Preview: Seattle Opera Reimagines <em>Aida</em> In A Stunning New Artistic Light

Seattle Opera presents Aida, an operatic roller coaster of emotions told through powerful music on a grand scale. By Giuseppe Verdi with an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. Aida runs May 5-19th for nine performances at McCaw Hall.

Famed American director Francesca Zambello returns to Seattle Opera with this production of Aida, recently created for San Francisco Opera. Los Angeles graffiti artist RETNA created the scenic concept, which draws inspiration from Egyptian hieroglyphics as well as contemporary design. While the opera is traditionally set in Northern Africa, SO’s production re-imagines the classic tale in a place outside of geography or time.

The history of Aida goes back to Ismail Pasha, who became the Khedive of Egypt in 1863. Among his many dreams for the country was a new Cairo Opera House. It opened in 1869, with a performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto. But Pasha thought his theater also deserved a brand new work by Verdi, who was arguably the most famous opera composer in the world.

Seattle Opera presents Verdi’s Aida featuring design by the street and studio artist RETNA. (Photo by Philip Newton)

Verdi wasn’t eager to tackle a big new project in a faraway country, and he hesitated. When he eventually agreed, it was on his own terms, and he had plenty of them. Verdi demanded complete control of the production, the right to pick his own librettist and singers, and the right to oversee the project from his home in Italy by sending his personal representative to manage the production, conduct it and direct it. The composer also demanded a hefty fee, payable on delivery of the score.

Aida was first performed at Khedivial Opera House in Cairo, Egypt, on December 24, 1871. Although Verdi himself didn’t attend the premiere, he was disappointed that the audience consisted of mainly invited politicians and critics, and no members of the general public. So he considered the Italian premiere at La Scala, Milan in February 1872 as its real premiere. Today the work holds a central place in the operatic canon. At New York’s Metropolitan Opera alone, Aida has been sung more than 1,100 times since 1886.

Aida features two kings at war, a great general, and two princesses. Set in Ancient Egypt, the opera tells a timeless story of love and betrayal against the backdrop of battle. The Egyptians have captured and enslaved Aida, an Ethiopian princess (daughter of Ethiopian King Amonasro). She is held prisoner in Egypt, and she lies about her identity. Now, she is a slave of Amneris, the Egyptian King’s daughter. An Egyptian General, Radamès, is secretly in love with Aida, and she with him. He struggles to choose between his love for her and his loyalty to the Pharaoh. To complicate the story further, the Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris is also in love with Radamès, although he does not return her feelings.

The role of Aida is tricky, requiring both strength as a spinto soprano, and vulnerability and compassion as an actor. A spinto soprano is an operatic soprano voice that has the clarity and easy high notes of a lyric soprano, yet can be “pushed” on to achieve dramatic climaxes without strain. Spinto sopranos are also expected to handle dynamic changes in the music that they are performing with skill and poise. They command a vocal range extending from approximately middle C (C4) to “high D” (D6). Famous singers who personify this technique include Leontyne PriceMariella Devia, and Renata Tebaldi,

Milijana Nikolic (Amneris). (Photo by Philip Newton)

Verdi wrote Aida late in his career, when singers with immense, heroic voices were finding ways to slice through those big orchestras. For Radamès, you want a tenor who seems to have swallowed a trumpet. Audiences love it when Amneris blasts a hole in the roof of the theater with a voice like a laser. Aida must hold her own when singing with the two of them, but she must also float gentle pianissimi up into the auditorium, ideally tickling the hair on the backs of the necks in the second balcony with tender loveliness. And Amonasro is a “Verdi baritone,” who alternately placates unruly mobs and roars like a lion.

A profoundly personal love story told on a grand scale, Aida showcases Verdi’s genius for translating human emotions into magnificent music. The high-stakes love triangle unfolds amid glorious spectacle and rousing choruses. The “Triumphal March” in Act Two is one of the largest set pieces in opera as well as the most famous melody in this opera. This march is used for the cheering of football teams around world.

The March shows a victorious army returning home, often with a full chorus and dance troupe on stage. The trumpets heard at the beginning of the March were specifically commissioned for the Aida orchestra at the premiere.

Other memorable moments include the tenor’s tender “Celeste Aida,” the squirrely motif of Amneris’s jealousy, Aida’s nostalgic sigh for her homeland, the eerie wail of the priestess, Amonasro’s supplicant plea, even an unearthly melody for the asphyxiating lovers, buried alive at the end.

