In the middle of downtown Cairo is an anonymous-looking concrete building that stretches along one side of a huge landscaped roundabout. If you peer upwards, you’ll see it labelled, between rows of air-con units, in Arabic and English: “Opera office building and garage.” As monuments to past cultural glories go, it’s not a thing of beauty. But this block marks the site of the Khedivial Opera House – a venue erected in 1869 – and which, on 24 December 1871, staged the first performance of a new opera by the world’s then most famous composer: Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.
Today, Aida is one of the most regularly performed operas across the globe. Its just-add-pyramids ancient Egypt setting is as beloved by directors and audiences as Carmen’s Spain or Madama Butterfly’s Japan, almost always preserved as a spectacular backdrop for its conventional Italian-opera love story. Yet in recent decades Aida’s overt exoticism has attracted controversy. The Palestinian intellectual Edward Said argued that it was just another product of European imperialism – an opera that has had, he wrote in 1993, “an anaesthetic as well as informative effect on European audiences”.
Tempted to dismiss Said’s critique as outdated or too grandly abstract? Don’t be: in 2019 Aida made the news when the American soprano Tamara Wilson refused to wear blackface makeup to sing the title role at Italy’s Arena di Verona.
I’ve loved Verdi’s score for as long as I’ve known anything about opera, but it’s impossible to ignore Aida’s problems today. Yet in Europe at least, the piece’s roots in 19th-century Cairo have been largely forgotten and Egyptian perspectives on it marginalised amid the liberal handwringing. Which is why, to mark the 150th anniversary of Aida’s world premiere, I’m standing next to roaring traffic in central Cairo, staring up at an office block in the hope of finding out what happened next. Not the familiar story of Aida’s popularity on the mainstages of Europe and North America – but the opera’s fate here in the Egyptian capital.
Never an enthusiastic traveller, Verdi would probably not have appreciated the gesture. In fact he might have been pleased that the Egyptian origins of his “Egyptian” opera have mostly been forgotten. He confessed to a friend while working on Aida: “If anyone had told me two years ago, ‘You will write for Cairo’, I would have considered him a fool.” To another, he described ancient Egypt as “a civilisation I have never been able to admire.” No wonder the composer refused Egyptian ruler Khedive Isma’il Pasha’s initial request, for a hymn commemorating the new opera House’s official opening. “It is not my custom to compose occasional pieces,” Verdi explained icily.
When the Khedive instead asked for a new “purely ancient and Egyptian opera”, promising a splendid staging, Verdi continued to play hard to get. Weighing up other options, the Opera House’s management reckoned that Richard Wagner “could do something grandiose”. But Wagner’s Aida remains one of music history’s great what-ifs: the 150,000-franc fee finally proved irresistible – though Verdi refused to travel to Cairo to supervise the premiere because he was “afraid of being mummified”.
That joke’s conflation of contemporaneous and ancient Egypt is significant. Few cultures can match the powerful hold that ancient Egypt has had on the European imagination since 19th-century archaeologists scrambled to unearth monuments and bag treasures dating from pharaonic times. Aida’s setting was designed to capitalise on the fashionable world of pyramids, mummies and hieroglyphs. Like the archaeological excavations themselves, the opera’s historical spectacle drew its audience’s attention away from contemporary Egypt and instead focused minds on the country’s glorious past.
As singing teacher and impresario Neveen Allouba puts it, “Aida shows the past of Egypt, it’s our history. And so we’re proud of that. But modern Egypt is so totally different.” In this city of 21 million inhabitants, vehicles jostle for space on smog-filled boulevards and car horns are a permanent feature of the soundscape. Arriving there in 2021 feels like plunging into the polyphonic thudding of a superclub.
So has Aida become a historical relic in its own right? Magdy Saber, president of the current Cairo Opera House – opened in 1988 after fire destroyed the Khedivial Opera House – insists Aida still has modern-day meaning. “It’s very important to the history of the Egyptian military,” he explains, “because Radamès [Verdi’s tenor hero] is the head of the Egyptian military and when he commits a crime, he admits it – so it’s about the honour of the country’s history and at the same time the honour of the Egyptian military.”
Meanwhile soprano Fatma Said – Egypt-born and a rising international star – tells me the opera’s Triumphal March is still used for university graduation ceremonies in Cairo. “We’re very, very proud of the music,” she says. Even though it was written by an Italian who refused to visit Egypt? “Art isn’t only about taking facts and putting it into music,” she argues. “It’s all about using our imagination. I think this is the most interesting part: how artistically involved these western artists [such as Verdi] were with the Middle East.”
Ahmed El Maghraby, who runs a performance space dedicated to traditional Egyptian music, is less convinced. Aida is good for tourism, he admits. But celebrating the opera as one of modern Egypt’s cultural exponents? “Why should you play Aida when we have our own music?”
Allouba, too, confesses she would love to see operas about “the real Egypt now, the real Egyptians – what is happening and the problems and the successes that we have through our life now”.
But my assumption that ancient Egypt might feel like, well, ancient history to those growing up there today couldn’t have been more wrong. “When I was 12 or 13, I could see the pyramids from my house,” says Daniel, a twentysomething dentist and tenor-in-training. “We used to take taxis and we’d go to the pyramids. This is part of my identity.”
Back at the roundabout where Cairo’s first opera house stood – still called Meidan El-Opera – I ask our taxi driver whether he’s ever seen Verdi’s Aida. “No.” Would he want to, I wonder? “Of course! Who wouldn’t?”