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What's Opera, Doc? Part 4: Opera of Africa

By Alex Richards.

A photograph of Guiseppe Verdi and not, as you might have first thought, of Alex Richards.

So I'm told by Wikimedia Commons.

When people think about opera, they usually think first of Italy. Those who are more aware of the genre will usually add the other great cultural centres of Europe – France, Germany, Russia, Austria, and Britain. Those with more interest in East Asia will probably talk of Chinese Opera – though to call Xiqu “opera” is somewhat misleading for an artform that (from the Western viewpoint) also incoporates elements more in common with commedia dell’arte, pantomime, traditional theatre, and the circus, as well as some that defy any attempt at a western analogy.

What people do not tend to think of is Africa. This is understandable – while opera itself doesn’t necessarily require a large budget, having the dedicated infrastructure to build and maintain an industry presence requires both a steady stream of income and an audience who can afford to attend. While Africa is not bereft of wealthy individuals – some of whom undoubtedly do attend the opera in Paris, London, or Dubai – the well-off middle classes required for a domestic scene are largely missing. Perhaps this is inevitable. Colonial extractive regimes who bring European tastes for opera with them are not interested in fostering a middle class or leaving one in place.

Despite this, the first opera house in Africa was not built by the South Africans in the 1970s, nor by the French in the 1920s. It was built in Cairo by Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, and opened in 1869. Isma’il was, like most of the Khedives of Egypt in the 19th Century, a moderniser, seeking to mould Egypt into a state on the European model through spending vast amounts on industrial development, urbanisation, education, and military expansion in what is now Sudan. In doing so, he attracted large numbers of Europeans to make their homes in Cairo in order to take advantage of the new opportunities. Thus armed with a ready-made audience and a desire to show that the new Egypt was modern in all things, he also began promoting European-style culture in the capital – and in the mid-19th Century, that meant opera.

However, Isma’il was not content with simply providing a performance venue. To truly demonstrate his nation’s arrival in the modern world, he also decided to commission an opera – using the opening of the Suez Canal as a suitably grand occasion to celebrate. And to write it, he then chose to approach the man who was, arguably, the greatest living composer in the field at that time – Guiseppe Verdi.

Verdi declined. Commercially successful, popularly beloved, Verdi had neither the need nor the inclination to produce “occasional” operas such as this – and in any case was two decades into a sort of semi-retirement managing his estate around Busseto.

His involvement in the whole project could very easily have ended there. Isma’il still wanted his opera, and it’s likely he was considering working his way down a mental list of other figures – Gounod, Wagner, Bizet, Smetana, and Tchaikovsky were all on the scene at this point, to greater or lesser levels of success. It is at this point that things get a bit murky as to the exact order of things. There are suggestions both Gounod and Wagner were mentioned by Isma’il as alternatives – although some suggest that this was just to try and get Verdi to reconsider.

Triumphal March of Aida, painting by Francisco Sanchis Cortés.

Try staging that.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What is agreed is that Auguste Mariette – a Frenchman who had been appointed by the Khedive to essentially run the entire archaeological exploration of the country – produced a suitable plot inspired by the temples and tombs he had been excavating. What is not agreed is whether this was offered by Maritte, requested by the Khedive, or indeed was something he already had lying around.

In any case, the plot was passed on to Camille du Locle, the son-in-law of the Director of the Paris Opéra, who worked the plot into a libretto. From here, it could have been offered to any of the Opéra’s usual contacts – Gounod would have been the most prominent, but Bizet would certainly have been a possibility, and would have been the more likely to need the money. However, de Locle also happened to be in contact with Giuseppe Verdi, and offered the completed libretto to him.

Verdi, it is apparent, liked the story enough to write the music for it, and the result was Aida – now one of the 20 most performed operas of all time, which was additionally adapted into a Disney musical with an original soundtrack by Elton John in 2000.

