This essay recycles some material and arguments from my MA thesis Performing the Orient: Edward Said’s (and Giuseppe Verdi’s) Aida, written for the University of Amsterdam. I thank Rokus de Groot, Kasper van Kooten, Marie Leidler and Wim van der Meer for their stimulating feedback.
Performing the Orient: On Edward Said’s Aida
Edward Said at the Met
For critical theorists, the social significance of a great artwork – and Aida is exemplary – lies in its immanent potential to rescue itself from being experienced as merely “a thing of the past,” which is to say, as a “museum piece” that no longer has meaning for us in the present. (Goehr 2009: 134)
Although I do not wish to single out Aida as exemplary – and neither do I want to make a value judgement based on a supposedly immanent potential – the recent debates on this opera’s imperialist implications do indeed offer a productive frame to reflect on the social significance of past artworks in the present. The debates on Aida’s relation to imperialism have largely been stimulated by Edward Said’s essay ‘The Empire at Work: Verdi’s Aida’, as included in his widely read Culture and Imperialism (1993a: 133-159). Therein, Said famously claims that, through its intimate ties to European ventures in Egypt around 1870, Aida is ‘not so much about but of imperial domination’ (1993a: 138, emphasis his). By considering the enabling circumstances of its commission and composition, it is demonstrated how ‘Aida embodies, as it was intended to do, the authority of Europe’s version of Egypt’ (ibid.: 151). Moreover, according to Said, Aida not only embodies but, through its informative effects to European audiences (ibid.: 157), also actively contributes to an orientalist discourse – a discourse that, as argued in Orientalism (Said 1978), facilitates and perhaps enables colonial and imperial rule in the region.
Said comes to these observations through what he terms a ‘contrapuntal reading’ (1993a: 134). This approach can be related to a musical characteristic of polyphony in which, due to harmonic interference of multiple voices, ‘Even new voices may be heard which are not performed as such’ (Groot 2010: 131, emphasis his). The argument is that Aida, by pretending to represent ancient Egypt, attempts to exclude its nineteenth-century colonial context, but that a ‘full contrapuntal appreciation of Aida reveals a structure of reference and attitude, a web of affiliations, connections, decisions, and collaborations, which can be read as leaving a set of ghostly notations in the opera’s visual and musical text’ (Said 1993a: 151). The set of ghostly notations, also referred to as ‘an echo to an original sound’ (ibid.), is what, according to Said, becomes explicit in a contrapuntal reading. Said concludes:
And certainly it is true that many great aesthetic objects of empire are remembered and admired without the baggage of domination that they carried through the process from gestation to production. Yet the empire remains, in inflection and traces, to be read, seen, and heard. And by not taking account of the imperialist structures of attitude and references they suggest, even in works like Aida, which seem unrelated to the struggle for territory and control, we reduce those works to caricatures, elaborate ones perhaps, but caricatures none the less. (1993a: 157)
It should be noted, however, that although Said’s essay on Aida is sometimes regarded as ‘the clearest illustration of Said’s contrapuntal method’ (Gregory 2000: 328), the methodology employed had previously not explicitly been related to a musical technique. When the essay appeared in a slightly different form in Grand Street in 1987, six years prior to being included as a chapter in Culture and Imperialism, Said refers to his methodology as ‘a sort of jigsaw puzzle interpretation’ (1987a: 85) instead of a contrapuntal reading. In the initial publication of this essay, in French as ‘Aida, spectacle impérial’ (Said 1987b) – a text that unfortunately is never referred to – this passage reflecting on the methodology, whether called a contrapuntal reading or jigsaw puzzle interpretation, is entirely absent (1987b: 6). Considering the prominence of the musicological terminology in Said’s reflections on Aida in Culture and Imperialism, this absence in the two articles from 1987 is notable, in particular since Said at that time had already employed the term ‘contrapuntal’ as an analytical concept in his articles ‘Reflections on Exile’ (1984a: 172) and ‘The Mind of Winter’ (1984b: 55).
