Meet the Cairo Opera Orchestra's new artistic director

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 13 Oct 2011

With the opening of its new season, the Cairo Opera House announced the appointment of Nayer Nagui as principal conductor and artistic director of the Cairo Opera Orchestra

Nayer Nagui, Photo: Sherif Sonbol

To many musicians and administrators as well as concerned audience members the appointment of Nayer Nagui as Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of the Cairo Opera Orchestra constitutes “the right person in the right place.” Nagui’s dedication to the field is reflected in his many accomplishments of previous years; as much as it is exciting, the new position is also filled with challenges.

Born in Alexandria in 1970, Nayer Nagui comes from a home where music played a crucial role in the family life. “My parents were ‘professional amateurs’ singing at a Protestant Church since 1960s. I would listen to them practicing Bach cantatas, Handel’s Messiah etc.” Nagui explains. He adds that he too joined the church choir, and sang solo as a boy soprano in the school choir.

At the age of 16, Nagui formed Good News, a band performing Christian pop music. Graduating from the faculty of commerce, he also joined the Alexandria Conservatory, and started playing organ at the St Marc Church in Alexandria. In 1992, he moved to Cairo and joined the Talents Development Centre at the Cairo Opera House.

As much as music had by then become Nagui’s principal passion, he was not sure what he wanted to do in the field. “At this stage I was pretty good at piano, and some people thought I’d do well as a pianist if I studied more. However, becoming a concert pianist didn’t sound like an appealing career to me,” Nagui refers to conductor Sayed Awad, who had helped him find his way. “Dr. Awad suggested that I should work as an accompanist for singers in the Talents Development Centre.” He was put in touch with Sobhi Bedair, the Egyptian tenor, known for his operatic as well as pop abilities.

The encounter with Bedair opened many new doors to Nagui. Not only did they join forces to do music performed by Sobhi and Friends, but they also came up with the idea of the Christmas Choir, launched during Bedair’s directorship of the Cairo Opera Company. “It was an instant success. The first Christmas concert was conducted by Ivan Filev, who accepted my arrangement of many Christmas works,” Nagui recalls.

The Christmas Choir soon evolved into the Cairo Celebration Choir whose repertoire was no linger limited to Christmas. To date the choir has performed many major choral works, with Nagui conducting concerts. “Today the choir performs a few times a year; we have a remarkable administrative backbone which helps with the logistics.”

During his seven years of work as accompanist at the Talents Development Centre, then the Cairo Conservatory and the Cairo Opera House, Nagui got to know the entire operatic repertoire performed in Egypt, witnessing the artistic developments of numerous artists. “I also watched many conductors at work during preparations for opera and ballet performances. I was privileged to choose my teacher.”

Nagui’s choice was to pursue his studies at l’Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris, in the class of Dominique Ruits. A year later, in 2001, he obtained his diploma in conducting. “I returned to Egypt full of enthusiasm and wanted to form an orchestra consisting of young people. I wanted to conduct a regular repertoire as well as my own compositions.” Lack of support from the field did not allow Nagui to realise this plan, yet it was in 2003 that he conducted the Cairo Opera Orchestra for the first time, during the Rossini Opera Festival, performing one-act comic operas. His own compositions would not see the light until a few years later.

In the following years, Nagui conducted the Cairo Opera Orchestra on many occasions, in addition to conducting the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Orchestra, the Cairo Festival Orchestra, and Cairo Symphony Orchestra starting in 2004. He was also invited to conduct internationally: Lecce Symphony Orchestra and Calabria Chamber Orchestra from Italy, European Camerata from UK, Ensemble Georges Solti from Hungary, the Bonner Vokalisten from Germany, as well as the Moroccan Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Algerian Symphony Orchestra.

In 2007, Nagui was finally contracted as conductor of the Cairo Opera House. Today Nagui’s repertoire includes a large number of operatic, ballet and choral works, such as Verdi’s Rigoletto, Puccini’s La Boheme, highlights from Aida, La Traviata and Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, Requiems by Mozart, Brahms, and Faure, Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, Schubert’s Stabat Mater, along with a number of symphonic works.

