It’s a heartbreaking tale of star-crossed lovers, conflicting loyalties and human cruelty, which means Aida is simply unmissable.
This May, Opera North will take over Leeds Town Hall for a new concert staging of Aida, one of the biggest and most popular operas ever written. This is your chance to hear Verdi’s magnificent score as the orchestra, the singers and the chorus all perform together on stage. But this isn’t just a concert – expect full costumes, live video streams and one-off instruments in a performance that is guaranteed to blow your socks off.
It’s a universal story we can all relate to
Aida is a tale of two countries at war and the individuals caught in the crossfire. She’s a slave, a prisoner of war. He’s the general of the enemy’s armies, destined to marry the heir to the throne. They fall in love, but they don’t get their happy ending, because Aida is forced to make an impossible decision and it’s the man who should be protecting her that makes her do it.
“She’s got this terrible dilemma, because she loves a man who is basically her country’s enemy, and that’s very universal, we can all get that,” Director Annabel Arden explained. “It’s not abstract anymore, it’s not just that she loves her country, it’s that her father presses her into service, and I bet that kind of thing happens for real all the time.”
It’s a whole new world for Aida
Although Verdi’s Aida is set in ancient Egypt, her world will feel oddly familiar, because Arden has set her new staging in the modern world. She hasn’t chosen a specific time or place, but her vision is drawn from the unrest in the world around us and the video references will reflect the conflicts we see in the media today.
“I’m interpreting Aida as happening in a contemporary world where war is everywhere,” Arden explained. “Aida’s emotional landscape is also a very interior one; she is very close to death and experiences exile and loss most intensely. We only have to turn to TV – or look around us – to see many situations today which could be Aida’s. Jealously, ambition, patriotism and family conflict are eternal human experiences, and the focus of our production will be on the characters’ relationships with each other.”
It’s relatable, but it’s also open to interpretation. Because the set is so minimalist, it invites you to use your imagination to fill in the blanks, so everyone will experience the opera differently and what you take away from it may be completely different to the person next to you.
This is one of Verdi’s most magnificent operas
After Don Carlos, Verdi vowed he was done with opera, but then an opportunity came along that made him rethink his decision. He was asked to write an opera to celebrate the opening of the Khedivial Opera House and he was given a potential scenario. Verdi had never worked in this way before, he’d never written on demand, only for himself, and the prospect intrigued him – but more importantly, it pushed him.
“It’s not just writing to order, it’s Verdi developing himself as a composer and writing in all kinds of new ways. The whole world in the orchestra is made up of sounds he had never used. He used instruments in a way he never had before, so it’s a real progression of a major composer,” Conductor Sir Richard Armstrong told us.
But while it may push boundaries, it’s not difficult. This is beautiful, atmospheric music, it brings the world to life. As you listen, you can almost feel the heat on your face, hear the insects in the grass and the birds in the trees. It transports you somewhere else.
It’s brought to life by cutting-edge video installations
You don’t expect to see video at the opera and you certainly don’t expect to see it used as creatively as it is here. It sets the scene, it helps you get to know the characters and it gives you a surprisingly intimate view of their inner emotions.
You’ll see the king on stage and on screen simultaneously, as they project familiar gestures used by modern politicians onto an old ship sail that represents the migrants fleeing war on their makeshift boats. But you’ll also get to see Aida from a new angle because they’ve hidden a camera inside a glass table on the stage and they’re going to live stream it onto the screens above. Expect a string of cool and unusual visuals as you switch perspectives from outsider to insider.
They’ve also created a series of intriguing films with clay. “All of the video has been handmade, using lots of different bodies, many bodies playing one body,” Designer and Video Director Joanna Parker explained. “I started on my body to see how it felt, and what became really interesting is that it does something unusual to you. You sit for half an hour and let it dry, and it’s like you’re in a cast, then as you move, you can control how it cracks. You start seeing it as transformation, because the body is in one space and then it starts to move into another.”
You can experience opera in a whole new way
Aida is big, it’s huge – in fact, they couldn’t possibly fit the whole orchestra into the pit at Leeds Grand Theatre. But an opera like this is too good to miss, and you shouldn’t have to go to London to see it, so Opera North are putting on a concert staging, which means everyone’s on stage – the singers, the chorus and even the orchestra.
“Aida is famous for being a massive spectacle,” Arden told us. “When it’s done in the arena in Verona, it has real horses and real elephants. It’s a massive amphitheatre, not only are the sets massive, but you’ll have 200 extras in costumes and up ladders, you’ve got troops of horses, the odd elephant, a crocodile if you’re lucky. It’s bonkers, and you can’t get that in Leeds Town Hall, but on the other hand, it’s a wonderful place because it looks like a palace.”
The set is pared back, but the singers are in full costume, and they’ve got a few surprises lined up for you. But the real highlight is the orchestra. Somehow, seeing the music played on stage brings it to life, giving Verdi’s iconic score new life. And because you’re so close to the action, you’ll see every stroke and every stitch in vivid detail.
Verdi had an instrument made specially for Aida
When Verdi wrote Aida, he’d never actually been to Egypt, so he tried to create a soundscape that was universal, one that would resonate with the Egyptian people, even if it didn’t actually resemble their own music. To do it, he created a brand new trumpet, because of course, trumpets have always been associated with war.
At 1.5 metres, the Aida Trumpet looks as grand as it sounds, and you can hear it for yourself in the Triumphal Scene, as six players ascend the stage to welcome Radamès home from a victorious battle. These instruments aren’t used for anything else, they simply don’t have a place in the orchestra, so this may be the only time you ever hear one.
You can get tickets from just £15
So much work has gone into this concert staging of Aida that you might well expect it to cost the earth, but in reality, you can get tickets for as little as £15. In fact, if you’re aged 19-29 or a full-time student, you can get tickets for a tenner. You’ll have to be quick though, because they’re selling out fast!