December 15, 2012 – San Diego, California
Fabio Luisi; Liudmyla Monastyrska, Olga Borodina, Roberto Alagna,
George Gagnidze, Štefan Kocán, Miklós Sebestyén
This week I’ve been reading old books on opera about Aida. We have a shelf full of vintage guides, including H. A. Guerber’s Stories of Famous Operas (1900); a first edition of The Victor Book of the Opera (1912) by the Victor Talking Machine Company, plus editions called The Victrola Book of 1924 and ‘29; and the very first Metropolitan Opera Guide (1939) which begins as if talking about Live in HD:
The new opera audience of America extends from coast to coast, and beyond to the islands of the sea…
I knew from many past program notes that Aida was an undertaking on a grand scale. I’d read before that the Khedive of Egypt had built a new opera house in Cairo in 1869 to celebrate the completion of the Suez Canal; and that he commissioned what he hoped would be a suitably monumental work by the most famous living composer for opening night. But the details in the old books reveal a few twists I hadn’t heard.
Verdi abhorred ocean travel and at first refused. What fired his imagination was a story written by the French Egyptologist Mariette Bay, based on his excavation of persons buried alive. Then when the great score was written and colossal sets and costumes prepared, everything was trapped in Paris by the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War – and so the Cairo Opera House was opened with a production of Rigoletto instead. Aida was only finally premiered – albeit to cheering crowds – two years late in 1871.
Brent and I suspected Aida might play to a full house in San Diego (as indeed it did today) and I was curious about the opera’s popularity in the decades closer to its Cairo premiere. In a word, it was hugely popular from the start and by 1939 was the “most frequently presented work in the repertory.” During an HD intermission visit to the Met’s fabled Archives, Mary Jo Heath observed that this was the 1,129th performance – as we looked at treasures such as the jeweled serpent headdress of American contralto Louise Homer as Amneris (which you can also see clearly in the Victor Book pictured at left).
Outside in our mid-December sun, we noticed two enthusiastic groups of younger patrons and asked to take their pictures for The Portable Met. It turns out that they were middle and high school students from schools nearby (15 from Wangenheim Middle School and 24 from Mira Mesa High) who were being introduced to the grandest of grand opera – along with over 2,000 of their peers – by the Met’s national education program, HD Live in Schools.
A great holiday gift for them, and for all of us who look to the future, as well as the glorious past.