In this episode of Big If True, we travel to ancient Egypt—or a fictional version of ancient Egypt, which is the setting for Aida, an opera by Giuseppe Verdi. Today we’re talking to Steven White about this grand opera, and what it takes to make such a production. This episode is for you even if you don’t know anything about opera, or you think you don’t like opera!
Guest bio: Steven White
Praised by Opera News as a conductor who “squeezes every drop of excitement and pathos from the score,” Steven White is one of North America’s premiere operatic and symphonic conductors. He made his acclaimed Metropolitan Opera debut in 2010, conducting performances of La traviata starring Angela Gheorghiu. Since then he has conducted a number of Metropolitan Opera performances of La traviata, with such stars as Natalie Dessay, Hei-Kyung Hong, Plácido Domingo, Thomas Hampson, Dmitri Hvorostovksy and Matthew Polenzani. In the past several seasons he has returned to the Met to participate in critically fêted productions of Don Carlo, Billy Budd, The Rake’s Progress and Elektra.
With a vibrant repertoire of over sixty-five titles, Maestro White’s extensive operatic engagements have included performances with New York City Opera, L’Opera de Montréal, Vancouver Opera, Opera Colorado, Pittsburgh Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, Baltimore Opera, New Orleans Opera, and many others. In recent seasons he has conducted Rigoletto with San Diego Opera, Otellowith Austin Opera, La traviata with Utah Opera, and a world premiere staged production of a brand-new Bärenreiter edition of Gounod’s Faust with Opera Omaha. In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the cancellation of his eleventh production at Arizona Opera, Ariadne auf Naxos,as well as the company premiere of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire at Opera Roanoke.Projects moving forward in the 2020-21 season COVID-impacted season include a reimagined Rigoletto with Tulsa Opera at Tulsa’s ONEOK Field, and Le nozze di Figaro in a return to Opera Omaha.
Music critics are effusive in their praise of conductor Steven White’s ability to elicit inspired music-making from orchestras. Of his 2016 performances with the Omaha Symphony, the Omaha World-Herald asserts that, “it would be hard to imagine a more complete performance of the Symphonie Fantastique. Highly nuanced, tightly controlled and crisp, Steven White asked everything from orchestra members and they were flawless. He led them out of serene beauty into disturbing dissonance and even to the terrifying point of musical madness without ever losing control. It was insanely good.” Opera News declares, “White is amazing: he consistently demands and gets the absolute best playing from the orchestra.”
Among the many orchestras Maestro White has conducted are the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the Moscow Philharmonic, the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal, the Mozarteum und Salzburg Kulturvereinigung Orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the New World Symphony Orchestra, the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, the Colorado Symphony, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, the Columbus Symphony Orchestra, the Charleston Symphony, the Florida Philharmonic, the Fort Worth Symphony and London’s Philharmonia Orchestra for a CHANDOS recording of arias featuring his wife, soprano Elizabeth Futral. In 2019 he made debuts with the San Diego Symphony, the Utah Symphony Orchestra and the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra.
Maestro White is a passionate and dedicated educator. He has served multiple artistic residencies and led productions at such institutions as the Peabody Conservatory of Music, Indiana University, the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, the University of Miami Frost School of Music Program in Salzburg, Kennesaw State University and Virginia Tech University. In the summer of 2019 he served as an artist in residence at the Shanghai Conservatory in China and in 2020 he led a critically acclaimed production of La clemenza di Tito for the North Carolina School of the Arts Fletcher Opera Institute. He is in constant demand as an adjudicator of the most prestigious music and vocal competitions, including numerous auditions for the Metropolitan Opera National Council and the Jensen Foundation.
Steven White proudly makes his home in Virginia, where he serves as Artistic Director of Opera Roanoke, a company with which he has been associated for two decades. Maestro White has conducted dozens of productions in Roanoke, including performances of Das Lied von der Erde, Der fliegende Holländer, Fidelio, Falstaff, Otello, Macbeth, Aida, Hänsel und Gretel and many others. In recognition of his contributions to the civic, cultural and artistic life of Southwest Virginia, Roanoke College conferred on Maestro White an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts in May 2013.
(From Fletcher Artists)
ABBY: Maggie, we’re supposed to have a Big If True episode out this week, but I’m having a really hard time coming up with a topic
MAGGIE: huh think think think…
ABBY: Giant clams?
MAGGIE: Did that already.
