Aida’s Many Makers
In the late 1800s, the French archeologist Auguste Mariette began writing a short “scenario” based on his archeology expeditions in Egypt. Credited with uncovering the Sphinx, Mariette was considered the foremost expert on ancient Egypt, and his fictitious story about an Ethiopian slave girl and her secret Egyptian lover landed in the hands of the Egyptian ruler at the time, the Khedive Ismail. The Khedive had been making plans to build an opera house in Cairo, a gigantic structure that would host the country’s most decadent productions, and Mariette’s story contained the drama and setting for which he was looking. After allowing Verdi to name his financial demands, the Khedive secured him as the composer, who in turn chose the Italian poet Antonio Ghislanzoni, who revised La forza del destino for Verdi, as the librettist.
Although Mariette, the Khedive, Verdi, and Ghislanzoni were from different countries and varying fields, they did not work in strict isolation. Verdi once received a letter from the Khedive that he had actually re-written much of Mariette’s scenario himself, although others made similar claims, including Mariette’s brother. Camille Du Locle, the French theater director, mailed the plot to Verdi himself after Mariette finished it, also claiming to be one of its editors. Recent evidence has even indicated that is likely that the Italian librettist Solera may have written the story instead of Mariette, but he had become an enemy of Verdi since leaving the libretto of Attila unfinished. If he had, in fact, been the author, this would have been kept from the composer to save the project. To add to the international confusion during Aida’s creation, Solera had been the Director of the Royal Theaters in Spain before becoming an employee of the Khedive’s government, where he was working when Verdi, unaware of this fact, arrived on the scene. After Verdi received the story, he maintained a close eye on Ghislanzoni’s work, making very clear his feelings about what he did not want in the libretto. As he wrote to Ghislanzoni during this time, “At the end, I want to avoid the conventional death-scene, and phrases like: ‘My senses fail me; I go before you; wait for me! She is dead, and I live on!’ etc.” Although Aida is considered one of the composer’s more traditional operas, Verdi was clearly trying to avoid any kind of formulaic language in the script.
The plot is a familiar love story in which the main characters find themselves trapped within rivalries and faced with the conflict of love versus duty. The universal theme of conflicts between a country at war and the obligations of its individuals tied the project together when so many collaborators were involved. However, during the final stages of the work, it became clear that the writers had war troubles of their own. The Khedive had planned for the opera to premiere at the opening of his Royal Opera House in Cairo in 1871, but the siege of Paris at the height of the Franco-Prussian war caused the costumes, scenery and Mariette to be trapped in Paris, and the premiere and subsequent La Scala debut were delayed for several months.
When Aida did finally reach the stage, however, the audience was so pleased that, after his final bow, Verdi bowed 31 more times. The opera then had its Italian premiere at La Scala in 1872, and went on to performances in Naples and Parma the following year. The opening night in Naples was so successful that a parade escorted Verdi back to his hotel, after which a band played under his window late into the night. The critic Ernest Reyer highly praised the work, writing that, “Those who know the abrupt nature and ill-disciplined character of the Italian composer will see in the tendencies shown by the score of Aida something far more and far better than mere vague promises for the future.” Although the composer stated that he would rather receive criticism than “disgusting eulogies that make one sick,” his infamous temper surfaced when he received an angry letter from an audience member who was displeased with the opera and wanted his money back. Verdi contacted the man and refunded the cost of the ticket, but made him sign a letter stating that he would never attend one of the composer’s operas again.
Roger Parker, in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, states that “Aida, constantly alluding to its ambience in harmony and instrumentation, is the one Verdi opera that could not conceivably be transported to another geographic location.” The color Verdi uses in the score, in other words, is meant to link the music to its setting, and relocating the story would rupture this musical effect. As one of the world’s most popular operas, Aida has been performed all over the world and in various settings, including outdoor amphitheaters, coliseums and sports stadiums, but the location of the story almost always remains in Egypt. What is interesting, then, is that the opera many believe to be musically fitting only its original locale, was created by the many hands of an Egyptian Khedive, a French archeologist, an Italian composer and his enemy-librettist. Perhaps Aida actually owes its success to the diverse expertise of all these men, who functioned within their specialties and geographic areas to assemble a work that could be appreciated from so many perspectives.
Although the original Cairo Opera House burned to the ground 100 years after its opening, Aida has been performed in its story location several times, including a lavish international extravaganza at the temple of Luxor in 1987. Adaptations elsewhere have included a film from 1911, the historical casting of an all-black ensemble by director Alfredo Salmaggi in the 1930s and the Disney musical theater version by Elton John and Tim Rice for Broadway in 2000. By 1892, the Metropolitan Opera had performed the work in French, English, German and Italian.