Aida Abridged: Reborn as a comedy

Aida Abridged. Picture: Supplied

Aida Abridged. Picture: Supplied

The show is a trial of vocal and physical stamina as they sing and dart around for 75 minutes.

Award-winning Greg Homann, one of South Africa’s leading playwrights and directors, is a courageous man. He has taken Verdi’s beloved opera, Aida, usually featuring a cast of 200, and re-imagined it for a cast of two (and a pianist). It’s called Aida Abridged.

Asked why he had decided to tackle a project in this manner, he said: “I am interested in work that is technically challenging and highly crafted. I want to make theatre that is playful and pushes the limits of theatrical form.

“Taking Verdi’s grand and epic opera and re-imagining it for two players is a wonderful challenge that excites me. The production is created in a way that looks improvised and spontaneous, but like any theatre that has a strong comedic spine, everything has to be very meticulously rehearsed and almost choreographed. The result is a wonderfully inventive, zany and, at times, even moving experience for the audience.”

Described as a musical comedy, Aida Abridged opens at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton today, featuring Clint Lesch and Len-Barry Simons and pianist Wessel Odendaal. It’s the theatre’s first production of the year.

Homann emphasised: “We are not doing Verdi in any purist way, but we are paying homage to the work by playing with it to create this entertaining and stripped down version of the original. Our production is best described as a musical comedy – it’s not the dramatic opera it once was. We’ve found inventive ways to help the audience follow the story, even if they’ve never heard of it and don’t speak any Italian.”

He continued: “We’ve mixed Italian and English. This helps maintain the integrity of some of the more classic and well-known arias which we’ve kept in Italian. Some bits we translate live on stage using a rudimentary theatrical device. We’ve also worked in different whacky ways to highlight key plot points so that the story of love and loyalty is told.

“We use hat-stands, carefully chosen props, and a large roll of brown paper to create the world of the story. This includes a cheeky treatment of the famous Triumphal March where the two actors attempt to bring ancient Egypt onto stage. I think what we’ve ended up with is a highly theatrical staging that is pure fun for the audience, but that also has some of the beauty and drama of the original, all in under 75 minutes.”

To gauge audience response, Homann used the Fringe at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Although the first staging was “rough round the edges”, the response was “excellent”. Two of the five shows were sold out.

“Audiences who knew Aida told us they could not believe the range and virtuosity of the cast in pulling off such a feat. Young audiences just loved the madness of the constant role swaps, vocal gymnastics and the general style.”

Changes were made. The production then had a run at the 969 Festival at Wits and it’s now ready for a larger audience. Lesch, who is also the musical director and arranger, told how he adapted the music.

“Some of the challenges in the reimagining of this Verdi masterpiece included an adaptation in performance genre from grand opera to musical comedy. The other massive task was to rearrange the vocal score of all the characters.

“This was traditionally sung by highly skilled operatic singers. To make it viable for a cast of two non-operatic lyric baritones, we made vocal and stylistic changes for each of the characters to ensure they are distinguishable and identifiable to the audience.”

Lesch also adhered to the details of the storytelling process. Aida Abridged, he added, is a trial of vocal and physical stamina as they sing and dart around for 75 minutes – and never leave the stage.

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