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Ageless Aida

From an eclectic pairing of electric African dance with elegant European ballet, performed in dazzling costumes against a mysterious set to a jazz filled soundtrack, a musical was born. Elton John and Tim Rice’s adaptation of the timeless love story Aida, which has been moving hearts in the US since 2000, is comes to Beijing this month at the Beijing Exhibition Theater.

The story is set in the lush landscape of ancient Egypt along the banks of the Nile, where a stroke of fate leads Egyptian army captain Radames to accidentally capture his enemy’s princess, Aida. Soon enough, the captor is held captive himself by Aida’s charm and beauty, while the princess’s regal identity remains a mystery to him. He saves her from a hard life of slavery and presents her as a handmaiden to his future wife, the Egyptian princess Amneris.

Although Aida and Radames are from totally different worlds, the inevitability of their true love brings them closer and closer, putting Aida, Amneris and Radames in a tricky love triangle built of conflicting loyalties, complicated emotions, national pride and raw hatred.

Aida was originally a four-act opera envisioned by Giuseppe Verdi for the opening of the opera house in Egypt’s capital city. The story was created by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, with an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. Since its inaugural performance in 1871, it has been acclaimed as the greatest classic performance to come from Egypt.

Coincidently, the Cairo National Opera from Egypt presented the opera version of Aida in its National Center For The Performing Arts in early July, just before John and Rice’s musical version started its China tour. Compared to opera’s more serious classical style, the musical version introduces a musical rainbow of different songs, swinging from R&B to gospel, ballads and even a little honky-tonk.

“I have never seen the opera,” says Casey Elliot, who plays Radames, “but I heard the music and it is beautiful. Obviously they don’t really can compare in the genre and style, because one is opera and one is rock; one is Elton John, one is Verdi – but they’re the same basic story, with the leading characters, which are pretty much same.”

Elliot started singing professionally in 2004, and his nuanced understanding of the role bolsters his magnificent vocal and theatrical performance. While the opera version sticks rigidly to the old Egyptian myth, the musical version is more flexible, traveling through time and space to depict an immortal tale of true love.

Marja Harmon, who plays Aida, has performed in many Broadway shows including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Ragtime and Dreamgirls. “I am always touched by the show,” she says, adding that the most difficult part of portraying Aida is in the character development. “You want to be able to connect your character to the audiences and let them understand what the character is going through. You want to almost everyone feels or knows you,” she explains.

This Broadway version of Aida also features modern dance choreographed by Sarita Allen, the principal dancer in Alvin Ailey American Dance Company, who enriches the musical with her portrayals of the historical background, war scenes and emotion tangles through various styles of dance. Since its premier, the musical has won four Tony awards and one Grammy award. The leading actors of the cast that will be performing in Beijing are all fresh from the North American tour of Aida in 2006-2007.

Originally Published in November issue of thebeijinger, 2008

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