The Ship of Light: Marking the Cairo Opera House silver jubilee

Nihad Allam, Saturday 12 Oct 2013

On its 25th anniversary, 10 October, the Cairo Opera House indulged its audience with a mesmerising celebration, dubbed 'The Ship of Light'

Mariam Tamari
Japanese-Palestinian soprano Mariam Tamari (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

Preceding the main performance celebrating the new Cairo Opera House's 25th anniversary, the Children's Choir led by Nadia Abdel Aziz performed patriotic and birthday songs in the Main Hall foyer. In the same moment, festive fireworks were set off outside.

The celebration that followed, on the Main Hall stage, was attended by the ambassador of Japan, and eminent intellectual figures. The evening was directed by Mohamed Abou El-Kheir, with sets by Mohamed El-Gharabawy.

All companies — over 500 artists — operating under the umbrella of the Cairo Opera House participated in the event, intermixing dance with operatic and symphonic works.

The event opened with the national anthem performed by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sherif Mohei El-Din. The orchestra moved to Fanfare for the Common Man, a short piece for brass instruments and percussion, composed by Aaron Copland (1900-1990).

After the musical opening, the audience was invited to watch a short documentary on the Royal (Khedivial) Opera House, destroyed in a fire 28 October 1971.  

Inès Abdel-Dayem, chairperson of the Cairo Opera House, expressed her pride in the institution's activities and her relief in having survived the threat to the arts evidenced under the former regime (in reference to the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi).

For his part, Ambassador of Japan to Egypt Toshiro Suzuki talked about the circumstances of Japanese funding for the construction of new Cairo Opera House in the 1980s. At that time, Suzuki was a young officer at the Japanese embassy in Cairo. Now as ambassador, he expressed his pleasure that the project has been successful and remains a symbol of Egyptian-Japanese friendship.

During the evening, a warm tribute was paid to former chairpersons of the Cairo Opera House: the late Ratiba El-Hefny, Tarek Ali Hassan, the late Nasser El-Ansary, Moustafa Nagui, Samir Farag and the late Abdel Moneim Kamel.

The Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hisham Gabr, performed Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture, while a documentary showing the construction and inauguration of the new Cairo Opera House was projected.

The Japanese-Palestinian soprano Mariam Tamari took a stage next to perform four opera arias accompanied by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nayer Nagui.

Each aria had a different mood, revealing Tamari’s versatility: the alluring “Quando men vo” (Musetta’s Waltz) from Puccini’s La Bohème; the poignant “Tu che di gel sei cinta” from Puccini’s Turandot; the bluesy lullaby “Summertime”  from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; and finally the vivid and challenging “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.

Tamari’s superb hand-painted silk gown was made and dedicated by top Japanese designer Yumi Katsura.

"The Ship of Light" embarked on yet another journey after the intermission, taking the audience through a constellation of selected varieties, to music performed by the Cairo Opera Orchestra under the baton of Nagui.

Dressed in green, holding a scepter, personifying Isis, Cleopatra or Hypatia, or all three, the Lady of the Light, in the person of Neveen Allouba, was the tour narrator.

An African dance to drum beats, with a ship in the background, created an exotic and trancing atmosphere.

The orchestra played La Traviata Overture by Verdi while pictures of past performances were projected on the stage, bringing back many memories to artists and the audience alike.

Intermixed, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company performed four swan dances from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, while Anja Ahcin danced Ravel’s Bolero. The latter is Ahcin's specialty. She danced surrounded by a group of men, all performing with energy and harmony.

In turn, Katia Ivanova and Ahmed Yehia delivered a tender Pas de Deux from The Nile ballet, created and choreographed by the late Abdel Moneim Kamel to music by Omar Khairat.

Projected scenes from past performances of the ballet, where Erminia Kamel, Cairo Opera Balllet Company artistic director, was dancing with a portrait of Abdel Moneim Kamel in the background, added a touching element to the performance.

The Modern Dance Theatre Company, meanwhile, presented an episode from Scheherazade, to music by Rimsky-Korsakov, with simultaneous screening of past original performances.

The guest of honour, Hassan Kamy, a pioneer of Egyptian opera, was summoned next by the Lady of the Light. When he appeared on stage, she invited him to dance.

“Let us dance and sing, let us fill the world with light!” she said.

At once Zorba (Hany Hassan) and his company filled the stage and the Sirtaki went on as the audience clapped to the rhythm. Hany Hassan and Ahmed Nabil enthralled the audience with their passionate dance and numerous pirouettes and grand jetées.

Singers had their equal share in the evening.

Jolie Faizy, accompanied by the Opera Choir, interpreted the seducing Habañera from Bizet’s opera Carmen. Iman Moustafa, Reda El-Wakil and Walid Korayem interpreted arias from Verdi (Aida) and Puccini (Madama Butterfly). Mona Rafla, Dahlia Farouk, Hisham El-Gendy and Tamer Tawfik, joined by the choir, sang the vivid Libiamo from Verdi’s La Traviata. Abdel Wahab El-Sayed appeared on a rising pedestal singing “Ana el-Masry” (Me, the Egyptian) by Sayed Darwish (1892-1923).

Another beloved by Egyptian audiences guest of honour, Sobhi Bidair, appeared on stage and lead the patriotic “Nasheed Al-Gehad” with his unique voice. It was also performed at the inauguration of the new Cairo Opera House in 1988.

The evening's rich compilation of artistic celebrations ended with two patriotic songs, leaving the audience awash with emotion, and stirred in the name of Egypt.

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