The Cairo Opera House witnessed unprecedented protests on Tuesday, following the sacking of opera house head Ines Abdel-Dayem by the new culture minister.
Instead of the expected evening performance of opera Aida, the curtain was raised on a stage full of hundreds of opera house musicians and staff holding protest signs.
Culture Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz, who was appointed earlier this month, dismissed Abdel-Dayem on Tuesday morning, to outrage from the opera house community.
Abdel-Dayem is the third in a series of sackings of senior officials by the new minister of culture since he took office three weeks ago, after Ahmed Mujahid, head of the Egyptian General Book Authority, and Salah El-Meligy, head of the Fine Arts Sector, were let go.
A rumour that Abdel-Dayem would be dismissed surfaced several days ago, and was met with a small-scale protest by artists. On several occasions in recent days the minister denied plans to sack Abdel-Dayem.
Following the official announcement of Abdel-Dayem’s dismissal on Tuesday morning, the minister named Reda El-Wakil, currently head of the Artistic House at the Cairo Opera House, to be her successor.
El-Wakil stated on his Facebook page: "I decline to accept the position…the entire Cairo Opera House family trusts Dr. Ines Abdel-Dayem, and wishes her success in resuming her post as head of the Cairo Opera House."
Also on Tuesday, lawmakers in the Shura Council were discussing the budget of the opera house, and recommended that it be reduced. One of the members of the Islamist-dominated Shura Council also suggested that ballet performances should be cancelled, due to the "nudity" they entail. The suggestion, however, was not given further consideration.
Abdel-Dayem told Ahram Online on Tuesday that the decision to fire her prevented her from joining the Shura Council session to defend the Opera House’s budget. Principal conductor and artistic director of the Cairo Opera Orchestra Nayer Nagui told Ahram Online that "the current budget is barely sufficient to cover the expenses of a musical season."
At 5pm on Tuesday, the artists took their discontent outside the Cairo Opera House, paralleling another planned protest staged by visual artists condemning the removal of El-Meligy, head of the Fine Arts Sector.
A small group of artists and musicians protested outside the gate of the opera grounds, chanting and holding banners reading: "the opera is a red line," "we are all Ines Abdel-Dayem," and "opera is an expression of Egyptian culture.”
The protest moved later in the day to the other side of the opera house by Kasr El-Nil bridge, as car drivers honked their horns in support.
Artists strike outside the Cairo Opera House in Zamalek. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
The artists also chanted against Egypt's Islamist rulers, and the "rule of the Supreme Guide” of the Muslim Brotherhood, echoing opposition criticism that the secretive organisation is in effect ruling the country, not President Morsi.
Shortly after 7pm, the musicians poured into the opera house, as at 8pm they were expected to perform Verdi's Aida. Smartly-dressed audience members started to fill the hall.
However, when the curtains were raised, they revealed a staged filled by over 300 musicians, singers, ballet dancers – the complete cast of Aida joined by other artists and administrative personnel – dressed in their costumes, holding protest signs instead of props.
Artists from the Cairo Opera Orchestra, Cairo Opera Company, Cairo Opera Ballet Company, Cairo Opera Choir, Acapella Choir among many others held signs condemning the minister of culture and expressing solidarity with Abdel-Dayem.
Nayer Nagui, artistic director and principal conductor of the Cairo Opera Orchestra made a statement to the audience.
"In solidarity with Dr. Ines Abdel-Dayem, head of the Cairo Opera House, and with respect for her role, we, the artists and staff of the Cairo Opera House, have decided to refrain from performing the opera Aida tonight. This is the first step towards halting all the activities of the opera house until the removal of the culture minister, who has been making arbitrary decisions against prominent leaders in the ministry, in an attempt to change the identity of this country."
Nagui's statement was met with loud applause from the audience with many joining the artists in chants against the minister and "Brotherhoodisation" of the Egypt's culture. As the curtain closed, though surprised, the audience expressed their backing of the artists' actions.
The opera offered reimbursement for the tickets, but audience members refused to take their money back, stating that they fully support the artists' protest.
"I think it is wonderful, artists standing up for free speech," one member of the audience told Ahram Online. Her husband could not agree more. "I think that it is great that citizens are standing up and taking responsibility for what they believe in," he said.
The couple was proud that their children were there with them that night, even though they missed Aida. "They witnessed a moment of history. They can see Aida at any point in their lives, but they can never see the Cairo Opera House go on strike. This is unique and historical," their mother said.
Another member of the audience, Ahmed Gamil, an Egyptian doctor who had travelled to Cairo especially to watch Aida, said he supports the strike despite being disappointed the performance was cancelled. "What happened is a continuation of everything that is happening in the country. They have the right to strike, and stop working, all sectors do, even health which I represent."
In the midst of the protests, the news broke that stage director Badr El-Zakaziky would be appointed to the vacant post.
"If I don’t accept the post, the minister will appoint someone else," he told Ahram Online, surrounded by artists angered by his uncertainty. At one point he told the artists he would reject the offer, but when asked by Ahram Online, he replied: "I haven’t made up my mind."
The atmosphere backstage was turbulent, with many opera house staff urging El-Zakaziky not to accept the decision and become a “traitor.”
The usually silent hallways of the Cairo Opera House were brimming with commotion until late into the night. While one group of artists released a press announcement in which they denounced any interference in the opera coming from minister Abdel-Aziz, several artists sat on the stairs of the entrance hall, welcoming the arriving media with protest signs.
Tuesday’s protest by the opera house’s staff and artists was of an unprecedented scale. Over the past few months, many within the artistic community had expressed their dissatisfaction with the changes taking place in the country and perceived attacks on cultural freedom.
Egyptian staff and musicians at the opera house have said that they will continue to strike until the new cultural minister steps down.