MAGGIE: No one we’ve reached out to has gotten back to us.
[music from Aida’s Triumphal March begins]
MAGGIE: Hey, hold on a sec. What’s that?
ABBY: Oh my, what is going on here?
MAGGIE: It looks like a huge procession.
ABBY: Wow, there are soldiers,
MAGGIE: and treasure,
ABBY: and dancers,
MAGGIE: and animals. I like animals. I think this should be our episode topic, this triumphal procession.
ABBY: I agree. This is the triumphal procession from an opera named Aida. And it’s what we’re going to talk about today on
MAGGIE and ABBY: Big If True.
MAGGIE: Where I, Maggie,
ABBY: and I, Abby,
MAGGIE: explore the truth about big things. Today is the next installment in our series, big of true and literature and culture. Today we’re talking about Aida, an opera written in 1871 by an Italian named Giuseppe Verdi. So here’s our quiz question to test your knowledge.
ABBY: How long does it take to perform Aida without any breaks?
A. one hour; B. an hour and 15 minutes; C. two hours; or D, two hours and 45 minutes.
ABBY: We’ll tell you the answer near the end of the show!
MAGGIE: We found someone great to tell us all about Aida. He’s an orchestra conductor who has conducted the opera multiple times.
STEVEN WHITE: I’m Steven White, I am a conductor. I’m 58 years old is makes me very, very old. And I’ve been at this for quite some time. I was very fortunate, I had opportunities as a child to start going to classical music events and operas and symphonies and recitals and plays and all that kind of stuff. And I had the added benefit of the fact that my parents were both professional musicians. My mom was a professional singer, she was a soprano. My dad was a pianist, and a musicologist. And he was my first teacher of music. And, and I sort of say that he taught me, he taught me everything really. I am really blessed to be a conductor. Because of all the things one can do as a musician, there is no greater privilege than then standing up in front of a bunch of people, leading them as a conductor. And because it’s such a privilege, I take it as such a huge responsibility as well.
MAGGIE: Steven, thank you so much for talking to us.
ABBY: Hold up. Before we go much further, let’s define what an opera is. It’s a really big, long story told in music, usually by singers who are accompanied by an orchestra. But they’re not just singing, they’re also acting out the story. So it’s like a play where no one talks in a normal voice; they sing absolutely everything. Operas are often long, and they’re really hard to write, to sing and to play in.
MAGGIE: Steven, can you tell us what is special about conducting an opera?
WHITE: You know, conducting itself is is a sort of a strange kind of thing. And you know, there are two there are two views about conducting. There are some people that think that conductors have to be these incredible geniuses. And that just by the way they move their eyebrows, you know, it changes the whole tone of an orchestra or something, and that there’s some kind of something special about it. And then there’s the opposite view of that, that anyone can do it. This idea that anyone can do it is, is actually closer to the truth in some, in some ways. Because I’ll tell you, the great thing about conducting is that I’m not making the sound. I’m relying on my, my singers and my players to make the sound. The thing with opera is that there are areas that absolutely require a conductor, that just doing straight symphonic work, or just straight choral work won’t do. Usually with an opera, you’ve got the orchestra sitting in a pit. And first of all, just the idea that it’s called a pit, it sort of gives you a general feeling of what it’s like to be down there. It almost feels like punishment. Sometimes, sometimes depending on how large the orchestra is, I mean, it can be so crowded in there. So the conductor is down there in the pit with the orchestra. And then you’ve got these singers on stage that have their music memorized, and they’re running all over the place, sometimes upstage, downstage, and it is the conductor’s job to keep all of that together. That’s his, that’s the conductor’s job at the bare minimum, but then all of the other aspects of that make music making enjoyable and a human experience come into play after that. If you can conduct opera well, you can conduct anything well. That is why so many of the world’s greatest conductors, most of the great conductors of the past just got their start in opera because opera is where you’re needed. The word conductor has nothing to do with trains, okay? It has to do with the idea of something conducting; you know, copper is a conducting element. Energy will go through a copper wire to some other place. I think of myself as a copper wire. The music comes through me, I am the conductor and it goes out to the orchestra which is down here and and up to the players that are up here and, and we are all united by the conductor. The conductor is not the most important person there but the conductor is the person who sort of has the job of making it all hold it together and give us the freedom to do what we do.
MAGGIE: Can you give us a two minute synopsis of the plot of Aida?
