Concerts, festivals and new ensembles: this year was filled with music — literally, even if the general dynamics made little historical impact on the field. But the 150th anniversary of the Opera is worth focusing on. The fact that Cairo had the first opera house in the region, the khedival gem that burned to the ground on 28 October 1971, is often cited as evidence of the power and significance of the Egyptian music scene. The fact that Egypt has had an opera house for 150 years — a huge chunk of history and culture, intertwined with and affected by social and political changes — is worthy of being celebrated.
Just two days after the well-advertised and marketed, star-studded 28th Arab Music Festival (1-10 November), the Cairo Opera House Chairman Magdy Saber and Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem (who herself used to head the opera house) launched a one-evening event celebrating 150 years of opera presence in Egypt. The event included screening a documentary about the old (khedivial) opera, an exhibition of the old opera house photos, showcases of artists and troupes operating under the opera’s wings and the honouring of 12 artists including former dean of the High Institute of Ballet Sherif Bahader, former head of the Academy of Arts Esmat Yehia, opera singers Gaber El-Beltagy, Nabila Erian and Alfy Milad, and pianist Marcel Matta.
What might have been a landmark event in the opera’s history was reduced to poorly advertised, artistically unattractive two-hour event. Compared to the Arab Music Festival and other events, the celebration fell short of what was being celebrated.
An opera performed at the stage of the old opera house (Photo: Al Ahram)
Designed by Pietro Avoscani, one of Egypt’s leading architects at the time, the Khedivial Opera House was constructed in Azbakeya under the patronage of Khedive Ismail Pasha, who created much of modern Cairo, in 1869. Accommodating an audience of 850, the building was largely wooden with gold-decorated interiors. All that is left of the delightful edifice is the name of the square, Opera Square, where it was replaced by a multi-storey parking.
According to Paolo Petrocelli in his recently published book The Evolution of Opera Theatre in the Middle East and North Africa, “For many years, the Cairo Opera House was funded by the khedive, even though it was not his personal theatre. In its first season in 1869-1870, 66 performances were staged, with 85 in the following season. Although the Cairo Opera House was not considered an official political institution, it was certainly one of the main centres of Egypt from which the Westernised way of life radiated. The theatre remained operational until 1877, when it had to close after the khedive ceased his financial contributions. It was only in the early years of the 20th century that Cairo’s high society began to revitalise activity at the theatre.”
The 1870s saw the first play in the Arabic language (produced by Adib Ishak and Youssef Khayat) staged at the opera. The old press releases issued by the Cairo Opera House mention also performances such as Othello (1912), Napoleon (1913), Actor Keen (1917), Storm in a House (1924), Alexander the Great (1927) and Andrewmak (1936) staged in the following decades. It is difficult to provide a full account of the dynamism of Egypt’s Royal Opera, since our information is limited to a few mentions of international troupes and names occasionally hosted in Cairo as a result of colonial culture catering to the foreigners, including the British occupiers.
Old (Khedivial) opera house (Photo: Al Ahram)
It is safe to say that when Petrocelli mentions the 20th century, he refers to opera activities held starting the 1950s. Along similar lines, in the book titled Parallels & Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society, Edward Said reveals that as a teenager, together with his parents, he attended a concert by Wilhelm Furtwangler and the Berliner Philharmonic (1951) at the Cairo opera stage. Said adds that his knowledge of the international music scene was drawn mainly from books and recordings without mentioning possible guests of the opera.
What we know, however, is that the period starting with the 1952 Revolution, followed by the appointment of Tharwat Okasha as culture minister, a position he held twice (1958-1962 and 1966-1970), led to a significant revival in the activities of the old opera, including concerts by Arabic music stars, with Um Kolthoum being a regular guest.
The accounts of the 1950s and 1960s also mention staging many international operas, some translated to Arabic. The Cairo Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1959 to serve the ballet and opera performances as well as to provide regular symphonic concerts. The khedivial opera also embraced the Heritage Ensemble for Arab Music (the history of which goes back to 1932), the Cairo Opera Choir (established in 1956) and the Abdel-Halim Noweira Ensemble for Arab Music (established in 1967). The 1960s saw performances by the Cairo ballet company featuring first homegrown ballet stars, Okasha’s pride and joy. In brief, those were the golden years of the opera.
Egypt's first prima-ballerina Magda Saleh in the late 1950s, as she dances with Adel Omar Afifi [L] and Abdel Moneim Kamel [R] (Photo: Magda Saleh's Facebook)
When on 28 October 1971 a fire tragically burned down the opera building, it left many companies without a home and the newly launched careers of Egyptian artists shattered or redirected. (A 2011 documentary titled The Burning of the Cairo Opera by Kamal Abdel-Aziz looks at the many aspects of this tragic event.) Though the Gomhouriya theatre served as a temporary adoptive home to opera’s companies, the dynamics of the scene came a slow and painful stop, and it took Egypt 17 years to have a new opera building, what we know today as the Cairo Opera House, occupying a vast area of Zamalek island.
Offered to Egypt by the Japanese government acting through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the first stone of the new opera was laid in March 1985. On 10 October 1988, former president Hosni Mubarak and Prince Tomohito of Mikasa officially opened the doors to the new building which blends traditional Islamic and modern architecture. Though originally the building was to function as the National Cultural Centre, this name was soon forgotten and in the first few years the halls filled with performances of the operaic repertoire. Today most people refer to the white building as the Cairo Opera House.
