Obituary: Italian maestro Aldo Magnato, a man who carried memories from Egypt's days of glory

Ati Metwaly , Thursday 9 Aug 2018

Born in 1938 and having spent over six decades in Egypt, the Italian choir master and voice coach Aldo Magnato died on 31 July in the Italian city of Marsala

Aldo Magnato
Aldo Magnato [L] applauds one of the soloists after the performance of Mozart's opera Così fan tutte in 2014. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

On 31 July, the Cairo Opera House released a note announcing passing of Maestro Aldo Magnato – the choir master of the Cairo Opera Choir, pianist and a voice coach – in the Italian town of Marsala.

What followed was an avalanche of condolences and warm words about this unique Italian who spent most of his creative life in Egypt, giving six decades and unconditional energy into one of the opera’s pillar companies, and in the process enriching the lives and careers of countless artists.

It is not often that we hear about a choir master or a voice coach. While very few enjoy the limelight they deserve, most remain in the shadows. Their work is mainly known to those who directly interact with them: the singers, the choirs they lead; their passion and dedication is recognised by the artists who interact with the choir masters mostly during the rehearsals, on the long and often hard road that they take to build a musically rewarding experience for the audience.

Naturally, the audience is not aware of what goes on backstage or of the many people who, especially in Egypt, struggle between artists and music on the one hand, and human relations and institutional regulations on the other. Few receive due credit.

The choir masters meander through a multitude of factors, overcome the obstacles, play the role of a coach, an educator, a father, a shoulder to lean on; they provide support and encouragement to many growing, many flourishing as well as broken and insecure voices, they try to open doors to budding and established talents. In many instances, we can see some of the choir masters on stage, voice coaches almost never, but what we do not realise is that the singer or the choir we see is not only the individual talent but also the hard work of those behind it.

The stars, the soloists, are just the tip of a huge iceberg of creative, musical as well as human and administrative responsibilities that the choir master, the voice coach and many other people carry on their shoulders. Enjoying the final product, savouring the ready dish, we remain unaware of the pathways, negotiations, joys and sorrows that characterise the daily work of those behind the stars in the limelight.

Aldo Magnato was one such man, working from the shadows: an artist, an educator and a friend to many musicians in Egypt. While he moved across the corridors of the country’s music institutions, with the new Opera House becoming his last home, not many knew his human and artistic values or the honours he received.

The opera goers could always find his name and a small biography included in the programme notes accompanying operas and gala concerts staged across its premises. Those few words, if read attentively, revealed a lifetime of accomplishments.

Aldo Magnato
Egyptian conductor Nayer Nagui [R] posted a recent photo with maestro Aldo Magnato [L] on his Facebook wall.

Magnato graduated with honours in organ and piano at the V. Bellini Conservatory in Palermo in 1960; he also studied composition, choir and orchestral conducting. Prior to his arrival to Egypt and occasionally after Egypt became his home, Magnato worked in numerous Italian theatres in Palermo, Trampani, Mantova, Bologna, Cagliari and Venice. His name is also linked to the opera productions in Spain, Holland, the USA, Brazil, Argentina, Peru and many other destinations.

Although the Cairo Opera programmes do not say much about Magnato, one fact is very significant: the date 1968 when he took the post of the Cairo Opera Company’s choir master, becoming the troupe’s pianist and repetiteur for the soloists as well.

The date indicates that Magnato was among the artists who worked on the stages of the Old (Khedivial) Opera House and apart from building local talents, he had been in direct contact with the many great names that graced that stage.

The date also reveals that while Magnato made Egypt his second – not to say, his first – home, he was witness to the many social, political and above all the artistic changes taking place in the country: from the burning of the Khedivial Opera in 1971, over decade of musical instability during which the Gomhoreya and Sayed Darwish Theatres became adoptive homes to the opera’s many artists, to the opening of the new opera in 1988.

He witnessed the changing artistic dynamics, dealt with scores of Opera chairpersons, troupe directors, conductors; before his eyes, and at his hands, many young talents took their first steps, some continuing in Egypt, others flourishing abroad.

Magnato’s name reappeared in thousands of programmes and brochures and on posters announcing operas by Mozart, Lehar, Puccini, Verdi and many others, gala concerts, special events and concerts that included choir or soloists featuring symphonic music by Western and Arabic composers. Among his significant roles in the field was taking care of all the choirs participating in all performances of Opera Aida in Luxor, at the Pyramids or inside the Opera’s walls.

Magnato was always there with his art and skills; he saw it all, carried it in his heart and mind as he navigated Egypt’s music scene. This alone is an enormous accomplishment.

