“O patria mia”
from Verdi’s Aida
MOORE: She does not know what’s gonna happen. She doesn’t know if she’s ever gonna have her love again. And most importantly, she doesn’t know if she’s ever gonna see her home again.
GIDDENS: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
ANDRÉ: We all know what it’s like to feel like the outsider, to feel a little like we don’t fully fit in.
GIDDENS: Every episode we break down a single aria so we can get to know it from the inside out. Today, it’s an aria all about the meaning of home: “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aida.
SHIFERRAW: We were basically treated as nobodies. We were no one here. Our sense of home was completely shattered.
Home. It’s something that’s always been a part of my work, because where we come from shapes who we are. But that idea -- “where we come from” -- can be really complicated. There are native homes where you were born and then there’s adoptive homes, where you might move to. Ancestral homes where your family has been for centuries, and spiritual homes, where you feel like you belong.
And then in addition to these there’s the kind of home that only exists in your memory. A place that played a big part in shaping who you are, but where you’ll never live again.
That’s the kind of home Giuseppe Verdi conjures in the aria “O patria mia” from one of his most famous operas, Aida.
Let me set the scene. Egypt and Ethiopia are at war, and the Egyptians have the upper hand. They capture and enslave Aida, not realizing that she’s actually an Ethiopian princess.
So this princess-in-hiding is put to work as a servant, and not just anyone's servant, either -- she's serving Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter.
As it turns out, both of these women fall for the same Egyptian warrior, Radames. He's supposed to marry Amneris, but he only has eyes for Aida.
So Aida is faced with a tough choice. She loves Radames. But she also loves her country… her home… Ethiopia. And she knows she can’t have them both.
What does she do? Well, this is opera we’re talking about, so she chooses Radames! Even though he’s led the army to defeat Ethiopia. Even though he’s captured her own father!
And that brings Aida to the banks of the Nile, where she sings the aria “O patria mia,” which means “Oh, my homeland.” It’s the moment she realizes that she’ll never see Ethiopia again, and it’s a farewell to her home.
Love… war… national identity… We’ll get into it all! And here are three people to guide us through.
First, soprano Latonia Moore.
MOORE: I am known mostly for performing the title role in Verdi’s Aida.
GIDDENS: Latonia has performed the role over a hundred times now, and it’s been special to her from the very start.
MOORE: I was ready to be a part of the Aida legacy. You know, as a Black soprano, there’s an authenticity there that you can’t deny, and it was an amazing feeling. I just felt like I was joining the club, in a way.
GIDDENS: Next, Naomi André.
ANDRÉ: I’m like, falling in love with this microphone! [laughter]
GIDDENS: Professor in Afro-American and African Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan.
She wrote her dissertation on Verdi’s operas, and she still remembers the first time she saw Aida.
ANDRÉ: This is an opera I care so much about. Part of my dissertation was about it. I teach it regularly. And yet it's so rich. There's still so much there. People just want to put it as a fantasy and it's like, the fantasy is fine, but it's even stronger and more powerful when you relate it to, what does it mean to hear this opera today?
GIDDENS: And Mahtem Shiferraw.
SHIFERRAW: I am a writer and visual artist from Ethiopia and Eritrea.
GIDDENS: Ethiopia and Eritrea are bordering countries in the horn of Africa with a long history of conflict. They reached a peace treaty in 2018, but things were very much still in turmoil while Mahtem was growing up there. Now, she lives in L.A. and explores her Ethiopian and Eritrean roots in her poetry.
SHIFERRAW: The idea of Ethiopia and home show up in my work in bits and pieces. The imagery of the hyena laughing is just a constant haunting image that’s both in my fiction and nonfiction and poetry. But Ethiopia also comes up in terms of what was lost.
GIDDENS: Now let’s hop in the Aria Code time machine and head all the way back to the Pharaohs and pyramids… to the banks of the Nile, where Aida sings “O patria mia.”
[singing - “Qui Radames verrà…”]
MOORE: I made my Met debut as Aida. I was a cover. And the soprano was ill, and they told me about a day-and-a-half before, “We want you to come on and sing. It's the Saturday broadcast. It's going to be on the radio. Millions listening.” Oh gosh, what a feeling! I was 33 years old and that was just the beginning of everything for me. From there, I traveled the entire world. You name it I was there, singing Aida.
