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Few composers' names conjure up the grand scale of opera more than that of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). The intensity of the characters, the powerful impact of the drama, and the lyrical qualities of his music are the stuff of opera legend. He wrote 26 operas in his career, all of which were staged in his lifetime.

In November 1869, the Khedive of Egypt celebrated the completion of the Suez Canal by opening a new opera house. Verdi's Rigoletto was the first production, and Verdi turned down a proposal to compose an inaugural ode to go with it. But the following year he proved receptive to the idea of a new opera specifically for Cairo, on an Egyptian theme.

Following delays of truly operatic proportions and drama - the sets and costumes were trapped in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war and the ensuing siege of the French capital, and there were intense wrangles over casting - the premiere of Aida finally took place the day before Christmas in 1871. The Italian premiere took place at La Scala, in Milan, in February 1872. For this performance Verdi composed a full overture to replace the short prelude he wrote for Cairo. After hearing it in rehearsal, however, he pulled it and went back to the original prelude. This dashing series of scenes from Aida's life has since been recovered - Toscanini gave the first public performance in 1940 - and is finding new life as a dramatic symphonic poem, though still rarely heard.