WHITE: Well, Aida takes place in ancient Egypt. And the character of Aida is an Ethiopian princess who has been captured by the Egyptians. Okay, she’s an Ethiopian, she’s been captured by the, by the Egyptians, and now she is serving as the personal slave to Amneris, the daughter of the Egyptian King, so she too is a princess. Aida is in love with Radames, who was the handsome and heroic leader of the Egyptian army. And he is in love with her as well. And of course, they have to keep that as a very big secret because—and this is a very big problem—Amneris is also in love with Radames. So here you have a classic, absolutely classic operatic love triangle. Soon we find out that Ethiopia has invaded Egypt, led by their own King Amonasro, and now it’s the job of Radames to go defeat the Ethiopians. And of course this absolutely rips Aida apart because Amonasro, the leader of the Ethiopians, is her father. So she’s torn between rooting for her father and her native country or the person she loves, Radames. Now Amneris, the Egyptian princess, is suspecting that there might be something going on between Aida and Radames. So she makes up a story. And she tells Aida, that Radames has been killed in battle. When Aida reacts with shock and grief, Amneris knows that Aida is in love with Radames. I mean, that was a very mean thing for her to do, wasn’t it? I mean, ridiculous, Radames had not been killed. In fact, he conquered the Ethiopian army and now he is marching them all back through the grand city gates. This is one of the most famous scenes we talked about earlier and all of opera known as the triumphal scene of Aida. And it’s huge. Sometimes you’ll have well over 100 people on stage: Egyptian soldiers and regular Egyptian citizens as well as Amonasro, Aida’s father. Of course, no one knows that Amonasro is her father, as well as all the captured Ethiopian army and even some of their wives and their children. And usually you’ll even have some animals. I’ve done it with camels and horses and even an elephant once. Of course it takes a big stage for that. And now all the Egyptians are crying out are demanding that the captured Ethiopians be executed. The Egyptian King tells Radames that as a reward, he can have anything he wants. Radames, being a good guy, asks that the Ethiopians’ lives be spared. He, Radames, will be the next king of Egypt and he must marry Amneris. So for most people you think that’d be pretty good news but for Radames and Aida, it was a disaster. So they decided to meet at night and make a plan. Aida gets to the spot first on the banks of the Nile River and is surprised by her father. He still wants to fight with the Egyptians so he coerces Aida to get information about the location of the Ethiopian army from Radames. I mean, she is really torn between doing the right thing for her country and her love for Radames. When Radames shows up they decide to escape by eloping. But Aida finds a way to get him to say where the army is at this point and Amonasro jumps out from his hiding place. And Radames realizes that he has essentially committed treason. He helped Amonasro and Aida escape and surrenders to the Egyptian guards. So we’re coming down the homestretch here. Radames is tried for treason. And Amneris, who now regrets what she’s done, a little late, don’t you think? she begs for mercy, but to know avail. He is sentenced to death to be buried alive inside a vault. So he’s placed in this vault which of course has limited oxygen, only to find that Aida is already inside waiting for him. She has decided to die with him. And together they sing of their love and they bid farewell to earth and all its sorrows. And as they suffocate and die in each other’s arms, Amneris is heard outside the vault, weeping and praying to Isis for forgiveness. And that’s how Aida ends.
MAGGIE: Wow, that is a bummer of a story.
WHITE: That is a thing about opera. People make lots of bad choices in opera. I mean, you could write a whole book about making the wrong choices in opera.
MAGGIE: It sounds like Aida needs a lot of people to make it happen. How big of a production is Aida?
WHITE: Aida is known as perhaps the grandest of all grand operas. There are operas that have bigger orchestras, Wagner’s operas have bigger orchestras. But just in terms of the pageantry, Aida has the very famous triumphal scene. And sometimes you can have a couple hundred people on stage, different choristers, and then you know all different kinds of what we call supernumeraries, that is to say, people who aren’t singing but who are acting, that you’ll have dancers, you’ll have all of this stuff on stage. Plus, you’ve got a very large orchestra for a 19th century Italian orchestra that has an added wind band brass band, as well as six Egyptian trumpets that have to play off stage and on stage.
So it’s just really, really big at its biggest. But the other thing about Aida that is so great, is the fact that it has moments of incredible intimacy, real softness, where you have to get the most, the most delicate kind of playing out of the strings. It’s known as a Grand Opera. And it certainly is, but but for those who really know it, they love it also for the fact that it can be very intimate and very poignant, in a delicate kind of way. So Aida has it all. It really does.
