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Cairo's first opera house remembered

Ahram Online remembers the opening of Egypt's first opera house in the 19th century

Ola R. Seif , Saturday 1 Nov 2014
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On 1 November 1869, the Khedivial Opera House was inaugurated in Azbakiya in central Cairo in the presence of European nobility and other dignitaries from all over the globe.

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Designed by Italian architect Pietro Avoscani, the opera house emulated La Scala Teatro in its architectural design. But its location in the Hausmannian urban plan of Cairo gave an unmistakably French urban flavour. Like Paris’s Opera Garnier, the Khedivial Opera was easily reached via several main arteries in the city. But since none of them was directly perpendicular to the Khedivial Opera, Cairo never had a Rue de l’Opera as is the case in Paris.

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As a direct result of proper urban planning the neighbourhood of the Opera was itself conceived to enhance the culture rather than confine it within the walls of the Opera premises. Designed by the French landscaper Barillet Deschamps, Azbakiya Park was just across the street from the Khedivial Opera. In addition to its diversified plantations and lagoons it also had several kiosks where music was performed, sometimes synchronised with parades.

While the Santi restaurant and casino was an attraction it was soon overshadowed by the Teatro Al-Azbakia which, interestingly, didn’t compete with the Khedivial Opera but rather complemented it by presenting predominantly Arabic performances. It is in Azbakiya Park that Um Kalthoum sang in earlier on in her career.

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The Khedivial Opera was fronted by the equestrian statue of Ibrahim Pacha. This had a symbolism that hardly matched the cultural venue. What appeared as Khedive Ismail’s intention to honor his father was likely to be a message of power and a reminder of the multiple victories achieved by Ibrahim Pacha in the first part of the nineteenth century.

Earlier photographs and postcards of the opera show two non-extant reservations kiosks at either side of the facade. The exact date of their demolishment is unknown.

Photographs from that epoch reveal also that cars were allowed to park in front of the facade.

The opera was home to both high art, such as Rigoletto at its inauguration and then a long awaited performance of Verdi’s Aida in December 1871, as well as more esoteric performance, such as in the 1960s when an Indian magician performed.

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The name changed over time to become the Royal Opera House in the 1930s and then, after King Farouk was deposed in 1952, it became simply the Opera House.

During the period from 1938 to 1954 it was directed by artist and actor Soliman Naguib. It was in this period that the opera house started to appear in Egyptian cinema, featuring in romance films such as Lahn al-Wafaa starring Hussein Riad and Abdel-Halim Hafez and Hikayit Hubb, starring both Hafez and Mariam Fakhr El-Din.

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Although modeled on the Teatro La Scala of Milan, the Khedivial Opera House wasn’t as sturdy. It was predominantly in wood and it was hurriedly built in the last few months before the inaugural festivities of the Suez Canal.

The wooden structure proved to be vulnerable, and on the morning of 28 October 1971, it went up in flames.

Along with the building, the fire claimed costumes, accessories, jewellery, scripts, documents, archives and historical artefacts from a whole century. Only one of the two bronze statues at the entrance survived the fire, and it is now on display in the gardens of the current Opera House in Gezira. 

The site of the former opera house was built over, replaced by a squat multi-story car park. Its history remains on display in a small museum room at the current Opera House complex.

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Today, almost half a century after the burning of the opera, its former site is still known as Opera Square, and if you ask a taxi driver to take you to the opera, chances are he will take you to Azbakiya and not to the current Cairo Opera House in Zamalek.

Photos courtesy of Ola R. Seif

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