Settling in the house: Interview with Magdi Saber, the Cairo Opera House’s new chairman

Ati Metwaly , Thursday 8 Feb 2018

In mid-January Magdi Saber has been appointed the Cairo Opera House’s new chairman, replacing Ines Abdel-Dayem who held the post since 2012

Magdi Saber
Magdi Saber, chairman of the Cairo Opera House in his office. February 2018 (Photo: Bassam Al-Zoghby)

In mid-January, Ines Abdel-Dayem was appointed Egypt’s minister of culture, a post for which she had to leave the Cairo Opera House (National Cultural Centre), which she had chaired since 2012. It came as no surprise that one of her very first ministerial decrees was the appointment of a new chairman. Her choice fell on Magdi Saber, who for the past year had served as head of the Artistic House at the Cairo Opera.

But Saber’s history with the opera goes much further back.

Born in 1963, Saber is a graduate of the Higher Institute of Ballet in Cairo, where he later worked as a lecturer and served as the head of the ballet directing department. He also holds a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the Cairo University, and he taught briefly at the Theatrical Arts Institute in Kuwait.

Saber had a long career as a dancer, and until the early 1990s performed lead roles in many ballets staged by the Cairo Ballet Company at the Academy of Arts and then Cairo Opera Ballet Company.

Saber assisted the late Abdel-Moneim Kamel, artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company on numerous productions and then served as the deputy to the current artistic director Erminia Kamel.

He was an assistant director for several ballets staged at the Cairo Opera, he designed the choreography for performances included in dozens of important festivals and celebrations staged by Opera artists and over 50 stage plays produced by the Culture Ministry as well as for cinema and television.

I met Saber at his new office, where he seemed relaxed and projected optimism notwithstanding his awareness of the huge task that he now has on his shoulders.

“Undeniably, this is a big step in my career,” Saber comments on the assignment, adding that a number of previous heads of the Cairo Opera have contributed greatly to its development, and stressing the management of Abdel-Moneim Kamel (2004-2012) and Ines Abdel-Dayem (2012-2018).

“The tenure of Dr Ines was unique. She had to navigate through many obstacles,” Saber refers to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (2012-2013), when their religious affiliates sought to prohibit ballet and the floating of the Egyptian pound in November 2016 — right in the middle of the season, adding to the financial strain.

“Against all odds, she managed not only to keep the opera afloat but also to open the doors to many young, independent artists representing valuable art and attracting a large audience. Dr Ines also placed the Opera on a larger social and cultural map; the opera artists started participating in important national events and boosted activities in other venues operating under the Cairo Opera, such as Al-Gomhoureya Theatre, the Damanhour Opera, the Arab Music Institute etc. All this, in addition to great respect and appreciation for the Opera and its activities from the audience.”

Having taken the Opera’s chair mid-season, Saber will continue with the set annual programme on all Opera venues in Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhour with the minor additions or modifications being made only when necessary as the season progresses.

“In the following season, I am particularly committed to opening even more doors to young people. One of the ways to do this is by adding new productions to the Opera companies’ repertoires. This of course will not erase the core of our repertoire, which represents our valuable history.”

Coming from a ballet background, Saber’s counts inviting foreign choreographers to work with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company among his priorities. This can be applied to large-scale as well as smaller one-act ballets.

“I have already discussed this issue with the company’s artistic director, Erminia Kamel and she will definitely support me with good choices. Inviting foreign experts is as important for the audience as it is for the development of our dancers. On the other hand, we can bring back elements from our repertoire that have not been staged for several years.”

Saber also expresses his will to boost the Forsan Al Sharq Heritage Company and the Modern Dance Company by giving opportunities to young Egyptian directors and choreographers to execute their works.

“While the Cairo Opera Company does not lack for talented directors, I also hope to see more young and good singers taking the stage in the next season, something I am discussing with the troupe’s artistic director, soprano Iman Moustafa. Furthermore, we have many talented Egyptian singers succeeding outside the country. We need to see them perform in Egypt on a more regular basis, should their artistic commitments allow it.”