ANDRÉ: Here we have this great story, a love story. He's the captain of the Egyptian army, and Aida is just one of the captives from Ethiopia, and we see that there’s something really strong between them. It's, “I love you. You love me, but your country is capturing my country, and I should not at all be in love with you, but I can't help it.” So I think there's this sort of tug between what you should do, and then what your heart tells you when you're able to see humanity in the enemy.
[singing “O patria mia”]
SHIFERRAW: My mother is of Eritrean origin and my father is of Ethiopian origin, and the two countries conflict and collide. My father was working for the military government at the time. And he was stationed in Asmara, which is the capital city of Eritrea, and they fell in love and they wanted to create a family and they got married, but this was not just frowned upon, but really seen as an act of war, to marry into the family of the enemy.
ANDRÉ: So there's no history of Egypt conquering Ethiopia back in Pharaonic Times. This was a made-up story. However, it's seeped in different power dynamics of Verdi's time, in the 1880s. You've got the whole world of colonialism on the African continent. So we know that that was in the background.
SHIFERRAW: Through the colonization of different countries in Africa, Eritrea came to be colonized by different Western countries, including Italy at first, and then Britain second. And because of its proximity to Ethiopia it was sort of annexed as a colony, so it became part of Ethiopia for a certain period of time. And because our people share similar backgrounds and histories and cultures and traditions, there's always been this sort of misconception that we're the same. But their relationship, I would say, is just marred with conflict and war.
So my parents made the conscious decision not to talk about politics at home, ever. Not to mention the war or the conflict or the two countries. They always say that they chose love instead of war.
Who is Aida?
ANDRÉ: Aida is a captive princess, the daughter of the King of Ethiopia, yet in the opera we don't know that upfront. When she first comes in, in the first scene, she is very docile and quiet and very obedient servant to Amneris. So we don't know the power that Aida has until later on, actually we don’t officially know until Act 2.
[singing “Ritorna vincitor”]
MOORE: You have to be two different people in one opera. On the one hand you're a slave, but underneath you’re a future queen. And I learned to play with the colors of my voice so much just because of this secret person she was.
ANDRÉ: So with Aida and these sort of split sense of identities -- how she came from a royal family, but is a servant. How she's Ethiopian in Egypt. This is something that makes Aida so incredibly relatable because we all know what it's like to feel like the outsider, to feel a little like we don't fully fit in.
SHIFERRAW: We were advised to leave because the war was getting worse. And our first move, actually, we boarded a cargo plane from Asmara, which is in Eritrea to Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. And throughout the years because of the ongoing conflict, we had to go back and forth between both countries. At times we would leave either my father or my mother in one country and we would go to another one, and vice versa.
[singing “O patria mia”]
And then we had another big conflict and the two countries were separated again. And then at that point it was the most harrowing realization that we did not belong to either. And there's a terminology they used when they refer to families like ours, they called us the “tefenakelti,” which literally means just “split in half.” So it really defined who we were.
Setting the Scene
ANDRÉ: We have just come from the triumphal scene at the end of Act Two. Everybody's onstage, all the conquests of war, all the captive Ethiopians. And so you get this big procession. If this is where they have animals, the animals will come through, the leopard skins, the elephant tusks, everything comes through.
And then we move to an incredibly intimate moment. It's nighttime, it's on the banks of the Nile, and that opening prelude to the third act really sets the scene where it feels like night sounds.
We have Aida all alone for a long period of time. And we get her show-stopping number, “O patria mia.”
MOORE: At the beginning of the Nile scene in Act Three, she feels like she's lost everything. She's lost her man, because he's been betrothed officially to Amneris, who is now officially her rival. Her father is still being kept in captivity. She does not know what's going to happen. She doesn't know if she's ever going to have her love again. And most importantly, she doesn't know if she's ever gonna see her home again.
ANDRÉ: She is contemplating suicide. She does not see any reconciliation of her love of Radames and then her love for her country.
