Thursday,22 February, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1380, (8 - 14 February 2018)
Thursday,22 February, 2018
Issue 1380, (8 - 14 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Aida for all

Nahed Nasr looked for signs of the Opera at the Cairo Book Fair

Aida for all
Aida for all
Al-Ahram Weekly

For the second year in a row the Cairo Opera House is participating in the Cairo International Book Fair with an elegant little booth showcasing its publications and audiovisual recordings since the 1980s, including Arabic translations of operas and music education material. 

This participation, on Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem’s initiative, is a function of the General Administration of Documentation and Publishing, which was established in 2016 — headed by Mohamed Mounir — to document and make recordings of the Opera’s activities with the purpose of enhancing and promoting it beyond the stage. It is a process that has gone on since the Opera itself was established, but the new administration supplements and organises the efforts in question, specifically improving audience access. And this is where the book fair becomes relevant.

Dozens of books, CDs and DVDs have only rarely been seen outside the Opera House grounds. And yet this is material the audience is keen on. As Mounir explains, “We found treasures in the Opera’s storage facilities, many of which have been published since the 1990s. They are known but only to a very small audience.” The Opera’s repertoire, for example — La traviata, Carmen, Turandot, Bluebeard’s Castle, Rigoletto, The Pearl Fishers, Aida — is available in Arabic. Recordings of Beethoven concerts by Cairo Symphony Orchestra and Arabic Music Festival performances are also available. An illustrated book details the history of the Opera from 1998 to 2008, while a musical dictionary has become a bestseller. 

Aida in particular commands the attention of fair goers. Commissioned by Khedive Ismail for the opening of the Cairo Opera and first performed in Cairo on 24 December 1871, Giuseppe Verdi’s timeless work set in ancient Egypt with a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni is comprehensively dealt with in The Genius of Aida, which covers its sources and genesis down to archaeology, performance spaces and costumes in Italy and Egypt. It is also available in French comic book form thanks to Raymond Maric and Pierre Frisano.

But the Opera’s presence at the fair also promotes attendance, according to Mounir: “What we have found is that the distribution of Opera House activity flyers at the fair is increasingly rewarded. Last year we had one of the highest rates of attendance among teens up to 18 years old — our target audience in the book fair. This is unprecedented and I believe what matters most: to bridge the gap between the Opera House and the audience not only by translating content and making it available for everyone at affordable prices but also by promoting our programmes.” 

The book fair has also enabled the Opera to connect with its counterparts in the Arab world, Mounir says, representatives of which “were invited to our booth and requested copies of our publications and productions to be make them of their music libraries. What we do is unique and appealing as well. We hope in the future to participate in other book fairs in the Arab world”. 

Based on the success of last year’s participation, indeed, the current Opera House Chairman Magdi Saber is studying a project to organise permanent fairs of Opera content at the Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhour opera houses. The General Administration of Documentation and Publishing Of Cairo Opera House is formulating a long-term plan to document all Opera House activities. “Such documentation used to be random and in most cases we would request a copy of a recording made by a TV channel, but now we have a dedicated department to record all events and reproduce them both in book and audiovisual form,” Mounir says.

The plan also provides for a series of books collecting the Opera Cultural Salon proceedings. The salon has taken place since 1995, and renowned Egyptian figures from every field of endeavour have participated in it, including the late Nobel laureate Ahmed Zuweil. Original events and performances to which the Opera has the rights will be reproduced and marketed. “We need to break the stereotype that the Opera House is an elite place,” Mounir says. “Concerts, operas, ballets, Arabic music and children’s concerts should be everywhere — in the home. This is our cultural mission, which goes past the Opera’s walls.”

But this does not mean commercialism. “It is a fundamental principle even in our future publications that everything should be available at affordable prices. Our aim is to promote culture, not to make a profit. The same goes for the Opera House activities which are all presented at affordable prices. Everyone needs art and art should be for everyone.”

For the future Mounir hopes the Opera booth at the fair can expand and have several branches all over the fair grounds: “The first step proved to be effective and fruitful. We hope to go further in approaching fair goers. We can see the cheering results of our participation even after the fair ends in our daily work.”

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