Despite (or perhaps due to) Said’s inconsistent use of the musical concept in his essays on Aida, the perspective proposed offers the opportunity to read these texts contrapuntally; that is, to allow multiple, possibly unperformed voices to speak through Said’s interpretation. Interestingly, by locating the reflections on Aida in the year 1987, an unperformed voice that can be read in Said’s interpretation is, precisely, performance. From a few comments in an article from December 1986 for The Nation (Said 1986), it can be concluded that Said had recently attended a performance of Aida in the Metropolitan Opera (Met) in New York, starring Martina Arroyo (Aida) and Grace Bumbry (Amneris). As can be abstracted from the online archive of the Met, this performance must have been in John Dexter’s production, staged in September and October 1986 in New York – that is, several months prior to Said’s publications on Aida in Lettre international and Grand Street in respectively the summer and winter of 1987.
Said was certainly aware of the significance of performance to interpreting opera, as becomes clear, for example, in his elaborations on the productions by Peter Sellars of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas (Said 1987c; 1989; 1997). Nevertheless, in his essays on Aida’s relation to imperialism Said does not reflect on Dexter’s production, despite having recently attended it. (He does, however, briefly discuss three performances of Aida that he did not attend [see Said 1987a: 96-97; 1987b: 8-9].) Instead, in the sole comment on Dexter’s production in his published oeuvre, Said states:
Verdi’s miscalculations in Aida – his overdeveloped score and underdeveloped story, his lifeless attention to an Orientalist Egyptology, his callous disengagement from the place (Cairo) for which the piece was intended – were made plainer and more painful by the Met’s alternately strutting and stuttering performance. (Said 1986: 651)
Similar to his reading of Dexter’s (unrevised) production as attended in 1986, for Said the three performances briefly discussed in ‘The Imperial Spectacle’ (1987a: 96-97) seem to be unable to diverge from Verdi’s intentions, although he does note that they take the triumphal scene in Act II ‘as an opportunity to do more or less anything so long as it is excessive and full of display’ (ibid: 96). This raises the question whether, comparable to Sellars’s productions of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas, Aida can be performed differently, thereby omitting the orientalist visual spectacle. Said considers this to be an impossibility. In one of his discussions on Sellars’s interpretation of Don Giovanni, for example, he notes that ‘opera productions, although they give the director considerable leeway, must still respect character and plot. It would be impossible to do Aïda without Aïda’ (1987c: 318). In the same article, however, Said sensitively points out that, due to the unverifiability of the composer’s intentions, ‘even so apparently harmless and “correct” a notion as faithfulness to an original is itself already an interpretation’ (ibid.). Moreover, in an article with telling title ‘The Importance of Being Unfaithful to Wagner’ (Said 1993b), Said praises unconventional stagings that deliberately diverge from the composer’s intentions. Within the same spirit, he repeatedly criticises the Met for its conservative attitude towards operatic performance (e.g. Said 1986: 648-649; 1990: 866; 1991a: 29; 1991b: 597; 1992: 313-314), designating it as ‘the opera house of record’ whose ‘mandate is curatorial, and even antiquarian’ (Said 1992: 313). From that perspective, by contrapuntally reading the unperformed voice of his contemporary critique on conservative operatic performance, Said’s interpretation in ‘The Imperial Spectacle’ might be as much directed at the Met’s staging of Aida in 1986 as it is focussed on the Cairo premiere in 1871.
This is, indeed, what is suggested in Said’s review from 1986 in which Dexter’s production is briefly discussed. Besides a few rather blunt comments on this performance, of which I have quoted the main gist above, some introductory notes early in the article on the Met and its singers are revealing:
Such singers [like Pavarotti] have reduced opera performance to a minimum of intelligence and a maximum of overpriced noise, in which almost unbelievably low standards of theatre combine with equally low standards of musicality and direction. […] What I am objecting to is the way in which the Met performs and reperforms the nineteenth-century repertory guided by a concept it seems to have borrowed from the opera sequences in 1930s Hollywood films – all the heroes and heroines are pudgy, loud and stupid, the music they sing equally so. (Said 1986: 648-649)
When Said’s reflections on Aida (in Said 1987a and 1987b) are framed within his criticism of the Met in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the emphasis shifts from historical contextualisation of Aida’s genesis to questions regarding the possibilities to stage it ‘with startlingly new, even shocking force’ (Said 1987c: 319). Yet, in contrast to his elaborations on Mozart and Wagner, Said did not consider the possibility to stage Aida differently. By going beyond performances that confirm Said’s interpretation of Aida, and instead consider opera settings that are ‘metaphoric, not automatically real or naturalistic’ (Said 2006: 32), my attempt in this paper is to reinterpret the recent debates on the opera’s orientalism and imperialism from the perspective of its social significance for us in the present.