MAGGIE: Hey, as we’ve been listening to this right now, I noticed that this isn’t sung in English. So how can the audience follow along with what’s happening if they don’t speak the language the opera is written in?
WHITE: That’s a great question. Well, there are two ways. Most people say the first thing that’s most important is, well, they’ve got supertitles, that is to say, you can, you have English up above the stage, usually; sometimes, below the stage; sometimes, at certain opera houses, you’ll have on the back of the seat in front of you, you’ll have the translations. Obviously, that is one way. That’s the easiest, most obvious way. But the other way too, is by the expression of what’s going on stage. It’s not as specific as the text itself. And of course, we need that specificity, which is why the supertitles and the translation is important. But I always am trying to ask my singers that they express in their, in their acting, but not only their acting, but in their singing, with the, with the emotion of their singing, as much as they possibly can. And be as specific as they can. Does it mean that we’re going to know if the text says, “I’ll meet you at 2”? No, we don’t know that they’re saying “I’ll meet you at 2,” if you don’t understand Italian, but I do want them to have a sense of expectation that is obvious. I grew up not seeing opera with translations. I fell in love with the music and and, and of course, I studied the plots. But you know, the really great music makers are very interested in being as specific as they possibly can about the emotions, and the, and the the thoughts that they are trying to express. And so it’s, it’s very much like, let’s pretend you’ve got an orchestra or a piano. We know that they don’t have words. A piano doesn’t play with words. An orchestra doesn’t play with words. But it needs to mean something right? There has to be some kind of expressive content that comes forward. The universal language of music goes a long way as well.
Those supertitles are sure handy, though, I’ll have to say, but you know what, you’ve got to be careful. There are times when I have learned this the wrong way, where “Oh, we’ll just have the translation up there.” Well, you know, there are many many ways to translate things, and I have been conducting, and I’ll hear the audience laugh, and I think what are they laughing about? And I’ll look up and I’ll see that the translation was absurd that it, like it was wrong. I’ll give you a very perfect example. In the opera Tosca by Puccini, which is one of my favorite operas. Tosca has got virtually black eyes or pupils, and she’s known for the beauty of her of her dark eyes. And her boyfriend Cavaradossi is making a painting. On this painting, the woman has got blue eyes, and that makes, that makes Tosca jealous. And she said, well make sure that you give her the right color of eyes, make sure that they’re dark. And, and on the super title, it says, “Give her, give her a black eye.” Like when someone hits you and you get a black eye. And of course, that’s not what the text meant. But that’s what the supertitles said! It’s not even supposed to be a funny moment, per se. But so anyway, I have learned, I have learned as a conductor. I often write my own supertitles when I’m doing my own productions at my own company. But as a conductor, I insist on seeing the supertitles now.
MAGGIE: Okay, so now we need to know, how long does it take to perform Aida?
WHITE: There’s about two hours and 45 minutes of music as is in the score.
MAGGIE: There’s the answer to our quiz question: an uncut version of Aida performed straight through with no breaks, takes about two hours and 45 minutes.
ABBY: That’s a really long opera, even for adults.
MAGGIE: So Steven, as your last question, if Aida is too much for a kid to start with, what opera is a good place to start listening to opera?
WHITE: I think that Hansel and Gretel, which is a such a great, great opera. Hansel and Gretel happens to be one of my favorites. It’s by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck. And it has got some of the most beautiful music ever written in it. And it is the same Hansel and Gretel story that I think most kids are fairly familiar with. The only thing that you have to worry about is if this if the witch is too scary, that it might scare some of the which might scare some of the younger kids. But I would recommend Hansel and Gretel first and foremost.
ABBY: So here’s our challenge to you listeners: go listen to Aida‘s triumphal march or even better watch it. We’ve linked to a couple of versions in our show notes at bigiftrue.abbymullen.org, then draw us a picture of the triumphal procession. And if you send it to us, we’ll send you a sticker. You or your adult can send us an email at email@example.com. And we’ll pass along your artwork to Steven and then send you a sticker.
MAGGIE: And that’s all for today’s episode of Big If True! We’ll see you next time.
ABBY: Big If True is produced by me, Abby, and my special thanks to our expert Steven White for talking to us all about opera. And thanks to Bob Jones University for allowing us to use the music from their most recent production of Aida, which Steven conducted. Our theme music is composed by Andrew Cote. Thank you all for listening, and now go listen to some opera.