Appointment as artistic director and principal conductor at the Cairo Opera Orchestra is a new chapter in Nagui’s career. The Cairo Opera Orchestra was formed 1994 with the aim of performing a number of celebrated classic ballets and famous operas or operettas, in collaboration with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company or the Cairo Opera Company. Since the end of last season and the departure of Nader Abbassi, the orchestra had no principal conductor.

For Nagui, the Cairo Opera Orchestra appointment is the perfect culmination of the hard work exerted through the years; it is also the beginning of a new challenge.

Nagui assesses the orchestra as having reached its peak in the years 2000-2004 while the following years were marked by the systematic deterioration in artistic output.

“Today, we have a strange situation which is an imbalance in the skills of the members. In the past few years, the orchestra lost around 60 experienced musicians who were replaced by students needing a lot of experience and development to meet the required artistic standards. This created significant imbalance, eventually reducing the artistic standard and the basic repertoire of the orchestra. Today, the orchestra has serious gaps in its repertoire. There is a lot of work needed and internal changes may take place in the next period of time,” Nagui explains.

Nagui has developed a clear artistic plan which covers three seasons. The plan was presented to the Minister of Culture prior to Nagui’s appointment. In fact, the minister’s blessing was among the elements that helped Nagui assume the position. “The assigned committee at the opera house has taken my suggestions into further study, but the important step was when the majority of the orchestra voted in my favor, choosing me over conductors from Italy, Spain and Germany.”

Nagui’s plan aims for major artistic improvements in the orchestra, bringing it back to its years of glory. One of the main challenges that he sees is the implementation of discipline. “In many cases, the Cairo Opera House’s artistic companies, including the Cairo Opera Orchestra, are subject to two extremes and I’ve seen them both: on the one hand there are people who enforce discipline by harsh and electrifying methods, which will eventually kill the music; and on the other hand, those who turn a blind eye to all artistic challenges.”

Nagui finds that at this stage musicians of the Cairo Opera Orchestra are demotivated. As a way of reaching to them, Nagui gives individual time to each musician, listening to their hopes and fears. “I’ve already held individual meetings with over 20 members of the orchestra. I had expected to hear complaints over financial issues or reports on internal fights. In fact, all expressed concerns regarding the artistic standard and hope to find a better work environment.”

With all the challenges ahead, one of Nagui’s priorities is “to have the orchestra ready to play the whole standard repertoire, at any moment without excessive rehearsing. This is possible through boosting the musicians’ artistic practice.” Nagui plans to initiate chamber formations, such as trios, quartets etc from orchestra members to perform regularly at the Small Hall of the Cairo Opera House. A number of gala concerts are also in the offing, with Nagui adding guest conductors from France (Dominique Ruits), Spain and Denmark in addition to Hisham Gabr, contracted conductor at the Cairo Opera House, who will be working with the orchestra in the upcoming season.

“My plans and projects are clear but we are strongly linked to the Cairo Opera Company and the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, whose planning is not always clear and involves many unexpected changes. We need to find a way towards solid cooperation and common ground in our understanding of artistic values.” Nagui adds that he is nevertheless privileged to have strong administrative personnel dedicated to the Cairo Opera Orchestra.

Nagui believes that a human approach to the orchestra will allow him to introduce a healthy and balanced atmosphere which will eventually bring to an end dozens of internal conflicts tearing the orchestra apart. He is hoping to add a social spirit to the orchestra as well, through events organized together. “An orchestra is like a fragile plant. In order for it to flourish, it needs a lot of care: on artistic, organizational and social level. Synergy of all the elements, as well as support from other companies, will help the orchestra grow and retrieve its time of glory.”

Nagui believes that the orchestra needs three seasons to the achieve goals he has set, becoming a source of pride for Egypt’s music scene, locally and internationally. Once this happens, Nagui will consider his mission accomplished.

“My plan covers three years during which I hope to accomplish what this orchestra stands for. I will be ready to leave after this happens. I never planned to become an orchestra director. It is a huge responsibility which I am willing to take on only for a period of time and for specific reasons. Egypt is going through many changes; it needs improvements in many sectors. Change will come from the bottom of the pyramid up and I hope that my contribution to the improvement of the Cairo Opera Orchestra will be my small share in the whole. I hope that other companies at the Cairo Opera House will join us with similar missions.”

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