Flore Van Meerssche is a participant of the Young Singers Project.
‘Already I see heaven opening, there all torment ceases, there begins the ecstasy of an immortal love.’
Egypt and Ethiopia are at war. The Egyptian captain Radamès dreams. First and foremost of his secret beloved, the Ethiopian slave Aida, who is living at the royal court of Egypt and whom he wants to make his own. Princess Amneris is also in love with Radamès, but already suspects that he is more interested in Aida than in her. Although no one is as yet aware of the fact, Aida is the daughter of the Ethiopian king Amonasro and fears for the lives of all her loved ones. The opera begins in this state of emotional imbalance between the three protagonists. Radamès is rapidly promoted to general and goes to war against Ethiopia. He wins the campaign, takes Amonasro prisoner and returns in triumph. Aida is devastated and forced to watch the suffering of those nearest to her. To make matters worse, the Egyptian king makes Radamès a highly unwelcome gift, designating him his successor and giving him the hand in marriage of his daughter Amneris. A nightmare for Aida. A nightmare for Radamès. Now begins a desperate attempt at rescue that can only end in disaster for all concerned. All the composer can offer the pair of lovers is the vague hope of solace in a shared utopian realm beyond this world.
In the 19th century the Orient held a special fascination for Europeans, whose colonial ambitions gained them increasing influence in the Arab world. At the same time, the discoveries made by Egyptologists piqued European curiosity and appetite for the exotic. From 1863 Egypt was ruled as part of the Ottoman Empire by the khedive Ismail Pasha, who sought to make Cairo the ‘Paris of the East’. Among his greatest achievements in this field was the construction of an opera house, whose inauguration in 1869 also celebrated the opening of the Suez Canal. Although the very first opera to be performed there was Rigoletto, Ismail Pasha had set his heart on commissioning a completely new work from Giuseppe Verdi, whom he regarded as the greatest opera composer in the world: a unique and spectacular piece to be based on Egyptian sources. When Verdi began work on Aida in 1870 he was 56 years old and had composed 24 operas. Now grown somewhat weary, he longed to retire, but as recorded in his letters, his creative urges were sparked anew when he laid hands on the story of Aida. The opera premiered in Cairo in December 1871.
It was with Aida that Shirin Neshat made her debut as opera director at the 2017 Salzburg Festival. Five years later she now has the opportunity to re-explorethe opera, creating a dialogue with themes and motifs in her own work. In this, the close-up focus on the three main figures will assume a primary role. Aida, Radamès and Amneris are torn between their fantasies — dreams of an alternative life — and the reality of a society that will use any means to enforce the role models it allocates to them. A life dictated in advance. The fact that all three figures are unwilling to follow these pre-ordained paths provides the true motor of the action. Oscillating between tempting dreams and the constant, intrusive demands of a strident reality, those involved can only be torn apart, pulled asunder by something that will eventually undo them, crushing and annihilating them. The dominant theme is the permanent state of war that penetrates their innermost existence — as war between Egyptians and Ethiopians, between the powerful and the powerless, between men and women, and not least between the individual’s desires and duties. All that remains is despair and grief.
Translation: Sophie Kidd