It's also been performed in Cleveland, Ohio.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The plot, to extensively summarise, consists of the rivalry between Aida – an Ethiopian princess now living anonymously as a slave in the Egyptian Pharonic palace – and Amneris – the daughter of the Pharaoh – who compete for the heart of Radamès – an Egyptian general who, just to complicate matters, is sent as head of the army against Ethiopia. It’s both a tragic romance and an examination of the interplay between conflicting loyalties – to love, to nation, to family, and to oneself, and eventually ends with both Aida and Radamès being walled up alive in a crypt under the statue of Ptah.

It also had a rather more tumultuous premiere than anticipated. The entire opera was prepared in Paris – Mariette designed the costumes and props, and oversaw the construction of the sets with an eye for authenticity – with the intention then being to transport everything to Cairo for its premiere, which would also mark the opening of the Khedival Opera House. However, the Franco-Prussian War intervened and the costumes and scenery were still in Paris when the Prussian army laid siege to the city. Rigoletto was chosen to open the opera house instead, and Aida finally premiered there on Christmas Eve 1871.

The cultural influence of Aida in Egypt since has been somewhat mixed. The premiere was by invitation only and packed with dignitaries and ambassadors – to the extent that Verdi considered the Milan premiere to be the true opening night as it actually allowed members of the public in. The institution of the opera itself was intrinsically tied to the Khedives – and later Kings – of Egypt and its popular support waxed and waned with that institution, and opera never became the major affair that it was in Europe.

In part, this can be placed on the Khedive himself. Within a few years of Aida, Egypt was at war with Ethiopia – demonstrating the reality of the opera’s subtext. Unlike Ramadès, however, Isma’il Pasha lost against the armies of Ethiopia and the massive war-debts incurred were a direct cause of Britain and France intervening to depose Isma’il. Scarcely more than a decade after the opera’s premiere, Egypt had effectively lost its independence to British occupation, and the new regime cared little for promoting opera. Almost exactly a century later, the Khedival Opera House burnt down on October 28th 1971.

And yet despite this, there does appear to have been some long-term interest. Mohamed El Qasabgi – part of what is viewed as the first generation of Egyptian composers to write in the Western classical tradition – produced a commercially unsuccessful film version of Aida in Arabic with an original score in 1942. Zakariyya Ahmad wrote 56 Operattas between 1924 and his death in 1961. Hasan Rashid produced in 1942 an opera Masra’ Antonio on the death of Marc Anthony, though it wasn’t performed in full until 1973; he has no less than two rivals for the creator of the first truly Egyptian opera in the form of Aziz El-Shawan’s Antara in 1947, and Dawood Hosni’s operetta Shamshoon and Delilah, which must have been composed some time before his death in 1937.

OK. Staging can be dramatic. As performed in New York.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Modern Egypt, though not a nation of opera lovers, does still have an opera house – a new building from 1988 and funded by the Japanese government. Aida is regularly performed there and there have been open air performances by the Pyramids in Giza and the temples of Luxor. The Grand March is apparently used at graduation ceremonies by some educational facilities in Cairo, and from interviews in 2021 the historian Flora Willson found that contemporary debates are as much about whether Aida is representative of modern Egypt as whether it’s representative of Egypt at all, and it’s certainly accepted as an intrinsic part of her cultural heritage, for better or worse.

Which raises the question – could there have been another Aida? Not a sequel – though surprisingly Amneris’ curse upon the priests who have sent Radamès to his doom leaves an unexpected opportunity for one if you were able to find a composer who actually dared to try and write a sequel to Verdi. Instead, it’s the question of if a second opera could have been commissioned. The logical requirement here is if the Egyptian-Ethiopian War of the 1870s doesn’t happen. Egypt will still have significant financial issues and be under pressure from Britain and France internationally given their significant financial and political stakes in the Suez Canal. It remains entirely possible that the country falls under foreign domination regardless – that Isma’il is forced out because he’s bankrupted the country with his projects, or that some other trigger leads to a revolt sufficient to lead to foreign military intervention to ‘protect’ European assets.

But if Isma’il was able to navigate all of these, he could have kept the throne until at least his historic death in 1895. And it seems likely that sooner or later he would have decided that it wasn’t sufficient to just have one opera, but that a new commission was required – probably around the point of the 10th anniversary of the opening of the Opera House in 1879.

