Operas and Orientalism, ancient Egypt and Vancouver

We can finally say that Aïda craze has hit Vancouver. Around town, buses, part of the city’s public transit system, are adorned with large ads from the Vancouver Opera advertising this grand event. And now only a handful, if that, of days to go until the opening of this once in a lifetime production. Staged at the magnificent Queen Elizabeth Theatre in downtown Vancouver, it promises to be an event of grand proportions.

In anticipation, we organized an interdisciplinary workshop in conjunction with the School of Music at UBC. Nestled deep within the confines of the Music Building, surrounded by musical instruments ranging from a piano to trombones, it provided an intriguing atmosphere, glimmering, low light, a feeling of coziness. Our speakers came from varying backgrounds.

Egyptologist Dr. Thomas Schneider from UBC’s CNERS department, who came to UBC in 2007 from the University of Swansea, provided us with an excellent introduction on the main themes prevalent in Aïda, in particular, its connections to ancient Egypt. He left us with perhaps the most intriguing aspect of all: the deciphering of the meaning of the name Aïda, seeking to establish a proper etymology, something which Auguste Mariette apparently never left behind, explained.

Dr. Thomas Schneider
Dr. Thomas Schneider

Our next speaker, Professor Emeritus of History from Georgia State University, Dr. Donald Malcolm Reid journeyed upstream from Washington State to speak to us on the political, historical and economical surroundings of the original opening of Aïda, putting it in place and time, in perspective. The audience learned about the cultural background, of the ambitions of Auguste Mariette in connection the political environment at that time, e.g. how the building of the Suez Canal affected the economic well-being or lack thereof of the Two Lands. In the end, it left us with a greater understanding of the culture that exists in Egypt today.

Professor of Musicology at UBC. Dr. Vera Micznik explored the orientalist aspects in the opera itself. She played the piano to us on several occasions, highlighting exactly the style and tune of the music. We learned about, what defines an opera to be orientalist and, surely, never expected that Aïda is not as orientalist as one would expect it to be. Verdi, one is told, only reluctantly composed the opera, only integrating several aspects of an oriental style; in essence, he adapted this oriental style to fit with the Western program. It sure left the conclusion to the question how orientalist is Aïda for each member of the audience to decide on his or her own.

Dr. Vera Micznik
Dr. Vera Micznik

Last, but not least, PhD student of Musicology from UBC, Natalie Anderson put Aïda into the modern context, highlighting the comparisons and contrasts of recent productions of the opera, spanning productions from all across the globe over several decades. While some productions staged Aïda on grandest scales (e.g. Verona), others had to come to terms with limited budgets (e.g. Canadian Theatre Company). Yet, each production had a style unique to its own, adapting Aïda to fit their own needs. Spanish director Calixto Beito placed the opera within a modern context in Basel, Switzerland, where the female protagonist was interpreted as a modern Muslim woman. In other parts of the globe, connotations to modern America were eluded to in the production that was staged at Bregenz, Germany.

SSEA Vancouver is grateful for the participation of each speaker and we want to say thank you to the School of Music at UBC for co-hosting this event.


Comments are closed.