Aida backgrounds all successful operas of the 20th Century. It has been recorded and translated into many editions, putting it on a class of its own as a basic operatic repertoire. Aida is indeed the standard measure of opera composition and has a legendary performance history to affirm it.
The first misconception of Aida arises on the original intent of the opera. It is commonly known that the opera was composed by Giuseppe Verdi in around 1871, meant for a performance in December of that year. It was not meant for the inaugural opening of the Suez Canal as is said in some quarters. Indeed, when Verdi was requested to compose a celebratory ode for the opening of Suez Canal, his reply was, “I do not oblige to writing occasional pieces.” It was Ismail Pasha, the art-loving Khedive of Ancient Egypt who commissioned it, purely for pleasure purposes.
The first performance of the opera, conducted by Giovanni Bottesini, was at the Khedivial Opera House, although not to celebrate its opening as is commonly believed. Again, the four acts of Aida were based on a unique scenario origin written by Auguste Mariette, the French Egyptologist. Mariette was actually the designer of most of the performance costumes for the premiere of the opera. It is a misinformation to document the scenario on which Verdi based the opera as originally done by Temistocle Solera. The inaugural reception was great and by the next morning, 25th December 1871, Aida was acclaimed by all critics as the best of its kind. The premiere performance had starred, especially with the brilliant designs of Auguste Mariette on the stage, in costumes and even accessories.
Records show that Verdi’s intent was to compose an orchestral prelude and not an overture, though he later changed his mind and let the overture be performed. Later on, during the performance of Aida at Cleveland, Ohio, the orchestral prelude would be considered and then dropped from the composition, again. In its setting, Aida specifies no time frame although experts attribute it only as a production of the Old Kingdom, ancient Egypt.
Many sources have different explanations as to why Verdi did not attend the virgin performance of the opera in Cairo on the 24th of December the same year. The true account is that Verdi was protesting against the exclusion of the general public in the audience. The audience of the Cairo performance was strictly invited guest, mainly politicians, dignitaries and elite critics. Consequently, Verdi pushed hard for the European Premiere on February 8th, to be the real premiere of the opera. Critics say that Verdi was just being proud after the initial success of the opera in Cairo, and felt exploited to have accepted a mere 150, 000 Francs for it.
As with all great pieces of art, love forms a basic motivation to creativity, and the raw material for a composition. It is said that when Verdi wrote the opera he was in secret love with Teresa Stolz. He wrote a role specifically for her voice in the opera, which she actually took during the Milan premiere. Later on however, Maria Waldmann would take the role for several performances. The word Aida has an etymological origin of Arabic, for a female name. It refers to a concept of a visitor or a return.
In the four-act story, Aida is the Princess of Ethiopia, who is captured and enslaved in Egypt. Here, she meets Radames, a high ranking military commander, who falls greatly in love with her. Radames is in a dilemma, since his loyalty must be to the Pharaoh, whose daughter is actually in love with Radames. Such great emotions are uttered on stage as Radames aspires for glory in battle against Ethiopia and the love of Aida, the slave Princess from Ethiopia. Such irony is further amplified by the fact that Radames has to return the love of the jealous Pharaoh’s daughter, Amneris. Through the intrigues, until Radames is arrested as a traitor, a dishonored commander, they plan to run away with Aida. However, they later die together in a vault as Amneris weeps at the top of the vault.
Aida’s success never stopped after the first performances. In fact, in all the opera premieres, the attendance and reception was great. From the period 1873 to 1877, Aida had premiered in Buenos Aires, New York, Berlin, Vienna, Madrid, Budapest, St Petersburg, Prague, Paris, London and Melbourne in that order. The popularity of the opera is still outstanding even today. For instance, it is placed 16th out of the 20 most popular operas in America.
Among the conductors who have successfully conducted the opera is Arturo Toscanini. He actually began his career as a conductor during the Rio de Janeiro performance of 1886 where inept conductors were heatedly rejected by the audience. Arturo, 19 years old at the time, was a mere assistant chorus master. Although a cellist, he took on the baton and not only conducted the opera well, but also from memory, the entirety of it. From there on, he would grace many performances as a celebrity conductor.