Opera Australia Blog

Cheat Sheet: Aida on Sydney Harbour

A cheat’s guide to Aida on the Harbour.

Who was the composer?

Lithograph of Giuseppe Verdi

By G.dallorto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Giuseppe Verdi – the most famous of Italian opera composers.

Verdi was born in Italy to a poor family. By the time he died, his fame was such that more than 200,000 people lined the streets at his funeral to pay him tribute.

How do you know you’re listening to Verdi? Verdi wrote big, beautiful melodies and expressive, dramatic orchestral music. As a composer, he was always seeking out strong subjects, demanding his librettists create realistic, human characterisations.

He had a special gift for taking a character marginalised by society and putting them centre stage – whether it be a courtesan in La Traviata, a hunch-backed jester in Rigoletto or an enslaved Ethiopian princess in Aida.

What happens in the story?

A rebellion is brewing on Egypt’s borders, and for both the oppressor and the oppressed, loves and loyalties are about to be tested.

Egypt needs a hero to lead their army, and the High Priest has chosen Radamès. Egypt’s fortunes will turn on his sword, but Radamès has a higher purpose. Through victory in battle, he hopes to win the hand of the beautiful slave girl Aida – handmaiden to the princess Amneris, and secretly, an Ethiopian princess.

Aida is torn between her love for the Egyptian hero and her despair for the country he must march against – her homeland.

And the Princess Amneris, who also desires Radamès, is beginning to have suspicions that her hero might prefer her slave…

As Radamès returns to Egypt in triumph, Aida is greeted with a terrible sight – her father, the King of Ethiopia, is among the slaves.

Just when all seems lost, the King of Egypt deals another blow: promising the triumphant Radamès his daughter Amneris’ hand.

On the banks of the Nile, the lovers arrange to meet one last time.

But the conquered Ethiopian King has a plan to save his country. Aida has to make a devastating choice.

In the darkness, the King’s plan, Aida’s conflicted heart and Radamès’ steadfast love collide in a devastating finale.

Who are the main players?

Star Latonia Moore.

Latonia Moore as ‘Aida’.

Aida – an Ethiopian princess, enslaved in Egypt – handmaiden to Amneris

Radamès – Aida’s lover, chosen to lead the Egyptians in battle

Amneris – an Egyptian princess

What’s the big hit?

The Triumphal March – big, bold and brassy, this glorious tune celebrates the Egyptians triumph over the Ethiopians in war. It’s one of the most famous pieces of classical music in the world – you might never have seen Aida, but you’ve probably heard the march.

Something to listen out for?

You’ll know the famous Triumphal March the instant it begins to play – a sonorous, glorious sound of trumpets and voices praising victorious Egypt. Using a martial, war-like rhythm, Verdi layers brass upon brass, and the melodic line rises, getting steadily louder until the voices come in a wall of magnificent sound: “Glory to Isis!”

There is actually no authentic sampling of Egyptian or African tunes in the score – Verdi creates an Eastern “feel” at the end of Act 1 in the harps (it sound a little like what you might hear a belly-dancer perform to), and again in the famous Nile scene, where a flute plays a rippling melody line, rising in trills and leaps.

[Spoiler alert] Entombed beneath the earth, as the lovers fade away, the music also seems to fade out, with the orchestra getting softer and softer as they perish.

This production is…

Aida Stage Render

The biggest Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour yet, with a cast of 96 people, a five-week season and a bigger stage than ever before.

Director Gale Edwards is determined to explore Aida from the inside out, presenting the story for what it is: a tale of war, of power, of politics, and love – unrequited and forbidden.

Her Aida is set in a world caught between times, a world where a man can carry a machine gun and another can ride in a chariot and images from classical and modern Egypt blend unashamedly.

Her Egypt stands for wealth and for power, an empire built on petrol, on the backs of the nations it has enslaved, a nation fat with the spoils of war. But war is only one part of the story, and for all its spectacle and scale, Aida has at its heart an intimate love story. “I believe this opera is about a triumph of love in a world that forbids it,” she explained.

Designer Mark Thompson has created a striking central image – the head of Nefertiti standing tall against Sydney Harbour and the city skyline, despite her decay.

The Egyptian costumes play with martial themes and ostentatious wealth – the women dripping in gold and the men in ceremonial dress uniforms. The Ethiopian slaves are swathed in colour, with clashing patterns and metres of fabric – a human work of art, as Thompson describes it.

