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During the 19th century, Europe and North America were enthralled by all things foreign and exotic, and Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida was both.

The orient had been an object of European interest since the middle ages, and, in the 19th century, this focused especially on Egypt. Just before the beginning of the century, in 1798, Napoleon had led French troops down the Nile with a battalion of scientists, cartographers, and artists in tow. Even though the British defeated the French handily, Napoleon’s scholars brought a treasure trove of images and accounts of Egypt back to Paris. The kingdom of the Pharaohs, shrouded in mystery, captured the western imagination, and Verdi was no exception.

By 1870, when Verdi first started working on Aida , the composer had reached a point in his career where he could be very selective about his subjects. He was rich from long years of hard work – he called them his “years in the galley” – and his fame spread well beyond his native Italy. Verdi had long been toying with the idea of retiring, but large-scale prestigious projects kept luring him back to the theater – La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny, 1862) for the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Don Carlos (1867) for the Opéra in Paris. Aida , commissioned to open the new opera house in Cairo, Egypt, continued this trend of large-scale, high-profile productions.

The opera’s text was based on a story from antiquity discovered by the eminent French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette. Verdi had already considered several subjects – among them Le Cid and Adrienne Lecouvreur, both of which were later taken up by other composers – when he received Mariette’s scenario. Mariette, who had been Egyptologist to the Louvre museum in Paris since 1849, was well-known for his archaeological discoveries. When Mariette suggested that he might approach Wagner if Verdi declined, Verdi immediately warmed to the project. The composer declared the scenario “well-made” and that “behind it all is the hand of an expert, thoroughly familiar with the stage.” Actually, this was the first and only time Mariette would ever be involved in the theater. The Wagner threat had worked its magic.

By 1870, Verdi realized that Italian music and Italian unification were not headed in a direction that he would have liked. Young composers were turning above all to Germany and Wagner to find their inspiration, abandoning the lyricism and formal purity of Italian opera. Verdi’s new nation, in whose formation he and his music had played an important role, was poor and weak compared to the other European states. This directly effected the financial situation of opera and may also explain why he turned to foreign commissions during this period. Aida gave him the opportunity to compose unencumbered by the kinds of money shortages that would have forced him to cut corners scenically or musically.

The score is the culmination of all that had come before it in Verdi’s output. The work relies on the formal conventions of 19th-century Italian opera, but the sections flow so seamlessly into one another as to almost remove the very divisions between them. In the opera’s stirring public scenes, such as the second scene in act two, Verdi’s experience composing grand opera for Paris and his mastery of the French style, with its emphasis on spectacle, emerges.

Some of Verdi’s greatest music inhabits Aida. Radamès’ aria in act one, “Celeste Aida ” (“Heavenly Aida”), in which he sings of Aida ’s beauty; Aida ’s two arias, “Ritorna vincitor” (“Return, victor”) and “O patria mia” (“O my homeland”) in acts one and three respectively; the chorus “Gloria all’Egitto” (“Glory to Egypt”) and the Triumphal March in the second act’s scene of pageantry; and the hauntingly beautiful duet “O terra addio” (“O earth, farewell”), which closes the work, all represent the composer at the pinnacle of his art.

Verdi responded acutely to his Egyptian subject and took great care to create an appropriate sound. Orchestrally, he relies on the delicate use of flutes and harp to evoke the shades of a distant past. He also researches ancient Egyptian instruments and had six special trumpets based on his discoveries constructed for the work’s performance.

Aida’s premiere, originally scheduled for January 1871, was postponed by historical turmoil beyond its creators’ control. The Franco-Prussian War and the upheaval of the Paris Commune that followed, made communication between Mariette and Verdi difficult. The Cairo opera house had to settle for Verdi’s Rigoletto for its opening. The work was a triumph when it premiered in Cairo on December 24, 1871, proving worth the wait. Aida debuted in the European capitals and in New York during the next five years, and it has held the stage, and the rapt attention of audiences, ever since.

John Mangum is a Ph.D. candidate in history at UCLA. He has also annotated programs for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival.