Flip the coin: Choosing between Metropolitan opera and Cairo Symphony Orchestra

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 31 Jan 2015

New York Metropolitan opera’s HD transmissions screened in Cairo always coincide with important concerts at the opera's main hall. Spoiled for choice, the opera regulars began to voice concern

Cairo Opera House
Cairo Opera House (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

It was Saturday, 17 January. And the Cairo Opera House was offering two exceptionally important events: the first was a lavish production of Lehar’s delightful operetta The Merry Widow, staged at New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera and viewed in Egypt thanks to the Met’s HD transmissions; the second was the “Composers Forum: Egyptian Perspectives”, a selection of works by homegrown composers played by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Mohamed Saad Basha.

Thinking of the first event, your mind is instantly captured by the Met director Susan Stroman, five-time Tony Award winner, and the wonderful Renee Fleming in the role of Hanna Glawari. The second event however was an extremely rare opportunity to discover or revisit the hidden riches of Egyptian musicians, whose works are rarely if ever performed in Egypt. But with both events taking place at the same time, the first at the Small Hall and second at the Main Hall, you are confused: Met or Egyptians?

Time to flip the coin!

Since the introduction of Met HD transmissions to the Small Hall in October 2010, the choice between the New York operas and concerts taking place in the Main Hall has become a recurring dilemma.

Cases of such plight were many. Beethoven’s Symphony no. 9 and Symphony no. 8 by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Ahmed El-Saedi were featured in the Main Hall on 11 October, the same day that the Met’s production of Macbeth with soprano Anna Netrebko in the role of Lady Macbeth and Zeljko Lucic as Macbeth enchanted the audiences of the Small Hall.

A week later, on 18 October, the Met screened Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) while in the Main Hall Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 conducted by Andreas Sporri and Weber’s Concertino for Clarinet & Orchestra in E flat Major with Mohamed Hamdy as soloist were playing.

Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) was transmitted on 22 November, once again with the Cairo Symphony Chamber Orchestra – under the baton of Nader Abbassi – celebrating the 300th birth anniversary of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in an concert that featured several Egyptian soloists.

Over the past four years, such conflicts were so many the Opera regulars began to voice concern. Nagwa Shoeb, the president of Friends of the Opera, said the issue has been already raised with the orchestra and Opera’s management: “There are 10 Met screenings per year. In the past seasons, we tried to address the administration about the overlapping concerts yet there was no reply. At the beginning of this season, we spoke to maestro Ahmed El-Saedi [Cairo Symphony Orchestra’s principal conductor and music director] and he promised to take this issue into consideration when planning the next season [2015/2016].”

Friends of the Opera is an NGO with the aim of supporting the activities of the Cairo Opera House (National Cultural Centre), reaching out to audiences and encouraging them to attend the concerts. Their activities span musical genres and are not limited to the Met though, according to Shoeb, the NGO also supports the transmissions, covering minor additional costs.

“The expenses of the license for Met’s transmissions in Egypt are generously covered by the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development and the Mahmoud Abdalla Foundation. We [Friends of the Opera] contribute in a small way for a technician etc.” Shoeb adds that, across the world, the Met’s transmissions seldom take place inside the opera houses’ halls — their screenings at the Cairo Opera is definitely an additional asset to the cultural map of Egypt.

It is coordination with other events that remains problematic. Though he confirmed his willingness to coordinate next season’s concerts in my conversation with him, El-Saedi also said that at times such coordination might not be feasible.

“It is the Cairo Symphony Orchestra’s tradition to hold its weekly concert on Saturday,” he explained, citing over two decades’ worth of coordination dynamics and balancing acts between the Opera’s many different companies, all to ensure that the Main Hall will be availabble for the Saturday symphonic concert.

“When the Met’s seasonal programme is announced, we can try to shuffle the Cairo Symphony concerts slightly. But there is nothing that can be done when Met transmissions fall on three consecutive Saturdays in one month,” El-Saedi explained. He added that the programming unit coordinating work between all the companies can help with the process.

Indeed, for the programming unit at the Cairo Opera, the task seems to be overwhelming. One unfortunate example of coordination failure comes on 31 January, when the Met transmits Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) to all international subscribers. According to the Cairo Opera management, however, this opera was not be screened in Cairo.

“On Saturday 31 January, the Small Hall of the Cairo Opera House was reserved by the Cairo Opera Company which will perform excerpts from The Sound of Music,” Abir Omar, the head of the programming unit, explains. At the same time the Main Hall was to feature Egypt’s internationally renowned pianist Ramzi Yassa and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Nader Abbassi.

“The information about the Met’s January transmission arrived too late for us to take action,” Omar justified skipping the screening, adding that at this stage it is no longer possible to replan.

It was after my conversation with Omar that on Thursday 29 Janaury, the Cairo Opera House suspended all activities for three days, "in solidarity with the martyrs of Sinai." (*see note at the bottom of this article)

For the multitude of companies operating within the Cairo Opera House’s premises – the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, the Cairo Opera Company, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, the National Arab Music Ensemble, among many other large and chamber formations, in addition to local and international guest musicians and troupes – the puzzle of programming coordination can be a challenge.

For the time being the dilemma of the Met and the Cairo Symphony remains; apart from acknowledgment of the five-year problem and willingness to address it, whether on the part of the Friends of the Opera or El-Saedi, no solid solutions are in sight.

And until the situation improves, the audience will have to keep flipping coins, as will be the case again on Saturday 14 February.

On that day, the Met will come with a combo of two one-act operas – Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta starring Anna Netrebko and Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle – while the Cairo Symphony Orchestra conducted by El-Saedi, A Cappella Choir, flautist Ines Abdel Dayem and saxophonist Federico Mondelici will perform a special Valentine’s concert at the main hall.

This article was published in Al Ahram Weekly

The original article was published on Thursday 29 January, before the Cairo Opera House's announcement that it suspends all concerts across all of its venues -- Cairo, Alexandria, and Damanhour -- for three days "in solidarity with the martyrs of Sinai."

At least 30 people, including civilians, were killed Thursday when a series of militant attacks, involving car bombs and mortar rounds, struck several army and police positions in Egypt's volatile Sinai Peninsula.

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