• 'Aida' and Nine Readings of Empire

    Ralph P. Locke (see profile)
    American Musicological Society, Cultural Studies, Global & Transnational Studies, Ottoman and Turkish Studies, Victorian Studies
    Egypt, Imperialism, Ideology, Culture, History, Race relations--Study and teaching, Ethnology--Study and teaching, Critical theory, Hegemony
    Item Type:
    Khedive Ismail, Edward W. Said, cultural interpretation, Italian theatre, Cultural history, Critical race and ethnic studies
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    This paper assesses nine prominent readings of the imperial context/content of Verdi’s 'Aida' and offers a new perspective more adequate to basic tensions in the work. Readings have ranged from the literal (imperial Europe here stages an archaeological “ancient Egypt”) to the metaphorical (“Egypt” here is any repressive government). Or--somewhere between those extremes--the Egyptian enslavement of Ethiopia represents Austrian tyranny over Italy in the 1820s-50s. The vitality of 'Aida' derives from a productive tension between (1) the scenario, drafted at the Pasha’s request (emphasizing the greatness of ancient and, by implication, modern Egypt), and (2) Verdi’s lingering sympathy with any country yearning for self-determination. Some moments in the work resonate more with one of these goals, some with the other. Two stylistically and dramatically contrasting passages—'Gloria all’Egitto' and Amonasro’s 'Ma tu Re'—occur in close juxtaposition and thus challenge or shade each other in powerful, troubling ways. The continuum that is offered here--nine readings of empire--can inform our understanding of the ways in which other exotically or ethnically tinted operas of the long 19th century, from Mozart and Weber to Massenet and Puccini, relate to real-world power struggles between nations, social classes, and ethnic groups other than the ones that they outwardly portray.
    Reprinted in shortened and lightly revised form in a festschrift for Philip Gossett: Roberta Montemorra Marvin and Hilary Poriss, eds., Fashions and Legacies of Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 152-75. My companion is now available at HC: “Beyond the Exotic: How ‘Eastern’ Is Aida?” Cambridge Opera Journal 17 (2005): 105-39.
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    Last Updated:
    6 years ago
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