“Aida” (pronounced like eye-YEE-duh) originally began as an Italian opera from 1871. It was later adapted as a movie in 1953, starring Sophia Loren, in which the actors lip-synced opera recordings. Later, in 1998, the plot line was used as a musical in NYC, with music written by Elton John and Tim Rice.
Setting & characters
The story takes place sometime in the Old Kingdom era of ancient Egypt. This would mean anywhere from 2700 to 2200 B.C.
Aida is an Ethiopian princess who has been captured by the Egyptians and forced into slavery. Aida chooses to hide her true royal identity, because she knows that revealing so will result in execution. Her father is battling against Egypt in order to free his daughter from slavery.
Radamès is an Egyptian soldier who is fighting for his country. However, he is secretly in love with his slave, Aida — and she is also secretly in love with him too.
And then there is Amneris, the Egyptian princess. She is openly in love with Radamès, but fears that there is something going on between him and Aida, her suspected rival.
Other characters that play important roles are Aida’s father (King of Ethiopia), Ameris’s father (King of Egypt), and the priests of Egypt.
The King of Egypt, father of Amneris, has proclaimed that Goddess Isis has chosen Radamès to bring their country victory — and that he is destined to become the next king. He has arranged for Radamès to marry his daughter, and commands him as leader of the battlefield.
As Radamès fights in battle against the Ethiopians, Aida feels extremely conflicted between her love for her father and her native country verses her romantic feelings for Radamès. Meanwhile, Amneris’s suspicion continues to grow.
Amneris is desperate to figure out what Aida’s true feelings are towards Radamès. And so, with deception, Amneris lies to Aida and informs her that Radamès has died in war. Completely grief-stricken, Aida falls apart and confesses her love for Radamès. In turn, Amneris is absolutely enraged and desires revenge.
In reality, Radamès has actually won the war, and the Ethiopians have been defeated. Ecstatic, the Egyptian king promises Radamès that he may have whatever he wishes for. Next, the newly captured Ethiopian slaves come forth — including Aida’s father. Aida rushes to his side, but he warns her that he must conceal his identity as king, just as she has been hiding her identity as princess, in order to stay alive.
King of Egypt wants to put these slaves to death. Radamès pleads for their lives, reminding the king that he was promised whatever he wished for. And so, King of Egypt agrees and allows the slaves (including Aida and her father) to survive.
Aida’s father schemes with her to try and plan their escape. Aida reluctantly agrees, feeling as if she has no choice. However, so deeply in love with Radamès, she would much rather stay in Egypt as his slave.
Radamès finds Aida in private and tells her that he will marry her. They try to plan their own escape together, so that they do not have to part ways, according to her father’s plan. Little do they know, Aida’s father has been eavesdropping on this conversation, and now he knows everything that is happening between the two.
Aida’s father comes out of hiding and reveals his identity as king of Ethiopia. Amneras and the high priest come into the scene, and Aida’s father attempts to attack them with a dagger — however, Radamès stops him and instead tells him and Aida to escape. Instead, Radamès surrenders himself as sacrifice.
Now, Radamès is being prosecuted. Amneris, still in love with him, begs him to deny the accusations. However, as Radamès is so in love with Aida that he cannot live without her, he determines to confess the truth. He hopes that Aida has made it back to her home country safely with her father, and that she is happy.
During the court scene, Radamès vows silence and refuses to defend himself. Meanwhile, Amneris continues to plead for his life, and persistently cries for his innocence. The priests conclude that Radamès will be buried alive as punishment — for revealing military secrets, for setting the slaves free, and for betraying his country. Radamès subserviently agrees to his cruel fate, as Amneris is absolutely hysterical.
Finally, Radamès is taken to his tomb, where he will die a slow death. Upstairs and above him, Amneris and the priests cry and pray to the gods and goddesses of Egypt.
However — in the tomb of Radamès — Aida comes out of hiding. He sees that she has snuck below to be with him so that they can die together. He holds her in his arms.
Musical: the modern retelling
While both the classic opera and the modern musical follow the same plot line, there are many differences between the two. The first and most obvious difference is “opera” verses “musical.” Operas consist of only singing, while musicals contain spoken dialog mixed with outbreak into song. Along with that, operas tend to be complete tragedies — while musicals bring a greater sense of hope and optimism, despite how dark the storyline is.
Another significant difference is the ending. In the modern musical, instead of Aida sneaking into Radamès’s tomb, the two of them are put on trial together. While they are both put to death, Amneris convinces the priests to let them die together in the same tomb as an act of love. In this version, we see a much more selfless version of Amneris. While she is distraught over their love, she also has a sense of admiration for them.
And the greatest contrast is how the story begins and ends. In the musical, the story begins with a present-day couple visiting a history museum. As they come upon a statue of Amneris the pharaoh, she mystically comes to life and takes them through this ancient story. And then, at the very ending, after Aida and Radamès have been locked away to die together in the tomb, there comes a reveal — this present-day couple is actually the reincarnation of the two ancient lovers.
I am very drawn to this story, which is why I wanted to retell it. I did see this play in NYC during my childhood, and I can still picture myself there with my mom and my sister. The other weekend, when I was with family, my sister played a song from the play — I had completely forgotten about it, and all of a sudden it all came back. I found the storyline on wikipedia.
I really wanted to find a movie or book version of it, but I had no luck. The Italian 1953 opera is rare — there’s an extremely poor quality posted on Youtube, as well as a few high-quality snippets of the film, and no streaming or USA-format DVDs available. I would probably not be able to follow it anyway, considering the whole thing is in Italian song (subtitles?!)
And of course the musical is only available on broadway. I’m really surprised that there are no novels or English-version films of this opera. If you know of any — please let me know! I couldn’t do a film/book review, but felt the need to share this story somehow, so I decided to simply retell it. There were rumors of a film being made starring Christina Aguilera and Beyonce, but apparently that fell through. Hollywood, if you happen to see this post, please reconsider… haha.
It’s hard to say if I prefer the opera or musical version. I think I am leaning more towards opera. I love tragic love stories because honestly, love is a tragedy. It’s about risk, sacrifice, and battling against the rest of the world. It’s not this happy fairytale musical that American culture paints it as in all of these cheesy rom-coms (which I can still appreciate on some level.)
I felt it was very unrealistic, unfitting, and out-of-character for Amneris to ask for Aida and Radamès to be buried together. I cannot imagine a princess who had the love of her life stolen away by a slave/princess of another country, allow them to be together in their final moments. However, I do really like the reincarnation plot line. Without taking away the tragedy of their disturbing fate, it simultaneously brings a sense of profundity and wonder.