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Culture | Get in loser, we’re going to Aida

Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt personally victimized by racism in opera

The drama of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida is all a bit high school: Princess Amneris, a domineering Regina George type, has eyes only for Radamès, hero of the Pharaoh’s army and about as interesting and intelligent as jock Aaron Samuels. Radamès, meanwhile, is in love with Aida, a former princess of Ethiopia who was captured during war and forced to serve as Amneris’ lady-in-waiting and friend-for-hire. Sweet Aida, much like high school newcomer Cady Heron, is head-over-heels for Amneris’ man — which, as Gretchen Wieners warns, is “just off-limits to friends. I mean, that’s just, like, the rules of feminism.”

Radamès and Aida sneak off for a midnight rendezvous. Amneris gets jealous (her cry of “Tremble, vile slave!” is definite Burn Book material). Trouble ensues — standard love triangle fare. That is, until Radamès’ love for Aida leads him to spill military secrets and stand trial for treason.

Opera de Montreal’s production of Aida, which opened at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier on September 17, captured all the romantic melodrama, musical grandeur, and exoticized spectacle for which this operatic staple is known. Though lacking in live elephants (the opera’s 1871 premiere boasted twelve), the Montreal performance featured towering statues of Egyptian gods, blazing fire-lit torches and an elaborately costumed yet alarmingly homogeneous cast of over a hundred. As wide-eyed Karen would ask: “Wait — if you’re from Africa, why are you white?”

While the traumatic legacy of colonialism is still potent, no context remains to encourage such an exoticized representation of Aida.

“Oh my God, Karen, you can’t just ask someone why they’re white.” Except, you can, when the white person in question is costumed in a braided wig that is definitely appropriative, singing prolonged arias about her besieged, and supposedly Ethiopian “homeland.”

Troublesome tropes abound in opera: anguished women die in the arms of their lovers (think Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata), mental illness is depicted in a comedic light (as the Comtesse from Opera de Montreal’s recent Les Feluettes), and characters of colour are either bumbling (Ping, Pang, and Pong in Puccini’s Turandot), villainous (Monostatos of Mozart’s Magic Flute), or sexualized (Bizet’s titular Carmen). It’s to be expected — not acceptable, but expected — in an art form that peaked at the height of the African slave trade, a time during which Charles Darwin proclaimed women to be of inferior “mental disposition.”

In fact, when Aida premiered in 1871 at Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House, it was not a symbol of racism, but of Egyptian nationalism. True, the entire debut cast was Italian, the music and lyrics were composed by white men, and costumes were designed (or possibly plundered) by a French Egyptologist — but in the face of rampant European colonialism, Egypt sure knew how to put on a show, elephants and all. The plot depicts Egypt in a patriotic light: while the Egypt of 1871 was under the shadow of British imperialism, the ancient Egypt of Aida was itself an imperialist power, conquering Ethiopia and showing off its pillaged riches to the tune of Verdi’s iconic “Triumphal March.”

The 1871 Aida was by no means progressive: after all, the opera depicts an oversimplified ancient Egypt using Orientalist tropes, deliberately designed to feed the European colonial appetite for a primitive and exotic Other. But the circumstances of Aida’s premiere offer some context — not an excuse, but certainly an explanation.

“Oh my God, Karen, you can’t just ask someone why they’re white.” Except, you can, when the white person in question is costumed in a braided wig that is definitely appropriative, singing prolonged arias about her besieged, and supposedly Ethiopian “homeland.”

Egypt’s viceroy, Ismail Pasha, who oversaw his country’s increasing entanglement in encroaching European colonial powers, had ordered construction of the Khedivial Opera House to celebrate the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal, and to fulfill his grand vision of a (Westernized) globalized Cairo that could compete with the burgeoning ‘cultural hubs’ of Europe. To further this goal, he commissioned Aida from one of Europe’s foremost operatic composers, Giuseppe Verdi. On opening night, the audience was filled with dignitaries, journalists, and politicians, but a decided absence of the general public — signaling that, despite the subversion of portraying ancient Egypt as the colonizer rather than the colonized, Aida was, from its inception, intended to diminish and legitimize modern Egypt to Europeans.

Opera de Montreal’s rendition comes nearly a century and a half after the Cairo premiere, and while the traumatic legacy of colonialism is still potent, no context remains to encourage such an exotic representation of Aida. Nonetheless, several of Opera de Montreal’s production choices were baffling: a phalanx of predominantly white warriors wearing “natural-hair“ wigs was cringe-worthy, as were the servant girls’ braids — but then, at least they weren’t in blackface, which is an occasional practice among opera companies even today. New York’s famous Metropolitan Opera only decided to ban blackface in 2015.

Following the Met’s decision, Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette curated a conversation between prominent opera singers of colour regarding the practice of blackface and racism in opera. The singers all agreed that blackface, though problematic, is not opera’s biggest problem.

While the traumatic legacy of colonialism is still potent, no context remains to encourage such an exoticized representation of Aida.

“The conversation about blackface is a distraction,” said tenor Russell Thomas. “It’s not about whether or not [Met Opera tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, in the role of Othello] was painted dark […] It’s about this: why aren’t the stages representative of the communities in which they are located?”

Soprano Alyson Cambridge added, “There are black singers who are qualified to sing these roles. Why don’t they get cast?”

Opera de Montreal’s mostly white cast delivered a musically successful performance. Although Radamès, portrayed by tenor Kamen Chanev, was stiff, soprano Anna Markarova as Aida hit some impressive high notes, and mezzo-soprano Olesya Petrova offered a regal and robust Amneris. Soprano Myriam Leblanc stood out as the High Priestess — a small role, with brief appearances in only two scenes, but demanding a virtuosity of tone colour that Leblanc captured with impressive ease.

And yet, the question remains: what awaits the singers of colour who weren’t on stage? It’s time for opera companies to interrogate the twisted and often subtle channels of privilege and systemic oppression that influence production decisions from programming to costuming to casting.

Because an opera world in which singers of colour can feel safe and celebrated? Well, that would be totally fetch.


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