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Verdi’s Aida across the Mediterranean (and beyond)


This essay considers Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida and the context of its production and reception on both sides of the Mediterranean Sea. It starts from Edward Said’s insightful discussion in Culture and Imperialism describing Verdi’s work as pivotal to an understanding of both cultural and economic relationships between Europe and Egypt. Yet, this essay also counterpoints Said’s reading, taking into consideration Aida’s role in the construction of both an Italian and “European” cultural identity inside and outside Europe, as opera was “exported” to the colonies, allowing colonial elites to recreate a “European” atmosphere at the heart of such burgeoning metropolises as Cairo or New York. In this context, the multifarious incarnations of Aida featured in the essay open operatic representation to the contested space of the Mediterranean and, more widely, to voices from the margins of European modernity. First, accounts of the reception of Aida show an osmosis between European and Egyptian cultural productions; second, Aida’s representation of Italy’s future colony, Ethiopia, conflicts with the opera’s own endorsement of the Ethiopians’ fight for freedom; and third, the heroine’s black skin troubles the representation of the racial Other in an opera that is not ostensibly about the protagonist’s race. Following these apparently diverging aural routes, this essay identifies Aida as one of the master narratives for the elaboration of racial issues both in Italy and beyond and explores its potential to subvert given representations of ethnicity and gender through performance.

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