The Context

In 1869, Khedive Isma’il Pasha, the ruling governor of Egypt, invited Verdi to write a new opera with an Egyptian subject for the opening of the Cairo Opera House. This was part of the Khedive’s efforts to inaugurate European cultures and buildings within Egypt. For the Khedive, the creation of a new opera telling a story about the people of Ancient Egypt was a way to represent the power and modernity of the Egyptian nation and position it alongside the developed nations of Europe. In the late nineteenth century Egypt was undergoing a rapid phase of modernisation under the rule of Ismail the Magnificent, with the Suez Canal opening in the same year.  This progress, however, was to place a heavy financial burden on the country leading to eventual bankruptcy and, in turn, to the British occupation of Egypt from 1882.

Verdi refused the initial invitation but was persuaded to compose Aida in 1871. The opera is loosely set in Ancient Egypt but reveals a great deal about the relationship between Europe and Egypt in the late nineteenth century.  Europe at this time was gripped with a fascination for lands outside its borders. Since Napoléon had led his soldiers and scholars into the Middle East in 1798 and the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 had enabled archaeologists to begin to understand the language and culture of the Ancient Egyptians, this civilisation captivated the European imagination.  Members of the public were also able come into close contact with artefacts from Ancient Egypt in the collections of cultural institutions such as the British Museum and the Louvre.

The fascination with the history and identities of other cultures prompted a reassessment of national ideologies in European countries at this time. Verdi was deeply invested in the reformation of Italy in the 1860s and his music came to symbolise Italy’s new national identity as a unified country. Many of his opera choruses including those from Nabucco and Ernani were chanted in the streets to celebrate the crowning of the first King of a reunified throne since the 6th century. In Aida, Verdi uses the rousing music of the Egyptian armies and the sorrowful laments of the Ethiopian slaves to display both the heroism and struggles that form a part of national pride.