Opera Roanoke, May 17, 19, 21, 2002

It's a real pleasure for me to talk to you this evening (afternoon) about Opera Roanoke's performance of Aïda, the Concert. Most of you who were probably expecting to hear Craig Fields give this talk (after all, he is the director--I'm only the supertitlist). But Craig is also singing in the performance--the role of Amonasro, the Ethiopian King who is Aïda's father, and he is busy warming up right now (even though he doesn't appear until Act II). So you'll just have to be satisfied with me--I hope you're not too disappointed.

I'm going to say just a little about the plot, which many of you already know since Aïda is one of the most popular operas ever written. Those who don't know the plot can read the synopsis in the program; I also commend to your attention my program notes, which give some of the background of the opera. But very briefly, during the wars which raged intermittently between the kingdoms of Egypt and Ethiopia somewhere in the second millennium B.C., Aïda, the soprano daughter of Ethiopia's King Amonasro, was captured by the Egyptian army and attached as a personal slave to the Egyptian Princess Amneris (the mezzo-soprano). Nobody in Egypt knows Aïda's true identity, by the way, an important aspect of the plot. The Egyptian court is located in Memphis, where a pair of basses, the King and the High Priest Elvis (oops--wrong Memphis; I meant Ramfis) pretty much run the show. When they find that the Ethiopians are on the warpath again, they choose the tenor Radamès to lead the Egyptian armies into battle. Now the problem is that Radamès and Aïda are in love but Amneris also loves Radamès. When she figures out that Aïda is her rival for Radamès' affection, things really heat up, and they get even worse when Radamès returns victorious from battle and is rewarded with the promise of Amneris' hand in marriage.

One of the prisoners Radamès brings back to Memphis is none other than Aïda's father Craig Fields, that is Amonasro. Of course he and Aïda don't let on that he's the King or he would be in real trouble. He is kept as a prisoner however, or the plot of the opera would collapse after the Triumphal Scene and Grand March that close the second act. (The rest of the prisoners are released to go back home, form up their battle ranks, and attack Egypt again, in the next act). Also, to keep the plot humming along, Amonasro is not put into a prison, but is allowed to wander freely about Memphis where he manages, with the help of his daughter, to worm some secret military information out of Radamès. Poor Radamès is caught by the Amneris who turns him over to the priests. They proceed to sentence Radamès to the rather unpleasant death of being buried alive. Aïda, no doubt feeling guilty because all this is her fault, sneaks into the tomb to sing a beautiful final duet with her lover and to die with him. Amneris, meanwhile, who also was instrumental in fomenting the tragedy, suddenly changes her tune and curses the priests who have condemned Radamès. In fact she calls them "ministers of death," "bloodthirsty animals," "an evil race," and calls down anathema upon them. This depiction of the Egyptian priesthood as the true villains of the opera was an expression of Verdi's anti-clerical philosophy. He was what in those days was called a "free-thinker," i.e. an agnostic, and had no use for the church (even though he did write a beautiful Requiem Mass).

Don't worry too much if all this doesn't make much sense to you. My wife Kathy and I have translated supertitles, as usual, and they will keep you au courant with all the plot's subtleties. And I do recommend that you read the program notes where I have discussed the difference in musical styles between Aïda, one of the last operas Verdi wrote, and his popular early works like Rigoletto and La Traviata. Briefly, Aïda is not a "number" opera like his earlier works. (A "number" opera is a work with a lot of musical "numbers" [solos, duets, trios, etc.] connected with recitative. Rather Aïda is said to be "through-composed"-- not divided up into recognizable pieces. There are, however, a few justly famous arias, two by Aïda herself and one by Radamès. But by-and-large Aïda is a precursor of a more modern operatic style that is followed by Verdi in his two later (Shakespearean) operas, Otello and, especially, Falstaff and is then carried into the 20th century by composers like Richard Strauss, Benjamin Britten and others.

Verdi also used leidmotifs, à la Wagner, in Aïda. The opera opens with the motif of Aïda herself, which I want to play for you now:

Play Aïda Motif

Every time you hear this motif, and you will hear it often, it means that Aïda is appearing on stage. Following Aïda's motif, the prelude continues with a sinister motif representing the priesthood:

Play priesthood motif

The opera proper, i.e. scene i., begins with the motif of Ramfis, the high priest:

Play Ramfis motif

Finally I'll play the Amneris motif for you. You have to listen ton it in the orchestra underneath the singing of Fiorenza Cosotto:

Play Amneris motif

Listen for these motifs during the course of the opera. The are designed by the composer to give you some idea of what is transpiring. Of course there are others, but these are the main ones.

