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Children of the Opera: looking at the past decades of concerts for children in Egypt

Cairo Opera House invites children to a special concert tailored for young audiences on Sunday 7 October

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 4 Oct 2012
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Children's Gala concert on 7 October, poster design: Sherif Roshdi
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No matter how difficult it might seem for orchestras to reach to a wide audience, it is also quite obvious that concerts tailored for children and youth have the privilege of gaining special attention. All around the globe, parents express interest in assisting their children into a concert hall. Cleverly compiled programmes, presented with a story behind them can become a marvellous experience for the youngest listeners – a true magnet to musical values. As much as the orchestras have a clear role in the community, equally children can – and in fact enjoy – making a contribution to the society by becoming artists or audiences or both. Their lives can become richer, provided with interesting aesthetic opportunities.

The upcoming concert of the Cairo Opera Orchestra, conducted by Nayer Nagui, and scheduled for 7 October invites the youngest listeners to Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns and Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev. With Ahmed Mokhtar as the narrator, this one-hour event will include Elena Dzamashvili and Eman Shaker as piano soloists.

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Concerts designed to introduce children and young to live music are staged by a variety of artistic institutions, orchestras and small ensembles all across the world; they target a specific age group or whole families. A short visit to any of the internationally renowned orchestras’ web sites shows a section focusing on the development of young audiences through a variety of interesting programmes incorporating concerts and discussions with the musicians. In some orchestras, resident conductors are obliged to include concerts targeting community and children in their yearly repertoire. The Berliner Philharmoniker (Berlin Philharmonic), for instance, invites young listeners to attend general rehearsals – most of them conducted by Sir Simon Rattle – followed by conversations with the artists, during which the audience has a chance to talk to the conductor about the composers or works performed. The same orchestra offers education programmes for teachers, aiming to enhance their relation with the student within music education. Regular visits to schools and kindergartens where children are invited to experiment with music and instruments, to join musical and rhythmic exercises, are also on the list of musical activities offered by this first-class orchestra.

The example of the Berlin Philharmonic is more interesting once we realise that Egypt's music history does not lack for dynamic activities aiming at attracting children and the young to the concert halls. Unlike Berlin, Egypt has witnessed a decline of such activities over the past years.

A short look into the history of classical music in Egypt reveals a few people who took part in the development of young audiences. Tarek Ali Hassan, a medical doctor, musician, philosopher, writer, poet and painter (chairman of the National Cultural Centre - New Cairo Opera House, 1989-1992) initiated music appreciation activities at the Faculty of Medicine where he lectured. Hassan involved students in concerts, investing in and helping to develop their talent. The movement proved successful, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, and drew in thousands of young people as contributors or listeners. The same years witnessed greater social interest in the classical music performances;  children and the youung attended concerts as well as rehearsals open to students, held at the Old Opera House.  Ahmed El-Saedi, the principal conductor of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra (1993-2003) recalls that in the 1960s the orchestra would invite students to attend a concert on Friday morning, a sort of a final rehearsal before the Saturday's main concert. Hundreds of students were flocking in, and enjoyed the musical riches for five piasters (a rather symbolic fee even in the 1960s).

In the early 1990s, El-Saedi was officially committed to the Cairo Symphony Orchestra as assistant conductor (1991-1993) and the principal conductor and artistic director (1993-2003). Reaching out to young audiences became one of his main pursuits. For a decade, El-Saedi made sure to include two to five concerts designed for young audience. Held in the mornings, the concerts gained unprecedented popularity, with tickets sold to both schools and individuals. Those who followed the Cairo Opera in the late 1990s can remember rows of buses from schools waiting for the children at the Opera's parking. Apart from concerts for children, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra also offered the "Music for the Whole Family" series on Fridays afternoon.

El-Saedi took his mission even further when the orchestra launched concerts at Cairo University and other educational institutions. He remarks that he always believed that his potential future public is in children and youth. "If we don’t raise children to values of music, we won't have an audience later on. This is a normal procedure exercised by many international orchestras," El-Saedi points to the Berlin Philharmonic as an example.