The best staging of all. Sung at the foot of the Pyramids.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The question is: who would have been commissioned? Verdi was still alive at this stage, but given his views on the Cairo premiere of Aida can be considered to be even less likely to produce a new work as he had been originally. Gounod had become the respected Grand Old Man of the French music scene – but his operatic star had faded and his last staged works around this time were not very successful. Bizet was dead, Smetana is increasingly poor health, Tchaikovsky wandering Europe in a state of musical and emotional turmoil after his brief, disastrous marriage, and Wagner was working on Parsifal and extremely unlikely to take a new commission. Massenet was embroiled in a dispute with the director of the Paris Opéra and may have welcomed a foreign commission to help demonstrate his standing – though Brussels was quite sufficient for this historically. A native Egyptian – should any have been available – would probably have been considered unthinkable to Isma’il – not without having been ‘properly’ educated in Europe first at the very least.

The one composer who stands out as the strongest possibility is Camille Saint-Saëns. In 1879, he had just seen his opera Samson et Dalila premiered – though in Weimar since the religious subject meant there was heavy resistance to staging it in Paris. It was starting to gain international success, but the composer himself still felt a strong desire to properly establish his operatic credentials in France, and frequently took commissions abroad. Additionally, ill-health meant that he tended to spend the winter in North Africa – usually Algiers, but on several occasions in Egypt. The combination of a Khedive who would have been delighted to entertain a major European composer and was looking to commission an opera, and a composer who had an interest in writing ‘Oriental’ styles and was happy to take commissions, and who would have been more than willing to an extended period of time in Cairo overseeing the arrangements, seems like it could have been an ideal match – though there might, of course, have instead been a horrific personality clash.

The only question is one of subject. Saint-Saëns is unlikely to have chosen another religious subject – likely wanting to have this work get a French premiere immediately on his return from Cairo. Another “Ancient Egypt” composition could be possible, but most of Mariette’s notes were destroyed in a flood at his museum in 1878, and the increasingly ill man was focused on ensuring that his successor was a Frenchman. The most intriguing possibility is in the resurgence of interest in the One Thousand and One Nights in the 1880s. This admittedly may have been driven by greater English involvement in the country leading to new translations, but it also seems plausible that with existing French translations in existence, the work would have been either suggested or come to Saint-Saëns’ attention – possibly starting this revival a little earlier than normal.

There has certainly been no lack of music inspired by the One Thousand and One Nights. It’s inspired works by Schubert, Ravel, and Rimsky-Korsakov among others, and from this we can perhaps determine the most likely title: Shéhérazade. The storyline would probably have used the famous storyteller’s own tale as the framing story – we can perhaps imagine her getting a scene at the start and end of each act dramatically breaking off and introducing the plot, and serving as a narrator otherwise. This would likely have framed a single story – perhaps that of Sinbad, though the stories of both Aladdin and Ali Baba had been added to the French translations by that point.

It’s difficult to speculate on the long-term effects at this point. Perhaps it’s a flop – a minor historical oddity. Perhaps it’s a great success and Saint-Saëns sees more operatic commissions. Most likely it achieves minor success in Paris and brings forward the staging of Samson et Dalila – and may lead to the composer himself producing some more ‘Egyptian’ works while on holiday in the years to come. Based on the precedent of Aida, its legacy in Egypt today would be that of another thread in the cultural tapestry – another example of how the world comes to Egypt, and how in the end it is Egypt that assimilates them. There might, or might not, be other commissions to come from the Khedives – the whole position of Egypt is fundamentally different and will have significant effects in and of itself.

But it Egypt has the start of an operatic tradition in the late 19th Century, rather than a single moment of splendour, then we might well find that first generation of Egyptian ‘classical’ composers produces somebody with international success. And with that, perhaps this is a world where Cairo is as associated with opera as Vienna or Milan.

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Alex Richards is the author of Tippcanoe and Wallace Too, from SLP.


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