Various commentators on Aida express disappointment that the music for the opera’s main characters is not more distinctive, i.e., does not make much use of the exotic styles that mark the work’s ceremonial scenes and ballets. Others argue that exotic style is mostly confined to female, hence powerless, characters. Much of this commentary draws on the same limited selection of data and observations: the exotic style of those few numbers, the opera’s plot, and the circumstances of the work’s commissioning (by the Khedive of Egypt).
The present study aims to broaden the discussion. Most unusually, it dwells on various aspects of words and music that are not in themselves ‘markers’ of exoticism or Orientalism but that nonetheless here manifestly announce traits of this or that character (or group) and thereby communicate indelible impressions of what Egyptians and Ethiopians supposedly ‘are like’ (or were like in an earlier era). For example, the music of the priests is mostly not, as commentators regularly claim, marked by imitative counterpoint; rather, it engages in several distinct archaicising tendencies, some of which characterise the priestly caste (and hence the Egyptian government) as rigid and menacing.
In addition, this study calls on such varied evidence (rarely if ever examined in this regard) as costume designs, directions in the disposizione scenica for the opera’s first Italian production, relevant remarks by Verdi and early commentators (including two Egyptians writing in 1901 and a late interview with Verdi about European imperialism), some early sound recordings, and Western fears/knowledge of the Wahhabist strain of Islam then expanding across the Middle East. While such a multifaceted exploration certainly cannot be definitive, it can point to new possibilities for exploration.