With the advent of the new opera, many Egyptian artists found their way back to the cultural scene. The names that marked the following years are many, with a large number returning from international careers hoping to contribute to what they believed would be an artistic revival of the country.
[L]: Late soprano Ratiba Hefny performs with pianist Ramzi Yassa in Salle Cortot, Paris 1986. (Photo: Ramzi Yassa's Facebook). [R]: Hefny in one of her operatic appearances.
Here we should begin with Magda Saleh, Egypt’s first prima-ballerina and later chairwoman of the new opera house during its construction phase (1987-1988). Today based in New York, Saleh is an active supporter of Egyptian talents searching for the international renown.
There is also soprano Ratiba Al-Hefny who, during her chairmanship of the opera (1988-1990), added several troupes to the institution’s artistic family: the National Arab Music Ensemble and the Cairo Opera House Children’s Choir. This brings us to maestro Selim Sehab, who was the conductor and founding artistic director of the latter choir, which benefited from his skill and knowledge.
Another name to shed light on is musician Tarek Ali Hassan who, during his term as the opera’s chairman in 1991, opened the door to many artists and initiated the expansion of the music library which by this time suffocated in a small room inside the building. Ali Hassan thus decided to add a new building to the opera grounds which would hold the musical scores, recordings and books. The project was resumed and finalised in 1994 by the subsequent director of the Cairo Opera House, Nasser El-Ansary.
Tribute is also due to Abdel-Moneim Kamel, the father of Egypt’s ballet as it is represented by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company today and the opera’s chairman (2004-2012). Not only was Kamel the force behind bringing the ballet company (which until then was an adjunct to the Academy of Arts) into the national opera but also, together with his wife Erminia Kamel (the company’s current artistic director) he also infused the troupe with skills which allowed it to present a challenging international repertoire.
Music Library located at the grounds of new opera house (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Actor and opera singer Hassan Kami
, on the other hand, was the dynamo behind the first and largest performance of Verdi’s Aida
outside the opera’s building, at the Pyramids in September 1987, an event which saw the participation of 1,600 performers and attracted 27,000 spectators. Kami’s efforts continued in managing or supervising many other Aida productions at the Pyramids and at Luxor’s Hatshepsut Temple in the following years.
For his part Ahmed El Saedi, in the first of his two terms as conductor and musical director of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra (1991-2003), raised the ensemble to international standards for which musicians were vigorously applauded during their tours.
El Saedi also shed light on the orchestra locally, by setting a clear yearly repertoire, inviting young people to attend rehearsals, holding concerts for children and youth, and benefiting from the weekly airing of its Saturday concerts and frequent concerts held at Cairo University. Unfortunately, many of those practices have now been abandoned.
Among the names that stepped in later to the scene is choreographer Walid Aouni, the founding artistic director of the Cairo Opera Modern Dance Theatre Company, a troupe which introduced this art form to the Egyptian national institution.
Spartacus ballet performed by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company at the new opera house, in 2015 (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)
This brings us to the youngest company, the Forsan Al-Sharq (The Knights of the Orient) Heritage Company established in 2009 on the initiative of then minister of culture Farouk Hosni with the aim of performing Egypt’s cultural heritage through music and dance.
Forsan Al-Sharq had Esmat Yehia as its first artistic director, then Aouni, followed by others, and its administration is now shared by the opera and the Cultural Development Fund. Partly motivated by competing with Lebanon’s Caracalla Dance Theatre troupe, the company still needs time and effort to realise a clear creative path.
The list goes on with names such as Ramzi Yassa, Egypt’s internationally renowned pianist. Though currently based in Paris, as a very young man Yassa performed at the khedivial opera and now continues to be among the frequent visitors to the Cairo Opera stages, drawing a large audience to the building while providing internationally sought after concerts and recitals.
Forsan Al Sharq Heritage Company in Women of Egypt at the main hall of the new opera house. (Photo: Bassam Al Zoghby)
On the other hand, it would not be fair to omit Sherif Sonbol, a remarkable photographer, who throughout the decades documented performances — and particularly the art of ballet — taking place on the new opera’s stage. It is Sonbol’s lens that provides a historical journey through Egypt’s modern ballet developments, either under the main stage’s spotlights or behind the scenes.
We should not — and never — forget Ziad Bakir (born in 1973), who left his home on 28 January 2011 to join the revolution only to lose his life to the cause. The young artist left a great wealth of designs for performances of opera troupes we can still admire at the opera’s entrance and on its flyers. Hundreds of other designs, his own explorations of operatic themes and works, were stored on his computer. Shortly after the announcement of Bakir’s death (when his body was finally located in March 2011), the Cairo Opera House named one of its exhibition halls after him.
Those are but a few of the main players, the rest of whom would take up a whole issue of the newspaper, so it is well to reiterate the influence and impact of artists who have worked under the rubric of the opera: ensembles, conductors, composers of international renown (some of whom are hardly known at all inside Egypt), and others insisting on a classical music scene against the odds.
From 1869 to 2019, the wealth that has been accumulated is unmatched, and more than worthy of being celebrated.
Exhibition of Ziad Bakir's works at Hanager Arts Centre, in 2012. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.