This May, two different artistic genres—street art and opera—are coming together for Seattle Opera’s Aida. Acclaimed stage director Francesca Zambello was looking to create something unique when she asked the graffiti artist RETNA (born Marquis Duriel Lewis) to collaborate with her on a new production of Verdi’s masterpiece.
RETNA created the bold visual backdrops for Aida with his same distinct style, a type of graphic lettering and illuminated script that has earned him commissions from Usher and Justin Bieber. Inspired in part by ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, RETNA seems like a natural fit to design for an opera originally set in Egypt. And in fact, he describes the role of a graffiti artist as similar to that of a scribe. “In ancient times, scribes were always part of working with the government with music, with the hieroglyphics on the wall, promoting who was in power, what the culture was like.” The word “graffiti” comes from the Italian word graffiato, which means “scratched.” And while some may dismiss it today as a practice that’s against the establishment, the word “graffiti” in art history books often refers to pictures that were “scratched” onto a surface, be it a rock, a church—or perhaps an ancient Egyptian temple or wall.
RETNA’s eye-catching visuals are not the only instance of artistic collaboration in Aida. The creative team includes visionary contemporary-dance leader Jessica Lang, whose work Seattle audiences may recognize from Pacific Northwest Ballet or Meany Center for the Performing Arts. Like these modern-day collaborators, Verdi was also a groundbreaking contemporary artist of his time. Whether pointing out moral hypocrisy in La traviata, or questioning patriotism and the relationship between church and state in Aida, Verdi was committed to telling stories about the time in which he lived. It’s a tradition that continues at McCaw Hall with this Aida, the story of a princess who has been taken as a prisoner of war by a rival nation. When she falls in love with a military commander on the opposing side, her inner struggle between love and duty will lead to a tragic end. “We are living in a politically-charged time,” said General Director Aidan Lang. “We all know what it’s like to have certain loyalties—whether it’s to a country, to a political belief, or to a cause—and then have our personal lives complicated by those beliefs.”
Aida includes performances by Leah Crocetto in her company debut as Aida—a role shared with Alexandra LoBianco. Additional company debuts include Milijana Nikolic and Elena Gabouri as Amneris; as well as Brian Jagde and David Pomeroy as Radames. Returning artists include Gordon Hawkins and Alfred Walker (who share the role of Amonasro), and Daniel Sumegi (Ramfis). The opera also includes performances by Eric Neuville (The Messenger), Clayton Brainerd (The King), and Marcy Stonikas (High Priestess).