A little history

1908 poster for Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, performed by the Hippodrome Opera Company of Cleveland, Ohio. [Public Domain]

1908 poster for Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida, performed by the Hippodrome Opera Company of Cleveland, Ohio. [Public Domain]

Accustomed to receiving commissions from Paris and Milan, Verdi must have found it refreshing to receive a request from the Khedive of Egypt for a new opera to celebrate the opening of the Khedivial Opera House. As he cast around for a subject, French librettist Camille du Locle suggested a story set in Ancient Egypt, sending the veteran composer a synopsis written by the Egyptologist August Mariette Bey. Verdi was intrigued, both by the story itself and the hand that wrote it. Mariette would end up having a significant role in Aida – overseeing designs for sets and costumes.

Du Locle composed a French libretto, but Verdi, still burned from the difficult experience of writing Don Carlos for the Paris Opera, decided it should be in Italian. He hired a journalist, Antonio Ghislanzoni, to translate it into Italian. With a libretto in hand, Verdi composed the music in just four months.

As it turned out, delays beyond Verdi’s control meant that Aida was not ready for the opening of the new house – Rigoletto was performed instead. But two years later, Aida premièred in Cairo in December, 1871 and in Milan a few months later. Verdi did not attend the Cairo première, but directed the Milan performance. It was a resounding success – the audience called him back to the stage thirty-two times with thunderous applause! He was gifted an ivory baton, and a star made of diamonds with the name of Aida spelled out in rubies.

Aida fast became a staple of the operatic canon, and today is often the subject of lavish outdoor performances.

Conversation starters

  • Verdi composed Aida in just four months.
  • More than 50 years after Aida, archaeologists uncovered two horns in the tomb of King Tutankhamen – one tuned to A flat, the other in B – two keys which feature prominently in Verdi’s triumphal march.
  • Verdi actually commissioned special trumpets for the Aida orchestra, made in Milan to resemble the long, straight Egyptian form.
  • Elton John composed a stage musical of Aida, with lyrics by Tim Rice, in 1998.


43 Responses to “Cheat Sheet: Aida on Sydney Harbour”

  1. Julia Carroll

    Thank you for this “cheat sheet” just what we needed. I bought tickets way back. We live in Brisbane and are making a special visit to Sydney to see Aida. Opera fanatics? Actually no – it is the one art form I have never got my head around; this is a last ditch attempt at age 78 to find out what everyone else loves about opera.

    • Jennifer Williams

      Hi Julia – I’m so glad you’re giving opera a try! I’m sure you’ll love Aida. As a bit of a treat, I’ve booked you and your guests in for a backstage tour at the Aida on Sydney Harbour site on the evening of your show. We’ll post those tickets out to you. Jennifer

  2. Wayne

    Thank you so much for the cheat sheet. I heard an ad on the radio for the show but wasn’t too sure if this would interest me but I’m now rushing for tickets after reading this!

  3. Judith Cooney

    Thankyou for the cheat sheet it is great I did not know the story and my friend who is going with me does not know the story either so this is great.

    Also another friend cannot go so we have a spare ticket hopefully the cheat sheet will give interest to another friend to come along.

  4. Lorraine Neville

    The cheat sheet has been very interesting and informative. My daughter Jessica are coming from south of Adelaide to attend Aida. It will be a very special introduction for us both to Opera in such a wonderful setting and to experience Sydney in such a special way will be very exciting. Thankyou.

  5. Julie Croucher

    Thanks so much for the cheat sheet. Bought tickets for myself and my daughter for Christmas. Coming down from Brisbsne for a Mum n daughter weekend.
    Not real opera buffs but this will be spectacular. Getting excited now! 🙂

  6. Ngaire Bird

    My friend and I are flying over from Auckland and Hawkes Bay respectively, to see the Opera. We last saw Aida in Verona, Italy. Loved your cheat sheet and even more excited after reading it, if indeed that’s possible.

  7. Linda Ashkanasy

    My husband Neal and I are also from Brisbane and making the journey to see Aida on the Harbour. Thanks for the cheat sheet, enjoyed the information. I Imagine with such a backdrop we will have an evening to remember.

  8. Michele Patrick Tomlinson

    I’m bringing my 2 teenage children from Gold Coast Australia. A 16yr old son and a 14yr old, Callas loving, daughter. We can’t wait. I raised them both with opera ringing throughout the house. Certainly both are opera enthusiasts. Their father and the surname ‘Tomlinson’ may ring a bell for some of you. So ‘Aida’ with its grand scale ‘wow’ factor…will be their baptism to grand scale (BIG budget) opera. My daughter has performed in children’s chorus for La Boheme in Qld….but this will be the first time either has experienced Verdi, in all his glory. We are all ‘busting’!!! Please pass on my fond regards to Mr. Brian Castles Onion. We worked together at Qld Opera (when I was in ‘Wardrobe’, back in the 80’s)! Aah, memories!

