Foul for a Fool
Verdi's Opera Aida at the Cairo Opera House
Updated: Apr 10, 2022
Commissioned by Ismai'l Pasha and premiered in 1871 at the Khedive Opera House in Cairo, Giuseppe Verdi's Opera Aida has since been performed throughout Egypt ever since. Its cultural impact on Egypt is deep, with its melodies often used in military marching songs, and the national imagination of a past Pharaonic age is very much coloured by this opera.
Although being commissioned for and by Egypt to celebrate the opening of the Khedive Opera House (not the opening of the Suez Canal as is often said), Opera Aida has also extensively been performed all over the world, with over a 1,000 performances at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. Because of this, Opera Aida has also been incredibly influential on the international imagination of ancient Egypt, without a doubt inspiring hundreds of future Egyptologists over the years.
However, catching the opera in Egypt itself has its own special appeal, and is something I would fully recommend. Not only does the opera have a great story and beautiful melodies, a trip to the opera in Cairo is also a great night out. Smart attire is mandatory, with men having to wear a suit and tie. Cairenes love dressing for the occasion and treat the opera very seriously. The building is also a beautiful example of modern Arab architecture. But don't worry! The tickets are reasonable and a great example of affordable luxury in Cairo.
Like many of you, I'm not usually a fan of opera. However, I will happily make an exception for Aida. The set design is fantastic and helps you immerse yourself in the opera. The calibre of the musicians and performers are of a very high calibre, and come together in a thoroughly enjoyable performance.
The story follows Aida, an enslaved Ethiopian princess who falls in love with an Egyptian military commander named Radames. Radames is faced with the choice between his love for Aida and his loyalty to Egypt amid an ongoing war with Ethiopia. Through four acts, Opera Aida takes you back to Pharaonic Egypt, portrayed beautifully in the set and costume design. However, surprisingly it also brings you back to Ismai'l Pasha's Egypt of the 1860s and 1870s. Opera Aida is a fascinating example of Ismai'l's mission to align Egypt more with Europe and to reinstill a Pharaonic identity to separate Egypt from its Arab and African neighbours. The Khedive Opera House, where the opera was premiered, was in Downtown Cairo, a neighbourhood built by Ismai'l and directly modelled on Paris, as part of his mission to change the country and its culture. As a cultural and historical product, Opera Aida is incredibly emblematic of what Egypt was going through at the time of its commissioning, and perfectly illustrates the aspirations of Ismai'l Pasha's vision for Egypt, however problematic many of these aspirations are.
Opera Aida isn't on all year round, but don't worry, there's plenty of performances throuhgout the year round, which are well worth going to see. Additionally, the Cairo Opera House is a fantastic building, especially at night, and is a great place to visit anyway. The Cairo Opera House also houses a fantastic small museum that details the fascinating history of the opera in Cairo and the famous performances over the years, including Om Kalthoum among many other Egyptian greats. You can check out another article I wrote about the Cairo Opera House here. You can keep up to date with what's on at the Cairo Opera House on their Facebook and website.