MOORE: She's full of absolute conflict, waiting to meet Radames, waiting to talk to him. Doesn't know what he's going to say to her. So she's on pins and needles.
ANDRÉ: We get her little motif, this little rising figure [singing].
MOORE: The strings are coming in at the beginning -- boom, boom, boom, boom, boom -- and they're setting the scene.
ANDRÉ: The orchestra shuts out. It’s totally quiet. And then we just hear her talking. She’s telling us what she’s thinking.
[singing “Qui Radames verrà…”]
MOORE: And then she says, “Here's where I'm waiting for Radames. I have no idea what he's going to say to me. What if he's coming to tell me goodbye forever? Then I want the whole Nile to swallow me right up. I don't think I can take it.”
ANDRÉ: We get this fast-moving pattern in the bass, which almost feels like the waves sort of coming up.
MOORE: “But maybe... maybe in that I'll find peace. Maybe this will all just be the end and I can just fall into oblivion.”
SHIFERRAW: The Nile -- the Blue Nile, at least -- originates from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, which is a little bit outside of the city of Bahir Dar. And I simply just call it “the river” to me. It's just the river. I remember, when I was in high school, my father and I and a group of other people went on a sort of multi-city tour in Ethiopia. I was so eager to see the falls of the Nile, and Ethiopia went through different cycles of drought in which the river was just empty. But when we went there, there was a big monsoon season, so the falls were just at their fullest and the color of the water changes when it originates in the Tana Lake. It started as emerald and then it gets bluish cobalt-ish kind of, and then it increases in speed, and also takes with it a lot of mud and pebbles and so it becomes sort of a mud color. And then once it falls down to the earth it’s very smoky, to have this smoky element to them. And then hearing the sound of the falls and just nothingness. That was one of the biggest joys of my life.
Aria - Beginning
ANDRÉ: The aria opens with this curvaceous melody in the oboe.
MOORE: She hears this oboe, and it reminds her of home. Finally a little bit of comfort, but bittersweet comfort.
[singing “O patria mia,”]
ANDRÉ: And she starts, “O patria mia,” oh my country.
MOORE: “Oh my God, my home, my home.”
ANDRÉ: She then says my “mai più, mai più ti rivedro,” I am NEVER going to see you again.
MOORE: “I don't know if I'll ever see it again. Maybe I'll never see it again.”
ANDRÉ: She starts describing the blue skies, “O cieli azzurri, o dolci,” invoking Ethiopia.
MOORE: It's all like her imagining and almost painting for herself, home. “Ah, blue skies, fresh valleys. I can smell it.”
SHIFERRAW: Once we settled in Ethiopia, the capital city, Addis Ababa, we ended up, uh, moving to the outskirts of the city to a neighborhood called at the time Yerer ber, which took its name after a nearby mountain that was there. And it was the first time that we all felt as a family like we had a home. We were just surrounded by everything in nature, that was untouched. There was no electricity or water. We had no phones at the time, everything was quiet and the night was really dark and you could see only the light of the moon and hear, you know, the laughter of hyenas. It was just both haunting and, and kind of felt like a gift. And, until this day, my idea of home is still linked to that place.
MOORE: She starts to feel all this comfort from her homeland and she's still reminded that she's never going to see it again, so it's this bittersweet feeling and it's melancholy. And then somehow, when she hears the oboe again, it gives her a completely different feeling, in my eyes. The next time she hears it, it stings. So now it's more with a cry in her voice.
ANDRÉ: At that moment in the score harmonically, the notes are a little foreign to the home key of F major. She's trying to get to Ethiopia, and yet even within the harmony and how the orchestra is treating it, it's like a foreign place. She can't quite get there.
MOORE: The place that gives her so much comfort, she's never going to see it again. She goes from feeling just bittersweet, melancholy, to it weighing down on her, like an anvil.
ANDRÉ: She is in Egypt. Her heart and her homeland is Ethiopia. She is all alone, so we really get the sense of vulnerability. We can really feel the power and the tenderness and the anxiety all coming together in this moment.
