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SALZBURG FESTIVAL BLOG

TerraceTalk “Aida”

18 JUL 2017

by FESTSPIELKIEBITZ  17:45 h;
published in: Opera

Markus Hinterhäuser, Shirin Neshat © SF / Anne Zeuner
When she received the offer from Markus Hinterhäuser to direct Aida in Salzburg, Shirin Neshat recalls that her first thought was: “He must be crazy”. However, the more the visual artist thought about it and the more she delved into the story, the better she understood why he had asked her. Bettina Auer, dramaturge and moderator of the Terrace Talk, agrees that it was a logical step to dive into the next artistic métier, for Shirin Neshat is an artist who has always been transforming. Having started with photography, the exiled Iranian moved on to video and has now come to direct an opera. “I admire Markus for the trust he has placed in me, and for his courage in engaging me,” says Shirin Neshat. “Initially I was certainly a little bit afraid, but I rose to the challenge. Both in my work and in my private life, there is this dichotomy between being a woman and political tyranny and oppression,” Shirin Neshat explains.

“I identify with Aida,” says Shirin Neshat. She recounts being sent into exile innocently, parted from her homeland Iran, from her family and her loved ones. “I know how Aida must feel; you undergo a process, you realize you can go on, that you can fall in love again, adapt to the circumstances.” Aida is a survivor, she says, experiencing phases of nostalgia, of rage, of hope for a return – all the way to accepting that there is no way back. She continues to live with an unresolved situation. “Sometimes the boundaries between Aida and myself are blurred,” the artist adds.

Rehearsals for Aida have been ongoing for two weeks now. Bettina Auer enquires where Neshat sees the differences between visual arts and opera. “Of course there are a lot more fixed parameters than when you’re making a video,” says Shirin Neshat. “You cannot change the tempo or the story as you do with a film script, but you can find your own interpretation within these boundaries.” In the meantime, she has even learned to like these boundaries. She recounts how she tries to strike a balance between the power of opera, the power of the story, and her own reading of it. Most important to her is integrating the criticism levied by many people from the Arabic world at this opera. Many take a highly critical view of the opera, feeling some of its assumptions to be almost racist. “I am obliged to accept this criticism while maintaining the powerful moments of the opera,” says Shirin Neshat. In her production, she has tried to analyze the relationships: who is good, who is bad? She mixes cultures in order to focus on the human emotions. Bettina Auer adds that Verdi was a highly political composer, and of course the Egypt he depicted is merely a template. “However, it is a timeless tale we are telling,” the dramaturge says. It is never entirely clear who is good and who is bad, a fact also reflected by the costumes. The priests, for example, adds Shirin Neshat, unite all religions. Her point is to demonstrate how anyone is ultimately capable of succumbing to fanaticism. She explains that she was also inspired by Syrian refugees, and that she opted for contemporary costumes for the Ethiopians.

The greatest problem she has with the traditional portrayal of Aida is that the opera is too entertaining, too enamoured of the glamour of war and its triumphalism. This, however, adds Bettina Auer, is also where the art of such a great composer as Verdi comes into play. “The text in the libretto says, ‘We want war’ – over and over and over. Verdi, however, packages it in such seductive music,” she says. Shirin Neshat’s goal is to emphasize the human tragedy with her production – to this end, for example, she uses dancers wearing animal-like masks, making them appear like ghosts. The figures on stage are unable to see them; they seem supernatural and guide us through the worlds of the Egyptians and Ethiopians with stylized movements. Their point is to help emphasize the tragedy of Aida, instead of glorifying war.

To her mind, another aspect was ignored in the opera: the question how Aida sees her people, which is only indicated in the scene with the triumphal march. Shirin Neshat has now decided to use videos in order to emphasize this point, among others. Thus, while Aida sings, she shows a video with images of her people, the slaves. Another video is screened during Radamès’ secret trial at the end of the opera, showing images of fanatics committing violence. After all, this trial is a show trial in which the verdict has long been decided. She created these videos in Vienna with Syrian and African refugees, but also with Austrians.

The question that remains at the end of this tragic opera is: “Is there hope?” says Bettina Auer. “I thought about the opera’s ending for a long time,” says Shirin Neshat. “And I find it a wonderful ending. – After all, it ends with the human decision by Aida and Radamès to resist the rules of power, and to choose death instead. It is a human decision, a human ending. To me, there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” the director explains.

Podcast TerraceTalk Aida 2017

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