In 1869, a new opera house opened in Cairo with Verdi's Rigoletto. The Khedive wanted a more spectacular opera done there, so he commissioned a new work from Verdi. A libretto was prepared by Antonio Ghislanzoni based on a French synopsis by Camille du Locle. Verdi worked very closely with Ghislanzoni on the form and the exact text of the libretto, and at all times urged that conventional forms be abandoned if they did not serve any dramatic purpose. The premiere in Cairo was delayed from January until December 1871 because the set designs and costumes were trapped in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. The opera was an immediate success, but Verdi continued to revise the score. He composed a full overture for the Teatro alla Scala premiere, but discarded it before the performances took place; however, the extension of the ballet music for the Paris premiere was incorporated into the printed score.
The score to Aida is the culmination of all of Verdi's earlier struggle to let the music advance the plot. The Triumphal March and ballet from Act Two are not just display pieces, but an integral part of the celebrations of a victorious army. Except for this scene, Aida is really a very intimate opera with most scenes requiring only a couple of characters; in fact, a great deal of the choral singing comes from off-stage. The tenor's entrance aria ("Celeste Aida") is a dreamy romance about his beloved Aida, showing the tender side of the warrior. Coming before the tenor has a chance to warm up his voice, it is one of the most difficult entrances in opera. The role of Aida is one of the most gratifying found in any of the Verdi operas. With two important arias plus duets with each of the major characters, the soprano is given the opportunity to display all aspects of her talents. The jealous Amneris joins a long list of important mezzo-soprano roles Verdi created. She is the one who brings various dramatic elements together, and her duet with Radames is one of the great confrontation scenes in opera. Amonasro has the shortest baritone role in any of the late Verdi operas, appearing in only two scenes. He is also the only father in Verdi to put his child in a secondary position; he wants only to win the war with Egypt. The sweep of the score to Aida led many early critics to complain that Verdi had given in to the influence of Wagner, but it really is the culmination of the stylistic experiments which were first heard in La forza del destino, Simon Boccanegra, and Don Carlo. With its famous arias and ensembles, Aida has become one of the most popular operas ever written, and familiarity only brings new details to the listener's attention.