Catherine Ferguson
Aida
Design Process
Aida Sets 1
Aida Sets 2
Aida Sets 3
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Aida Opera Design
When Opera Omaha’s Artistic Director and Principle Conductor Stewart Robertson approached me about designing the sets and costumes for Aida, his request was to think beyond the lavish productions typically staged for this opera. With the exception of Act II Scene II, he views Aida as driven by an overarching narrative composed of many intimate conversations. Aida’s director Sam Helfrich and I agreed. And Joan Desens, the opera house’s general director, simply requested that the production be “beautiful and retain some essence of Egypt.” Ultimately, though, we all wanted to create a new production that would be less about the spectacle and more about the story. Given how critical both these aspects are to Verdi’s tragic drama, this was no small challenge.

Above all, Verdi’s creation of personal music motifs for the central characters led me to seek a corresponding visual motif for the set. Part of my early research involved traveling to see two very traditional productions of Aida as well as one minimalist staging of Lohengrin. Somewhere between these two distinct poles, I realized what I wanted Opera Omaha’s production to be.

This realization was enhanced by a chance visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. While in the Ancient Egyptian collection, I overheard a docent telling her group about the importance of the lotus, particularly the blue lotus, within this civilization. The Egyptians were partial to balance and believed their gods traveled in the watery underworld by night and in a heavenly boat during the day. The cycle of the blue lotus begins in the morning, when dawn first coaxes the tight bud to rise slowly from murky water. The lotus opens to reveal a yellow, round center, and in the evening, it closes and returns beneath the surface. In the morning, this process begins anew. To the ancient Egyptians, this continuous cycle of opening and closing perfectly symbolized the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. The lotus accordingly played a critical role within their creation myth, and the sun god Ra was born from a lotus – a blue lotus - that rose out of the mud of the Nile River, its sun-like middle aptly representing the deity.

Before hearing the docent’s account, I had been listening to Aida over and over, and I had been studying every minute aspect of the opera’s four acts. When I learned about the cycle of the lotus, I recognized the parallel between the flower and the structure of Aida. The day/night cycle of the lotus was the precise visual motif I had been seeking to complement the different music motifs Verdi had created for his principal singers. Acts I and II are about military power, the gold of the Ethiopians and the absolute will of the King, who is destined to become a “sun god” in his next life. Herein lies perfect solar symbolism. In contrast, opera scholars have described Acts III and IV as Aida’s lunar acts. They begin at night in the flora of the Nile, away from the power of the palace, and these final last acts reveal a myriad of personal struggles related to love, family allegiance and loyalty, all underscored by painful self-awareness. In the final moments, doomed lovers Aida and Radames sing about their rebirth into the next life, while Amneris faces a new life of her own, one she realizes she has created through her own deceptions.

Through my designs, I have worked with Sam Helfrich to create a timeless world of sets and costumes for a timeless opera. We collaborated to balance the monumental forms typically associated with ancient Egypt with the small but evocative shape of the lotus, both as bud and bloom. It is my hope that with this production, Aida’s cycle begins anew, a classic tale for a contemporary audience.


© 2007 Catherine Ferguson All Rights Reserved