfort ruled the day. Seats were not given out in assigned fashion; they were not comfortable, but pews with wooden panels that would endlessly shriek at only the slightest of movements. Yet, none of these elements shone negatively on the opera.

Just before the performance with the lovely stained glass window of the church in the background
Just before the performance with the lovely stained glass window of the church in the background

The performance would be accompanied by piano and the stage was set against the marvellous stained glass window at its back. In welcoming the audience, musical director, Bill Shookhoff, introduced us to his community-focused opera company, Opera by Request. Speaking about common perceptions of Aïda as having to be staged on a grand scale, he encouraged us to think of it on a more inter-personal, intimate level. A different feeling it was to be – and how right he was! The singers would take us on a journey of over two hours, captivating us with their voices and raw emotion.

Hannah and I had seen Aïda staged in Vancouver before in 2012, though I have to admit, quite happily, that this production here in the heart of Little Italy was a completely new experience. We came right up close to witness the tragic love story of Radames and Aïda. It was phenomenal!


Further Reading

Opera by Request organizes several operas throughout the year and is run by musical director Bill Shookhoff. For their website, go to http://operabyrequest.ca.

A wonderful chapter on the influence of ancient Egypt on various operas can be found in the exhibit catalogue Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art 1730-1930, edited by J-M. Humbert, M. Pantazzi, and C. Ziegler and published by the National Gallery of Canada in 1994. It is available on AbeBooks or Amazon.

  • The stage design I used in an image above was taken from this exhibit catalogue, p. 427.

For more on Auguste Mariette and his involvement in the production of the opera, see the excellent article by J-M. Humbert titled “Mariette Pacha and Verdi’s Aïda” published in Antiquity 59 (1985):101-104.

Many thanks to Bill Shookhoff, Paul Williamson, and Andrea Naccarato for permission to use the photograph and a most wonderful operatic evening.

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