Meet the new chairperson of the Cairo Opera House: Ines Abdel Dayem

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 1 Mar 2012

When Shaker Abdel Hamid, Egypt’s Minister of Culture announced that Ines Abdel Dayem will be a new chairperson of the Cairo Opera House, many were not surprised. Abdel Dayem talks about her plans and vision

Ines Abdel Dayem (Photo by Sherif Sonbol)

Ines Abdel Dayem (Inès Abdel Daïm) graduated from the flute department of the Cairo Conservatory and continued her studies in France, where she obtained a PhD from the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. Since then she has received numerous awards. In 1982, she won first prizes from the Federation Nationale des Unions des Conservatoires Municipaux and the Concours General de Musique et d’Art Dramatique in France – in addition top awards in chamber music and in solo flute performances. Her extensive tours as a flutist cover the US and much of Europe – Italy, Germany, Spain, Greece, the Czech Republic – as well as African and Middle Eastern countries including Morocco, Tunisia, Syria and the UAE.

In Japan, she received a certificate of merit in the Kobe International Flute Competition; in South Korea, the Festival of Arts prize for the best flautist. Abdel Dayem also received the Creative Prize from the Academy of Arts operating under Egypt’s Ministry of Culture. In the early 2000s, she was awarded a prize for being one of the most creative Egyptian women of the century and in 2001 she received Egypt’s State Prize in Arts. She became the director of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra in 2003, dean of the Cairo Conservatoire in 2005 and soon after the vice-president of the Academy of Arts.

As chairperson of the Cairo Opera House (the National Cultural Centre, part of the Ministry of Culture) Abdel Dayem replaces Abdel Moneim Kamel, who served as chairman since 2004.

Not-withstanding its privileges, the new position will no doubt require of Abdel Dayem some sacrifices; she will have to reestablish her artistic balance. “Going away from flute is the last thing I would have imagined,” Abdel Dayem says. “But with all the changes taking place in the country and the problems piling inside the Cairo Opera House, I will have to put my work as a flautist on hold, at least temporarily. I gave up all other official functions I held – at the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, the Cairo Conservatory and the Academy of Arts. The Opera is the only responsibility that I have as of now and I am wholly dedicated to it.” Abdel Dayem comments.

Especially in the last few years, the Cairo Opera House has been subject to criticism even as audience and critics praised many activities held in its premises. Some voiced concerns about the low artistic standards of some performances, the lack of a strong logistical backbone to the institution, inadequate advertising and questionable budget allocations – a fact brought to light by people working inside the opera.

But problems have been added to since the revolution, with various social, religious and economic factors combining to render the picture even more complicated than it was before 2011. In this context, the prestigious opportunity of the opera directorship presents Abdel Dayem with dilemmas she must address. For her part, Abdel Dayem feels that, however difficult the timing, recent political developments serve as an eye opener. She asks an important question about the opera’s role in Egyptian society: “Today there is an obvious gap between the opera and many Egyptians; many of the opera’s activities were of interest to only a select layer of society. We need to revise our mission to make sure we preserve our artistic values while using tools we have at hand to create a broader outreach and a stronger impact.”

Abdel Dayem believes that the opera can still bring a larger assortment of valuable artistic initiatives and shed light on insufficiently explored genres, such as musicals or operettas. “We also need to present all Arabic and Egyptian musical heritage. With good planning we can find interesting elements suitable for all audiences.”

She hopes to return to spreading the word about music beyond the Cairo Opera House, through performances held in the governorates or small ensembles to tour Egypt. She also plans on reviving the long-forgotten cooperation with radio channels and national television. “We need to reach many social strata, students, all young people,” Abdel Dayem says, recalling the time when symphonic concerts and recitals were held at Cairo University or travelled across governorates; she hopes that this practice can be restored.

She recognizes a need to bring children to the concert halls and to prepare activities tailored especially to their age. “We have to address schools, and invite children from all of them to the opera house: both private and public schools. I also hope to reactivate the old practice of musicians visiting schools and introducing children to instruments and ideas.”

As for the scheme proposed for the Cairo Opera House, Abdel Dayem has the idea of revamping both the approach and mentalities of the administration, in order to sustain the values of the institution and keep the audiences’ interest. Programme changes and cancellations were not only upsetting to audiences; they were equally frustrating to many artists. And although some of those decisions were dictated by the political situation, others resulted from financial constraints. Until the end of this season, Abdel Dayem hopes to make as much as possible from the opera’s plans. “We still have a few months to complete the season but the budget that comes from the Ministry of Finance – that’s finished. On the other hand, sponsors are not as interested in the opera as they used to be. In order to rescue the current season, we have to revise the situation and adjust as best as we can in order not to lose performances already in the programme.” Abdel Dayem adds that this season some productions might need new cost-effective solutions to see the light.