SHIFERRAW: There had been some conflicts -- renewed conflicts, between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Families were being separated. And there was an attempt to separate our family and my mother was put in jail. After that, it was clear for both my mother and my father that we couldn't stay in neither countries, because it felt like we were not safe anymore. And they made a decision that we needed to leave.
MOORE: Verdi has written “O patria mia” in a specific part of the voice that's referred to as the passaggio, or the passage.
ANDRÉ: The passaggio is like a little bridge between two areas. It literally means “a passage,” as you're moving from one place to another.
MOORE: And it sits in the high voice a lot, but not your extreme high, not in the stratosphere or anything like that, but natural high part of any soprano voice in an opera, that's where it sits the majority of the time, which can have a strain on your throat. It takes a lot of control vocally, and it's hard to get relaxed when you've got the jitters and all the nerves and the excitement of the character and all the emotions that are weighing on you, because as soon as you start to get emotional, your throat can tighten. It's almost like when you cry and you get the cry lump in your throat. This is what happens when you're sitting in that certain part of your voice for too long. As soon as you carry your emotion into something like this, you’re dead in the water.
ANDRÉ: This is meant to be a little difficult. It beautifully illustrates being between two places. So the fact that the vocal line has to cross through the passagio is a really telling moment of what the singer is having to navigate.
SHIFERRAW: We came to the US, directly to Los Angeles. And I was already an adult so there was this cultural shock that we all went through. And we came from having a home, knowing the culture, speaking the language, having an entire community, and having histories. And when we moved to the US we were basically treated as nobodies, we were no one here. Our sense of home was completely shattered.
I remember in the early years I was always questioning our presence here, like why did I have to come here. And because I was uprooted suddenly, brought to a place where I saw nothing of myself reflected back, I just didn’t think I belonged. And I knew already that I had lost a home in Ethiopia. The loss of family, the loss of community, the loss of belonging, but also the loss of land, a land that could claim us. Now, if I go back, I don’t see Ethiopia claiming me as a daughter.
And it’s been one of my most humbling experiences. You kind of have to shed your old self and try to build a new one, find a good balance between, you know, your old home and your new home.
Aida and Race
ANDRÉ: One of the dynamics that comes out so strongly in the opera Aida is how race and power and nation are all intertwined. So for the production in Milan, at La Scala, sort of the big European premiere, a type of blackface was used for the Ethiopian characters. And though people have argued that the makeup today used to darken people is not the same as minstrelsy, where we have these negative stereotypes, it hearkens back to that.
This brings a lot of pain to people and keeps people out of the opera audience, which we do not want. We want everybody at the opera. When we can get a Black singer to sing Aida, yay, that's terrific. And when we can get a singer who, whatever racial, ethnic background who can sing Aida beautifully, I want to hear them. I don't necessarily need to see them with darkened makeup.
MOORE: It's always been a touchy subject, and my opinion, you know, it is not necessary for Aida ever to be Black, just for her to be different, different in some way from the people she's been captured by.
I remember one time doing Aida in Japan. And they painted me darker, a lot darker. I said, “Why are you doing this? I'm -- I am Black.” They said, “Well, we have a lot of people that are in bodysuits, dark bodysuits instead of painting them. So this is, you know, what we want to do to get you as close to those bodysuits as possible,” I said, “Okay, I'm a trooper. I'll do it, whatever.” Well, I loved it. I loved being super dark like that. And I did feel more different than everyone else. I, I felt the conflict. I felt Black.
SHIFERRAW: For Ethiopians specifically, the sense of being othered comes from the fact that we're suddenly realizing that we're Black, we have a race here, which we didn't have when we were living back home in Ethiopia. And then you're treated differently because of your race, because of your accent, your immigrant status. And I just remember slowly realizing and going through instances in my mind where I was mistreated or followed around the store or stopped by a cop or, you know, all of these just ordinary things that are still happening now that at the time we didn't realize. And it's sort of traumatic for Ethiopians because it takes them a while to understand, you're not Ethiopian here. You're, you're, you're Black.
