Children's Book Week is being celebrated Nov. 12-18. There is no better way to note this 71st annual observance of "Wonder Through the Pages" than to review an outstanding work of art - one of the exceptional picture books of 1990.
"AIDA," told by Leontyne Price. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Gulliver Books, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich publishers, 1990. $16.95.This is a retelling of the Verdi opera that premiered Dec. 24, 1871, to mark the opening of the new Cairo Opera House. For nearly 120 years, "Aida" has been one of the most popular operas to be staged around the world. This is partly because of the action and pageantry, but also because of the strong characterizations.
"I always felt, while performing Aida, that I was expressing all of myself - as an American, as a woman and as a human being," says Price, who has sung the role of Princess Aida numerous times.
The narration by the opera star starts before the actual beginning of the opera to provide background for the emotional conflicts of war between Ethiopia and Egypt. Aida, the Ethiopian princess, is captured and taken to Egypt, where she falls in love with Radames, a warrior in the Egyptian army. During battle, Aida's father is taken prisoner and is murdered trying to help Aida escape. Because Radames forsakes his country for Aida's love, he is sentenced to die. Aida secretly hides in his death chamber, and they die together.
The story is told simply with the major conflicts moving rapidly, almost as scenes on the stage.
The Dillons' magnificent full-color acrylic illustrations capture the story and enhance the underlying message. For example, each page with text has a small frieze across the top detailing the action - Aida being captured, the victory of the Egyptians, the ruling of the high priests. Staid hieroglyphics accompany the main events.
There is a luminous quality in the black-skinned characters, the lavish garb and the Egyptian architecture looming over the figures. Marbleized paper is used to add mood and color on the floors, towers and pillars. The striking marble-tone end papers introduce the lotus theme, which is predominant throughout the book. Each page is framed with a lotus border that was handcrafted in metal and recreated photographically. This touch was done by the artists' son, Lee.
The book is manufactured with special techniques. The artists used gold paint, the film for each illustration was hard-etched to ensure a complete reproduction. Each illustration and metallic frame was varnished separately to add luminosity.
The storyteller's note at the conclusion gave Price's feelings for the heroine. "Aida has given me great inspiration onstage and off. Her deep devotion and love for her country and for her people, her nobility, strength and courage, are all qualities I aspire to as a human being. I will never forget her."
Author and illustrators have combined their own passion for this project. It is an extraordinary work of art.