The Opéra Bastille, one of the two homes of the Paris National Opera. The other is the the older Palais Garnier. Photo: Wikipedia

There’s a new staging of Aida being broadcast from Paris, and if reviews of it are any indication, it’s better heard than seen.

An Italian critic said he hoped Paris Opera would put the production “in storage.” Another critic called it “opera madness.” “Simply outrageous,” said a viewer.

The singing is not the problem, but the staging that is meant to send messages not evident in Aida. According to the production’s Dutch director, Lotte de Beer, the untraditional set and action are supposed to reflect contemporary attitudes on colonialism, racism, and sexism. 

De Beer seems to recognize the possibility that burdensome new messages annexed to the opera’s themes of love, loyalty and betrayal might be lost on the audience. That perhaps explains why she offers up explanatory media interviews unveiling the hidden meanings of the now “problematic” Aida.

The acerbic dictum of Tom Wolfe, who attacked wordy promoters of modern art in his 1975 book The Painted Word, comes to mind: “Frankly these days, without a theory I can’t see the painting.”

It appears that without an array of isms we can’t hear this Aida.

The issue here is less about a popular 19th-century opera than about the lava of so-called woke culture spreading across the fields of art, popular and classic.

There are apparently hordes of scholars and/or amateur sleuths looking for signs that someone’s book, painting, film, cartoon, song or old tweet shows obscure insult, especially to women, gays, transgenders and especially non-white people. Seeming to glorify European culture is a big no-no.

Let’s take William Shakespeare. In the United States, he’s in the dock for a variety of reasons.

According to anti-Bard educators, he’s the epitome of Eurocentrism, his plays are rife with “problematic depictions and characterizations” and are really “about white supremacy and colonization,” his cast of kings, murderers and lovers aren’t diverse enough and are therefore unrecognizable to young readers, and his stuff is too hard to read, thus off-putting to “marginalized” students.

But back to Aida. De Beer, 39, an up-and-coming director known for experimental productions, suggests that Aida fails to deal with the awfulness of its era – the colonialist late 19th century – and ought to be fixed to reflect current views of that era.

She calls Aida a product of Western colonialism, “made in times when art was looted from Egypt to be exhibited in European museums.” She injects that idea by setting the play in a museum of Egyptian artifacts and dressing the players in 19th-century garb.

De Beer goes on to explain the opera’s presumed colonialist roots in that it “coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal, which itself was a colonial tool.” 

Casting Aida itself is fraught with white-supremacy issues, according to de Beer. She lamented that Paris Opera offered only white sopranos to play Aida, who is an Ethiopian slave. De Beer set about to resolve that problem by getting “a non-Western and preferably African view” into the opera, using large puppets designed by an African artist as physical stand-ins for both Aida and the pharaoh. 

The actors were left to chase these avatars around the stage, prompting an otherwise sympathetic reviewer to suggest that the staging “depersonalizes these characters and robs them of their humanity – surely the opposite of what a post-colonial staging of this work would want to achieve.”

In line with contemporary criticism of all kinds, de Beer asserts that the opera’s composer Giuseppe Verdi “borrowed a lot of other cultures’ music.” Cultural appropriation is one of woke culture’s cardinal sins. Aida is replete with “Orientalist clichés – in brilliant ways,” de Beer says, but their use “is problematic seen from our times.”

Finally, in a nod to the nearly de rigueur practice of disparaging “Dead White Men,” de Beer calls Verdi’s bracing “Triumphal March,” which kicks off Aida’s second act, “pompous, kitschy music.” 

Because Verdi worked, and created Aida, during the frantic 19th-century colonial era, it is easy to say that imperialist notions must infect his creations as if by osmosis. In this case, ignoring the history of Aida doesn’t help de Beer’s case.

The opera was not imposed on Egypt but rather was premiered in Cairo at the invitation of Khedive Ismail, the viceroy who governed the country on behalf of the Ottoman Empire. (Excuse me for nitpicking, but the premiere of Aida did not coincide with the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal; that honor fell to Verdi’s Rigoletto, a tale set in Italy taken from a French play by Victor Hugo.) 

Ismail was a Europhile who viewed Europe as his model of development. He went so far as to declare that Egypt was not part of Africa but of Europe, even as France and Britain circled, hoping to wrench Egypt away from the Ottoman Empire. 

Ismail desired a “national opera” for his Cairo opera house (itself a replica of Milan’s La Scala), perhaps in recognition of the possibly forging Egyptian identity through appreciation of its distant past.

“What the viceroy wants is a purely ancient and Egyptian opera,” wrote Frenchman Auguste Mariette, who worked on the libretto and designed the stage settings. “The sets will be based on historical accounts; the costumes will be designed after the bas-reliefs of Upper Egypt. No effort will be spared in this respect, and the mise-en-scene as one can imagine.”

In any event, the result simply fails either to glorify Western imperialism or deal with racism, no matter what de Beer might want. There was no need to stretch the bounds of Aida to fit woke preoccupations under the guise of rescuing it from the mummification of tradition.

Aida has frequently been reworked; a few years ago, I saw a Moscow production that likened Aida’s bellicose Egypt to Nazi Germany; the “Triumphal March” looked like a Nuremberg rally.

Aida last played in Cairo in 2018, though not in Ismail’s original opera house. Instead, it was put on in a Japanese-funded theater compound on Gezira Island, in the middle of the Nile.

The old opera house mysteriously burned down in 1971. No one knows who started the fire or how. Egyptians wept as it burned to the ground. The site now a multistory parking garage. 

Replays of Paris Opera’s new Aida can be viewed on YouTube.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.