Aïda is a "grand opera" in the classic sense of the term. According to the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Music a grand opera has plots which are serious and heroic, chosen from history rather than mythology. The subjects are treated in grandiose proportions, employing the utmost resources of singing, orchestral music and staging. Although all the examples given of grand opera in the Bloomsbury Dictionary are from the French repertory (Rossini's William Tell and Berlioz' The Trojans inter alia) there is no doubt that Aïda satisfies the definition of grand opera. There are not many Italian grand operas--Puccini's Turandot comes to mind, as does almost any opera staged by Franco Zefirelli.

And now I can explain why Aïda is being presented by Opera Roanoke as an "opera in concert," i.e. without staging: no costumes, sets, scenery etc. A work of Aïda's "grandeur" is simply beyond the capabilities of our stage and auditorium. Our singers and orchestra certainly fully qualify, but we just wouldn't have room on the stage for the immense sets, the huge number of extras (Egyptian and Ethiopian soldiers, dancing maidens, priests, elephants, chariots, camels, crocodiles, sphinxes, etc.) So as not to deprive you of a wonderful musical experience we decided, then, to present Aïda as a concert.

This is a rather common practice around the world of opera. For example, the latest (May) issue of Opera News reviews a von Karajan recording of Aïda presented as a concert in Vienna, and mentions that he (von Karajan) conducted many operas-in-concert at the Musikverein there in the early days after his de-Nazification. (Late 40's, early 50's). The same issue has an obituary of the great American soprano Eileen Farrell, mentioning particularly her appearance in a concert of Cherubini's Medea at Town Hall in New York in November 1955.

And who my age can ever forget the great concert performances of operas by the NBC Symphony conducted by Arturo Toscanini back in the 40's? Most of these performances were issued as recordings and I have two of them in my collection--La Boheme and La Traviata. More recently the Roanoke Symphony presented a concert version of, I believe, Die Walküre, featuring the famous Wagnerian tenor Gary Lakes. The Cleveland Orchestra presents an opera concert almost every year. I have the recording of one of these, Wagner's Das Rheingold, in which my son was performing with the orchestra as a percussionist.

In most of the cases described above, the venue in which the concert was presented (Town Hall, the Musikverein, the NBC studios in New York, Severance Hall in Cleveland) did not have the facilities for a fully staged opera performance. While the Jefferson Center most assuredly does have the facilities for a fully staged version of most operas, Aïda is the exception that proves the rule.

Many of today's opera lovers were introduced to the art form through the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, which are, for the radio audience, operas in concert. One big difference is that in listening to the broadcasts you need to follow a libretto or a score if you want to know what 's going on while tonight you will have supertitles!

If opera-in-concert is a new experience for you I hope that you will find it a rewarding one. As you travel to other cities and other countries you will find many opportunities to hear operas-in-concert and, hopefully, tonight's experience will encourage you to attend them.

A little information on the genesis of Aïda: Let me quote Ernest Newman:

In November 1869 a new Italian opera house had been opened in Cairo, and Verdi had been invited by the Khedive, Ismail Pasha, to write an opera for it, to be performed in connection with the opening of the Suez Canal. Verdi had refused. In the early part of 1870, when he happened to be in Paris, the offer was renewed and again declined. But a little later his Paris friend Camille du Locle sent him a brief outline of a possible opera subject that at once took his fancy. The sketch, which ran to no more than four pages, was the work of a famous Egyptologist, Mariette; Verdi and du Locle having between them developed the scenario in French prose, the composer's friend Ghislanzoni was called in as the librettist. It was planned to produce the new work in Cairo in January 1871…[but it was delayed by the Franco-Prussian war during which some scenery and sets were stranded in Paris during the Prussian blockade] so the first performance [took place] in Cairo on 14th December 1871….

…for the most part it is a new Verdi we see. His musical imagination took charge of things in a way that it had rarely managed to do before then: the melodic structure…was no longer the outcome of a simple addition of limb to limb, but…flowed on unbrokenly, evolving not by way of imposed patterns but of inner proliferation.

