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Aida Comes to Beijing

One week ahead of time, a wealth of international performers arrived in Beijing to rehearse the magnificent open-air Aida, which will be staged at the Beijing Workers' Stadium on Saturday and Sunday.

Produced by Beijing Bei'ao Grand Culture & Sports Events Co Ltd, with an investment of 30 million yuan (US$3.6 million), the stage was designed by Jiang Haoyang following his master stage-piece for the Three Tenors Concert at the Forbidden City in 2001, and creates an ancient Egyptian setting that specifically suits the Beijing Workers' Stadium.

The main stage covers about 6,200 square meters, upon which stands a 40-meter-high pyramid and an 18-meter Sphinx. The 20-ton pyramid is equipped with 800 small tires at the bottom so that it could revolve freely. On the two sides of the main stage also stand two 18-meter-high pharaohs and 10 18-meter-high Egyptian temple pillars. And off the stage there are 40 4-meter-high Sphinxes.

"At first I was a little nervous when I climbed to the height of 28 meters," Georgina von Benza who plays the title role Aida, said during the rehearsal on the 28-meter-high stage. "But when I started to sing, I became calm, because Aida is a very brave girl and would fear nothing."

"Now I feel so lucky to perform Aida on such a grand stage," she said. "It seems Beijing is the most fitting place to revive this splendid opera, and I believe all the audience will share this feeling with me when they see the performance.

"I wish for nothing but to try my best to sing well," she said.

Zlatomira Nilolova, who plays the part of Aida's rival Amenris sighed: "I have never seen such a large stage and never expected to sing to an audience of 80,000 before I came here."

Sixty-nine-year-old veteran baritone Bonaldo Giaiotti, who plays the Priest Ramphis, said: "I've toured to play Aida around the world over the last five years, but I believe this will be the best one." Director Kresimir Dolencic believes that everything is ready for the main performance.

All that's left him to do is to pray for a nice weather.

"I have been to the Temple of Heaven to pray several times," said the Croatian director, looking very relaxed during a break between rehearsals.

The artistic director of the National Theatre of Croatia promises the production will break the limits of time and space. By that, he means he and his crew members will utilize traditional and modern Chinese art forms, with special effects of stage and lighting to interpret this traditional Italian opera and the story of ancient Egypt in a modern atmosphere.

That's also the goal he shared with Liu Keqing, executive director of the opera.

Liu, a well-known Chinese operatic tenor, said that like many other high-brow genres of classic art, opera is facing challenges from other trendy forms of entertainment and its number of fans is decreasing worldwide.

"It is too difficult to attract young viewers," Liu said.

But he said he didn't think it is the fault of opera itself.

"Upon observing and researching, I have found that many people do not like it because their first approach to opera is some difficult repertoire staged in theatres," Liu said.

"So for a long time I have tried to bring to China the more entertaining open-air operas, so as to help those who have no clear idea of opera to learn to enjoy the classical Western art."

Dolencic, an experienced director who has directed 28 operas in 13 years including the Chinese-American composer Tan Dun's "Marco Polo" at his Croatian National Theatre in 2001, agrees with Liu.

Dolencic points out that the lavish setting and high-tech visual and audio effects are used to strengthen the live atmosphere and create an illusion, making the audience feel as if they were transported back to ancient times to join in a true-to-life drama of war, love, betrayal and sacrifice.

Verdi's Aida is sure to be one of the operas which fits the open-air arena best. After bringing it to the Shanghai International Arts Festival in 2000, with an investment of 10 million yuan (US$1.2 million), the two will now treat a Beijing audience to the spectacle.

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1910) composed the four-act opera Aida to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, in response to a request by the Khedive of Egypt for an opera with authentic Egyptian flavour. But it did not premiere there until two years later at the Cairo Opera House on December 24, 1871.

Since its debut, the magnificent operatic spectacle has become Verdi's most popular work and a challenge to the vocal, musical and interpretative resources of every opera house.

In recent times, Aida has become a favourite among ambitious stage directors such as Liu and Dolencic, who seek to stage it in massive open-air arenas with lavish settings, costumes, and extravagant props - including live elephants, lions, bears and snakes.

It embodies the idea of opera as an elaborate production disconnected from reality and as a way to fascinate common viewers.

The version being staged in Beijing is just that, and more.

Like all of the other versions, the triumph scene in Act II will be the visual and musical climax of this production.

Director Dolencic envisions bringing on the 6,200-square-meter stage looted treasures while miserable captives struggle under the lashes of whip-bearing slave drivers, and three elephants, seven lions, five tigers, 12 snakes and a bear make their way across the stage.

On par with these visuals is conductor Niels Muus's first-class performance of the popular "Grand March," the familiar song of the people in praise of their country, with the powerful 250-member-chorus made up of choirs from the China Central Opera House, China Opera and Ballet Theatre, the China Broadcasting Orchestra, the Central Ensemble of Traditional Chinese Music and the Beijing Festival Choir and a 150-member-orchestra made up of the Central Opera House Orchestra and the Beijing Symphony Orchestra.

Apart from a cast of well-known singers, light designer Deni Sesnic, sound designer Miaden Skalec, and costume designer Danica Dedijer have worked together to ensure the success of the shows.

An operatic carnival

Liu says it is more like a carnival than an opera for both the performers and the viewers, especially for the amateurs who are participating in a grand operatic show for the first time in their lives.

"We enjoy performing as the mass of Egyptian, accompanying Aida's aria Ritorna vincitor to welcome the victory army," said Lu Yan, a retired kindergarten teacher and a member of the Beijing Festival Choir.

Her response is a typical one for those who are taking part in the chorus, and many of them are actually without lines. Devoted in every rehearsal, they try to understand and interpret the music.

Professionals are not without misgivings. The renowned Beijing-based opera expert and critic Liu Shirong points out that it may make it difficult for the viewers to appreciate and understand the opera fully .

"Aida is a tragic story of love, jealousy, and horrible revenge. The shifting focus between the vast spectacle and intimate moments -sometimes awkward in a live performance on stage - presents special opportunities and challenges for the director and the performers," said Liu Shirong.

Dolencic said he would try to balance it. "I will try to make the artistic level as perfect as a version in the theatre," he says.

"Making records in some figures such as the height of the pyramids, the number of the performers, the variety of the animals is not my goal," Dolencic said. "Instead, I hope to bring a most touching and impressive Aida to the audiences."

Dolencic's touching and impressive work also means a variety of dance numbers, acrobatics and fireworks, but above all there should be a Chinese ending to the Egyptian Aida.

Since the lovers are buried in the pyramid, Liu Keqing suggests a similar Chinese love tragedy; the story of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, also known as the Butterfly Lovers. The story inspired Dolencic to make the lovers turn into butterflies and fly to the heavens after death.

So the ending scene will also be a spectacle with thousands of butterflies flying into the sky, with 400 torches kindled.

"It might be a coincidence between the East and West, but it implies that true love is universal and it lasts," Dolencic says. "On this theme, we plan to make this production universal and eternal, instead of making it only feature an Egyptian flavour."

(China Daily September 23, 2003)

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