Opera in Egypt

Sally Abed, Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

Opera has been an integral part of Egypt’s cultural and artistic scene since the late 19th century, writes Sally Abed

The Khedival Opera House
The Khedival Opera House


Now that all eyes are fixed on the Israeli war on Gaza, many artists are trying to portray the Palestinian call for liberation through different forms of art.

While it has often kept itself aloof from current events, opera has nonetheless also been a way of expressing some political issues.

Reflective at times of social reality, opera has served as a vehicle for rising nationalism in 19th-century Europe, anti-colonial sentiments in 20th-century Egypt, and to dramatise contemporary issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the 21st century.

The history of opera (Latin for “work”) started in late 16th-century Florence with a group of writers, artists, and musicians known as the Florentine Camerata, who discovered that ancient Greek theatre was sung. The discovery inspired them to set dramatic texts to music, something new and creative at the time and very much in tune with the revival of classical learning during the European Renaissance.

Dafne (1579) by Jacopo Peri is considered by many to be the first opera. Then followed other operas like Claudio Monteverdi’s 1606 L’Orfeo. The outcome was two types of opera: opera seria, the formal, stately version, and opera buffa, the lighter comic one.

By the 17th century, operatic performances were appealing to wider audiences and were taking Europe by storm. Part of their spectacular charm was the blending of several genres like music, dancing, singing, and costumes to create a vibrant experience and unfold a dazzling world with each new story.

Some of the famous composers who enriched the operatic scene were George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) during the Baroque era (1600-1750), and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) during the Classical period (1750-1830) that followed. The art of opera flourished even more during the Romantic period (1830-1900), with prominent names like Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), Georges Bizet (1838-1875), Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883).

The rise of nationalism and the political independence movements of the 19th century in Europe led to the use of national musical elements such as folklore or the presentation of nationalist subjects for operas, symphonic poems, or other forms of music. One example of this was the war of liberation against Napoleon that paved the way in Germany for Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 opera Der Freischütz (The Free Shooter) and, later, for Wagner’s dramas based on Teutonic legends. Italy’s yearning for independence from Austria found expression in many of the operas of Verdi.

In 1925, Mounira Al-Mahdiya, a renowned actress and singer, performed Al-Ghandoura (Pretty Woman) in Egypt, an Egyptian opera that earned a positive review from politician Fikri Abaza at the time, who saw the work as “deeply political”. It raised his hopes for an Egypt independent of British colonisation where “the flag of liberty, fraternity, and equality [waved] over everyone.”

More recently, The Sleeping Thousand, an opera by Israeli composer Adam Maor, was premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in southern France. As an adamant opponent of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Maor says of his 2019 work that “while I’m not trying to campaign through my art, it is definitely a political opera that raises questions about freedom.”


EGYPT IN OPERA: The storylines of Western operas have varied, with ancient Egypt at times becoming an attractive thematic backdrop for several famous works.

Among the first was Handel’s 1739 opera Israel in Egypt, a retelling of the story of the Biblical Exodus that allowed for pithy criticism of England’s slave trade at the time. “Thou didst blow with the wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters,” runs one line.

In the same vein, Rossini later composed his three-act opera Moses in Egypt that premiered in 1818 and which he later revised and expanded. In Mozart’s Magic Flute (1791), the characters arrive at the meaning of life through the ancient Egyptian priests of Isis and Serapis.

More recently, in 1984 US composer Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten premiered in Stuttgart in Germany. The tumultuous reign of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten and his shift to the worship of Aten (the sun disk) along with the establishment of a new capital in Amarna was enticing enough for an operatic performance.

Equally attractive for an operatic adaptation was the love story of Antony and Cleopatra by US composer Samuel Barber, premiered in 1996. The opera, based on Shakespeare’s 1607 play of the same name, was unfortunately not equally successful.

However, probably the most spectacular opera tied to Egypt in terms of thematic background and history remains Verdi’s phenomenal Aida (1871). This was composed and performed during a century characterised by Egyptomania, the discovery of the art and culture of ancient Egypt, a fascination with its history, and the keen attempts of its then ruler, Ismail Pasha, to Europeanise the country.

The history of Verdi’s Aida is intertwined with the history of the establishment of the Khedival Opera House in Cairo where the opera was performed in 1871. In the work, Radames, an Egyptian general, falls in love with Aida, an Ethiopian princess captured by the Egyptians. Aida was the second opera by Verdi to take place in the Khedival Opera House after the composer’s Rigoletto was staged there in 1869, the year of its inauguration.