MOORE: And then comes the climax of the aria. The treacherous high C, as all the sopranos say. The approach to it has to be childlike, because let me tell you... whoof! I've done, I don't know, about 175 Aidas. And every one of them, I am always overthinking the high C situation. And I'd say the times where I've done best is really when I completely give it all abandon and almost stop thinking. To go back to that childlike feeling, I guess. It really is, as you ascend, you're younger and younger and younger. You're going further and further back into the Nile and all the way to Ethiopia. Finally. And in that you're able to let go.
SHIFERRAW: It did not occur to me that this would be goodbye between, you know, me and Ethiopia, this idea of home that I had. Once we came to Los Angeles, we kept saying to each other, “Oh, we're going to go next year.” And just, it never happened. And years went by. That was a daunting realization that we would never go back. And if you had asked me a decade ago, like what, you know, “where's your home?” I think I would've just cried, and I remember doing that once. I was like, “I don't know where home is.” But now I've learned to adapt, that the idea of home is always evolving.
MOORE: When the oboe comes back in again, now she's accepted it. That she's never going to see it again. And little, does she know she is a hundred percent right. She is never going to see it again.
And when she ascends up to the high A, which is floated and beautiful, it's her goodbye.
ANDRÉ: We think of Aida as being this classic story from the past. And yet it actually illuminates so many current and relevant issues for today where we have this idea of the personal and the political. We get that strongly in Aida. She cannot separate them out because they're totally entwined. She loves the enemy. And then we have her father and her homeland and her patria, which is who she is and who's made her. And so to have those in conflict, that's what being human is, holding some of these contradictions. And so the opera taps in just so exquisitely to that hard situation of what it is to be human.
[singing “O terra addio”]
MOORE: That was her going through the gamut of all of her emotions, because she's referring to her homeland where she grew up. Where she made herself. And it was all cut off because of conflict, because of war. But I do feel like this aria, although for some people they feel like it doesn't belong in the opera because it doesn't serve the action, and it doesn't tell you any kind of story... it tells her story, it's for her. Maybe it's not for the audience anymore. It is solely for that character to sort of deal with her own conflict and be able to wrap it in the box and send it away.
“Dreaming of Ethiopia.”
I feel this in my bones,
but can't explain it to others,
Thick with belonging,
raw from longing.
I dream of you
as if you are here,
or, as if I never left.
Parts of me still scattered --
Addis, Bahrir Dar, Lalibela, Axum, Harar.
My fathers have warned me
about this, about you,
about all of it.
This land, like a loved one,
sneaking on me in the depth
of my solitude.
What do I do
with this dream --
do I paint it in blue
and bathe myself in it;
do I bloom in it's yellow
and reds and rich greens
and hang it above my walls;
do I neglect it
or carry it with me --
Everywhere I go
I am bent with the weight
of insurmountable loss.
GIDDENS: Writer Mahtem Shiferraw, soprano Latonia Moore, and musicologist Naomi André, decoding “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aida. Latonia will be back to sing it for you after the break.
It’s nighttime in ancient Egypt. You can hear the gentle sounds of the Nile as it flows slowly past. And a conflicted Aida is about to sing her final farewell to the only place she’s ever called home. Here’s Latonia Moore with “O patria mia” from Verdi’s Aida.
Aria - “O patria mia,”
A final goodbye that stretches up into the heavens. That was soprano Latonia Moore singing Aida’s showstopping aria, “O patria mia.” It really is exceptional.
And that brings me to my own goodbye… but don’t worry, I’ll be back in two weeks with an episode about another showstopper: “Una voce poco fa” from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR and The Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced and scored by Merrin Lazyan. Max Fine is our assistant producer, Helena de Groot is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Mixing and sound design by Matt Boynton and Ania Grzesik from Ultraviolet Audio, and original music by Hannis Brown.
If you’re enjoying the show and are glad to have a little opera decoding back in your life, because I know I am, please go ahead and leave a rating and review in Apple podcasts. And hey, while you’re at it, maybe spread the word to your friends and family, too! It’s easy to listen at ariacode.org -- go make some Aria Code converts! The more the merrier.
I’m Rhiannon Giddens. See you next time!
MOORE: Truth be told, I would have never followed my boyfriend down to that tomb. I don't care how much I love him...
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