Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Happy birthday Opera

Ati Metwaly celebrates the anniversary of the inauguration of the Opera House, erected with the cooperation of the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 1988

Al-Ahram Weekly

It has been 27 years that the Cairo Opera House (or rather the National Cultural Centre) opened to the public on 10 October 1988. It has since filled life in Egypt with artistic events, and provided a home for the national orchestras, opera and ballet troupes.

This year, the Opera’s management did not forget to add a few celebratory accents to the programme to mark the event. On the eve of the anniversary, 9 October, a gala concert combined dozens of artists as the Cairo Opera Company, Cairo Opera Ballet Company, and Cairo Opera Orchesra and Cairo Opera Choir under the baton of David Crescenzi took the stage. Directed by Hazem Tayel, the evening included a long series of arias from Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, Gounod, Ponchinelli and other works which are not new to Cairo audiences, along with pieces incorporating dancers who executed the choreography of Valentin Bartes and Erminia Kamel.

On 10 October, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra’s programme offered Beethoven’s Choir Fantasy, Op. 80 followed by Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (The Choral). The orchestra, conducted by Andreas Spörri, was joined by pianist Sarah Ayoub in the first half and sopranos Iman Moustafa and Mona Rafla, alto Jolie Faizy, tenors Walid Korayem and Amr Medhat, bass Ashraf Seweilam, the A Cappella Choir with choir master Maya Gvineria, in the second half.

Anniversary celebrations give us a chance to look into the history of the new Cairo Opera House, an edifice located within the spacious gated grounds at the southern end of Gezira Island, adjacent to Zamalek. When 27 ago, on 10 October 1988, the opera opened its doors, it was one of the first buildings in the area. To the north it had only two neighbours, built in the 1920s:  Al-Saraya Al-Kobra or the Great Palace, which in 1983 had become home to the Egyptian Museum of Modern Arts and Saraya Al-Nil Al-Kobra (rhe Great Nile Palace), which had turned into the Palace of Arts in 1984. To the south, it bordered a small building which was initially built with a purpose of becoming an observatory, but after a series of mysterious and never-ending renovations was recently re-opened as the Hadara Hall, a venue for various cultural activities including films screenings and visual arts displays.

A short visit to the Cairo Opera House grounds today reveals many new buildings, all of which were erected during the past two decades. They include the Music Library, the Cultural Development Fund’s offices, the Hanager Arts Centre, the Artistic Creativity Centre, the Higher Council of Culture and Syndicate of Plastic Arts. It is worth adding that, apart from the music library, none of these institutions operate under the Opera’s administration, but are linked to other sectors of the Ministry of Culture.

When, with the support of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the new Cairo Opera House opened its doors on these rather empty grounds, the audience was welcomed with a big ceremony featuring a Japanese kabuki performance, marking the first such theatrical show to be staged in Africa and the Arab world.

The new Cairo Opera House re-embraced its companies which, since the tragic burning of the old Khedivial (Royal) Opera House on 28 October 1971, had been performing on the foster stage of the Gomhouriya Theatre near the Abdeen Royal Palace. The new building had a number of stages: the Main Hall, with a capacity of 1300 spectators, the Small Hall (350 seats) and the Open-air Theatre. Several companies immediately resumed their activities in the new building: the Heritage Ensemble for Arab Music (whose history goes back to 1932), the Cairo Opera Company (established in 1952), the Cairo Opera Choir (established in 1956), the Cairo Symphony Orchestra (established in 1959), and the Abdel-Halim Noweira Ensemble for Arab Music (established in 1967).

It is also worth clarifying that, in the years when the Opera’s was being constructed, Magda Saleh, the former prima ballerina educated in Egypt, Moscow and New York, served as its founding director. She was replaced with the late Ratiba El-Hefny who in first months of her directorship founded the National Arab Music Ensemble and the Cairo Opera House Children’s Choir, with Selim Sehab as conductor and artistic director. Yet in March 1990, El-Hefny was replaced with Tarek Ali Hassan, medical doctor, musician, philosopher, writer, poet and painter, or simply “somebody who loves human beings and believes in them”, as he described himself in a profile published on those pages in May 2011.