I claimed earlier that Aïda was "one of the most popular operas ever written." Her is one statistic: In its 120-year history The Metropolitan Opera has given 1049 performances of Aïda. This is 60 fewer performances than their number-one hit La Boheme received (1109) and 166 more than the number-three opera Carmen (883). 1049/120=8.75 performances of Aïda per year, on the average. Aïda was broadcast by the Met during its second season of Saturday-afternoon broadcasts, on Feb. 21, 1942. The cast included four names which are (or should be) still pretty familiar, at least to the geriatric crowd: Bruna Castagna as Amneris, Frederic Jagel as Radamès, John Charles Thomas as Amonasro and Nicola Moscona as Ramfis. The Aïda was someone named Greco whom I haven't been able to identify further. The very first performance of Aïda in the United States was on Nov. 26, 1873 at the New York Academy of Music, less that two years after its world premiere in Cairo. The Metropolitan premiere was on Nov. 12, 1886 during its fourth season, and it was sung in German (as were all operas that year. The Met's first season, 1883-84 was a financial disaster, so, under the prodding of artistic director Leopold Damrosch the Met became an all German company in 1884-85. This proved to be a financially astute move--first of all, German singers came cheaper than Italians did and second the huge German population of New York thronged to the opera house [where ticket prices ranged from $3.50 down to 50 cents]. The all-German Met seasons continued through 1899-90.)

A famous Met production in 1908 was conducted by Toscanini and featured Emmy Destinn as Aïda, Louise Homer as Amneris, Antonio Scotti as Amonasro and none other than Enrico Caruso as Radamès! Other notable Aïdas at the Met include Elisabeth Rethberg, Zinka Milanov, Birgit Nillson, Leontyne Price, Emma Eames, Claudia Muzio, Rosa Ponselle and Ljuba Welitsch to mention only a few. Other Radamès' include Giovanni Martinelli, Mario del Monaco, Carlo Bergonzi, James McCracken, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Leo Slezak, Franco Corelli and Placido Domingo.

Aïda is always sung by a heavy-voiced soprano, a so-called spinto ("pushed" in Italian). Other well-known spinto soprano roles are Madam Butterfly and Verdi's two Leonoras (Il Trovatore and La Forza del Destino). Operas featuring spintos generally have a heavy orchestral accompaniment over which the soprano must be heard. For this reason the role of Radamès is also sung by a spinto tenor. Interestingly enough, Scott Piper, tonight's Radamès first appeared with Opera Roanoke in the lyric (light-voiced) tenor role of Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor (September 1999) before switching to the spinto repertoire last year as Don José in Carmen. It is not unusual for singers to have their voices become more powerful as they grow older. For example, Placido Domingo, a famous spinto, began his career as a lyric tenor.

The mezzo-soprano part of Amneris is that of a dramatic mezzo, with a heavier voice than the lyric mezzo of Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro or Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. The baritone part of Amonasro is also a dramatic baritone, sometimes called a Verdi baritone (as distinguished from the lyric baritone role of Marcello in La Boheme or Papageno in The Magic Flute). The best-known dramatic baritone of recent times was Robert Merrill.

Our main singers tonight, Michele Capalbo (Aïda); Scott Piper; Eugenie Grunewald (Amneris); and artistic director Craig Fields (Amonasro) are no strangers to these roles. For example, Ms. Capalbo has sung Aïda in Strasbourg; Ms. Grunewald has sung Amneris in Orlando; and Mr. Piper has sung Radamès in three Franco Zeferelli productions in Italy. There was a TV showing of one of these productions and, in addition, a DVD has been made which at the moment doesn't seem to be available in the US. Let me also mention basso Wayne Kompelien who has sung numerous roles with Opera Roanoke, for example Sparafucile in Rigoletto (September 1994) and more recently Apollo in Monteverdi's L'Orfeo.

The huge payment Verdi received for Aïda as well as the royalties it generated due to its universal popularity allowed him to retire from opera composition. Sixteen years later, in 1887, when he was 74 years old, he wrote Otello to be followed in 1893 by Falstaff. The reasons for his coming out of retirement after such a long hiatus is a fascinating topic which, however, I won't go into at this other to point out that Verdi was a life-long Shakespeare addict. Actually it was Verdi's wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, who pushed him to get back into the business of writing operas. She probably was sick of his bugging her during the course of her household duties (that meant her supervising the servants of course) and needed to find something to keep him busy. This seems to be a common problem with all wives of retirees.