When Rex Met Aida

arthur nead illustration

Cairo, Egypt and New Orleans share the same latitude, 30 degrees, which makes both towns sort of steamy and subtropical – places where vegetation and the spirit sprouts, even in the winter.

That was certainly the case in 1871 when an event in Egypt would forever become part of something that was germinating in New Orleans.

To celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, the ruling Khedive had commissioned an opera to be staged at the Cairo Opera House. Chosen as the composer was one of Europe’s biggest names, the Italian Giuseppe Verdi. After some delays, the premiere performance occurred on Christmas Eve of that year.

Appropriately, Verdi’s opera had an Egyptian theme set around the tragic story of a captured Ethiopian princess (Aida) who falls in love with an Egyptian military commander and the conflict that causes with the Pharaoh.

Verdi would compose a lavish opera filled with what would become some of the genre’s most cherished music, none more so than the stunning piece that was performed in Act II, Scene 2. Beginning with the blare of trumpets, a cast of seemingly hundreds – many dressed as soldiers, royalty and plain Egyptian folks – moved in procession across the stage to the stirring sounds of what was to be known as the Triumphal March or, more commonly, the Grand March from Aida. Never had music captured the sprit of triumph more than Verdi’s masterpiece march. If opera was war, Egypt could have ruled the world.

That same month in New Orleans, a group of young men was having meeting at the St. Charles Hotel on Royal Street. Like Verdi they too were on a mission to create something new, only in this case it was a parade that would debut only a few week later on Feb. 13, Mardi Gras Day, 1872. There were already two Carnival parades – the Mistick Krewe of Comus and Twelfth Night Revelers – but they marched at night – bookends to the season, one on its first day, the other on its last. The new parade would be different. It would be held during the day and part of its mission would be to unite the various miscellaneous maskers that strolled the streets on Mardi Gras into one organized parade. The ruler would be the people’s monarch to be referred to as “The King of Carnival,” or, more simply, borrowing from the Latin word for king: Rex.

His Majesty’s first parade was in itself a triumphant march, so much so that the procession became an annual event eventually to include its own ball on the evening of Mardi Gras where a debutante, to be known as the Queen of Carnival, would promenade with Rex around the floor.

Back in Europe, Aida was a major hit performed in the continent’s grandest theaters. The opera reached the United States in November 1872, when it was performed at the Academy of Music in Manhattan. Though New Orleans was a major opera center, the Verdi composition, according to local opera historian Jack Belsom, wasn’t performed here until Dec. 6, 1879, at the French Opera House by the touring Strakosch Italian Opera Company.  “Thus it was sung in the original Italian rather than in French,” Belsom says. “It was sung a total of three times that season, but was not enthusiastically received because of less than adequate singers and décors.

“Things changed drastically the following season (1880-’81) when the excellent DeBeauplan French troupe was in residence,” Belsom adds. “They gave Aida a spectacular production, the sets based on designs from the original premiere, and with a strong cast. The first staging was on Dec. 16, 1880, and it was done often that season, to acclaim.”

There is one more date to this saga, and that is Mardi Gras evening, 1892. That is when the Rex organization and the Mistick Krewe of Comus first staged what would become familiarly known as “the meeting of the courts.” We don’t know for sure what music was played but we know now that by that year the “Triumphant March” was a hot number perfect for such occasions.

We know for sure that in modern times Rex responds to two marches, his own, “If Ever I Cease to Love,” and the march from Aida, as he and Comus and their queens circle the floor in what is Carnival society’s high holy moment.

By circumstance, Rex and Aida are contemporaries having made their debuts only 51 days apart in different parts of the world but along the same latitude – each in recognition of ceremony and royalty. And their triumphs continue.

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