Editor’s note: Last month this column waxed on about the parallels between the founding of the Rex organization in New Orleans and the first performance, in Cairo, of the opera Aida whose moving grand march is performed during the Rex/Comus balls. Besides both cities being on the same latitude, 30 degrees, the respective debuts were only 51 days apart; Aida’s, Dec. 31, 1871; Rex’s Feb. 13, 1872. The opera didn’t reach New Orleans until December 1879 with an unsuccessful performance by an Italian troupe. In the 1880-’81 season the DeBeauplan French troupe performed a well-received version of the opera, which became very popular locally. Now, there’s more to the story:
One hundred and thirty years ago one of the most bizarre events in the history of opera took place in New Orleans: the reign of a fictitious Pharaoh was temporally interrupted by a then-contemporary ceremonial king, and the music of each blended.
Mardi Gras 1881 was on March 1. According to local opera historian Jack Belsom’s research, Rex had special plans for the night before: “(sic) The papers reported that on the previous evening (Feb. 28) during a performance of Aida Rex made an appearance at the French Opera House in mid-performance ‘before the third act was over, being escorted to the royal box by de Beauplan, a guard of honor, and lackeys with torches, to rounds of applause, and the royal anthem ‘If Ever I Cease to Love’ which the orchestra struck up.’” Thus when Rex and Aida first met, Rex’s anthem, for the first and only time, was injected into Verdi’s Nile scene.
In the world of Carnival, Rex is a powerful monarch – that incident showed just how powerful. He was able to interrupt an opera with the obvious support of the event’s organizers. One might suspect, as is true today, that the men of Rex were on many important boards including, in this case, having some pull in the theater.
For whatever the connections might have been, Aida’s presence seemed to have touched off a bout of Egyptian Mania around town.
A year later, in 1882, when the Krewe of Proteus made it debut, its ball’s theme was “Egyptian Mythology.”
One more curiosity: Depending on who is doing the counting, the debuts of Aida and Rex are even closer than originally believed. Giuseppe Verdi didn’t consider the Cairo performance to be the official premiere. He protested that the event was a closed affair and not open to the pubic. (Mmmmm … Seems like we’ve heard that theme in the news lately.) To Verdi, the real premiere was when his opera opened at the glistening LaScala opera house in Milan.
Not only were there general tickets sales but, unlike in the Cairo presentation, superstar Teresa Stolz – an operatic hot number who Verdi had in mind when he wrote the lead role – performed. The date of that event was Feb. 8, 1872 – five days before the Rex debut.
Historic parallels are little more than a collection of trivia without learning from them. The sagas of Aida and Rex give a glimpse of a sense of style among the better-educated men of the Victorian age. Schooled in the classics and raised with a sense of mission, their lives were also filled with battles. Aida, the character, suffered from slavery, lost love, discrimination and war. The men of Rex, living in a period still referred to as “Reconstruction” had in the previous decade experienced the hardships of a great civil war. Now was the time for peace and civility. For the moment two rivers, the Nile and the Mississippi, flowed as one.