One Score 2013
THE GENESIS OF AIDA
By John Schauer
As the history of opera progressed, more and more composers became concerned with finding well-written librettos, and Verdi was in the vanguard on this account. He was extremely particular about the texts he set to music, and was intimately involved in the final construction and refining of his opera texts.
In the case of Aida, it began in the late 1860s when Camille Du Locle (one of the two librettists who had worked with Verdi on his 1867 opera Don Carlos) began inundating Verdi with suggested stories for an opera. Verdi remained unimpressed until 1870, when Du Locle submitted a story that had been drafted by the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. A pioneer in the field of Egyptian archeology, Mariette was one of the first to maintain the conviction that treasures discovered in Egypt, even by foreign excavators, should remain in Egypt. He founded the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which is the greatest single depository of ancient Egyptian artifacts in the world today, thanks largely to Mariette’s efforts.
It is sometimes erroneously reported that Aida was originally commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in November 1869. Verdi had been approached about composing a hymn for that occasion, but declined. At the same time, Khedive Ismail of Egypt had initiated plans to open a new opera house to mark the canal’s opening, and it was decided that an opera on an Egyptian topic would be suitable for the occasion, a plan that Verdi accepted almost immediately.
Verdi and Du Locle adapted and expanded Mariette’s scenario, and the writing of the actual libretto was entrusted to Antonio Ghislanzoni, who had played a major role in the revision of Verdi’s La forza del destino around the same time. Verdi did not plan to attend the Cairo premiere, choosing instead to finish orchestrating the work in Italy. But events in the Franco-Prussian War made it impossible for the sets and costumes, which had been constructed in Paris, to be shipped to Cairo, and when the khedive’s new opera house opened in 1869, it was with a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto.
Verdi was further embroiled in the selection of the first cast for Aida, which opened near the end of the second season of the Cairo Opera House in 1871. It was an immediate hit, with a follow-up production mounted the following year at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, for which Verdi did additional tinkering and fine-tuning. The opera quickly assumed a place in the international repertoire and has maintained its popularity consistently. The only factor that has prevented it from being performed more often is the enormous scale of the production and the huge number of singers, dancers and supernumeraries required for a full staging.
Because of its larger-than-life scope, Aida has been a popular work for huge outdoor venues, having been performed regularly at the Arena di Verona, the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, and various “on location” sites in Egypt. It may therefore come as a surprise for many to learn that the original Cairo Opera House for which it was composed seated only 850 people—the same size audience capacity as that of Ravinia’s Martin Theatre!