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16 - 22 November 2000
Issue No.508
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Youssef El-Sisi: Not a lights down man

Youssef El-Sisi
photo: Antoune Albert
BORN in the provincial town of Shebin Al-Kom, Daqahliya on 19 March 1935, Youssef El-Sisi was always interested in what he considered the "aspects of musical development in Egypt to which little attention has been given by historians." He would often mention how his father, an engineer, and his mother, of Syrian descent, both music lovers, encouraged their children to listen to the classical music broadcasts from the Suez City of Fayed, performed by a band comprising German and Italian prisoners of war.

El-Sisi came to Cairo for his secondary school education and was exposed -- along with his school mates Salah Abdel-Sabbour and Naguib Surur, two of Egypt's prominent literary figures -- to the rich cultural scene of 1940s Egypt. His interest in music took a serious turn and he studied with famous European masters living in Cairo at the time, such as the Italian Labati and the German Schultz. Although he obtained a degree in English literature from Cairo University in compliance with his father's wish that he not become a "professional musician," El-Sisi went on to study at the Music Institute under another well-known teacher, Brigitte Schiffer.

El-Sisi then travelled to Austria and became the first Egyptian to study conducting at the Vienna Academy of Music, under Hans Sworowsky, where he obtained his Artistic Maturity degree in conducting and composition. Returning to Egypt, he revived the Cairo Symphony Orchestra -- after the Opera House built by the Khedive Ismail burnt down in 1972, an event which signalled to music lovers the end of an era of rich artistic activity -- through rigorous rehearsals from 1973 to 1980, and set about upgrading other orchestral and choral troupes.

El-Sisi often expressed what he described as his "disappointment" with Egypt's subsequent cultural development. "Music and opera," he once told Al-Ahram Weekly, "are on the decline, the technical aspects which should be managed by specialists, are being over-ruled by bureaucratic and political consideration -- although music is the one realm that cannot be developed through politics."

An energetic man, he was beset by a feeling of frustration. His musical inertia, however, may have been self-imposed. During the last ten years of his life he did not conduct the Symphony Orchestra. This was often due, it was said, to differences with the administration overseeing the new Opera House.

He gave time to writing his memoirs which, as he laughingly described them, focused mainly on "the predicament of music under government administration."

He lived with his wife Nadia, in a simple apartment in Doqqi. The flat overflowed with books, papers, friends, colleagues -- and the Music Institute students whom he taught.

In addition to conducting, El-Sisi composed music for several documentary films, including Papyrus Land, The Valley of the Kings and The Coptic Museum, in addition to 399 children's songs.

He particularly enjoyed conducting orchestral performances of Brahms and Dvorjak.

David Blake, who attended El-Sisi conducting the Polish National Symphony Orchestra through Cosi Fan Tutti, a performance available on CD, wrote: "His conducting brings forth the energy and clarity of the music, while at the same time projecting the angst where appropriate... [T]he sadness of the tragic passages comes through without the music weighing too heavily. He keeps it going to time, with nothing slack or stodgy about the style."

He conducted Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, with an Egyptian cast singing the lyrics in Arabic, as part of an endeavour to bring opera to the Arabic speaking audience. Reflecting his attachment to his own culture, his programmes would often include extracts from Aziz El-Shawwan's Anas Al-Wogood, a symphony "at once melodious and Egyptian," and his own composition, Egyptian Suite. Far from diffident, El-Sisi sported no false modesty, often speaking of his extensive conducting repertoire in "four out of five continents."

Aziza Sami

HERE or not here, Youssef El-Sisi was not a lights down man. The mere sight of him on his infequent visits to the Cairo Opera House dispelled most of the unease of the amateur set-up usually prevailing.

He was opera. He knew the business. Some, most critics here, were hard on him, but speak with him for half an hour and it was obvious that the critics were the ignorant ones. He had seen a lot, remembered it and used that sense of expertise in his productions. Expertise was the cherry stone in the throat of these critics. He had presence and a sense of occasion and so on El-Sisi nights the Cairo Opera had that certain something, lacking in his absence, called appeal.

An ordinary academic he was not. His tempi were often capricious. Even his memory concerning the uplifts and downfalls so essential in operatic music often missed their target, but his sense of climax never. His depth of understanding of the entire opera never failed, and he could colour his orchestration as a true operatic artist. He shared with his audience the secrets which cannot be told.

Two examples will do. His La Bohème a few years ago, with El-Hefni and an extraordinary young Russo-Polish tenor, were genuinely searing. The usual friendly, superficial tones conductors apply to Puccini had gone: these lovely young people in the opera were skating on thin ice and, when it cracked and broke, its depth tolled out the misery and doom of an age to come.

The other example -- El-Sisi's last appearance at the opera in fact -- was his Turandot. Everyone knows the story of how Puccini died before he could finish this work and of the obituary spoken by Toscanini who conducted its world premiere at the Scala Opera House with the mightiest singers alive to scale its dreaded heights. How did the little Cairo Opera House, with the forces both available and imported, dare attempt this Everest? Well, they did -- and succeeded, thanks to El-Sisi. He knew the complex and dazzling score, the singers old and young involved, the noble choruses, the subtle psychological fluctuations of the Gozzi tale.

Thanks to El-Sisi the Cairo Opera House had a unique night of splendour. Then adio senza rancore.

David Blake

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