When I first picked up the score of Aida two years ago, I was full of many emotions: I was excited to finally engross myself in this Verdi masterpiece and be transported to the times of Ancient Egypt; I felt honoured tobe given the responsibility of a title role, particularly one of such depth and magnitude; I felt confident that I would be able to portray Verdi’s heroine and do her justice; and finally, I felt that in fact, I would be ready for this milestone in my career.
Before I even opened to the first page of this glorious music, I knew that I had a fair bit of research to do, as I always do before learning any new role.
It is important to learn when and where the opera takes place, so that one may have a better understanding of their character’s role in society, as well as the social and historical context of the story, all of which affect the dramatic intentions and inevitable portrayal of the character.
I have a great affinity with and interest in Ancient Egyptian history. After studying the subject intensely in high school, I travelled to Egypt and visited all the ancient sites with my mother, as it is her birthplace, and soaked up all the richness of the culture. As such, I already had a keen sense of the history and place and the way of life during the times of the Pharaohs. Having seen all the ancient artefacts and monuments in all their glory, it was very easy for me to place myself and look through Aida’s eyes.
Next, it’s time to analyse the story and the relationships between the characters. The story and significance of Aida, I believe, can be interpreted differently by the different characters in the opera. It can be about love, war, betrayal or freedom. For Aida, an Ethiopian princess/slave, her life is about the suffering and perpetual torment she endures, caused by having to choose between her forbidden love and saving her people. For Amneris (an Egyptian princess) it is about unrequited love and betrayal, for Radames (an Egyptian hero) it is about honour and leading his army to victory with his love by his side, and for Amonasro (Aida’s father) it is about the peace and prosperity of his people and their freedom.
Ultimately, Aida is about how much suffering one woman must endure as she chooses between the greater good of her people and the forbidden love she has for her Egyptian hero, knowing full well that one decision will forsake the other.
Most of this character analysis is done through studying the text of the opera, after which it is time to consult the language and diction coach, Nicole Dorigo. Knowing and studying the text is a crucial element in preparing for a role as it gives you a clear indication of the composer’s and writer’s intentions. We are very fortunate to have such a knowledgeable and world renowned diction coach at Opera Australia to assist us with this next step. We discuss the intentions of each phrase, find the poetry and reason for using certain words and phrases at certain musical points in the opera. We also spend time perfecting the diction, as this opera is in Italian, and ultimately saying the words correctly makes them much easier to sing. It is all connected and there is a reason for everything, that’s why Verdi and composers of his ilk are geniuses.
The next step in my preparation was to finally look at the music of my role. It is important for me to be musically correct by studying the different time signatures and tempi, especially in ensemble pieces so that we are all in time together with the orchestra. I also study the dynamics and markings that have been written by the composer and gain a better understanding of the intentions for the character of Aida. I then need time to learn the music for myself, by repetition, before I am ready to take it to my voice teacher, Liliya Ovchiyan. My voice teacher and I worked through every individual phrase and nuance of the role and once I had her approval that I was meeting the vocal demands of the piece I was then ready to take it to my vocal coach at Opera Australia. We are extremely fortunate to have such an amazing staff of coaches who are so remarkably experienced and supportive in the way they prepare us technically for roles. Last but not least, the final person I showcase Aida for is the conductor. We go through the score and organise and collaborate on ideas. We then work together to ensure the best possible use of my talents for the benefit of the opera.
Fortunately for me, my Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini, provided me with numerous opportunities to perform the two Aida arias before a public audience: I have sung those two arias over thirty times on the stage of the Sydney Opera House. That experience is priceless when it comes to performing the role in its entirety. The arias become second nature.
It is now finally time to commence the staging rehearsals in Brisbane. Over three weeks we stage the complete opera with the Director, Hugh Halliday, and our brilliant Stage Managers whom we would be lost without; the Stage Managers are the glue that holds a production together and the gears that keep it moving. Working with Hugh is great, because not only does he have great vision and knows how to achieve a beautiful picture, he also allows room for collaboration and input from the singers, and always making sure we are comfortable.
It is an immense honour to work with Maestro Tahu Matheson on this production. He is an extremely brilliant conductor and has such great instinct in leading and following singers and bringing out the very best in their performance. He has made the rehearsal period so easy and enjoyable with his constant support and guidance.
Two years in the making… the final steps before Aida is ready for the public. We perform the final dress rehearsals next week upon the golden sands of Coolangatta Beach that have been transformed to the mythological sand dunes of Ancient Egypt. We travel back in time to the land of the Pharaohs among the set on the beach with its grandiose display of sphinxes glistening under the night sky. The final rehearsal involves getting used to the set in full costume, checking microphones, watching out for the live camels, testing the display of fireworks, and having the time of my life with an all-star cast.
Aida is ready!
Opera Australia presents Aida on Coolangatta Beach between the 21st and 30th of September. More information and tickets available here.