On 20 April, this special concert aiming at bringing children to the opera halls will include Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, Bizet's Children's Games (Jeux d'enfants) and Saint-Saëns's The Carnival of the Animals (Le carnaval des animaux). The narrator of the evening will be Abdel Wehab El-Sayed, working alongside piano soloists Elena Dzamashvili and Haitham Ibrahim.
Peter and the Wolf andThe Carnival of the Animals became standard fare in concerts for children performed over the past several years in Egypt. What saves the audience from growing tired of repetition is the fact that concerts for the young are an extreme rarity in Egypt anyway.
Known for the Boghdady Jazz Band, the conductor revisits the Cairo Opera House on a regular basis, conducting the Cairo Symphony Orchestra in a variety of repertoires. A concert for children is new territory for Boghdady, and he approaches it with great enthusiasm, showing willingness to take the event to a new level.
"Children in Egypt do not get enough attention from the music field. All across the world, in Berlin, London, Vienna, etc, not only do orchestras give concerts for children but they also develop a full programme of activities to attract young audiences to the concert halls," Boghdady comments. "The Cairo Symphony Orchestra was much more dynamic in reaching out to young listeners in the past, whether on or outside the opera premises. Now that those practices are limited to one or two concerts for children per season, I was very excited to take up this initiative."
According to Boghdady, the narrator of the evening Abdel Wehab El-Sayed, who heads the Talents Development Centre, helped him go beyond a regular concert with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. "I wanted to go beyond just a concert concept with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. When I approached the Talents Development Centre I got a very positive response from El-Sayed. The centre supported us with decor while young students from the ballet classes will embellish a few numbers," Boghdady reveals.
He added that the young audience can expect an additional surprise during the Peter and the Wolf performance.
Boghdady is happy to include Bizet's Children's Games in the concert, stating that "this work has not been performed in Egypt for at least two or three decades." His plans reach further past the 20 April concert and include a sustainable commitment to the youngest audience through projects whose details he will not share at this stage.
The concert is the second event of its kind offered by the Cairo Opera House this season. In October 2012, the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Nayer Nagui, also performed The Carnival of the Animals and Peter and the Wolf. The concert's narrator was Ahmed Mokhtar with Elena Dzamashvili and Eman Shaker on the piano.
Boghdady's upcoming concert is the first and only event for children included in the schedule of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra this season.
Thousands of books and even more articles have been written about relations between music and children, about the link between world orchestras and the young...
Moreover, to look into activities and programmes dedicated to children is to realise that for many international cultural institutions and orchestras, actions speak louder than words.
In Egypt, however, over the past few years, sporadic meetings between children and classical music were taking place weather during The Nutcracker ballet duly performed by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company around the Christmas and New Year holidays, or through an interesting if already distant initiative that took place in 2010, when the Orchestra Colonne France, conducted by Laurent Petitgirard, was invited to Egypt to give two concerts for children, launching the Children's Music Puzzle Project. It was, alas, frozen by January 2011 Revolution.
On the other hand, the Talents Development Centre, operating under the Cairo Opera House's umbrella, is dedicated to the musical development of children. Offering classes in violin, guitar, piano, flute and singing, along with ballet and tap dancing, the centre is a small-scale academy introducing the young generation to musical values.
Though one cannot deny that some efforts are exerted, they represent a drop in the ocean of actual capabilities commanded by the Cairo Opera House and the orchestras. The history of music in Egypt has proved that the Cairo Symphony Orchestra is able to offer a sustainable programme for young audiences and, until the early 2000s, the Cairo Opera House was offering a large variety of events for the young listeners.
Most recently Ahmed El-Saedi, during his term as the Cairo Symphony's principal conductor and artistic director (1993-2003), made many efforts to bring musical riches to children, the young and students. Such practices saw a slow decline during the final years of El-Saedi's management and then stopped altogether. Since the early 2000s, children have been sufficiently included in neither the standard repertoire of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra nor in its chamber off-springs.
Taking into account the many political and ideological changes dominating Egypt over the past two years, dogmatic as it may sound, it is still important to point to the vital importance of raising a generation interested in music and the arts. We need not look far to realise how crucial it is to reinvigorate the presence of music – and all art forms – in the youngest generations.
Last week a play prepared by Cairo University students was halted on campus by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated student union, who said the production "did not reflect the values of the faculty's students". Though it would be hard for the Cairo Symphony Orchestra to revive its long-forgotten concerts held at Cairo University under El-Saedi's, the Cairo Opera House, the orchestra and its management already have enough homework to do on the premises.
No need to repeat here that the values carried by music are recognised across centuries and cultures. In Western civilisation, from Plato to Spencer, philosophers considered music an important element of life.
In its turn, Islamic civilisation gave birth to many thinkers who put music at the front of their contemplations about the development of humanity, pointing to the intellectual and cognitive processes that it triggers.
The 10th-century Islamic scientist and philosopher Abu Nasr Al-Farabi, known in the Western world as Alpharabius, authored several books on music, invented or modified - in order to improve - musical instruments (including the qanoun, a descendant of an Assyrian string instrument). He considered music among the most important sciences, stressing the link between music and intellect and the importance of extensive listening.
In Kitab al-Musiqa (The Book of Music), a theory book, Al-Farabi presents analyses of Persian music, looking at the qualities that music carries in relation to the human soul. He discusses the therapeutic effects of music in his treatise Meanings of the Intellect.
The 11th-century Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, too, studied music and wrote about its impact on life, also through its therapeutic qualities.
Whether taken from an emotional, physical, historical or academic perspective, music plays an undeniable role in our life, even if this role is limited to pure joy. As much as even sporadic concerts for children are commendable, they should not turn to a ticked-off obligation offered by the opera.
Hopefully initiatives such as those by Nayer Nagui last October and now the concert conducted by Magdy Boghdady on 20 April will open doors to a sustainable shift of mindsets aimed at creating new audiences for the opera. Not only will reaching out to children and young people give those audiences many values to trigger intellectual development, for the opera itself this is also a guaranteed audience development procedure.