For his active role in the operatic and choir scene, Magnato was rewarded by both relevant governments, though maybe also not sufficiently. In Egypt, he was honoured by the Higher Council of Culture and former Culture Minister Farouk Hosni during the 16th Citadel Festival for Music and Singing (in the early 2000s) and in Italy he was appointed Commendatore of the Italian Republic (Italian Order of Merit, in the 1990s) and received the Order of the Star of Italy, a truly special honour offered by the President of Italy, in 2002.

His name was duly mentioned in hundreds of reviews, including these pages, penned by David Blake, then Amal Choukri and myself; he reappeared in the listings of Opera events until the end of last season in June. Sadly, except for the name dropping, none of us gave him the attention he deserved.

We can see Magnato in photos of major events, but he is usually a blurred figure, standing behind the stars of the evening, somehow perfectly portraying his unimposing yet significant presence and contribution to success.

This reminds me of one great photograph by the Al Ahram Weekly photographer Sherif Sonbol in 2014. Following the performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, an Italian opera buffa in two acts directed by Hazem Roshdy, the maestro Ahmed El-Saedi receives an ovation from the audience. A step behind him stands Aldo Magnato, applauding the conductor and the singers.

Aldo Magnato
Conductor Ahmed El-Saedi [L] receives an ovation from the audience after performance of Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte. A step behind him stands Aldo Magnato [R], applauding the conductor and the singers. (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Little did we realise how important this man in a tuxedo, who was literally out of focus was to the production, how he spent hours, days and weeks, working with Egypt’s stars and starlets. Sonbol did focus on Magnato in another photo, while he was applauding one of the soloists. It was this latter photo, cropped by numerous Italian media, that was used to announce the choir master’s death.

The bitter sweet truth of the great man becomes his destiny, it seems. Yet, no matter how much attention he received in the texts or photographs of Magnato, he was omnipresent and played a fundamental role in the success of each and every performance.

The greatest honour Magnato received is not translated in media coverage, medals or official recognitions. His presence and his work in the Egyptian operatic and voice coaching scene is engraved in the memory of Egyptian artists, many of whom found flourishing careers internationally. Following his passing, they all took to the social media to express their love and appreciation for the pianist, repetiteur and coach. It is their words that encapsulate Magnato’s greatest achievements.

“A sad day for opera people in Egypt,” writes Ashraf Seweilam, the Egyptian bass baritone who established himself outside the country. He calls Magnato a dear friend and tenacious colleague who has weathered many regimes and administrations, “one of two people in Egypt who were the true thermometer of my development as an artist, the other being pianist and coach David Hales. I learned a lot from him from day one as he was preparing the cast of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in Arabic for recording in 1988. Aldo was supportive, insightful, old-fashioned, opinionated, hard-working and knew the scores he coached back to front by heart. He felt like the godfather of opera in Egypt, and a spirit that carried memories from the days of glory from the old Cairo Opera House, like an old faded perfume to the new building so that we, young up-and-coming artists, could have a little taste of what we would never get to experience.”

Aldo Magnato
Maestro Aldo Magnato kisses the hand of the Egyptian pianist Marcelle Matta after her 1988 concert at the Gomhoreya Theatre. (Photo: Marcelle Matta Facebook wall)

Pianist Marcelle Matta posted a photo from her 1988 concert at the Gomhoreya Theatre, where she is accompanied by Magnato and conductor Youssef el Sissy, after her performance of Beethoven’s Fantasy (Fantasia) for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, op. 80. In another post, she called him “such a good person and so devoted to music and musicians.”

Those brief comments expressing sadness are repeated by many Egyptian musicians, many of whom share special photo memories with the maestro.

In their notes about Magnato, the musicians use warm adjectives pointing to the kind soul he embodied: reserved, beloved, kind, humble, calm, excellent musician and refined director top the list. Father Rafic Greiche, spokesman of the Coptic Catholic Church in Egypt, who knew Magnato since the 1970s, reiterated how “very modest and low profile” the choir master was.

Baritone Raouf Zaidan notes that with Magnato’s passing “we come to the end of an era of music and opera in Cairo.” Indeed, Magnato was one of the very last people who lived the best days of the field and beyond, and followed the many changes that took place over the decades.

But changes do not have to mean the end; they can be new beginnings. There is an important continuum carried on by the many artists who worked with Magnato, who through Magnato’s spirit, experience and skills had an opportunity to touch on the older times while adapting to the new dynamics of creativity.

Though Magnato is no longer with us, his blurred figure will no longer appear in the photographs, his name will no longer be mentioned as part of the new operas and concerts, he continues to live in the hearts of musicians, in the artistic values he passed to them and in their practice.

“Che tristezza!” (What sadness), as the France-based Egyptian tenor Georges Wanis puts it.  

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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