Away from the Cairo Opera and a bit later, in 2008, El Saedi drove one more initiative aiming to bring music to children, when he launched a project "The Orchestra a Guest in Schools." Awarded the European Union grant, the project allowed the chamber orchestra to give 20 concerts in Egyptian schools with programme elements such as: "Mozart for Children" or Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev.

It becomes clear however that since 2003, once El-Saedi left the Cairo Symphony Orchestra,  concerts for children were no longer a priority and the activities aiming at reaching out to young audiences outside the opera’s walls disappeared. The Nutcracker ballet, by Tchaikovsky, traditionally performed by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and the Cairo Opera Orchestra around the Christmas and New Year's holidays, became a rare opportunity for the families to attend a classical music event.

In 2010, an interesting initiative by Ahmed Abou-Zahra, Egyptian pianist and art manager, emerged. The Orchestra Colonne France, conducted by Laurent Petitgirard, was invited to Egypt to give two concerts for children. The concerts took place in the framework of the Grand Opening of the Children's Music Puzzle Project, and the opening of the National Musical Project for Children was dubbed "Music for education and education for music." Though the events that followed January 2011 Revolution froze this promising initiative, Abou-Zahra reveals that the idea did not die and he hopes to revive it once the situation in the country allows it. In a recent interview, Abou-Zahra stated: "I have lots of plans and I am ready whenever Egypt is ready. I only need stability. When it happens I will be the first one to come back with all the initiatives and projects."

But despite a few sporadic projects or concerts, the last decade of the Cairo Opera House does not shine with many attempts to invite young audiences to its halls. In April 2013, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Magdy Boghdady, will perform “Young People’s Concert” – so far, the only announced activity of the orchestra targeting young audiences in this season.

It is therefore a pleasant surprise to find the Cairo Opera Orchestra taking the initiative to give a concert for children. It is worth mentioning that, since it's founding in 1994, and knowing that the Cairo Symphony Orchestra should play a leading role in the mission of approaching the young audiences  – fact that since 2003 has become increasingly theoretical – the Cairo Opera Orchestra concentrated on supplementing ballets, operas along with performances of a few galas and celebratory concerts. The Children’s Gala is definitely an important step.

Nayer Nagui, the Cairo Opera Orchestra's principal conductor and artistic director since September 2011, has been planning for the concert since last season (2011-2012) when it was scheduled at the end of the season but due to the political events that took place around that date, the concert was postponed.

"I decided to set the Children’s Gala at the beginning of the school season, when students are still not overloaded with academic responsibilities. The choice of Sunday 7 October ensures that all families are in Cairo. Evening hour (8pm) will hopefully allow all interested children to attend as it this will not clash with their school," Nagui explains the concert's positioning in the schedule. The concert will last one hour, just the correct duration for the young audience to sustain their interest.

"It is my hope to revive concerts for the young audience," Nagui asserts, adding that he still plans for similar events to take place each season. He underscores however that his ultimate dream is to join forces with the Cairo Opera Company in a performance of Hansel and Gretel, an opera by the 19th century composer Engelbert Humperdinck to a libretto based on the Grimm brothers' fairy tale. Understandably, this dream needs strong support from the opera's top management and sponsors. Until this happens, for the 7 October concert, Nagui promises an unconventional take on the narration of Peter and the Wolf assuring that the evening will be memorable to all young attendees. With his dynamism and perseverance – proved over the past months – it may well be that eventually Egyptian children will be re-introduced to the wonders of the classical music.

Now that so many artists, including musicians are concerned about the future of music in Egypt it is a good time to think about young generations, potential admirers of art and music. Pointless to remind ourselves that it is the sole responsibility of the artistic institutions to come forward to the needs of the society that it serves. The Egyptian art and music scene is aware of challenges that are posed on it, whether they originate in social, religious or strictly governmental pressures; it is increasingly crucial to develop such new generations. 

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