‘Sie sterben nicht’: Aida in the Streets of Graz
A very basic explanation for Edward Said’s neglect to discuss the possibilities to stage Aida differently is that he never attended a performance that challenged the opera’s imperialist and orientalist implications. Indeed, one of my central arguments in this paper is that operatic performance often enables interpretation – a claim which perhaps might seem rather trivial; yet, as is the case regarding Said’s attendance of a performance of Dexter’s production, the constituting role of performance to interpretation is not always acknowledged or made explicit. However, I hasten to add that, besides Dexter’s production, Said had certainly attended other performances of Aida, such as in Cairo around 1950 (see Said 1983a: 44). Moreover, Said had already given a lecture  on Aida’s imperialism at the annual conference of the British Association of Art and Historians in Brighton in April 1986 – that is, several months prior to seeing Dexter’s production in September or October 1986. Therefore, the constituting role of the specific performance for the Met to Said’s interpretation should not be overestimated. Instead, my argument is focussed on Said’s critical attitude towards conservative operatic stagings in general, and of Aida in particular, of which Dexter’s (unrevised) production is merely one example.
Besides the production by Hans Neuenfels (Frankfurt, 1981), the staging that is most often discussed as challenging Aida’s imperialist and orientalist implications is Peter Konwitschny’s (see e.g. Risi 2002; Fischer-Lichte 2011; Maes 2011), first performed in Graz in 1994 and more recently revived in Antwerp (2010) and Gent (2011) as well as in Leipzig (2008; 2010; 2011), where I attended a performance in 2011. As a counterpoint to the more usually invoked visual spectacle, with large stage pieces, many people and possibly camels on stage, Konwitschy’s production offers a minimalistic setting, consisting of a small white box in which merely the main characters are present, while the large chorus is hidden off-stage (fig. 1).
Arguably, the most notable moment in this production occurs at the end of the final scene. After Radamès is condemned for his betrayal and sent to an airtight chamber, to his surprise he finds Aida awaiting him on stage. Together they sing their final duet, and slowly walk upstage. The curtain remains open and, while listening to the last few bars of Aida, the audience sees the couple leaving the Oper Graz through a large door located at the rear of the stage (fig. 2).
Interestingly, although diverging from Verdi’s indications for the staging (see Busch 1978: 617), Konwitschny states that, ‘of course’, his conception for this scene is ‘based on the music’ , therewith echoing a belief in immanent potentials. On a different occasion (Konwitschny 2010: 22), he notes how, prior to Aida, Verdi’s opera endings were “realistic”, with the horror on stage represented in the music. Here, by contrast, we hear wonderful music for two singers who, supposedly, are suffocating. Therefore, according to Konwitschny, we have a utopia in Aida’s finale instead of death; they do not die, but simply go somewhere else, out of the world of opera. (‘Und dann kommt die Utopie. Sie sterben nicht, sie gehen gemeinsam einfach woanders hin. Aus der Opernwelt hinaus’ [Konwitschny in Kämpfer (ed.) 2001: 148].)
Considering that Aida and Radamès are lacking oxygen, their music in the final duet is indeed remarkable. After Radamès has discovered Aida’s presence on stage (‘Ciel! Aida!’), she explains to him she chose, far from every human gaze (‘lontana da ogni umano sguardo’), to die with him. During her explanation, the music modulates from d-minor to E-flat major. From here on, the music moves, in a threefold modulation from dominant to tonic, along the circle of fifths from E-flat major to G-flat major, as though, in the words of Julian Budden, ‘both singers were relaxing further and further into an atmosphere of peace’ (1992: 253).
Similarly, the melodic material suggests relaxation rather than suffocation, where Radamès’s cramped lines in the beginning of this scene come to be replaced by the melody on ‘O terra, addio’ in G-flat, sung in widely stretched intervals reaching up to a major seventh (ex. 1, all examples from the score are transcribed from the edition as published by Giulio Ricordi [Milan, 1913], reprinted by Dover Publications [Mineola 1989]).
