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Egypt's Revolution: A Tragedy of Operatic Proportions

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Unlike the tragic heroine herself, who meets an untimely end buried alive in a tomb, Aida the opera is nothing if not a survivor.

Giuseppe Verdi's enduring work, commissioned by Khedive Ismail in an era of Suez Canal, inspired nationalist fervour. First staged in 1871, it has been revived an astonishing number of times -- most recently in Vancouver.

As I took in the Vancouver Opera production (which runs until May 3) with its stunning Cecil B. DeMille-like sets, gorgeous costumes and notable performances by Daveda Karanas as Amneris, the Pharaoh's daughter, and Morris Robinson as the high priest, Ramfis, I contemplated the opera's longevity and wide-ranging appeal.

While Verdi's intention was to create a popular opera that ordinary people could enjoy, it quickly became a favourite of Egypt's ruling classes. It was staged many times under the Khedive's reign and much later under Nasser's; it was a shoo-in during Mubarak's rule -- presumably for its resonant statist grandeur, and has even survived the latest regime change.

Indeed on a late April evening in Vancouver, taking in the powerful tale of truth and treachery, absolute power and slave rebellions, not to mention heartbreak and betrayal, it was hard not to think about the "Egyptian spring" -- currently giving way to a prolonged summer of discontent.

Unlike Aida -- the opera that has persisted through colonialism, pan-Arabism, and dictatorships --Egypt's latest "revolution," less than a year and a half old, seems to have more in common with the tragic heroine, whose passion is slowly suffocated in a tomb at the feet of the gods.

But rather than the "great mother" Isis and her companion Osiris, it's the promise of democracy, freedom and respect for human rights that have been held up like deities -- only to be smothered by the same old same old.

2012-04-27-Aida.jpgThen again, the status quo has always been a powerful deterrent to true revolution -- and Egypt is not alone in this regard. I'm often reminded of the story of the al-Gezira sporting club in Cairo -- a popular spot for the elite at the time of the monarchy. It survived talk of expropriation after the "Egyptian Revolution" of 1952, when the wives of the officers involved in the Nasser lead military coup, noticed that actually, it was quite a nice club -- and its status as gathering place for the elite continued unabated.

At the Vancouver performance, as I watched the scene at the end of the fourth act -- when Radames is dragged before the priests in chains and made to confess his "crimes" -- I remembered that since the 2011 "revolution" -- more than 12,000 people have been brought before military tribunals -- more than five times the number during 30 years of Mubarak's rule.

As emergency law persists, freedom of the press has declined dramatically, military rule prevails -- seemingly with impunity -- and human rights abuses and U.S. military aid continue.

Here's a sobering statement from a Human Rights Watch report from April 7:

"The March 11 acquittal of the only military officer charged in the 'virginity tests' trial is a blow for any hopes of accountability for the abuses women have experienced at the hands of the Egyptian military over the past year. The military has failed to investigate and punish credible claims of other instances of violence by its members against women, including the beating and torture of women demonstrators by military officers on March 9 and December 16, 2011"

It's interesting to note the continued popularity of the name "Aida" in Egyptian society. It's a name shared by Dr. Aida Seif El Dawla, founding member, psychiatrist, and human rights defender at Egyptian centre El Nadeem, who was awarded the 2011 Alkarama Award for Human Rights Defenders.

This Aida -- whose work documenting the death of a young Alexandrian businessman at the hands of corrupt police helped spark the 2011 "revolution" -- continues to document ongoing "post-revolutionary" abuse.

While one can only wonder what kind of ending Aida the opera might have had if Wagner had been given the commission, (as Khedive Ismail threatened if Verdi refused to accept it) its latest incarnation in Cairo seems to have maintained the status quo.

Despite the late Edward Said's damning critique of the opera as "orientalist," the February 2012 production at Cairo's Opera House had all the imperial spectacle typical of Khedive-era Egypt, the grandeur of its Nasser-era productions -- performed in front of the pyramids at a time when the president was hoping to counteract rising Islamism by hearkening back to a nation unfettered by Islam and the potent reminders of the power of the state that made it such a favourite under Mubarak.

If only there could be a different ending -- or at least an attempt at imagining one. Why can't the Pharaoh's daughter, Amneris, use her power to rescue Aida and Radames from the tomb, or take her rant against the injustice of his trial ("earthly justice and Heaven's you are insulting, on the guiltless your sentence will fall") one step further?

But by the time someone gets around to a re-interpreted libretto, the Islamist parties empowered by the end of the Mubarak regime may have banned the opera altogether.