March 29, 2024

The dueling divas of Aida

In Lyric's current production of Verdi's Aida, soprano Michelle Bradley sings the title role, and mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton plays her rival, Amneris — two powerhouse female leads that require both virtuosic singing and in-depth character portrayals. Bradley's Aida is a strong and intelligent person — "a lion laying in wait," she says, "because unknowingly to all, especially Amneris, Aida is a princess too. She plays her role as a slave and does what she must not only to survive, but also protect her people and her love for Radamès."

"Amneris is a complicated woman," Barton said. "The audience gets to see the major evolution of her relationship with Aida over the course of the evening. In the beginning, Aida is an enslaved person but clearly set apart. Amneris still sees her as a personal asset because of the regality that shines through her — even when Aida isn't trying to let the Egyptians know that she's the Ethiopian princess! But once Amneris figures out that her man Radamès has feelings for someone else, and that Aida has feelings for him, Amneris goes right into her villain era."

While most audience members are rooting for Aida, Barton believes Amneris is just as necessary and important to the story because she embodies the unsavory side of the coin. "She's jealous, quick to anger, and entitled. While not a character we'd seek to emulate, those characteristics are all honest aspects of humanity that most of us wrestle with at one point or another," Barton said. "The character of Amneris shows us what happens if we allow ourselves to lean into our lesser qualities and let things like jealousy and anger run the show... and it's not good!" Unlike true operatic villains or one-dimensional female characters, Amneris has a full character arc. We witness her obvious remorse as Radamès and Aida are closed in the tomb, with Amneris's prayer for peace and forgiveness closing the opera.

"I think it's likely that Amneris and Radamès have grown up together and it's generally expected that they'll wed," Barton noted. "If there's one thing Amneris loves in this life, it's power, and Radamès is a mighty general, so their union would make them the power couple in that kingdom. I think she views him as a possession — something she wants, something she is entitled to — that comes with the added bonus of even greater power than she already has. But I also think that Amneris really does love him — or at least she loves the life she's imagined with him."

Amneris (mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, right) engages in a battle of wits with Aida (soprano Michelle Bradley, left) in Act Two of Verdi's Aida.

At one sharp point of Aida's pivotal love triangle is tenor Russell Thomas as Radamès. Audiences last saw Thomas and Bradley as the doomed romantic leads of Puccini's Tosca (2021/22). "I enjoy working with Russell. He is someone I respect because he is professional but can also make me laugh too," Bradley said. "With Radamès, Aida finds not only love but relief and solace in their secret moments. He is a confident and successful warrior. The hope of him is the only thing that brings a smile to her face."

In the end, Aida chooses to sacrifice herself for love. "I think that Aida's love for Radamès is what kept her going. There was no reason to live if it was to be without him," Bradley said. "Had she not gone to the tomb with Radamès, Aida would have been doomed to be a slave of Amneris and her hatred for the rest of her life."

The Amneris/Radamès pair in this production also provides a highly anticipated reunion. Thomas and Barton were last seen together at Lyric in Verdi's Il trovatore (2017/18). "We have a running joke about it, actually... especially with the Verdi stuff, it's always a toss-up as to whether I'm gonna be his mother or his lover in a show," Barton joked. "It's been a really happy reunion. Russell is a tremendous artist and sharing a stage with him is always something I look forward to!"

Michelle Bradley as Aida, Jamie Barton as Amneris, and Russell Thomas as Radamès in Lyric's 2023/24 production of Verdi's Aida.

"I think Aida has stood the test of time because it's a riveting tale of extremes set to some of the most earworm-worthy music Verdi wrote. And I think audiences will take away a theme which is always captivating: the undeniable conviction of true love," Barton said.

When asked about their favorite moment in the opera, both singers are quick to point out some of the most difficult portions of their roles. For Bradley, Act Three brings vocal fireworks but also requires her to flex her acting skills as she finally shares the stage with both her father and Radamès. "Although it is the most physically and vocally demanding for me, it has some of the most beautiful music in the opera and I enjoy singing it."

For Barton, it's hard to beat the Judgment Scene. "It's my favorite bit of drama for Amneris, and I get to sing everything from ringing high notes, to broken pianissimi when she shows her true emotional side."

Director Francesca Zambello chose to set this production in a mythical time and place instead of the traditional setting of ancient Egypt. By removing these ties, the opera's universal messages of love, duty, and country feel more immediate and applicable to modern life. "Like many operas, I don't think this story is wedded to its original setting," Barton said. "The themes of war and colonization in Aida are regrettably timeless and applicable to a variety of time periods and places, both real and mythical."

When focusing on the human relationships in Aida, it's easy to see how audiences and artists continue to find connections regardless of the time in which the opera is set or performed. "There are so many stories of forbidden and unrequited love, "Bradley said. "Audiences will never tire of this because many of us have lived it."

Experience two of today's most in-demand Verdi stars — Michelle Bradley as Aida and Jamie Barton as Amneris — through April 7 with tickets at

MARCH 9 - APRIL 7, 2024



Experience opera at its grandest with Verdi’s visually stunning and musically captivating Aida, featuring intimate arias, dramatic duets, and thrilling Verdi choruses. As a riveting love triangle unfolds in an alluring Egyptian setting, the story is brought to life by principal artists Michelle Bradley, Jamie Barton, and Russell Thomas, all led by Music Director Enrique Mazzola.

All photos: Todd Rosenberg