A quiet evening in Al-Mokhtalat district in Mansoura. The passersby are surprised by the tunes of a violin and a soprano voice coming from a balcony of a deserted palace.
The palace in question is one hundred years old: Iskandar’s Palace, known as the Red Palace in reference to its colour. Deserted since the 1990s, the palace now hosts garbage, fish-sellers and gained a reputation of becoming a temporary shelter for outlaws.
For Mahatat for Contemporary Art, however, this historical site was a perfect location for the third tour of their Art of Transit project, an initiative that aims to bring art to public spaces through street performances and artistic interventions.
This time they decided to use balconies of the four cities — Port Said, Damietta, Mansoura and Cairo — for their new artistic intervention: Balcony Opera, a project in which Mahatat cooperates with Teatro Independent Theatre. Mahatat reached Mansoura on Saturday 14 March where they performed on balconies of the residential buildings and those of the Red Palace.
A couple of hundred people gathered in front of the palace, which hosted the singers and musicians of Teatro Independent Theatre, at 3pm and then 7pm. To underscore the homely mood of the performance, the afternoon show included musicians dressed in pyjamas and bathrobes, while the evening one saw formal attire. The troupe sung opera arias as well as known Western and Egyptian songs.
Soprano Lubna El-Degheidy performed famous Western pieces, including Habanera, from Georges Bizet’s Carmen, as well as Edith Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien. For his part, Ahmed Sabry sang Arabic songs as passersby joined, clapped and even danced to iconic tunes such as A’al Helwa wel Morra (Through Thick and Thin), Ya Helw Sabbah (Good Morning, Beautiful) among others.
"We want to sing for people in balconies," Omar Al-Moataz Bellah, founder of Teatro and the performance directorre calls Heba El-Cheikh, Mahatat's executive director, telling him.
He went on to explain that "balconies have a romantic connotation" and links to joyful elements, such as colourful hung clothes, or someone humming in his leisure time. "With people closing doors around themselves, the idea of seeing them on balconies became nostalgic," he told Ahram Online.
The fusing of two genres of music — Western and Arabic — into one performance was not accidental. While it reaches to passersby with tunes they know well, at the same time it introduces to them a different musical culture. It was obvious that listeners related easily to the Arabic songs; reactions were mixed to Western operatic arias.
"I don’t understand, is she Arab?" asked a man in the audience, referring to El-Degheidy. Another listener expressed how happy he was to hear something he could relate to and pointed to Arabic songs.
Even though some attendees related more to the Arabic segment, it was the experience as a whole that kept many attentive throughout the two performances.
"I can’t remember when I enjoyed something that much," a woman in her early 20s commented to Ahram Online.
"Targeted towards passersby, the performance needs to have the power to stop them and keep them engaged for a whole hour," Al-Moataz Bellah explained.
The selection of the Red Palace goes back to El-Cheikh and Al-Moataz Bellah's preparatory phase, during which they searched for suitable balconies.
"Most of the balconies were either too high or too ugly," Al-Moataz Bellah says about their journey, which eventually led them to the palace.
The historic landmark was built in the 1920s, in Gothic style, bearing the name of its former owner, Iskandar Hanna.
"Despite being included in the Ministry of Antiquities' heritage list, in the early 1990s the owners still attempted to demolish it and replace it with a new building," Gamal Abdel Shahid, head of East Mansoura Municipality, told Al-Ahram Arabic in 2013.
Abandoned for decades, the palace attracted garbage and "students skipping classes," one Mansoura resident in his 30s commented to Ahram Online. "I have been here several times before. There was always police arresting someone."
To several of Mansoura's inhabitants, however, the palace brings a sense of sorrow as well. "It is a real shame that people did not take notice of this piece of architecture until it became a mess," an older women commented.
According to Save Mansoura, an independent initiative that raises awareness about endangered historic landmarks and the city’s heritage, the gothic arches and decorated walls inside the palace are of great architectural value.
In an official statement at the end of the evening, Mohannad Fouda, assistant professor of architecture at Mansoura University and a member of Save Mansoura, praised the Balcony Opera initiative.
"The performance shows people that such a deserted building, the palace, can serve as a spot that spreads cultural value through the city," he said.
The Cairo segment of Balcony Opera will take place in Cairo on 16 March at 3pm in Manial.
Ahram Online is an official media sponsor of Art of Transit.