This story is part of a series of 50 stories we are releasing to commemorate 50 years of opera in West Michigan. Browse more stories and follow our journey throughout the season.
10,000 patrons, 350 choristers, 16 horses, four elephants, and one unequivocally epic spectacle.
The Opera Grand Rapids production of Aida was a spectacle in the spirit of the ancient Egyptian court it portrayed. The production will stand forever as a testament to what’s possible when an entire community of strangers and friends comes together to create something beautiful.
The Opera Grand Rapids production of Aida was a spectacle in the spirit of the ancient Egyptian court it portrayed. Much like the grandest celebrations of the Old World, 1997’s Aida featured hundreds of singers, lavish costumes, a tiger, elephants, and a colossal audience. It remains the most ambitious production ever staged by the Opera company. With so many moving parts, every facet was bound to be epic—even the production’s hiccups. Before the evening was over, a wide cast of characters—some of whom were not part of the company—would play their parts, including a police escort and a stubborn tiger that wouldn’t come out of its cage.
To give the uninitiated an idea of the sheer scale on display that September night: the Opera’s normal chorus was supplemented with five extra choruses from other organizations, according to Kyle Irwin, who was chair of the Board of Directors of Opera Grand Rapids during the staging of Aida. “Doing Aida was about four years of preparation, and I think our end product showed it. We had to find people who had elephants. We had a friesian horse troupe. [Sixteen horses, to be precise—more horses than many performances have performers.] We had something for everybody.”
Imagine it: Before the sold-out crowd of ten thousand arrived that night, thirty wig and makeup assistants attend to eight principal singers and one hundred fifty extras. Weaving through the organized chaos of the dressing rooms are twelve wardrobe assistants and three stitchers. Golf carts ferry around personnel, speaker cabinets, microphones, and spools of wiring, pulling up alongside chariots parked in the wings. Three lighting supervisors stand in a nervous cluster over an expanse of dimmers and switches; they put hundreds of luminaries through their paces, creating brief, bright blooms of color on the stage. Bits of sound bubble from the fifty-four speaker cabinets stowed in every conceivable space. The eight subwoofers mumble thunderously. The scene is a storm of chatter, floating clouds of makeup powder, flashing lights, and fragments of sound coming from every direction. Yet everyone knows their places. By showtime, the maelstrom has been bridled, and eager thousands are transported to a King’s hall in ancient Memphis.
This isn’t to say everything went off without a hitch. For better or worse, Aida brought a measure of the suspense and courtly intrigue of its source material to Van Andel Arena that night. “As with anything in opera, there’s always drama,” said Irwin. “The evening of the performance, there was a gala dinner. Someone came up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘we don’t know where the programs are…’ That was close to seventy-five hundred programs. The sponsors and chorus and everyone wanted their acknowledgement.” A forgotten hero spent the first Act tracking down said programs, and during the intermission, they were finally delivered—alongside an escort by the police and fire departments. The programs’ return was even announced by the mayor. “I’m pleased to say there wasn’t a program left in the arena after the event, so all’s well that ends well,” said Irwin.
The buzz and pageantry surrounding Aida spread its magic far beyond Van Andel Arena itself. The Celebration on the Grand parade, which takes place the first weekend of September, featured a dose of ancient Egyptian splendor that year. Elephants, horses, and scores of chorus members in their costumes transformed Monroe Avenue into the Nile for a few hours that afternoon. And far beyond those shores, Aida was mentioned in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press, and many other national publications. Irwin is rightfully proud of the reputational boost the performance gave the opera company, and even Grand Rapids as a whole. “It brought us into the limelight. We finally got top billing.”
Aida is one of grand opera’s most beloved and oft-performed productions. It is performed all over the world with incredible frequency. Between 2009 and 2014, Aida was performed three hundred four times. By staging such a classic of the form, Opera Grand Rapids joined the ranks of the world’s foremost companies. In doing so at such a scale, the company honored the spirit of Aida’s composer, Giuseppe Verdi.
After completing Aida, Verdi desperately wanted its first performance to be open to anyone who wished to attend. Instead, the debut was staged in Cairo, an invitation-only affair for politicians, critics, and dignitaries. Verdi declined to attend; he reserved his energy and enthusiasm for the opera’s public debut in Milan. Staging Aida for eleven thousand people in the audience, from opera aficionados to those simply drawn by the grandeur, was a fitting tribute to the legendary maestro’s love of the people.
The thousands who were there that night, the hundreds of performers, and the dozens who planned for years to realize a nearly impossible scale of vision will never forget it. Aida will stand forever as a testament to what’s possible when an entire community of strangers and friends comes together to create something beautiful.
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