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″Aida” Brings Controversy to Luxor Temple

February 19, 1987 GMT

LUXOR, Egypt (AP) _ Placido Domingo will sing ″Aida″ in the 3,500-year-old Pharaonic temple Giuseppe Verdi had in mind when he wrote the opera about doomed lovers.

The event might be heaven for opera buffs, but it’s generating a headache for its producers and is coughing up yet another controversy for the Spanish tenor.

For one thing, Domingo, who canceled a December performance in London’s Wembley Arena because he thought the $22 to $72 tickets were too expensive, will be singing Radames on May 2 to an audience paying $250 to $500 a ticket.

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For another, he is singing only in the premiere of the 10-performance ″Aida″ series at Luxor Temple, a fact not mentioned in advertising brochures that have flooded opera circles in Europe and the United States for the past few months.

But preparation continues. Workmen’s hammers ring out where pharaohs once walked at Luxor Temple, piecing together the four platforms where the opera will be staged.

Backdrops are the Nile River, across Luxor’s corniche from the temple, and the colossus of Pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled from 1292-25 B.C., and an 82 1/2 -foot-tall red granite obelisk Ramses erected.

Fawzi Mitwali, the Egyptian-born entrepreneur who conceived the opera event, is importing fake palm trees and a plastic obelisk to replace one French adventurers took in the early 19th century.

Grandstands are being built in front of the temple to accommodate 3,800 people, and 70 toilets are being brought in to be re-exported after the series ends on May 12.

Tickets are being sold only in packages, some costing thousands of dollars, to ensure that this ancient Egyptian capital has enough accommodations for the visitors. Authorities say 61 tour boats will be on the Nile to augment the city’s 4,360 first-class hotel beds.

Mitwali said 60 European princes and princesses and 2,000 patrons of New York’s Metropolitan Opera are among the estimated 30,000 people coming to Luxor for Verdi’s masterpiece about a doomed love affair between the Egyptian prince Radames and the Ethiopian slave girl Aida.

He envisions the production, starring Italy’s Verona Opera Co., as the gala that Verdi missed 118 years ago. In 1869, Egypt’s spendthrift monarch Khedive Ismael built an ornate opera house in Cairo and commissioned Verdi to write an opera for European royalty participating in weeks of celebrations to open the Suez Canal. Verdi missed the deadline, and ″Aida″ debuted in the opera house in 1871.

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There are differences in the Luxor production and previous performances of the opera. The triumphal march, in which the Egyptians bring back Aida and other booty from their conquests, will be grander than ever before. The march, with members of the Egyptian military acting as spear-carrying extras, will make its way down the Avenue of Sphinxes to the temple’s portal.

″Verdi meant to show that the expedition to Ethiopia was not only for slaves but was for a lot of other things,″ Mitwali said. ″Our grand march will include silks, animals - we have horses, tigers - everything, as well as slaves.″

Luxor Temple, seriously threatened by underground water and salt pollution, is among the most fragile of Egypt’s treasures of ancient monuments. However, the government strongly backs the ″Aida″ project.

Tourism Minister Fouad Sultan appeared at a Cairo news conference in mid- January to announce strong government backing for the production.

″It’s a very good opportunity to combine culture with tourism,″ he said. ″We will mobilize all forces to make it a success.″ He said the event would generate $15 million for Egyptian private enterprise.

The government’s enthusiasm is not unanimous, however. There has been grumbling from some who are worried about potential damage to the temple complex, from Egyptian opera buffs over prices and even from the government’s own Egyptian Antiquities Organization.

Antiquities complained that the contract’s only payment for the temple’s use was $5 a ticket to the provincial government. Mitwali later agreed to give an equal share. The antiquities organization said its architects and engineers are monitoring the work to make sure nothing is damaged.

Egypt’s small opera community has complained that locals who would love to see the opera were being mistreated in favor of tourists.

A spokeswoman for the Thomas Cook travel agency, which is handling the opera in Egypt, said most performances, including the premiere, were sold out abroad.

The cheapest package remaining for Egyptians costs $410: round-trip air travel from Cairo, an overnight stay in Luxor with a $250 opera ticket, full board and a half-day’s sightseeing at the Valley of the Kings across the Nile. The $160 difference between the ticket and the total is more than double what an Egyptian normally would pay in the off-season for air fare, hotel accommodation and touring the tombs.