According to Abdel Dayem, it is the new season (2012-2013) that will bring about a visible change. She has already started working on a long-term plan – to be implemented as of September 2012, the date by which she wishes to have a complete plan of activities and budget. Abdel Dayem comments that “all the opera companies’ programme presented to the audience at the beginning of the season must be well studied at the artistic and financial levels, they have to be duly implemented. Cancellations are unacceptable and they will take place only in case of a force-majeure. It is for the management to find solutions to possible financial or artistic obstacles and this should never be at the expense of the concert, opera or other performance. We have to shelter the artistic side...”

Abdel Dayem plans to set up a committee responsible for reviewing all programme elements, taking into consideration artistic and budget elements as well as setting them up coherently on the opera’s map. For instance, she refuses to have two important artistic events, targeting the same audience, running simultaneously at the main and small halls. “The artistic plan needs to have the benefit of proper logic. We can offer a multitude of artistic events attracting different tastes without creating a conflict of interests between different halls. This cannot be left to chance.”

It is also the responsibility of the committee and board of directors to ensure that all performances and concerts presented on the stages of the Cairo Opera House have high artistic level. Abdel Dayem does not deny that some of invited artists – whether individuals or groups – have not been up to the standard; she promises to work closely with the management of each company and implement thorough criteria for artists who are not already world renowned, looking closely at their works and resumes before inviting them to Cairo. She explains that artistic standards should be the opera’s priority – never to be compromised, regardless of whether visiting artists depend on the opera’s budget or not.

“Reaching out to Egyptian talents is not only a good financial strategy but will finally provide opportunities for our local talents to produce valuable art,” Abdel Dayem adds. She is willing to start discussions with all opera companies with a view to opening the opera’s doors to the many Egyptian talents who deserve exposure and are looking for growth.

As a way of safeguarding opera’s mission, Abdel Dayem plans to implement a clear system in many sides of the administration, some of which – like ticketing – have proved troublesome to the opera and its audience. Over the past months, opera goers have complained that despite the ticketing office telling them that an event is fully sold out, they find out that half of the hall is empty. Abdel Dayem wants to address this issue from a broader perspective, bringing professionals from outside the opera house to put into place an advanced ticketing system that includes online booking in addition to internal control.

Likewise, the advertising system: Abdel Dayem promises to set in motion an effective plan with priorities to be implemented in this regard. She feels that while big productions and well-known names are audience magnets, light needs to be shed on less popular events. “I already started holding frequent meetings public relations and marketing offices to make sure their work is aligned and serves all the opera’s companies.”

The Cairo Opera House has no lack of internal struggles, and many of them came to light after 25 January 2011 when technicians, administrative staff as well as some musicians started voicing their grievances. Accusations expressed by the Cairo Opera House employees during their February 2011 protests along with strikes and protests staged throughout the past months by employees of the Alexandria Opera House, pointed to a number of concerns including alleged high bonuses given unjustly to chosen employees at the Cairo and Alexandria Opera Houses, some of them reaching tens of thousands. Abdel Dayem insists that the exaggerated bonuses policy is terminated. “There is no longer any ground for this system. Our role is not in bonus distribution but in making sure that the opera’s artistic and social mission is accomplished. We must see the actual fruits of the efforts of many people employed at the opera. I believe that once we implement a new system, everyone will find themselves in that system and will do their best to prove their contribution. Exceptional accomplishments will be rewarded.”

Evidently Abdel Dayem hopes for many changes. It is not clear however what plans she has, if any, regarding pensions for musicians employed at the opera. Most of them hold yearly renewable contracts which deprive them of many benefits. For the time being, Abdel Dayem is not suggesting any changes in this department and offers no binding solutions; she mentions that the opera may, at certain point, introduce private-company pension programmes.

In this and other regards, Abdel Dayem definitely has a lot of homework to do. She will no doubt have the support of many employees but is also like to face obstacles including opposition from others. She remains optimistic, believing that, in time, with the help of effective organisation and perseverance, all her professional goals and artistic dreams can be achieved.

One of her dreams is to form a youth orchestra. She points at the many children and young people capable of playing a role in such a project. “Talents Development Centre operating under the Cairo Opera House is one of the great resources for talented and enthusiastic children and youth. With some thought given to it, I see great potential for creating something special for those children and for the society.”

Over the past months however, the Talents Development Centre has been challenged by its limited number of rooms and some activities are face the danger of being terminated. Abdel Dayem is already planning to cooperate with the Centre in order to safeguard all the initiatives held there. “Talents Development Centre has a very important cultural role in the Egyptian society. Formal music education is in very bad state all across the country, across different educational levels and social strata. We cannot give up on Egyptian children who are the future of our culture. The Talents Development Centre has a strong skeleton and offers activities of great value; we have to do everything possible to protect it.”

With all the challenges ahead, Abdel Dayem remains optimistic and enthusiastic. She underscores that she will cooperate with all parties to ensure that the mission of the only opera house in Cairo is realised. She is aware of the many obstacles that will come her way, whether from inside or outside the Cairo Opera House. Yet she says, while some changes will be obvious soon enough, others may take time to show. With the strength and dynamic cooperation of all parties, Abdel Dayem just may manage to bring about her ambitious vision.

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