It was during those first two years, under El-Hefny and Ali Hassan, that the Opera tradition of activities galore first took off. In the early 1990s, the Talents Development Centre was created to provide music and ballet education to children and youth. Today their classes include many different instruments as well as dance and voice. During the same few months, the Cairo Ballet Company finally abandoned the status it had held since 1966 as an adjunct to the Academy of Arts to be adopted by the Opera House, becoming the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, and headed by the late Abdel-Moneim Kamel, the godfather of ballet in Egypt as many have described him.

Before stepping down from the Opera’s management in 1991, Tarek Ali Hassan initiated the creation of a new building that would serve as a Music Library and provide space for hundreds of scores and books crammed in a small room inside the Opera’s main building. The project was further developed and finalised in 1994 by Nasser El-Ansary, who served as a chairman until 1997. During El-Ansary’s directorship the Cairo Opera Dance Theatre Company was launched, performing contemporary dance with Walid Aouni as choreographer and artistic director. Two years later, the Cairo Opera Orchestra was founded, becoming the second national orchestra under the Cairo Opera’s umbrella which, by performing ballets and operas, allowed the Cairo Symphony Orchestra to focus on the symphonic repertoire.  

It is clear that the 1990s represent the Cairo Opera’s most dynamic era, with world renowned troupes gracing its stages on a regular basis and local companies benefiting from cooperation and exchange. In 1991, the famed Maurice Béjart (1927-2007) and his troupe performed a ballet titled Pyramide – El-Nour paying tribute to Egyptian history. In 1994 the first mega production of opera Aida took place in Luxor, and in October 1997, the memorable Aida performance was staged against the backdrop of the Deir Al-Bahari Temple. A terrorist attack on tourists a month later, however, brought an end to opera performances in Luxor.

El-Ansary’s era saw budgets and initiatives that brought to Cairo performances by the Ballet of Opera Varna and the Sofia International Opera (Bulgaria), the New Classical Ballet (Moscow), the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Renato Greco Contemporary Dance Company (Italy) and the Stockholm Youth Symphony Orchestra (Sweden), among many internationally renowned ballet troupes and symphonic orchestras.  

Moustafa Nagui replaced El-Ansary in 1997, who was followed by General Samir Farag (2000-2004). The Cairo Opera entered a phase during which many activities were discontinued. Symphonic concerts were no longer held at Cairo University, and their radio and television broadcasts were dropped. When Abdel Moneim Kamel took over, between 2004 and 2012, he channelled a lot of attention into strengthening the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and invited many internationally renowned troupes and choreographers. Around the same time, however, the administration of several other companies in the Opera were struggling with various problems – the seeds of which had been planted under the previous management – and Opera regulars began expressing their concern regarding the increasingly repetitive repertoire, and its artistic delivery.

To the Opera, the 2011 revolution came as the least needed blow. Many of the remaining foreign artists departed and budget limitations crippled many activities. The companies had to make various compromises with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company feeling under pressure especially when, starting in 2012, the Islamist groups that rose to power started questioning the “morality” of the art form.  

Abdel-Moneim Kamel’s annually-renewed contract ended in February 2012, when he was replaced by Ines Abdel-Dayem. Her chairmanship however was suddenly and inexplicably interrupted by her dismissal (May-July 2013) by the former minister of culture Alaa Abdel-Aziz, appointed by the then Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. The dismissal came as part of a series of sackings implemented across numerous institutions, which angered the cultural community. Abdel-Aziz appointed stage manager, Badr El-Zakaziky as Opera chairperson.

However, following the removal of Morsi from the presidency, the new minister of culture Mohamed Saber Arab reinstated Abdel-Dayem among several other figures. Starting in July 2013, Abdel-Dayem implemented a policy that has filled the Opera with unprecedented dynamism, opening the doors to many troupes and artists who have never previously performed in the Opera’s halls. Today, apart from the Opera’s own companies and sporadic international performers, independent musicians and their student fans can be seen filling the monthly schedule.

In an interview published on those pages in July 2013, Abdel-Dayem revealed that the “Cairo Opera House will welcome even more local talent. Any artist doing something valuable will find the Cairo Opera doors open. We are here to support all talents.” This philosophy is being implemented all across the National Cultural Centre, in the Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhour Opera houses as well the Al-Gomhoreya and Sayed Darwish theatres in Cairo.

add comment

  • follow us on