For over a decade, the Cairo Opera House has traditionally hosted its annual Christmas concert as a joint effort combining the Cairo Opera Company soloists, an orchestra, and the Cairo Celebration Choir (CCC). Since Nayer Nagui – founder and conductor of the Cairo Celebration Choir – became the principal conductor and artistic director of the Cairo Opera Orchestra in 2011, the Christmas concerts became part of the Cairo Opera Orchestra's repertoire, replacing the Cairo Symphony Orchestra which, prior to December 2012, had joined most of the previous Christmas evenings.
Every consecutive year, the opera's event includes a selection of the most celebrated Christmas songs and carols, in addition to the new songs, mostly arranged by Nagui.
On Monday 16 December and Tuesday 17 December, every last chair in the opera's main hall was occupied by an audience seeking the Christmas spirit through music.
As usual, the Christmas evening included mostly soloists from the Cairo Opera Company: sopranos Jacqueline Rafik, Dina Iskander, Dalia Farouk, Mona Rafla, Iman Moustafa and Neveen Allouba; mezzo sopranos Nouresta El-Merghany, Amina Khairat and Jolie Faizy; tenors Sobhi Bidair, Tamer Tawfik and Amr Medhat; baritones Elhamy Amin and Moustafa Mohamed; and bass Reda El-Wakil.
The evening opened with Leroy Anderson's popular "Sleigh Ride" before moving to the well-known Christmas song "Holiday Pops" arranged by Bob Cerulli and performed by Elhamy Amin; the carol "Silent Night" by Franz Xaver Gruber, to lyrics by Joseph Mohr, was performed by Jacqueline Rafik; the 18th century "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen," the traditional English Christmas carol, was performed by Nouresta El-Merghany; Cesar Franck's "Panis Angelicus" was sung by Dina Iskander, to mention but a few of the Christmas gems which delighted the listeners.
Mezzo soprano Nouresta El Merghany and Nayer Nagui conducting the Cairo Opera Orchestra during the annual Christmas concert, 16 December 2013 (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
With over 70 choir members on the stage, the CCC provided comforting lining and seasonal glow to the many songs and carols. The group also performed some works alone, accompanied by the orchestra: "The First Noel," a traditional English carol and canon in D by Johann Pachelbel; "A Vaughan Williams Christmas" and a Ukranian "Carol of the Bells." The evening closed with the 16th century classic English carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." As heartening as it was, one only hoped for the soloists of the Cairo Opera Company to join the stage in those final musical wishes.
Though this year saw particularly meticulous work carried out by the scenography team (supervisor Mohamed El Gharabawy, and set designer Mohamed Abdel Razik) who infused the stage with warm seasonal decorations, the festive atmosphere was not as sparkling as it once was. The reason behind the dimmed mood may be explained by the general atmosphere of instability enveloping the country since the January 2011 Revolution, and particularly the year of confrontations between the arts scene and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood's cabinet. As direct social and political pressures no longer plague the opera today, perhaps the artists need the healing effect of time in order to rediscover their challenged artistic energies.
While enjoying many of the compositions and occasionally looking for better rounding in a few, what persistently lacked were new soloists. It is clear that the Cairo Opera Company's core team has brought forth the same singers year after year, usually singing the same carols, year after year. Despite the unquestionable importance of revalidating the established singers' skills and experience, it is equally vital to introduce fresh blood and voices to the national stage.
As the evening unveiled, the Cairo Opera Orchestra – which never ceases to surprise us with its continuous improvement of sound and musical delivery – as well as the Cairo Celebration Choir, proved to be among the stars of the evening.
While the soloists and the orchestra enjoy the status of companies operating under the Cairo Opera House, frequently performing on the opera's stages, this may be the most pertinent time to shed light on the Cairo Celebration Choir (CCC). Consisting of what Nagui describes as "professional amateurs," the choir has, over recent years, come to form an indispensible aspect of Egypt's cultural life.
Cairo Opera Orchestra at the annual Christmas concert, 16 December 2013 (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Cairo Celebration Choir: an incessant growth
The Cairo Celebration Choir (CCC) was founded back in 2000, while Sobhi Bidair was the director of the Cairo Opera Company. In the evening programme, notes explained how Bidair had requested that Nagui form a choir of all music lovers living in Cairo to sing with the soloists of the Cairo Opera Company, accompanied by the orchestra, on its first Christmas concert.
As Nagui's musical passion contagiously transmitted onto the choir members, the CCC began to acquire a life of its own, far surpassing the status of a project.
While the beginnings were linked to a small number of singers, mostly hailing from Egypt's Christian community, the professional skeleton and musical expectations that Nagui set for the group bore fruits in the vast repertoire that the CCC has come to offer today. Thirteen years later, over 100 choir members are prepared to sing the famed choral works of the Western classical music repertoire, Gregorian songs and famous Egyptian choral works by Sayed Darwish and Gamal Abdel-Rahim, arranged by Nayer Nagui.
The CCC has come to incorporate singers from various generations, different walks of life, and diverse nationalities. The choir has performed on numerous stages in Egypt, travelled to Morocco, and participated in the Czech Republic's "Prague Voices 2012 Festival," winning the Silver Level Diploma, a palpable proof of the choir's musical growth.
Since most of the choir's members cannot sight-read, additional effort is required from them – and patience from Nagui – to assure the perfection and professionalism of each performance.
"The Christmas repertoire is less challenging than other works we perform," Marcelle Sameh, CCC soprano and founding administrative support, reveals to Ahram Online. "It can take around 10 rehearsals, during which we revisit already known songs and carols as well as work on new ones."
All CCC members are strictly committed to weekly rehearsals and performances. "Tuesday rehearsals are sacred. Many of the members tailor their professional and personal lives accordingly," Sameh explains.
"We understand and respect the values that we're offered. Nayer Nagui puts a lot of work into the CCC's artistic development; he continuously sets challenges, introduces new music to our repertoire, revealing the musical riches and technical aspects of different works."
Cairo Celebration Choir at the Cairo Opera House's main hall, 16 December 2013 (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
Each member of the CCC finds an aspect of individual interest while benefitting from this enriching collective journey. Sameh reveals she enjoys singing Requiems, finding in them uplifting qualities. In his turn, tenor leader Sherif Eldabaa, one of the members who also shares a long history with the CCC, underlines the challenge and satisfaction derived from performing Schubert's "Stabat Mater".
Mirette Samir, a fresh pharmacy graduate who joined the choir only two years ago, is especially moved by "Metamorphose," a work for Orchestra, Qanoun and Choir, composed by Nagui. The composition reflects on the post-revolution period in Egypt, its uncertainty and faith in hope. "I relate to the mood and events that the music depicts," Samir commented to Ahram Online.
Whether it is Fauré's Requiem, Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle," Latin choral compositions, Schubert's "Lieders" with the Cairo Opera soloists or Aghani Bel Arabi (Arabic repertoire arranged by Nagui), the Cairo Celebration Choir takes the audiences onto countless musical endeavours.
"We hope to follow our mission in spreading light, especially in times of darkness, when we're challenged by political troubles. Hopefully, the output is as interesting for the audiences as it is rewarding for us," Eldabaa concluded to Ahram Online.
The annual Christmas concert of the Cairo Opera House has become one of the most anticipated events for Egyptian audiences, and the Cairo Celebration Choir enjoys its significant share in the evening's popularity and success.
Check Photo Gallery from the Christmas concert