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The ‘Aida’ Disaster

May 14, 2014

What do the words “summer bomb” make you think of? Fireworks? Big-budget movies that flop at the box office? Here’s a look at what might be the biggest summer bomb of all—the 1990 attempt to tour across the U.S. a gigantic, multimillion dollar production of …an opera.

Aida Giant StadiumIn the late 1980s, the International Opera Festival toured a massive production of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic 1871 opera Aida around the world. The ancient-Egypt set opera is one of the most famous examples of that form, and produced several recognizable pieces of music including “The Grand March.” IOF’s Aida traveled to Montreal, Sydney, Melbourne, Tokyo, Vancouver, and Toronto to sold-out audiences and earned millions. The one big market it hadn’t yet hit: the U.S. The IOF hired producer BCL Group to stage Aida in the U.S., as it had just successful mounted the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour, one of the largest (and largest grossing) concert experiences to date.

IOF needed a producer that could do big, because Aida was positively huge. Part opera, part concert, all spectacle, this production of Aida boasted a cast of 1,200 people, dozens of live animals (including a 15-foot python), and five-story tall replica of the Sphinx. It was so huge that it took the production three days to set up for a performance.

Because of that long “load-in time,” it limited how many stops the Aida tour could make. Result: just six performances in three cities (with stadiums big enough to accommodate) were scheduled: June 1 and 2, 1990 in Giants Stadium in New Jersey; June 13 and 14 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park; and June 29 and 30 at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.

The closest thing in popular culture at the time that Aida could be compared to were the Broadway musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber. But The Phantom of the Opera, with its crashing chandelier and other eye-catching elements, stayed fixed in one place: a Broadway theater. It, and other Broadway musicals, tour the country after they’ve established a toehold and build up demand around the country. This is not what happened with Aida. The show did well around the world because opera is far more popular around the world than it is in the U.S. And where it is popular here – in big cities like New York – opera fans have their pick of world-class, serious opera year-round. Aida staged in a stadium, couched in gimmicks, wasn’t for that audience. It was, ironically, for non-opera fans.

Advance ticket sales were shockingly low. Of the 185,000 tickets that went on sale before the two dates in Los Angeles, a mere 2,000 sold. Before Aida even began building its sets at Giants Stadium, the L.A. stops were cancelled. And then, three days before the Giants Stadium performances, the entire tour was called off.

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Radames
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Radames

I live in New Jersey. I remember seeing television commercials for this show. The commercials were not advertisements for the show, but rather calls for people to serve as extras in the performances at the now demolished Giants Stadium. After the failures of “My Darlin’ Aida” and the lavish production here, “Aida” finally managed to achieve success with Elton John and Tim Rice’s terrific 1999 musical which won four Tonys. As the old saying goes, the third time is the charm.

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