(The following video of the final scene is from John Dexter’s production as performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on 3 January 1985, with a different cast in comparison to the performance Said attended in the Autumn of 1986.)
The melody is first sung by Aida (from 4:35 minutes in the video above), then repeated one octave lower by Radamès, and finally sung by both of them together. In each of these three lines, the motive in example 1 appears thrice in an a-a-b-a-c cabaletta, bringing the total to nine repetitions which creates, in the words of Anette Unger, ‘an impression of infinity’ (2002: 242). Upon its last appearance, when sung together, the codetta of their melody (ex. 2) is extended with a repetition of the text ‘il ciel, si schiude il ciel’ (‘heaven opens’).
After their final phrase, the melody is once repeated in the violin, thereby being shortened to the main theme plus the codetta. The violin sounds one octave above Aida’s melody, whereby the last two notes (d-flat´´´´ – g-flat´´´´) are played in the upper register of the instrument (ex. 3).
By reaching the high g-flat in the final chord – which is practically one of the higher notes on the violin without the use of flageolet tones – the music approaches its melodic limits. Meanwhile, dynamically the lower limits are touched upon, indicated in the score as ‘soli, con sordina, pianissimo possibile’, therewith constituting one of those rare silent endings of operatic performance.
It is during the violin’s repetition of the melody on ‘O terra, addio’ that Aida and Radamès walk through the door into the streets of Graz. Interestingly, the final phrase by Aida and Radamès on the text ‘il ciel, si schiude il ciel’ (‘heaven opens’) is not repeated in the violin, suggesting that the melody (inaudibly) continues after the final g-flat. Indeed, this line could not have been realised within the boundaries of operatic performance, since the b-flat in this phrase (on ‘il’ with a fermata in ex. 2) can, without using a flageolet tone, practically not be played in the register in which the violin ends. Perhaps the melody does continue, but it can only do so outside the world of operatic performance – beyond the limits of nineteenth-century symphonic music, outside the walls of the opera house.
In Konwitschny’s staging, it is not heaven that opens, but a door. The moment Aida and Radamès stop singing and walk through this door is as much the end of a performance as it is the beginning of their life in the streets of Graz. In Konwitschny’s productions, the so called ‘fourth wall’ is often broken towards the end of a performance. A clear example is his conception of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger (as seen in Hamburg, May 2013) during which, in the final scene, the singers start discussing what to do with such a nationalistic text. Therewith, the master singers temporarily distance themselves from the work Die Meistersinger and, similar to the audience, become observers instead. But when Aida and Radamès walk into the streets of Graz, it is not the fourth wall between stage and auditorium that is broken; they do not identify with the audience, but turn their backs both to the stage and the auditorium. Therefore, what is broken is actually the first, second or third wall, depending on where one starts counting. Aida’s phrase earlier in this scene, that she wishes to be with Radamès far away from every human gaze, takes on a renewed significance; she wants to escape from the gaze of the audience, away from the operatic world of Aida, into the streets of Graz.
What Konwitschny’s staging of the final scene makes explicit is that Aida (or Aida) does not die in the end of performance, but continues (or begins) to live the moment she moves beyond the staged world. If the melody of ‘O terra, addio’ continues inaudibly within the streets of Graz, this is because that is where the members in the audience, following Aida and Radamès, will find themselves in a few minutes time. It is precisely this transgression that Said indicates when referring to Aida’s informative effects. Both the interpretation by Said and by Konwitschny emphasise that Aida is not a museum piece safely preserved by the walls of music theatres, but that she literally moves beyond these walls into the world outside operatic performance.
On Music, Worlds and Critics
A significant difference between Edward Said’s ‘Aida, spectacle impérial’ (1987b) and ‘The Imperial Spectacle’ (1987a) – the latter which most closely resembles ‘The Empire at Work: Verdi’s Aida’ as included in Culture and Imperialism (1993a: 133-159) – is that the English text is supplemented with an elaboration on the historical, geographical and cultural position of the Opera House in Cairo (Said 1987a: 98-103). With this elaboration, in the words of Derek Gregory, Said ‘opens the door of the Opera House to confront the shimmering, teeming, buzzing city that lay outside’ (2000: 333). In the final scene of his production, by contrast, Peter Konwitschny opens the door to contemporary Graz rather than nineteenth-century Cairo. Similarly, Said ascribes the lasting impression of performance to historical contextualisation by concluding that Aida ‘has had an anaesthetic as well as informative effect on European audiences’ (1993a: 157, emphasis mine), presupposing that Aida died in the nineteenth century, whereas in Graz she remained alive.