  9. Susan Sahakian

    What a wonderful touch to provide this chest cheat. My husband and I are flying over from Wellington, NZ and treating our 24 y.o. daughter to the show for an Easter present. I just forwarded this to her to provide some elucidation on the subject matter of Aida. My brother married an Italian woman and the reception was held at the Grand Hotel de Milano where Verdi wrote this opera I was told, and we were all there!
    Really looking forward to this production in one of the world’s most beautiful settings!

  10. Cath Fernbach

    Im flying in from North Queensland (cyclones permitting) to share this wonderful spectacle with my friend on her birthday – she is from Melbourne and adores Opera for me there’s not much opportunity so those cheat sheets give me a taste of what to expect..and the costumes..gorgeous!!

  11. Kerry burke

    Thank you for all the information and sneak pics to get us ready to get the most from Aida
    We make the trip each year from Perth to enjoy a Handa Opera. This has become the highlight of the year for us and we have also become opera fans

  12. Richard Wade

    I am looking forward to my third (in a row) Handa Opera on the Harbour. My girlfiriend, Ruth, and I will travel from Canberra. Attending the Opera on the Harbour has become a tradition for me since my musician/music teacher father died on 30 March 2012. I took my mother to Carmen on 30 March 2013 and the last weekend in March Opera trip has been on the calendar ever since. I also become an Opera Australia subscriber in 2013 and a fully-fledged 40s something Opera buff–I love it!!!
    I enjoyed your cheat sheet–it is a useful part of my homework for Aida. This includes listening to Aida on CD (EMI – Verdi, the Great Operas). I feel that the better I know the music the more I will enjoy Opera on the Harbour. Bring on 28 March!

  13. Janet Rankin

    My husband and I attended the first Opera on the Harbour and we have attended every one since. I can still remember the thrill as Emma Mathews soared above the stage in the amazing chandelier and her wonderful voice ringing out in triumph and thinking we are coming back. I hope that for those experiencing opera for the first time it proved that it is not staid or stuffy but can be enjoyed by everyone. I wonder after each production, how will they top that, but each one has been wonderful in it’s own different way and I am really looking forward to Aida. We last saw this in Melbourne and it was excellent but this promises to be spectacular. Lastly hoping and hoping that Turandot is on the Handa list of things to do.

  14. Hanneke

    Verdi and especially Aida, is my favorite…. !!

    We will fly in from Singapore and we will bring our grandchildren who live in HoChiMinhCity, to see this edition of Handa.
    9 and 10 years old now, their age is just good to start instilling love for opera, I think.
    The cheatsheet is a wonderful help in explaining the story to them.. thank you!

  15. alan burniston

    Very interesting cheat sheet This will be our fourth Handa opera and our first opening night very excited.Will make a night of it by staying in the city (we live in the Southern Highlands) might even do some fine dining at Harrys Cafe de Wheels.
    Roll on opening night

  16. sue

    This is such a tantalising ‘taster’. Thank you. Promises to be a lush and spectacular night, hoping for good weather. I’ll be flying down from Coffs Harbour as a birthday treat to meet a Sydney friend and come to my first Handa opera. Very excited.

  17. Betty Pearson

    We are travelling from UK and cruising from Sydney on 3rd April. We decided to have 2 extra nights in Sydney and realising that Aida was on whilst we are there we felt we could not let this opportunity pass so we booked seats for 1st April.

    Your cheat sheet is wonderful and the pictures on your site are really wetting my appetite to see an opera I have always longed to see.
    Hope all the rehearsals go well.

  18. Mara Fedczina

    Hi everyone,
    I have never missed a Handa performance on the harbour since the first performance which was La Travita with that magnificent candelabra , except last year when it rained (REMEMBER) and I got the flu so kids got the tickets instead and loved every moment. (one way of introducing teenagers to opera)

    I am also from Brisbane and since there are sooo many of us I suggest we meet in the interval for a drink and chat, what do you think queeenslanders?

  19. Margaret

    My husband and myself have been to every Opera on the Harbour with some very special friends. We purchased the tickets last year and on New Year’s Day my friend’s husband died. We are still going with his wife so it will be a very emotional time for us.
    I am so pleased she is coming. The cheat sheet is a great preparation for what I am expecting to be a wonderful performance. The city of Sydney is a magnificent back drop.

  20. Doreen

    Thank you so much for the cheat sheet. I am sooooo looking forward to the performance on 31st March to celebrate our Ruby wedding anniversary . My sister in law and hubby area flying in from Scotland to join us and they are mega excited too !! She sings with the Scottish Nationsl Orchestra chorus so I am proud to take her to a wonderful Australian performance for the first time !