Saber then moves to the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and the Cairo Opera Orchestra.

“As you may have noticed, in the past months we have already given opportunities to many conductors and this strategy will definitely continue through the cooperation with maestri Ahmed El-Saedi and David Crescenzi who head the two orchestras, respectively. They also held auditions recently so we hope to have additional players. Among the problems we experience are salaries which are not attractive especially to foreign musicians, but it is difficult to adjust salaries. Maybe we will be able to overcome it, possibly through additional bonuses.”

Saber goes on to say that investing in young talents and exploring new repertoires is a line of thought he will also apply to other companies of the Opera.

Refreshing a repertoire does not come without financial requirements, yet Saber is confident: “We have to find ways to increase the Opera’s revenues. We will keep negotiating with the Ministry of Finance. In parallel, only last month we introduced a new decree that gives more flexibility to the opera as regards garnering additional funds. We will also capitalise on our cooperation with foreign embassies and cultural centres operating in Egypt and willing to present their artists to our audiences.”

Among the constant questions raised by the audience are the Opera’s marketing strategy.

To many, it seems that well-known names receive a lot of attention from the promotional team while lesser known artists and troupes remain insufficiently advertised. Saber reveals that he has already raised this issue during the first weeks of his tenure.

“One of the ways to understand who needs stronger marketing support is by monitoring ticket sales. In the past two weeks I got closer to the ticketing offices to understand the differences, the audience’s preferences and the performers’ popularity. And it is clear that there are events that need our increased support, through promotional and marketing campaigns motored by the Opera.”

Saber mentions printed material and contact with the press and satellite channels. As for local television, he asserts he will still study this promotional channel with a view to achieving cooperation.

“However, I also believe that however much marketing efforts the Opera makes, independent bands for instance should also keep advertising their activities; they have their own networks and are very skilful at social media promotion.”

With all the plans, Saber feels that the current tides are high for the opera and he is willing to benefit from them.

“We have a lot already available and even more potentially; there is no censorship of any sort, our audience is interested in our activities, attending ballets and concerts in large numbers. We have even noticed a significant increase in children and youth joining the many courses we offer at the Talents Development Centre. We hold many concerts showcasing those talents and it is such a wonderful feeling to see the whole young generation interested in and dedicated to the arts. Equally, we are studying the possibility of increasing artistic events for the youngest audience.”

Saber comments on numerous events attended by financially less privileged social strata, who are especially attracted to Arabic or traditional music or attend the annual Citadel Festival for Music and Singing at the open air theatre at the historic citadel of Saladin.

“Last year was my first to be closely involved in organising the Citadel festival. I enjoyed all the events but I was really thrilled with the audience, all the generations, people I spent a lot of time chatting with about music. They understand art better than me,” Saber says, smiling. “Maybe they do not have the skill to produce artistic events, they might not be specialists in ballet, symphonic or even Arabic music, but they have a very interesting understanding of what they are attending.”

In the past few weeks, some of the Opera-goers were disoriented regarding the ticket purchasing systems. Saber explains that the Cairo Opera House offers different channels for ticketing: directly from the box office, online or from a small kiosk at the entry to the hall, which sells last-minute tickets at selected concerts if places are still available. Those systems are yet to be implemented at the Alexandria Opera House and across other venues.

“I heard many comments: the older generation sees the online option as confusing while for the young generation this is the only channel they want to explore,” he chuckles. “I am aware of some problems that the audience experienced with the ticket sales but they have already been addressed. It is important for all options to be available and function correctly.”

Clearly, Saber has a lot of enthusiasm, and while his positive energy is his driving force, he keeps humbly saying, “I still have a lot to learn. All the employees supporting the Opera artists know much more than me and are working very hard. I believe that together we can capitalise on all the gains of the past years and create something even better. Ballet dancing was my passion for many years but in time I began to feel the urge to support others within the artistic spectrum, be they artists or audiences. Art is as important as food, especially refined forms of art such as those presented on the Opera’s stages. Art reshapes minds and ways of thinking, and as its providers we have to give the best we can.” 

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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