Considering that Said opens the door to nineteenth-century Cairo, the question is raised what the potentials are of textual criticism to open the door to the contemporary world. One answer can be found in an essay appropriately titled ‘Adagio’, in which Homi Bhabha quotes Said saying in an interview on his Beginnings (1975a):
I am as aware as anyone that the ivory-tower concerns of technical criticism […] are very far removed from the world of politics, power, domination, and struggle. But there are links between the two worlds which I for one am beginning to exploit in my own work. (Said 1976: 35; quoted in Bhabha 2005: 8)
Bhabha paraphrases this as ‘The acrobat attempts to achieve a balance between the two worlds’ (2005: 8) – adagio as the acrobatic act to achieve a balance between two performers, the one textual and the other political. The means to achieve this balance are found in the posthumously published Humanism and Democratic Criticism (Said 2004), from which Bhabha quotes that the performative function of the narrative of humanistic resistance (Said’s term) is:
maintaining rather than resolving the tension between the aesthetic and the national, using the former to challenge, reexamine and resist the latter in those slow but rational modes of reception and understanding. (Said 2004: 78; quoted in Bhabha 2005: 11)
‘Why’, Bhabha ask, ‘must the narrative of resistance be “slow”?’ (ibid.). The reason is that, by forming ‘a deliberative measure of ethical and political reflection that maintains tension rather than resolves it, […] slowness articulates the movement that exists between the space of words and the social world’ (ibid.: 11-12, emphasis his). As such, ‘Humanist critique must oppose such eye-catching, mind-numbing institutions of instantaneity and adopt narrative forms that are longer and slower’ (ibid.: 11). Slowness ‘creates opportunities for oppositional writing – the resistance of the part to the hegemonic whole’ (ibid.: 12), therewith not only exerting but surpassing ‘close reading and revisionary interpretation’ (ibid.: 11). In short, the acrobatic act of adagio – the balance between the worlds of political struggle and technical criticism – is achieved through adagio in the musical sense.
Bhabha’s approach reminds of Said’s observation that ‘the interesting parallel might be not from literature to music but from music to literature’ (Barenboim and Said 2002: 119). The parallel is already applied in ‘The Text, the World, and the Critic’ (Said 1975b), an essay later renamed to ‘The World, the Text, and the Critic’ (Said 1983b) to reconsider the respectively attributed interrelations between the three entities – although the essay actually begins with neither world, text nor critic, but with music. Here, Said elaborates on Glenn Gould’s recording of Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to provide ‘an instance of a quasi-textual object whose ways of engaging the world are both numerous and complicated’ (1975b: 5). By drawing the parallel from music to text, Said argues that texts are worldly, too (ibid.: 1-5). In the final paragraph, the worldliness of texts under consideration – and here it should be remembered that Said was primarily a literary scholar – is extended with the question: ‘where in all this is the critic and his text?’ (ibid.: 18, emphasis his. In the modified and renamed essay, the gender bias is cleverly circumvented with: ‘where in all this is the critic and criticism? [Said 1983b: 50]).
As can be expected, criticism is in the world, too. Yet it is the essay, with ‘its essential formal incompleteness, because after all it is an essay’ (ibid.: 19, emphasis his), which is deemed the most appropriate form of textual criticism to be ‘concerned with the relations between things, with values and concepts, in fine, with significance’ (ibid.: 20). The open form makes it particularly suitable ‘as [a] necessarily incomplete and preparatory process towards judgement and evaluation. What the critical essay does is to begin to create the values by which art is judged’ (ibid.: 21, emphasis his). In short, it is a matter of ‘the bringing of literature to performance’ (ibid.). It is by these means that the door through which Aida walks out of operatic performance into the streets of Graz is not merely her way out of representation into the world of actuality; it is my way out, too. But to clarify this, it is first necessary to have a closer look at the escape route.
