Marina del Rey Symphony dives into ancient Egypt with a staging of Verdi’s “Aida”

By Christina Campodonico

The poster for a 1908 production of “Aida” plays into romanticized notions of Egyptian antiquity

When the Marina del Rey Symphony presents its fully staged production of “Aida” next Thursday at Burton Chace Park, two bodies of water — one physical, one figurative — will serve as the backdrop for Giuseppe Verdi’s classic opera about star-crossed lovers and warring nations in ancient Egypt.

“We’re surrounded by water,” says Frank Fetta, conductor and music director of Marina del Rey Symphony. “We have the Nile River.”

Figuratively speaking, of course. Fetta is not only excited to imagine the harbor’s main channel as the crossroads of antiquity, but also to share Verdi’s epic and multifaceted score with a contemporary audience.

“It was Giuseppe Verdi’s biggest opera and possibly one of his most successful,” says Fetta, noting how Verdi capitalized on rising public interest in ancient Egypt at the time of the opera’s writing in the early 1870s. “Egypt became a place where people would like to go. They became interested in the pharaohs and the pyramids and the tombs. So in a way, Verdi cashed in on that.”

“A lot of [the music] is very exotic, but you can always sort of tell it’s [Verdi]. When it’s grand, it’s really grand. And when it’s intimate, it’s really intimate,” Fetta continues. “These calm moments are going, everything seems to be OK, and then all of a sudden the music and the drama start exploding and these very dynamic situations kind of jump off the page at you — jealousy, anger, religious fervor, political intrigue, shame, embarrassment, the suffering that the Egyptians are wreaking upon the Ethiopians.”

While Fetta notes that “Aida” is a politically charged story casting Egypt and Ethiopia as rival nations vying for power, it’s also a very personal one.

“Here’s the anomaly in ‘Aida,’” says Fetta. “It’s a big sweeping opera telling the story of the political rivalry and enmity between Egypt and Ethiopia. But the opera — when you strip away all the political and military grandness — is really a very simple story.”

A love story that is. At the heart of “Aida,” he explains, is a love triangle between the enslaved Ethiopian princess Aida, her lover — the Egyptian warrior Radames — and the Egyptian princess Amneris, who tries to come between them. Complicating matters: Aida — hiding her identity as a princess — is Amneris’ slave, and Radames is betrothed to Amneris. The war raging between these lovers’ nations is small in comparison to the wild emotions of their hearts.

“So the political is reduced down to a love story,” says Fetta.

Soprano Candace Bogan will play Aida, mezzo-soprano Nandani Sinha will play Amneris, and tenor Matteo Bitetti will play Radames. Patrick Blackwell, playing Egyptian high priest Ramfis, and Ralph Cato, playing Ethiopian king Amonasro (Aida’s father) round out the main cast. But all in all, more than 50 people make up the entire production’s ensemble, directed by Zeffin Quinn Hollis. The symphony also has a second cast, should anything go awry.

“The is definitely the biggest opera that we’ve done,” says Fetta, noting the Marina del Rey Symphony’s previous outdoor concert productions of “Pagliacci” two years ago and Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” last year. “It’s the grandest and has the biggest cast and the biggest amount of chorus, and we have eight dancers. … The scope of it so much greater than what we’ve done in the past.”

Like the Nile itself or the marina at sunset, “Aida” promises to be an incredible sight.

“Aida” starts at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 17, at Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Free. Visit