On December 24th 1871 made its debut at Cairo the great opera on the banks of the Nile, composed by Giuseppe Verdi
Can one define Aida as a commissioned Opera? If Giuseppe Verdi had written it for the inauguration of the Cairo Opera House - which took place in 1870 - we could agree with the definition, but the circumstances which brought about the staging of the greatest classical opera by Verdi were different.
In 1869, for the occasion of the celebrations for the opening of the Suez Canal, the Khedive (Viceroy of Egypt) commissioned Pietro Avoscani from Livorno in Italy to draw up the plans for an opera house and consequently build it. This exceptional undertaking, completed in just six months, required a prestigious and unpublished performance for its inauguration. At this point the Khedive called the famous Italian Composer to write an opera worthy enough for this occasion, which would be staged in the new Opera House. Verdi refused, not considering himself suited to composing operas on demand: at the opening of the Cairo Opera House the Khedive had to be satisfied with Rigoletto, without abandoning however, the project of entrusting Verdi with the commitment of writing another production.
The Viceroy's wish met with a mutual desire of the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette - who for some time had been working for the Egyptian Court - and had written a story based on Egyptian characters: nothing could have been more adapt for the occasion of the inauguration. Mariette took advantage of the situation to contact Camille Du Locle, Director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris, asking him to find a musician to write a lyrical opera based on his story. Du Locle boasted a strong friendship with Verdi from the time of their collaboration when working on Don Carlos and therefore, he showed his friend the Egyptian story. Verdi appeared indecisive. The Director of the Opera House knew how to convince him: if he didn't accept, the Khedive would surely turn to somebody else, maybe to a certain Richard Wagner, who was in the process of conquering the European scene with a very different type of music to Verdi's. The Italian Composer's weak point got the better of him and so as not to hand over the task to Wagner, whom he looked upon as his rival, he accepted the task of composing Aida.
The composer's compensation fee was fixed at the astronomical figure of 150.000 francs. He then committed himself to composing the libretto at his own expense and to paying an Orchestra Director who would substitute him in Cairo to direct the Première. The contract foresaw that the Opera would be presented in January 1871, but historical events prevented this. In 1870 the succession to the Spanish Throne caused a war between France and Prussia: at that time Mariette was actually in Paris, engaged in the organization of the stage design and the costumes for Aida. When the Prussian army arrived at the French capital and surrounded the city, the Egyptologist ended up a prisoner inside the city and was compelled to interrupt the preparations.
In the meantime Verdi had made contact with Antonio Ghislanzoni for the drafting of the libretto under his own supervision. Then Verdi managed to guarantee the staging of the première of Aida in Italy at the Teatro alla Scala di Milano.
He composed the music very quickly, closely following Ghislanzoni's work, which was given to him bit by bit as each verse was completed. From that moment the composer was much more interested in the première in Milan than the one in Cairo and he had no intention of going to Egypt. He orchestrated the Opera in his own house in Sant'Agata, making notes and inserting markings directly on the score for the staging of the opera in the Egyptian Opera House. Due to the velocity of the work, the opera was completed by November 1870.
As soon as the Prussian Army entered the city, Mariette along with the scenography and the costumes could set sail for Cairo where the final preparations for the staging of the opera awaited them.
After very little difficulty, on December 24th, 1871, Aida finally was staged in Cairo before a Khedive who was so satisfied that he awarded the great composer with the title of 'Commander of the Ottoman Order'. Just two months later, on February 8th, 1872, the opera was staged in the Scala in Milan with a first-rate cast. Among them was the soprano Teresa Stolz. Thanks to the Milanese Début, the most important Italian and European Theatres requested the staging of Aida and this increased the fame of the Spectacular Opera; it was the beginning of a series of performances that were to classify Aida amongst the finest of Verdi's lyrical masterpieces. This opera is still triumphant in theatres all over the world.