Cairo Opera House: 40 years of an ongoing mystery

Farah Montasser, Sunday 9 Jan 2011

Egyptian documentary film director Kamal Abdel Aziz reopens the files of the mysterious burning of Cairo Opera House in his short film “The Burning of the Cairo Opera House 1971”

Old Opera House

Marking its 140th anniversary in 2011, Egyptian documentary film director, Kamal Abdel Aziz reopens the files on the mysterious burning of Cairo Opera House, one of the top five in the world, in his short film “The Burning of  Cairo Opera House, 1971”. 

The documentary, containing  a collection of footage and interviews collected by Abdel Aziz over the past four years,  premiered on Saturday 8 January by the Supreme Council of Culture at Cairo Opera House grounds.

The mysteries of Egypt

Screening of the movie was followed by a press conference during which film critic Sameer Fareed and history professor Mohamed Afifi, discussed the issues generated by the film. "I hope to re-screen the movie in the near future, along with my new projects, unveiling yet more of the mysteries of Egypt," Kamal Abdel Aziz told Ahram Online.

The documentary featured eyewitness accounts from people who were attached to the opera house at the time, including Magda Saleh, the former prima ballerina, opera singers Hassan Kami, Ratiba Hefny, Violet Makkar and Gregoire Partimaine. Pianist Aldo Magniato, musician Abdel Hamid Gad, and conductor Mostafa Nagi also shared their experiences at the blazing scene of their ‘second home’. The star of the show was Hag Sameer, an in-house carpenter who said, “Working at the Opera House gave me prestige among my community. It was like working for the Ministry of External Affairs in Egypt.”

Khedive Ismail built the Khedival (Royal) Opera House in 1869 to celebrate the opening of the Suez canal,  increasing Egypt’s debts to LE 9 million. However, “the true initiative behind the building of the Royal Opera House remains unknown,” according to professor of  Egyptian history Mohamed Affify.

An eternal symbol of drama and music

In his interview, Hassan Kami says, “It created a cultural headquarters in order to identify Egypt’s heritage, carry on its legacy and educate its people.”  The Royal Opera House was to give Egypt a rebirth, transforming the first civilisation in the world from a part of the Islamic Ottoman empire to a modern and independent country. It was meant to be an eternal symbol of drama and music.

Located next to  the Azbakeya Gardens and Abdeen palace, also built by the Khedive, the opera house stood at the centre of the city, overlooking Ismailiyya Cairo (the modern city of Cairo) from one side and Fatemite Cairo (Islamic Cairo) from the other. Ironically, there was a fire station around the corner only a few minutes away, in case of emergency. Moreover, the architectural design included an emergency room next to the stage, with two fire officers in attendance on morning and night shifts.

Egypt was set to become one of most beautiful cities of the modern world, with its own identity, culture, arts and music. The opening night was a historical event with Verdi’s masterpiece, Rigoletto  performed on its 850-seat stage. Two years later, the Khedive commissioned Antonio Ghislanzoni to write and Giuseppe Verdi to compose the world-famous opera Aida, with its passionate music and powerful, dramatic heroes and scenes. In 1871, Aida had its world premiere at the Khedival Opera House.

The opera house building held a huge musical library and museum, which held the original handwritten composition notes of Verdi. Those were reported as stolen from the museum back in 1970 though  Saleh Abdoun, the former director dropped the investigations into the case. The incident was highlighted by eyewitnesses, Abdel Hamid Gad and Mosafa Nagi.

Completely destroyed in three days

Sadly, a hundred years later and instead of celebrating Aida’s 100th year anniversary, the fire starting from an unknown source, completely destroyed the opera house in three days. The film provides rare footage of helpless firemen with only two hoses trying desperately to save an important part of Egypt’s heritage while others attempted to stretch a hose across Ibrahim Pasha square in Downtown Cairo, to reach the opera house. The hose had several leaks which the firemen tied with knotted cloth. Magda Saleh described how  “The hoses were totally inadequate and we stood there crying. I wished that our tears were enough to put the fire out.”

“The Opera House was robbed then burned,” says film critic Sameer Fareed. “How can golden artifacts disappear?” he asks. “Gold melts in fire but does not disappear!” All witnesses agree that it was a political attack on former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, yet the truth was buried underneath the ashes. Today, a public car park carries the name: “The Opera Garage”.

A part of Egyptian culture doomed forever.


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