CALL HIM ISMAIL: THE MAN OPERA FORGOT

by Megan Meister

“We are now part of Europe,” stated Ismail the Magnificent, Khedive of Egypt, as he maneuvered his ancient kingdom through the maze of international politics during the 1860s and 1870s.

To back up his otherwise incorrect claim, he founded a modern postal system, instituted an expansionist military policy, built an enviable railway system, and oversaw the completion of the Suez Canal, which, on its completion in 1869, shortened the journey from London to Mumbai by 5000 miles. The global village was swiftly emerging, and Egypt was strategically positioned at the heart of it.

To advertise Egypt’s presence as a player on the international scene, Ismail marked the opening of the Canal with a grand festival. Visitors to the celebration in Cairo arrived in a bustling metropolis that boasted an impressive array of grand avenues, neo-classical government buildings, public squares, and a new opera house which was attracting audiences to Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto, already a favorite among opera-goers “on the continent.”

But a new opera house seemed to call for a new sort of opera.  Even while the theater was in the planning phase, French-born Egyptologist Auguste Mariette had urged Ismail to commission a new work for his Italian theater. Mariette had already developed an idea for the subject of this opera: drawing loosely on the ancient romance Aethiopica (sometimes called “the first adventure novel”), he created a story line around the love of a captive Ethiopian princess named Aïda for an Egyptian commander.  Along with the obvious love story, the setting provided ample opportunity to recall the glory of ancient Egypt, and, by implication, to promote the potential glory of a modern Egyptian state.

With Ismail’s endorsement, Mariette began a quiet campaign to convince Verdi, who had thus far resisted entreaties from Cairo to create a new opera, to set the story to music. Mariette passed the proposal on to a mutual friend, who presented the concept to Verdi personally.  The composer, intrigued by the potential interplay of the epic and the intimate in this drama, agreed to a lucrative contract. The sets were to be constructed in Paris for a Cairo premiere in January of 1871; author and former singer Antonio Ghislanzoni, working closely with Verdi, was commissioned to produce the Italian libretto based on Mariette’s story line.

Circumstances, however, undermined the glorious premiere Mariette and Ismail had envisioned. The outbreak of war between France and Germany resulted in the sets being stranded in besieged Paris, pushing the premiere back by nearly a year. And democratically inclined Verdi, upon learning that the production in Cairo would be witnessed only by an invited audience, declined to attend the gala performance on December 24, 1871, and let it be known that he considered the performance at La Scala in Milan the following February to be the real “premiere.”

The wait proved worthwhile, as audiences at the opening nights in both Cairo and Milan witnessed a work that fashioned a nearly perfect blend of exotic opulence and intimacy. Opera as visual spectacle had reached new heights only a few years earlier with Giacomo Meyerbeer’s grand and glorious shows, and Verdi drew freely on that tradition throughout Aïda—most notably in the famous “Triumphal Scene,” an extravaganza that continues to challenge modern day designers and directors.

Although audience members are apt to go home whistling the hit tunes from the “Triumphal Scene,” it’s in more subtle effects that Verdi hits his stride. The brief, understated Prologue seduces the listener into an ancient, mysterious world; the off-stage presentation of the trial of Radames and the proto-cinematic, “split-screen” configuration of the final scene can likewise dependably raise audience goose-bumps.

The music itself is a prime example of traditional harmony vindicated as a means of expression.  This, in an era in which, with Wagner at the forefront, harmonic rules were made to be broken. Verdi, while open to innovation (he considered but ultimately rejected a proposal to include a saxophone in the score) unabashedly continues the centuries-old Italian tradition of reveling in the sheer beauty of the human voice, reaching a pinnacle with the aria “Celeste Aïda,” one of the enduring showpieces of the tenor repertoire.

After the success in Milan, Aïda went global, with productions staged in Buenos Aires and New York. The major operatic centers of Europe saw and heard the piece before the decade ended; an early high point in the history of Aïda occurred early on, in Buenos Aires in 1886, when the as-yet-unknown 19-year-old Arturo Toscanini, sent in as a last-minute substitute, picked up the baton, slammed the score shut, and conducted the opera from memory. Currently, Aïda ranks as the thirteenth most frequently performed of all operas, and as the second most frequently performed work at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

However, for the man behind the commission, such global success was elusive.

Khedive Ismail, a viceroy whose cultural ambitions for Egypt sparked the creation of Aïda, eventually faced a fate which, while not quite as unfortunate as that of the principal characters of the opera, was hardly “magnificent.” In ironic contrast to the scenario laid out in Aïda, his attack on Ethiopia in 1875, part of an ambitious scheme to place the entire coast of the Red Sea under Egyptian control, ended in Ethiopian victory.  And while the plot of Aïda features an Ethiopian princess held in captivity in Egypt, in the nineteenth-century conflict, the Ethiopian army captured Ismail’s son Hassan and held him for an exorbitant ransom. Not long afterward, mounting debts to finance Ismail’s ambitious projects (his fiscal policy by that time consisted largely of paying off old obligations by taking new loans at ever higher interest rates) resulted in the European takeover of the Suez Canal. Ismail abdicated in 1879, and spent his remaining years confined to a palace near Istanbul, while his son served as a powerless figurehead in British-controlled Egypt. His dreams of a vast Egyptian empire, on a par with Britain and France, slipped through his fingers like sand in the Sahara.

In the plus column, the modern infrastructure he built for his country endures; Cairo remains a grand if troubled metropolis, and the Suez Canal continues to be a vital hub of international maritime commerce from Europe to the Far East.

Historians may argue about Ismail’s relative success and failures; for music lovers, however, the answer is easy. With the help of a French Egyptologist and an Italian composer, Ismail deserves at least some credit for creating a work of art that is, indeed, as “magnificent” as advertised.

Wayne Lee Gay teaches in the English Department at the University of Texas at Arlington. Along with his volunteered contributions to the Dallas Opera PLAYBILL, he writes regularly for D Magazine’s FrontRow arts blog. A longtime classical music critic and past finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, he currently focuses on writing fiction.

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