From that year onwards, Aida was performed regularly in Egypt, first on the stage of the Khedival Opera until it burned down in 1971. The late Hassan Kami, a remarkable Egyptian tenor, in fact started his singing career in 1963 when he performed in Aida at the Khedivial Opera House. Thanks to his persistent efforts, he organised the biggest performance of Aida in the world at the Giza Pyramids in 1987, the first time for the opera to be staged at a historic site.

In later years, he supervised a production of Aida at Hatshepsut’s Temple in Luxor. In 1998, the opera moved back to the Pyramids, where it was staged in 1999 and 2000 and 2010.

A 19th-century ruler of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, an opera devotee, had charged the Italian architect Pietro Avoscani to build Cairo’s Opera House modelled on Milan’s magnificent opera, the Teatro alla Scala. The Khedivial Opera House was opened on the occasion of the inauguration of the Suez Canal in1869. Until its burning down in 1971, the Opera House retained its glory and hosted many widely acclaimed operas and artists from all over the world. It took Egypt over a decade to rebuild a new opera house in 1988, which is just as magnificent as its predecessor.

Unlike the Khedival Opera in Cairo, the Alexandria Opera House saw a better fate as it moved from days of glory to neglect then back to glory again. The small and exquisite building was constructed in 1918 by French architect Georges Baroque during the reign of the Sultan, later king, Fouad I and was named the Mohamed Ali Theatre.

Renamed after Alexandria’s beloved local singer Sayed Darwish in 1962, the theatre was renovated in 2000 and the building regained its full glory.

Similarly, the Damanhour Opera House was inaugurated in 1930 during king Fouad I’s reign. The architecture is unique in the way Italian architect Ernesto Ferucci successfully blended an Italian opera archetype with Islamic aesthetic ornaments. It, too, suffered neglect for some time until its proper renovation in 2009.


EGYPTIANISED OPERA: The history of the opera in Egypt has gone beyond architectural history as cultural borrowing and adaptations took place by the masters of the Egyptian art scene in the early 20th century, among them Al-Mahdiya, a leading diva.

UK scholar Raphael Cormack’s 2022 book Midnight in Cairo: The Female Stars of Egypt’s Roaring 20s is an engaging and informative read on the vibrant artistic scene in Cairo during the interwar period seen through the lives of prominent female artists.

Al-Mahdiya, dubbed sultanet al-tarab or the “queen of singing”, started out performing in the theatre of Aziz Eid and was also part of the ensemble of Salama Higazi, both leading theatre figures at the time. This is where she developed her acting and singing skills, and this is where, disguised as a man, she was the first Egyptian woman to perform on stage.

The rich experience she obtained encouraged her later on when she formed her own troupe to dabble in new genres. She chose for the troupe’s new work the famous opera Carmen by the 19th-century French composer Georges Bizet translated into Arabic by Farah Antun.

There were other attempts by other theatrical troupes to perform this Spanish-inspired opera of a charming Gypsy woman, but with no remarkable success as the original score was not suited for “the tastes of Egyptian audiences, who were not used to European classical music.” According to Cormack, when one composer attempted to produce the score, he became so frustrated that he quit the music profession altogether.

Instead of being discouraged by the previous attempts, Al-Mahdiya was more determined to produce the first Arabic opera than ever. As such, she became the “inventor of Arabic opera”. The challenge, however, was one that she had to prepare for through an attractive campaign for the Arabic Carmen. The promotional campaign was successful as “the crowd was enormous” at the first performance in 1917.

As expected of a new genre, the opera elicited different reactions that ranged from approbation to disdain for the supposed depravity of Carmen’s character. In Cormack’s words, “the opera survived any criticisms in the press to become a massive hit,” such that it was later performed in the Khedival Opera House in 1918.

Other opera works followed as Al-Mahdiya performed Jules Massenet’s Thais and Rossini’s Adina regularly. Ten years later, she reworked another opera by Massenet — the glamorous Cleopatra. This is when her fame reached its peak in a performance also starring the renowned singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. In the opera, she usually played the role of Cleopatra, but at times she would also play the role of Antony.

After some years of absence, she went back to the theatre in 1925 with a successful comic opera in Arabic set in Baghdad entitled Al-Ghandoura. The opera was composed by Dawoud Hosni, who was renowned for his songs in Arabic. In many of his works, Fatima Sirri, another actress and singer, starred.