  21. Helen waisel

    I love the Opera! I bought tickets for my mothers-in-law and myself to see Aida but really it was just an excuse so I could see it….at 75 years of age I am hoping she loves it just as much as I do so I finally have someone else to go with

  22. Jean Gardner

    I too thank you for the CHEAT Sheets I am a full time carer to a very dear friend who will be 80 years old on Anzac Day, so I have booked a package deal to Sydney and will be going to see “AIDA” on 14th April. We are really looking forward to seeing it.

    Once again thank you for the cheat sheets

    Best Wishes Jean.

  23. Warren Lusby

    My wife, Liz, is a bit ambivalent about opera. But, she has has been extremely generous and gifted us with tickets to every Handa Opera since its start. We fly in for the weekend from Wagga just so that I can thoroughly enjoy my birthday present each year. A better present I can’t think of. I have been overwhelmed each year by the singing, the productions and, of course, the setting. Aida will be yet another night to remember. Thank you!!!! Long may the productions continue!!!!

  24. Gabby Walters

    This is my fourth year flying from Melbourne to see Handa Opera. Every year it just gets better and bigger. The setting is incomparable and the whole event is magnificently organised from the Sound quality, sets and singing to the extra experiences of enjoying a meal overlooking the harbour. I wouldn’t miss it! Thanks to Mr Handa for his vision and level of support of an event which puts Australia and Sydney even more on the world stage.

  25. Chris

    Thank-you for the cheat sheets, just what my friend & I need as first time opera goers. We both do volunteer work in our local country theatre wardrobe department & this production looks like it will certainly “blow us away” cannot wait for the experience., chris

  26. Ian & Barbara

    we are 2 late 70 guys. We’ve no idea on transport to Aida on the Harbour! Help, we are country kids from Temora we’ll be at the Oaks on Castlereagh??

    Cheers–Ian & Barbara

  27. JIM


  28. Joan Street

    I find it a privilege to live in a city so wonderful as Sydney which has many wonderful events to offer. But to me the highlight each year is the Handa Opera. I have been to all of them, got a bit wet on a few occasions BUT the event is so magnificent, who cares!! . AND I believe, incredulous as it seems, Aida will take the Handa Opera to a whole new level. How exciting.
    PS: Being able to get there by Water Taxi for $10 just rounds out a singularly unique evening. Thank you to all involved.

  29. Marie Lewis

    Dear Opera Australia

    This cheat-sheet is excellent!

    I’ve always wanted to go to an opera, but for a range of reasons I’ve never been so as this my first opera …. I thought I would go for the biggest and the best.

    I’m coming down from the Sunshine Coast Qld to see it …..sooooooo excited.


  30. Sheila

    Sunday night,s Aida surpassed even the previous Operas on the Harbour and the Blog adds a new dimension of understanding and pleasure . The blog and the lovely recipe will allow patrons patrons to re experience the evening and follow on when (hopefully ) we can renew our enjoyment of this magnificent Aida on DVD for so many who are unable to attend in person.

  31. Richard Soady

    I like Opera but have seen only a few. Opera Australia’s Productions are wonderful! Living now in The Blue Mountains it is always a big deal to travel to Sydney.
    The cheat sheet is excellent. Whole thing very professionl. Excited by the seeing the Production and hearing the outstnding cast.

  32. Chris

    What a great article – thank you for posting! My girlfriend will be very excited to know I’ve booked for the two of us to attend. I suspect she will be even more impressed now that I can provide her with some top line facts!

    Any tips for two Opera first timers?


  33. Maura Govey

    The ‘girls’ in my family booked tickets to take my 82 year old mum to her first opera in Sydney and to celebrate my Niece’s wedding so there will be three generations of us there next Wednesday and we will have all travelled from Busselton in Western Australia. I hope that it will be easy for mum to get to her seat and to the toilets – she is tiny – about 4 feet 10 and we are in C reserve so probably up a mountain or something. She is very excited. I have always wanted to take her to an opera. Thank you for the cheat sheet, it will help the rest of us understand what is going on!

  34. Donna

    Our tickets are for tomorrow night, so I am swatting up at the last minute. Thanks for the cheat sheet, all the detail helps.
    Our fingers and toes are crossed for clear skys.

  35. Susan Allen

    We have flown down from Brisbane for Aida as have quite a few. It’s to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. But it looks very unlikely that we’ll get to see the opera. Very bad timing – because of the weather. What a shame!!

  36. Wendy Needham

    Thank you for the cheat sheet. I am really looking forward to the performance this evening and I am sure I will now understand it better. Soooo I hope the weather is kind and we have a great night.


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