Egypt's Cairo Opera House: What's next?

Ati Metwaly, Thursday 20 Jun 2013

Following protests and on-stage strikes by the Cairo Opera House artists, many of opera companies returned back to work. Ahram Online looks into the complex situation of the Opera, its artists and their worries

Protests against Alaa Abdel-Aziz, Minister of Culture, at the Cairo Opera House grounds. 30 May 2013. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

No other minister of culture has ever created such a commotion in such a short time. No other minister was welcomed to his post with protests and an open-ended sit-in organised by writers, artists and intellectuals. No other minister failed to show any readiness to make concessions.

No one but Alaa Abdel-Aziz, what is more, could ever show such bias for the Muslim Brotherhood, employing members of  the Freedom and Justice Party inside the ministry, and appointing a leading MB figure as head of the National Library and Archives.

The month-long story of Alaa Abdel-Aziz has been a central topic among intellectuals: while the protest continues, questions are asked and facts analysed.

And the Cairo Opera House is one of many platforms where worries have been expressed – especially after the chairperson was summarily dismissed with a sudden note offering no explanation.

What changes are planned by the minister regarding this institution? Is there any hope of development or will the Opera fall prey to a conservative Islamic regime? Already there is some writing on the wall.


On 28 May, Abdel-Aziz removed Ines Abdel Dayem and offered the Opera's chair to Reda El-Wakil, the head of the Artistic House. When El-Wakil turned down the offer, the minister reached out to the stage director Badr El-Zakaziky, who accepted the offer despite opposition from the artists working at the Cairo Opera House.

El-Zakaziky's role in the new equation will turn out to be more difficult than he expected. Artists are still wondering how he will face the multitude of challenges required in this institution, not to mention the growing discontent and the heated cultural as well as political scene.

What is clear so far is that the companies working under the Cairo Opera House have resumed their activities. Though the artists' on-stage strikes of 28 May and 1 June opposing ministerial decisions garnered strong support from the local and international community, many musicians returned to work a few days later. 

The reasons behind this are very complex.  

It is important to remind the reader that most of the artists employed at the Cairo Opera House did not participate in any kind of protest over the past two and a half years. Some started joining protests last year, when the marches were against policies of President Morsi’s that, according to the artists, undermined Egypt's cultural identity. Until today, however, protests challenge artists' stability too much to be accepted by most opera musicians.

According to sources from inside the opera, based on a vote organised by the opera companies' heads, the number of artists who wanted to resume activities was larger than that of artists who hoped to continue striking in each case. Many of the artists explained their decision by saying they did not want to further "jeopardise an already undermined artistic scene".

Mona Rafla, a soloist responsible for matters related to the Cairo Opera Orchestra, the Cairo Opera Choir and the A Cappella Choir shed light on the sad fact that many musicians of those companies receive very low salaries. "Directors held a series of meetings. We were ready to continue striking," Rafla commented. "However, Reda El-Wakil, the head of the Artistic House, was among the very few who strongly opposed it. He announced openly that he would not process salaries for artists on strike. This shook the confidence of the many musicians."

For its part, the situation of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra poses several intersecting challenges. Not only do salaries represent an important factor for many musicians in the orchestra, their foreign colleagues are disconnected from local problems and prefer to continue working in peace. Besides, the lack of a strong body of orchestra – a situation that probably does not exist in any international orchestra – makes unification impossible.

In its 2012/2013 season, Jiri Petrdlik, a young conductor from the Czech Republic supported by the Czech Embassy, was offered role of the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. In fact, apart of setting the yearly programme, Petrdlik acts as the guest conductor, visiting the orchestra seldom and giving an average of one concert per month. Konzertmeister Yasser El-Serafi, who plays role of artistic advisor and performs some logistical tasks, does not have authority to fill in for Petrdlik. Under the circumstances, it is only natural that musicians faced with choice "to strike or not to strike" should find it hard to unite.

Like most other companies, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company also returned to work, and is currently rehearsing the Zorba ballet. According to Erminia Kamel, Artistic Director of the troupe, she cannot freeze activities especially in the face of threats that are placed on ballet as an art form by right-wing Islamists.

"I have a responsibility towards over 80 dancers. They need to continue having jobs and they want to prove that ballet matters," Kamel comments. The future of ballet is not yet clear. So far the attack on ballet has been restricted to some provocative statements by a member of the Shura Council (upper house of the Egyptian parliament), calling ballet "an art of nudity" and demanding that it should be banned.

Kamel says she has not received any direct instructions to halt or reduce activities. "I have submitted my plan for the season 2013/2014 to the opera's management and I'm waiting for their feedback. We hope to perform valuable works that will nonetheless not offend conservative tastes."


Though activities have been resumed, the Opera’s new chairman, Badr El-Zakaziky, still needs to make many decisions and answer many questions.

How will he respond to the letter sent by the minister, according to opera sources, asking the companies to "limit Opera activities to those that enrich the Egyptian culture"? Which activities held by the Opera fail to enrich the cultural scene?

It is reasonable to expect El-Zakaziky, having been appointed by Abdel-Aziz, to follow instructions to the letter; but how will he do it?

At the start of a press conference on 5 June, El-Zakaziky presented himself: "I graduated from the Academy of Arts in 1983. I was involved in the arts even before this institution [the new Opera House] was built. I was involved in organisation of a multitude of festivals, responsible for all kinds of technicality from planning to the moment the curtain rises. Such tasks were assigned to me as of 1988, from the moment the new Opera opened its doors. I have cooperated with Egyptian and international troupes. I am no mere carpenter, as some choose to describe me."

According to El-Zakaziky, when the minister contacted him with the offer, he said he needed to discuss the proposal with the Opera’s artists.

It is worth adding here that when, on 28 May, news of Abdel-Dayem's dismissal broke, an evening performance of Opera Aida was halted with artists announcing an on-stage strike in protest of the minister's decision.

It was an extremely tense evening in the history of the Cairo Opera, during which artists refused to accept anyone but Abdel-Dayem on the Opera chair. The backstage has never seen such rage by so many artists as those who confronted El-Zakaziky in the very same room in which he held the press conference,  angrily asking him to reject the post. 

"The minister told me that if I didn’t accept the chair, he would give it to someone else, from outside the opera," El-Zakaziky tried to explain to the artists on 28 May. During his meeting with press on 5 June, he said, "I spoke with many important figures in the arts field who advised me to accept the chair."

He repeatedly stressed the fact that he had no quarrel with Abdel Dayem. "Should there be a problem between Abdel-Dayem and the minister, I am not part of it. The post was offered to me, what can I do?"

Regarding the artists' strikes, El-Zakaziky stated that he accepts opposition; however, he added, the work must go on. "People have a right to be upset about the situation," El-Zakaziky referred to the ministerial decisions, "but what can we do?"

Coincidently, just as he was speaking to the press, intellectuals were storming the Ministry of Culture offices. That was 5 June, the day the artists' open-ended sit-in began, in protest of Abdel-Aziz and his policies. That same evening, many artists from the Cairo Opera House joined the protests against the minister in front of the ministry.

They have been going to the ministry headquarters every evening, where crowds grow by the day… Many artists from the Cairo Opera House continue to express concern, looking with hope to the commotion. Possibly by the end of the month, national upheaval will lead to unexpected – hopefully positive – rearrangements.

Who knows what will be the situation of the Opera and its management then.

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