The cross-cultural encounter between east and west in opera was quite successful after all.


OPERA NOW: The attempts of artists like Al-Mahdiya in the early 20th century paved the way for the opera to take root in Egypt.

The later 20th and 21st centuries saw the rise of many Egyptian opera singers to international acclaim. One prominent name that still resounds in the Egyptian operatic scene is that of Sobhi Bedeir, chosen as the best and most outstanding tenor in the UK during his early years there. While in England, he was also chosen to perform as a tenor in the first operatic season in Singapore, an accomplishment Bedeir took pride in.

In Egypt, he served as the manager of the Cairo Opera Company twice. He said in an interview with BBC News Arabic that during his two terms he wanted to introduce to the Egyptian audience new opera works in different languages, as well as one-act operas. He added that he also collaborated with young people in performing operas that they would not have had the chance to perform in Egypt otherwise.

In addition to teaching at the Cairo Opera House, Bedeir also trained young voices in the Opera Studio where he imparted his knowledge generously.

Serving in the Cairo Opera Company for several years before launching his career in the US, Ashraf Swailam is a contemporary and impressive Egyptian operatic voice. He has performed on international stages in different roles and is now involved in directing plays as well, such as Shakespeare’s Othello at the Central City Opera.

Ragaaeddin, a remarkable tenor, is also enriching the operatic scene through his performances in different operas worldwide. He was also the recipient of the first prize at the International Space Music Singing Competition. While it is difficult to list all the names of the present generation of Egyptian opera singers, suffice it to say that there are also other important names like Georges Wanis and Reda Al-Wakil, both greatly enriching the operatic scene.

Nevine Allouba, a significant female voice in the history of opera in Egypt, has performed at the Cairo Opera Company in countless operas. She has combined her singing career with teaching and has taught many young singers. She is also the founder of the Fabrica Musical Theatre Company where she trains new voices. In the same vein of Egyptianising operas, Fabrica produced Mozart’s Magic Flute in Egyptian Arabic in collaboration with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in 2011.

Two years later, the company premiered Les Misérables in Egyptian Arabic as well.

The following generation of distinguished female voices includes Amira Selim, an international soprano. Selim has also used her operatic talents to sing in the ancient Egyptian language, as she sang “A Reverence for Isis”, which was taken from inscriptions on the walls of the Deir Al-Shelwit site in Luxor. This song was part of the Pharaohs’ Golden Parade, a celebration during which 22 mummies of ancient Egyptian kings and queens were moved to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Cairo in 2021.

Other female voices who have launched international careers from Egypt include Farrah Al-Dibani, a mezzo soprano who performs at the Paris Opera, and Fatma Said, a soprano who was the first Egyptian to join Milan’s Teatro alla Scala.

Currently, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Choir, founded in 2003, plays an active role in staging spectacular opera performances, mostly relying on Egyptian voices and musicians. Under the baton of prominent conductor and composer Nayer Nagui and talented choral conductor and opera singer Donia Akram Deghedi, the choir performed Carmen in 2022 and Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 2023.

In the past, the role of Carmen was played by two important female opera singers, namely Amina Idris and Jala Hadidi. The recent performance of Carmen was an exceptional event for it was the first full opera with lavish costumes to be sung in the original language in Alexandria after 20 years of performing snippets. Both Carmen and, later, Don Giovanni were the outcome of a successful collaboration between the Bibliotheca, under Nayer Nagui, director Manuel Schmidt, and stage designer Bernhard Siegel. These two productions, especially, saw the emergence of a new generation of professionals with amazing potential that will enrich the Egyptian opera.

The choir members continue to delight Alexandrian audiences every year with performances that they eagerly await. Members of the Cairo Opera House do the same thing, and they recently put on an exceptional performance of The Magic Flute under the guidance of maestro Ahmad Farag and the directorship of Hisham Al-Tally, in addition to other remarkable works over the past few years.

The history of opera in Egypt is a history of its artistic, cultural, and architectural meaning that deserves proper documentation. Perhaps one day there will be a museum that tells the story of Egyptian opera and exhibits rare photographs and recordings, if available, of early performances.

The opera is just one way in which the voice of Egypt has been travelling the world since the 19th century, whether through European or Arabised performances, or through international Egyptian performers in such a way that makes east meet west.

In times of war and turmoil, the role of the arts and literature becomes all the more enduring. They are a beacon of hope and a bridge between peoples and places.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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