A beautiful bit of blur
Never before examined outside the prism of Al-Ahram Weekly
, these fabulous photographs exploring the star-spangled heavens of the Cairo Opera House through the lens of Sherif Sonbol captivate Gamal Nkrumah
All your visions of one of Cairo's most arresting modern landmarks are overturned from the first attempt to leaf through the pages of The Cairo Opera House 1988-2008, published by Dar Al-Kotob, Cairo. "Nothing is more beautiful than to express art through art," remarked the late Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz on Sherif Sonbol's first exhibition. That was two decades ago.
And what a vision that was. But it was nothing to compare with what was still to come. It was the perfect curtain raiser for the traumatic, albeit highly enjoyable, love affair between photographer and the object of his desire. The carnality, the passion, the voyeurism, the technique are all displayed in naked veracity.
Never has the saying "walls have ears" seemed more apt in the country. What the photographs do reveal is that the Cairo Opera House is less interesting in sum than are its parts. Then there is a sensual saturation of detail so absorbing that your eye is enthralled -- every hennaed fingertip, every dimpled swirling dervish, and then you notice that the camera zooms in on the balls of the feet of the ballerina that are turned out completely. Her heals are touching each other and her poor tortured toes are trying to form a straight line. The pain is palpable.
When is competition good for cultural accomplishments? Two decades since its founding, the Opera House stands as a symbol of Egypt's flirtation with Western high culture.
You could see the movements of dancers and hear the performers, through Sherif Sonbol's camera, and at times even the reactions of the audiences and viewers. But one could never be sure about their motivations or reasoning for performing, or for attending such concerts for that matter. In sum these photographs commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Cairo Opera House's founding raise more questions than they answer. What we do not lose is subtlety and detail.
At the heart of this debate are the merits of the Western-style opera and ballet versus a more authentic indigenous cultural showcase. It is often said that the world of the opera is seething with political intrigue, because the cultural is invariably political. As such, privileged incumbents, nepotism and corruption, salary caps and superstar salaries create a climate of little openness for new entrants into the world of opera. Fossilised figures reign supreme. Dour clashes between mediocrities overawe newcomers.
Beyond easy caricatures, however, it is clear that the Cairo Opera House is a sacred national monument that stirs strong sentiments and passionate emotions. The place delivers incoherence and panache in equal measure. Insiders swear that the musical and artistic careers of Opera House divas are based on pointing out flaws in the work of their rivals, or failing that in the flawed personalities of their colleagues. Music is supposed to be spiritual, but musicians are often extremely petty and mundane. Backstage bickering performers could earn a living doing nothing but blowing a whistle. Or could they? This collection of lofty harangues and captivating photographs might yet spark a whole new perspective of one of the nation's most venerable institutions.
The chapter entitled "Backstage" is intriguing. A photograph featuring Mohamed Noah, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and Adel Imam in the Aziz Sidqi salon in 1995 epitomises an era. The local cultural-cum-intellectual-scene was witnessing an impressive renaissance. The proliferation of presentations of first Western and then world music and dance dazzle Egyptian and expatriate audiences with glittering performances of operas and ballets and a plethora of versions of such world classics.
Performances spoke thrilling truths about the cosmopolitan nature of contemporary Cairo. However, domestic versions of the world's favourite classics were in turn influencing the local cultural environment.
"The Cultural Salon at the Opera House was created in the early 1990s as a meeting place for national and international personalities, intellectuals and cultural figures to come together for the purpose of open discussion." History was in the making. It all clearly meant something for Egypt. Presided over by Mohamed Salem until 2004 this venerable institution is now chaired by Osama Heikal.
I remember the late David Blake, our very own music critic. "Sometimes small gestures carry far," he would say. Sonbol accompanied "Mr Blake", as Frank was known, to the Opera House. Sonbol is impossibly difficult -- perhaps it is his diabetes and heart condition. Blake, on the other hand, was the dramatist complacently eyeing and engaging with the smirking supernumeraries. They would return from a concert and Blake would reminisce nostalgically about something he had seen in London, Sydney or Rio de Janiero some 35 years ago. Then he would ramble in almost inaudible whispers about "the ultimate aerialist shooting up into the heights of the opera". Blake would muse. I listened and was frankly amused.
This work brings back memories, for me personally it touches a chord. My memories are poignant, I presume, but have no chronology. The art collection of the Cairo Opera House in itself is as invaluable treasure trove as its musical performances and Sonbol's photographs, documenting a distinctive phase of contemporary Egyptian arts. One year triumphant, another at bay. The Egyptian cultural renaissance had come of age, and had stepped on stage.
Sonbol's photographs become objects of contemplation, or so it seems to me. Each photograph relates episodes from the history of the Cairo Opera House.
