On April 17 the Dutch daily paper Trouw published a hagiographic interview met Lotte de Beer (interview with Lotte de Beer) about the Aïda she directed in Paris. Interviewer Peter de Lint lets her ramble on about her well-known fashionable views on opera, loudly applauded by People of Now, who are also full of diversity, involvement etc. in the field of opera, but who have no idea about art history.
Peter de Lint slavishly picks up De Beers’ embarrassing stream of words, without raising a single critical eyebrow. That is why we are lightly trimming a few passages here.
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As a preamble and reminder: the opera Aïda was first performed in 1871 and is about a war between Egypt and Ethiopia, about 1000 years before Christ, and about some exciting personal entanglements that take place during that war, so also 1000 before Christ. Hold on to that for a moment.
According to Lotte de Beer the topics covered are: Colonialism (is not what the opera is about), racism (is not what the opera is about at all), looting art (is not what the opera is about), sexism (had not been invented yet, nor 1000 B.C. nor in 1871).
Here, of course, De Lint should have intervened immediately. “Something cool to drink?” could have playfully pointed Ms. De Beer in the direction of the right track.
It was not to be.
Ms. De Beer: “Aïda is a colonial story, a Western take on Orientalism, made in times when art was looted from Egypt to be exhibited in European museums.” Ms. De Beer errs: it is a war between two independent states, no colony is involved. The “Western view of Orientalism” is a linguistic slip, because “Orientalism” already implies the Western view, and that the opera would have been written at the time of art theft from Egypt has nothing to do with the subject of the opera. So, wrong, wrong and wrong.
According to Ms. De Beer, Aïda is a problematic title, one of the problematic titles (?) that have shaped us culturally. “I consider it a privilege to be allowed to interpret that cultural history,” she says. Interpreting cultural history is, of course, free to everyone. It is therefore not a privilege, but a right. Just as Virus Madness is entitled to its interpretations. However, De Beer’s cultural interpration should definitely not have besmirched Verdi’s opera Aída. Nothing was gained, only a lot was lost.
De Beer: “I would have liked to have had a black singer for Aida, simply because they get fewer opportunities.” Get less opportunities from whom? Figures? Proofs? And: “(…) when it turned out that four white singers had been cast for the title role, I did hesitate for a moment.” Associations with 9/11 come to mind! De Beer had hesitated for a moment! A shiver went through all of operaland!
But it gets worse: “I couldn’t avoid the theme of ‘race’ in this opera. (There is no such theme. OG) Then I contacted the black, Ethiopian artist Virginia Chihota. (…) Only after I had Chihota on board did I sign the contract in Paris.” This reasoning is bizarre and seemingly inextricable. It is something like the Lille football player who signed a contract with Paris St. Germain, but only after he had a Paris milkman “on board.”
Then Ms. De Beer muses a bit further. The Suez Canal was, “like the European art form opera, also a colonial instrument”. We note: opera and Suez Canal, colonial instruments. Check! About the romance in Aïda: “You have to tell that humane story, but the frame has to be about the piece itself, about the history of this opera. And so with me the opera plays in a kind of Tropenmuseum, with puppeteers [ oh no! not them again!] and with singers in nineteenth-century costumes.”
We are still studying “the frame must be about the play itself” and “the opera is therefore playing in a kind of Tropenmuseum.” Here Ms De Beer. seems to be erring: a glance at the libretto reveals that the opera is set in the time of the pharaohs.
Finally, as an encore, a very nice one. Read carefully: “For the famous triumphal march, which celebrates the victory of the Egyptians over the Ethiopians, Verdi has, in my opinion, deliberately created pompous, kitschy music.”
So, we can chew on that for a while. Verdi making kitschy music on purpose. Ms. De Beer should understand that some supporting evidence would be welcome.
The march “Gloria all´Egitto”, beginning of the 2nd act, also called the Triumphal March, is the best known melody from Aïda. Would Verdi really want to open the second act kitschy? “Gloria all ‘Egitto”, is a moment of Egyptian self-glorification. The title “Gloria all ‘Egitto” already sneakily hints at that. This march makes an intended overwhelming impression, and that may make some people uncomfortable. Contemporaries did not have that problem. But what do THEY know? In 1872, the important music critic Filippo Filippi praised the Triumphal March in plain terms: “Verdi has never made anything grander or more beautiful” [mai nulla di più grandioso, di più bello]. Filippi didn’t realize it was kitsch.
To make the trumpet part sound to his liking, Verdi had given himself quite a bit of effort. Verdi always did his best to make everything in his operas as authentic as possible. Recreating the ancient Egyptian trumpet for the Triumphal March was no easy task. There were some images of this trumpet to be found in the Louvre, but that was about it. Verdi commissioned musical instrument maker Giuseppe Pelitti to recreate these famous trumpets. The result, six unbowed trumpets, was not very pleasing to the ear. Verdi was certainly not a “joker” like Poulenc, and we are not aware of any sources that say he deliberately wrote “kitschy” music. It is possible, of course, but that would be a secret between Giuseppe Verdi and Ms. De Beer.
Finally, one more bon mot from Ms. De Beer: “Opera is more than a bunch of singers singing extremely beautifully.” LOL. That’s one in a line of clichés like “opera is not a museum,” “opera is more than just pretty pictures,” “opera has to be understood by modern people with modern means,” and such in the thousands of variants that People of Today have managed to produce.
In our opinion, Ms. De Beer had better stick to her shitting horses in Il barbiere di Siviglia.