Seattle Opera presents Verdi’s Aida featuring design by the street and studio artist RETNA. (Photo by Philip Newton)

Aida is a challenge for any opera company to put on, purely in terms of numbers,” explains Aidan Lang, SO’s General Director. “It always boils down to numbers. And this production, directed by Francesca Zambello, is in fact a co-production; it originated in San Francisco Opera, and then Washington National Opera did it in September. And we’re now doing it in May. So it took three opera companies and their resources to get a production of this scale on. That’s the bald mathematics of opera economies today.”

Director Zambello‘s production features choreography by contemporary dance leader Jessica Lang, as well as designs by art world superstar RETNA, who cites the structure of Egyptian hieroglyphs as the basis for his striking visuals. As demanded by the original score, Michael Yeargan designed a spilt-level set, which was quite remarkable in the 19th century of usual painted dropcloths for opera productions.

Aida has also been turned into multiple feature length films. One of the films, from 1953, starred Italian screen legend Sophia Loren in her first leading role. She lip-synced to a recording of Italian opera star Renata Tebaldi, who had originally been considered for the role but did not want to appear on screen.

The epic story of Aida also inspired pop icon Elton John and Tim Rice’s musical by the same name, although it doesn’t feature any of Verdi’s music. It premiered on Broadway in 2000 and won five Tony Awards.

Leah Crocetto is making her SO debut as Aida, alternating with

Alexandra Lobianco, who made her SO debut in 2014 as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. Alternating as Amneris are Milijana Nikolic and Elena Gabouri. Both are making their SO debuts.

Brian Jagde and David Pomeroy are also making their SO debuts, alternating as Radames. Alternating as Amonasro are Gordon Hawkins and Alfred Walker. Hawkins has been seen many times at SO. He actually made his SO debut as Amonasro in 1992. Walker is also a SO favorite. He made his SO debut in 2008 as Orest in Elektra. He will sing the role of Porgy in SO’s upcoming production of Porgy and Bess.

The Cast
AIDA, Leah Crocetto (Seattle Opera Debut). May 5, 11, 13, 16, & 19
AIDA. Alexandra Lobianco, May 6, 9, 12, & 18
AMNERIS, Milijana Nikolic (Seattle Opera Debut), May 5, 11, 13, 16, & 19
AMNERIS, Elena Gabouri (Seattle Opera Debut), May 6, 9, 12, & 18
RADAMES, Brian Jagde (Seattle Opera Debut), May 5, 11, 13, 16, & 19
RADAMES, David Pomeroy (Seattle Opera Debut), May 6, 9, 12, & 18
AMONASRO, Gordon Hawkins, May 5, 11, 13, 16, & 19
AMONASRO, Alfred Walkerm May 6, 9, 12, & 18
RAMFIS, Daniel Sumegi, May 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, 18, & 19
IL RE, Clayton Brainerd (Seattle Opera Debut), May 5, 6, 11, 12, 13, 16, 18, & 19
MESSENGER, Eric Neuville, May 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, 18, & 19
HIGH PRIESTESS, Marcy Stonikas, May 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, 18, & 19
Principle Dancer, Laura Mead, May 5, 6, 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, 18, & 19

The Creative Team
Francesca Zambello, Original Stage Director
E. Loren Meeker, Stage Director (Seattle Opera Debut)
John Fiore, Conductor
RETNA, Artistic Designer (Seattle Opera Debut)
Michael Yeargan, Set Design
Anita Yavich, Costume Designer (Seattle Opera Debut)
Mark Mccullough, Lighting Designer
Peter W. Mitchell, Associate Lighting Designer (Seattle Opera Debut)
Jessica Lang, Choreographer (Seattle Opera Debut)

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Starla Smith

Starla Smith

Starla Smith is a career journalist, writing features for such publications as The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily News, The Des Moines Register, Vibe and a prize-winning Gannett Newspaper. She helped launch Theater Week Magazine and eventually became its publisher. As a regular contributor to Playbill, her interviews and photos were featured in Playbill and Playbill-on-line. Smith was featured in the New York Times "Style" section for her "Word Portraits," specialized tributes, speeches, and presentation profiles. And she covered theater and features for City Search, Digital City, and the Tena Duberry WOW! Radio show. She previously served as astrology guru for Out Magazine, and she hastens to assure her readers that "Starla" is indeed her real name.

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