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VOL. 125 | NO. 192 | Monday, October 4, 2010

‘Aida’ Kicks Off Opera Season with Splash

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

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Kishna Davis, left, Hugo Vera and Galina Ivannikova star in "Aida," Opera Memphis' season opener. Performances run Oct. 7 and 9 at the Orpheum Theatre. Former Opera Memphis executive director Michael Ching returns as conductor. (Photos: Courtesy of Opera Memphis & Wolverton Artists Management)

Apair of horses, two camels, a handful of snakes and possibly an elephant are heading to Memphis, but it’s not the circus or a petting zoo.

Opera Memphis’ season opener “Aida” by Giuseppe Verdi promises a return to grand opera with a multi-species cast and intense human conflict. Performances run Oct. 7 and 9 at the Orpheum Theatre.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” said Karen Tiller, executive director of Hawaii Opera Theatre and former executive director of Opera Memphis, who stage-directed the production – her first of “Aida.”

“I’ve said that it’s like air traffic control, because there are so many people,” she said. “But for me, we’ve found the human element too. Sometimes ‘Aida’ is a stand-and-sing opera. We’ve tried to make it a little more real, because I think it’s in there.”

“Aida” is Verdi’s telling of an ancient war between the Pharaohan society of Egypt and the tribal culture of Ethiopia. Radames, an Egyptian general selected to lead a crushing offensive against the Ethiopians unwittingly falls in love with Aida, the daughter of the Ethiopian king, though he has already been offered the hand of Pharaoh’s daughter, Amneris.

The opera is filled with brilliant and almost overpowering music to express the feeling of conflict between the three principal characters who must each choose between love and duty.

Former Opera Memphis executive director Michael Ching, who returned to conduct the opera, said that it can be difficult to perform the magnitude of the music that Verdi wanted without overpowering the singers. At one point Ching cut 32 bars from the triumphal scene, but because of the number of animals onstage at the time he added them right back.

“It’s not a small opera company production,” said Ching.

So why the big production? Aside from wanting to open the 2010-2011 season with a splash, Opera Memphis decided to return to a more traditional grand opera format after a highly experimental and stylized last season.

“On the face of it, ‘Aida’ doesn’t seem like it’s in real time, but it is,” said Tiller. “You have all of these asides that are written into the music so you know what Aida is thinking. And that’s what I think make’s it timeless.”

Tiller cast soprano Kishna Davis, who was last seen with Opera Memphis in 2006 in “Porgy and Bess,” in the title role.

“Aida loves her country so much,” said Davis. “Does she really want to let her youthful love for a man interfere when she’s truly in love with her country? She’s fighting with this. It’s an emotional journey of love and war.”

“If I had to give a title to the situation, I think of Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance,’” added Hugo Vera, tenor, who plays Radames and is making his Opera Memphis debut. “Each character has his own set of conflicts. For Radames it’s between love and duty. He loves being the chosen one to fight for Egypt, but at the same time the woman he loves is Ethiopian. He somehow believes he can have it all.”

In the middle is Amneris, daughter of the Pharaoh, played by mezzo-soprano Galina Ivannikova.

“Sometimes Amneris cannot find herself,” said Ivannikova. “She has to hate (Radames) because she thinks he is a traitor, but she also has to love him and wants to help him. Still she is a princess.”

For the set, audiences can expect a traditional rendering of ancient Egypt replete with a overarching Sphinx head and other backdrops flown on and off the stage, but Tiller said that lighting is used heavily to pull the three principals out of scenes to reference their internal conflicts.

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