It is just a few months out from the première of Aida on Sydney Harbour and director Gale Edwards’ eyes are sparkling. As one of Australia’s leading international directors, responsible for some of Opera Australia’s best-loved productions, she’s had no shortage of exciting opportunities to direct, but it is clear that for her, this project is exceptional.
“You have to be fearless of the huge landscape,” she says, speaking from her experience directing on the enormous, harbour top stage for Carmen on Sydney Harbour in 2013. “You have to embrace it, you can’t be intimidated, and you can’t be faint-hearted.” She describes the chance to direct another Opera on Sydney Harbour as a privilege, a special gift.
“It’s an incredibly exciting challenge – to have that fabulous music, the genius of Verdi as a composer, this amazing story of love and war and politics, and that backdrop of Sydney, the water and the moonlight.”
Aida on the Harbour demands spectacle on a grand scale, affecting drama on an intimate one and a worthy vehicle for one of the grandest opera scores ever written.
Edwards is determined to explore the opera from the inside out, and present the story for what it is: a story about war, politics, and love – unrequited and forbidden.
“I believe the opera is about a triumph of love in a world that forbids it, a world grounded in war, not on peace. Do these things sound contemporary, relevant? You only have to turn on the news every night and you’ll see all of these themes.”
“I have a responsibility to deliver glamour, and exoticism, and spectacle, and a responsibility to deliver romance and love – there’s a lot of things to honour in Aida itself. But I’m also interested in the politics of the piece,” Edwards says.
At the heart of it all is the love story between Aida and Radamès – the enslaved Ethiopian princess, and the Egyptian hero chosen to lead his people to victory over hers. “But that love is forbidden, because it crosses nations and status. Radamès can’t possibly love a slave,” Edwards explains. And the figure of Amneris, the Egyptian princess who loves Radamès, looms over it all.
“She’s all powerful, she’s a pampered pet, she’s a controller, she is manipulative and cunning. But she’s also a woman, with a heart. She can click her fingers and have somebody executed at will but what she can’t control, and she can’t buy, is Radamès’ love. No matter how she tries to destroy his love for her slave girl, and claim him for her own, he stays loyal.”
The enduring relevance of each of these themes pushed Edwards to set the opera in no particular time, a time where one character can carry a machine gun and another can ride in a chariot and images from classical and modern Egypt blend unashamedly. There’s a military feel to the costumes and set, there’s glamour and ostentatious wealth in the costumes of the Egyptians, there’s colour and beauty and movement in the costumes of the Ethiopians, which draw on the colours of Africa.
Visually, the combination will be thrilling to see, Edwards says.
The harbour stage offers all kinds of challenges – dramatically and logistically. Purpose built on the harbour each year with an orchestra pit concealed beneath the stage, there is very little in the way of wings. “I’ve had the opportunity to play in that space with Carmen, and work out a few things. For example, it takes one and a half minutes for a chorus member to get from their dressing room to the stage. There’s no storage space. Cranes move. These practical considerations all affect how you stage a work.”
While Edwards treated Carmen almost as a musical, with all the energy, dancing, running and jumping that offers, Aida is a different beast, she says, and demands a different approach. “It’s static, it’s monumental. Nobody will run across the stage!”
But there is spectacle, and emotion, and drama, and it is Edwards’ job to stage those moments in a way that involves the whole audience. “You have to be careful about finding that imagery, you have to stage duets and trios without closing the stage down, without letting your singers disappear.”
Edwards doesn’t sound remotely daunted by the challenge – in contrast, she’s overflowing with energy and excitement. “Opera on Sydney Harbour is the best possible way to see opera,” Edwards says. “You get Verdi’s legendary music and some of the world’s greatest opera singers, to sing it. That alone would be enough to come, but you have this amazing production with fabulous costumes and an exciting set by Mark Thompson. And most importantly, you have this whole experience outside. You’re looking at Sydney in the background, with the buildings and the Sydney Opera House and the bridge lit up. The water glitters in the moonlight, and the boats go past. We build restaurants! So you can buy your champagne and your gourmet food and sit and eat and drink and watch the opera.”
“The show is set within a huge landscape of other things – it’s a beautiful way to see this wonderful opera.”