Poets, sopranos, choreographers, ballerinas, folkloric dancers did their own thing without a thought that they were being caught on camera. And, so were the budding artists of the Talents Development Centre, established in 1992. In 1994, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak inaugurated the Opera Library and Archive -- yet another illustrious landmark on Egypt's cultural map.
A chapter is devoted to jazz and pop music denoting that these two distinct genres were officially sanctioned as integral parts of the Egyptian musical scene. African American jazz illuminaries such as Dizzie Gillespie (1989) and Herbie Hancock (2001) performed to critical acclaim at the Cairo Opera House. Their memorable performances did not belittle the importance of the local Reda Folkloric Ensemble or the Toboul Company for Percussion and Folk Nubian Singing. Sonbol captured these gems at play.
Were they subjected to a series of choreographed indignities? I think not. The photographs are meant to depict, or even to create, a state of heightened consciousness of the beauty of the human form -- collectively and individually. These are works that touch the heart and engage the mind. Casually leaf through this book and you see a pageant of ballerinas, and feel the sheer pleasure of savouring the first moonlight at the opening of opera Aida.
Sonbol's is a work of spectacle. It is a celebration of life, an ecstatic orgy of colour, passion and pent up emotions bursting on stage. Then, there is the potency of moving images in themselves -- scenes enacted by esoteric figures.
An expanse of electric blue and deep purple roiled by scandalous silver and glistening white whorls. Life is all beauty and pleasure, with a hint of drama -- comedy and tragedy. The effect on the eye is faintly hypnotic. Sometimes a dancer would zoom across an otherwise flattened stage in perfect perspective.
The most intoxicating aspect of Sonbol's work is his narration of dizzy spells, of palpitations, of fears of slipping into a diabetic coma while at work. I listen spellbound. He worked like a robot, in spite of that sinking feeling, moving across the Main Hall of the Opera House to get a particular angle right, or to capture the poignancy of the moment.
There are the feet of dancers at the foot of every scene. At the top of the photographs are probing fingers, extended arms reaching out as if to eternity.
The silence speaks volumes. Yet, the communication expressed through the vitality and vividness is blindingly obvious. And, there are shots of racial stereotyping, even though you understand that the work is intended not to get too bogged down in them. Nevertheless, Sonbol has high expectations of his readers, and those who browse through his work. He knows that his photographs are intricate and metaphorical.
This pictorial thread is spun out of gossamer. And Sonbol has chosen a most delicate subject -- the shining ends of flying gossamer.
"Our main objective is to make music and fine arts an inseparable part of the cultural identity of our society," notes Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni in his introductory message published at the very start of Sonbol's book. Hosni's message comes along with a contemplative pose for Sonbol's camera of the minister. "Twenty years of creativity have passed and there is no doubt that the Cairo Opera House has fruitfully invested time and effort to make our dream come true."
Sonbol's work is a personal documentation of the Cairo Opera House venture. Naturally, the onus is on the highlights.
Sonbol's touching acknowledgments caught my attention, partly because he was candidly specific about those who helped him achieve professional success and precisely what role they played in advancing his career. "In the 1993 Opera book, I expressed gratitude to the following individuals: Abdel-Moneim Kamel for his help while I was learning the art of dance photography; Nasser El-Ansary for giving me the opportunity to becoming the first Egyptian photographer to have a picture book published; Mustafa Nagui whose door was always open; Erminia Kamel who spent hours on end listening to the click of my camera and teaching me the importance of timing, patience, and the beauty of ballet; Antoune Albert who was the first to draw my attention to the potentialities of available light photography; Said Sonbol and Hosny Guindy who both protected me from the enemies of success," noted Sonbol. "Now, 15 years after the publication of the first book, I wish to thank the same people, although the positions and reasons might have changed."
"In addition, I want to thank Mark Linz who has supported me unflaggingly in the world of photography publishing; Giovanna Montalbetti for writing the theatre chapter introduction and editing most of the text; Amin El-Serafi for the introduction of the Arabic music chapter, and special thanks to Ebtisam Helmi for the general revision."
Sonbol is humble, for he failed to mention that he was the only Egyptian photographer ever featured in the New York Times. The paper praised his "stunning and revelatory dance photographs", in particular his "agile eye". He dances with his camera even as the dancers traipse around the stage. The article also mentions how he is "apt to shoot from a catwalk above the stage or from the wings, frequently abstracting shapes into dynamic and explosive bursts of colour."
As far as Sonbol is concerned, the most important cornerstone of his work is projecting the Cairo Opera Company. After the tragic 1971 fire that destroyed the old Opera House in Ataba, Downtown Cairo, "we battled fiercely to keep Egyptian lyrical art alive," recounts Hassan Kami. He sheds light on the tortuous story of how the new Opera House replaced the old in face of all odds. Few could dislike his warm and vivacious telling of the tale.