The door is located backstage behind the firewall, and was originally used to transport stage pieces. The measurements of this door are 3,5 meter (height) and 2,3 meter (width). A newer entrance, on the side of the building, is with five meters roughly twice as broad as the ‘Hinterbühnentor’ (see the Technisches Datenblatt of the Oper Graz). Figure 3 shows the Oper Graz cross-cut in profile, with the red arrow on the left indicating the location of the ‘Hinterbühnentor’.
Once outside, a few steps of stairs lead directly to the sidewalk of the Glacisstraβe, a large street with on-going traffic and a tram line. Across the Glacisstraβe is the Kaiser-Josef-Platz, a popular market square. It is with a view over this square that Aida finds herself once she leaves Aida (fig. 4). (An interesting detail is that, would she turn around again to face the Oper Graz, she could read a quote from Hans Sachs’s nationalistic text in the final scene of Die Meistersinger, engraved above the ‘Hinterbühnentor’.)
But when I attended a performance of Konwitschny’s Aida production in Leipzig (in April 2011), it ended significantly different. The Oper Leipzig does not offer the possibility to open a large on-stage door directly into the streets of the city, a construction that is very specific to the opera house in Graz. Instead, as I have seen the staging, Aida and Radamès walk towards a large video screen at the rear of the stage, on which a moving image from the Willy-Brandt-Platz running along the front of Leipzig Haubtbahnhof is projected (fig. 5).
In contrast to the opera house in Graz, the Oper Leipzig forces Aida to remain within the walls of artistic representation, unable to move towards to social world outside. That in 1994 she had walked into to streets of Graz, I had only learned after having asked Konwitschny about modifications to his production since its initial staging. It is by his answer to my question (personal communication by email, 14 January 2012) that the interpretation presented above, suggesting that Aida (or Aida) does not die but continues to live within the streets of Graz, is enabled. It is neither the immanent potential of Aida nor a particular performance I attended, but my interpretation of the available material that slows her down in that movement existing between the space of operatic performance and the social world.
This is not to say that Aida only lives by virtue of my interpretation. The opera is performed, probably now more than ever, usually invoking all means (e.g. camels) to reaffirm the imperial spectacle. It should be noted that within the debates on Aida as stimulated by Said even the most fierce defenders of the opera state that Aida was ‘intended as “an imperial article de luxe”’ (Robinson 1993: 134) and that in a sense Aida is indeed orientalist (MacKenzie 1994: 135), although these might not have been Verdi’s intentions. For as much as Aida continues to be performed, the articulation of the interrelation between the aesthetic and political remains a necessity, not only in terms of historical contextualisation but also – and, I would add, most urgently – with respect to Aida’s living. It is this articulation that, similar to that moment Aida leaves the world of operatic performance, constitutes the balance between the ivory-tower concerns of technical criticism and the world of politics, power, domination and struggle.
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Unger, Anette (2002). ‘Der Liebestod als Weg ins Leben: Todesarten am Beispiel von Verdis Oper Aida.’ In: Hanspeter Krellmann und Jürgen Schläder (eds.). “Die Wirklichkeit erfinden ist besser”: Opern des 19. Jahrhunderts von Beethoven bis Verdi. Stuttgart: Verlag J.B. Metzler: 234-242.
1 Unfortunately, little material on this lecture is publicly available, but from the bulletins of this association it can be abstracted that the lecture is announced as ‘Aida as Imperial Spectacle’, held on 4 April 1986, and was followed by a panel discussion with Homi Bhabha (misspelled as Bahbah), Patrick Conner (misspelled as Connor), Partha Mitter and Linda Nochlin. The bulletins are available on the website of the British Association of Art and Historians, see editions 22 (August 1985), 23 (December 1985) and 24 (February 1986) for the relevant details. I am grateful to Matt Lodder, Finance and Policy Manager of this association, for providing this information. To my knowledge, John MacKenzie (1994: 16; 2013: 177) is the sole author to refer to this lecture by Said, but on some occasions (MacKenzie 1993: 341; 1995: xvi) he mistakenly claims the conference in Brighton took place in 1988.
2 ‘Я тут, конечно, исхожу из музыки’. I thank Mark Wilkinson for his English translation of this lecture by Konwitschny from 2005, as published online in Russian.