Ancient Egyptian themed Classical Music

Several operas have been set in Ancient Egypt. Egypt is often used as the background for love stories or evoked in order to explore philosophical questions. These five operas are all worth a watch. 

Israel in Egypt

Handel’s great oratorio which retells the story of the Exodus. The libretto is sparse but well chosen, based on texts from Exodus and the Psalms.

It premiered Easter 1739 in London. Handel recycled music from his previous composotions and parodied other composers. Stradella’s wedding serenata become the bombastic “He gave them hailstones”. 

It is hard not to link some of the lines – “Thou didst blow with the wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters” – to Britain’s dominant position in global power built on maritime dominance and funded through the slave trade and colonialism.

Magic Flute

Mozart’s most popular work, was profoundly influenced by the composer’s interest in free masonry and its supposed Egyptian origins amongst the Pyramid builders.

Prince Tamino is lost in a forest and is about to be killed by a serpent. He is saved by three ladies, attendants of the Queen of the Night, who disappear. He wakes to find the bird catcher Papageno who takes credit for saving the prince. A friendship is formed and love blossoms when the three ladies return and show the prince a portrait of the Princess Pamina. The two friends are sent on a quest to save the princess, but in the end they save themselves and discover the meaning of life via the Priests of Isis and Serapis

The Wizard of Oz of the Enlightenment.

Aida

Verdi’s classic was commissioned to be the first Opera performed in the Khedival Opera House in Cairo in late December 1871. (It is often mistakenly said to have been commissioned to celebrate the opening  the Suez Canal in 1869.) Although due to the Franco-Prussian war, the first opera performed was Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Aida, the beautiful Ethiopian princess has been captured by the Egyptians. Mighty Radames, a comely Egyptian general is thrown into a tizz, struggling between his love for the princess and his loyalty to a pharaoh. Will true love prevail? 

The costumes and set designed by Auguste Mariette based on the new knowledge in Europea about the art and culture of Ancient Egypt. It has a similar plot of the Nitteti by Josef Mysliveček.  

Akhnaten

Philip Glass’ opera premiered in Stuttgart in 1984. Glass explores the heretical pharaoh’s inner vision. Akhenaten’s reign saw a change in the religious forms of the period and a focus on the Aten, the solar disk. It was a complicated period which has inspired several writers and authors, including Sigmund Freud.

An interesting point is that many songs are sung in the original language – Egyptian, Akkadian or Hebrew. Interesting because we don’t know how some of these languages actually sounded or the extent to which they were classical or liturgical languages (used in religious settings, but not so much on the streets). 

The stage design is often quite sparse using the symbols of Akhenaten’s reign like the life giving rays of the sun disk, Aten.

Antony and Cleopatra

Based on the play by Shakespeare and with a kibretto by Franco Zeffirelli, this opera by Samuel Barber has had a chequered history. The opera was poorly recieved following its premiere in 1966. One reviewer said:

The night has gone down in the annals of opera as a landmark of vulgarity and staging excess. 

It has its moments.

Summary

Egypt is not just an exotic setting for opera, but an importance source for the operatic repertoire for centuries. 

Poster for Aida
Poster for a 1908 production of Aida in Cleveland

Photo References

Mozart Magic Fluter [Public Domain]

Poster for a 1908 production in Cleveland, showing the triumphal scene in act 2, scene 2 [Public Domain]