A new 'Aida' lands in the middle of France's culture wars
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A new 'Aida' lands in the middle of France's culture wars
A scene from “Aida,” in Paris. The production, which examines the work’s colonial legacy, opened after the far right accused the Paris Opera of “antiracism gone mad.” Vincent Pontet via The New York Times.

by Joshua Barone

PARIS (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- When Lotte de Beer’s new production of Verdi’s “Aida” recently premiered at the Paris Opera — not to a full house, but to an audience online — she was just relieved it was happening.

“This might have been my hardest project ever,” de Beer said in a video interview. “We had crisis after crisis after crisis.”

The development of her staging, which is streaming on Arte.tv through Aug. 20, came amid a labor dispute at the Paris Opera that was quickly followed by a full pandemic shutdown and an earlier than expected transfer of power in the company’s leadership. She was working with multiple casts at once, including star singers like tenor Jonas Kaufmann, whose busy schedules made them less than ideally available for rehearsals. And the production had to be continually adapted to coronavirus restrictions.

And then there is the ideological quagmire into which this “Aida” was born. The Paris Opera, like many other institutions, has during the past year been forced, even by its own employees, to come to terms with its poor track record of racial representation, as well as practices like blackface and Orientalist caricature.

In doing so, it has become a target of far-right leaders — including Marine Le Pen, who decried comments by the Paris Opera’s new director, Alexander Neef, as “anti-racism gone mad.” In the pages of Le Monde, Neef, who is German but has held posts at the Canadian Opera Company and Santa Fe Opera, was accused of soaking up “la culture américaine.”

Planning for the new “Aida” predated Neef’s tenure, but it fits squarely in this moment of the Paris Opera’s history. Verdi’s 1871 tragedy, a love story set in a time of war between ancient Egypt and Ethiopia, is often given the treatment of a “Cleopatra”-like costume drama. But de Beer, who will become the director of the Vienna Volksoper next year, has offered a version so unusual that its Aida, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, pleaded on Instagram before opening night for her fans to “open your minds to something completely different.”

De Beer’s production is set in the 19th century, around the time of the opera’s premiere. Yet that sounds more specific than it comes across in practice. Her staging exists in a flexible, metaphor-heavy space that acts, by turns, as a colonial museum of ancient artifacts and natural history, including a prominently displayed skull that recalls pseudoscientific justifications of white supremacy; a frantic stage of tableaux vivants inspired by double-edged images of Western superiority, like Americans raising the flag on Iwo Jima; and the chilling depths of the Suez Canal, which opened two years before “Aida.”

With an occasionally chaotic blend of aesthetics — a winking embrace of kitsch, Bunraku-style puppetry, and designs by artist Virginia Chihota, who is based in Ethiopia — de Beer examines the work’s Orientalist undertones and legacy in a world of changing sensibilities.

Acknowledging that her approach eschews literal interpretation at almost every turn, de Beer said: “I do understand that if you’re expecting a one-to-one ‘Aida,’ where she is an Ethiopian slave and he is an Egyptian army leader, you’re not getting exactly what you expected. And yeah, what can I say about that?”

In fact, she had plenty to say — about the ideas behind her production and what it means to love an art form with a problematic past. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How was your production influenced by its casting of mostly white singers?

A: I think they first did the casting, and then they asked a couple of directors, who all said no. So in a late phase for a house like this, I was asked.

It’s a challenge. It’s a piece that I love, but also a piece that I’m critical of. It was clear that race needed to be discussed, but couldn’t be discussed by way of casting. I also knew that I wanted a non-Western and preferably African view, which is why I asked Virginia Chihota to be, as a visual artist, my partner in making this show. I didn’t just want to use her visuals; I wanted her take on the piece.

Q: And what did you come up with?

A: I wanted to portray the piece on two levels. I wanted to give the story inside the piece, which is a very strong story: It has a political line; it’s about war; it’s about patriotism; it’s about loyalty; it’s about status and the loss of status. But it’s also a love story.

I also knew I wanted to portray the story of the piece itself. The music is beautiful; I love it. But it has borrowed a lot of other cultures’ musics and turned them into Orientalist clichés — in brilliant ways, but it’s problematic seen from our times. And its premiere coincided with the opening of the Suez Canal, which itself was a colonial tool.

I thought it would be interesting to create the metaphor of the colonial art museum where looted art objects are being exhibited, because right now in France, that’s a big discussion going on: Do we give these artifacts back? Who do they belong to?

Q: Your ambivalence about “Aida” could apply to a lot of operas.

A: You fall in love with these characters — feel with them, cry with them, die with them. But on a certain level, you can detach from that and think about these pieces and the representation of the characters. What I hope is that it’s like reading your own diary 10 years after you’ve written it, and you can look at yourself and go: My God, what a crazy teenager I was, but of course this turned me into who I am.

These operas are part of our history, part of what makes us who we are — both in the completely positive and the completely negative senses. I think if we can embrace both and acknowledge both, that might actually teach us something about our future.

Q: How would you feel as an audience member at a more traditional “Aida”?

A: For me it’s boring, but it’s also offensive. I think if we continue in that way, we give people such good ammunition to say: Why are we sponsoring these big opera houses?

Q: The irony, of course, is that a production like yours makes some people ask that same question.

A: Quite a lot, I’ve noticed. I have to say that the negative reviews didn’t affect me as much as some negative reviews have affected me in the past, because it’s been almost an ideological argument. Those are also people who really love this art form. And I will soon be leading my own opera house, where I’m sure a large part of the audience might think that way. It’s my job to reach out to them and take their worries seriously.

It’s a matter of mindset, because opera is music theater. Music, you don’t need to update; it is an abstract language. If you hear music that was composed 400 years ago, it communicates in the same way to your soul. But theater is about ideas, texts, jokes. It’s about interpersonal relationships. And those change. That’s why the spoken theater tradition is very different from the music tradition. And in opera, those will always rub up against each other. That’s why I love it.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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