Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Egypt, Cairo Opera Sounds Hopeful Note after Shaky Revolutionary Years

Specials- Cairo Opera House
Photo: Flickr

The Cairo Opera House hosted four performances of Un Ballo in Maschera by Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in February 2019, in a joint production put on by the Cairo Opera Company, Cairo Opera Orchestra, Cairo Opera Ballet Company and Cairo Opera Choir.

Dramatic soprano Iman Mostafa, artistic director of the Cairo Opera Company and Egypt’s most celebrated opera singer, played one of the leading roles. Other main characters were played by members of the same company, including Reda el-Wakil, Amr Medhat and Rasha Talaat, while Antonio Coriano and Massimiliano Fichera from Italy and Elena Baramova from Bulgaria appeared in guest roles.

“Opera is the richest art that mingles music, singing, dance and drama,” Mostafa wrote in the opera programme.

Fanack attended one of the performances. Although it was not completely sold out, the 1,200-seat main hall was well filled and the audience, dressed in the mandatory suits and evening gowns, appeared to enjoy the performance immensely.

Every few months, the company stages a European or Arabic opera classic. In December 2018, it was Verdi’s Aida and in June 2019, it will be Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot was originally on the schedule, a major production due to be made in cooperation with China, but it was postponed.

Aida and the early days of opera in Egypt

The Cairo opera house has held an iconic position in the capital and in Egypt as a whole for well over century. In 1869, Khedive Ismail ordered the construction of the first opera house in downtown Cairo, in celebration of the opening of the Suez Canal.

Verdi was commissioned to compose the music for the first opera to be performed there, which was Aida. However, its completion was delayed and Verdi’s earlier work, Rigoletto, was performed instead. Aida premiered in Cairo in 1871.

The opera house was destroyed in a fire the same year. In its place is now a multi-storey car park, although the adjacent square is still called Opera Square. Construction of the current opera house on the southern end of Gezira Island in the Nile started in 1985 and was completed in 1988.

While there has long been mixed Egyptian and international opera groups performing in Cairo, the first exclusively Egyptian opera company was established in 1964, following the foundation of the Cairo Conservatoire in the 1950s. After the old opera house burned down, the company continued per-forming in other theatres in Cairo and Alexandria.

Singing success

Iman Mostafa is part of a successful generation of opera singers that graduated in the 1980s from the conservatoire and rose to fame in the early years of the new opera house.

Bass baritone Abdel Wahab el-Sayed also belongs to this generation. “At the time we had a lot of good students but no [proper] place to sing, as the old opera house was burnt,” he told Fanack.

One of his professors wanted to boost opera singing in Egypt and formed a group of young people, to whom she gave a small monthly allowance to en-courage them to pursue opera as a career. “The way of singing opera is com-pletely different from Eastern music,” el-Sayed added.

He, Mostafa, Reda el-Wakil and others later earned contracts with the Cairo Opera Company. “I started with small roles and kept growing gradually, until the new opera house opened and we started to be professionals and build-ing a repertoire, including the first fully Arabic opera Anas el-Wogood,” el-Sayed said.

The company currently has a repertoire of 32 productions and a permanent ensemble of 32 artists, according to its official website. “The activity of the opera is going well, there is a variety of voices,” el-Sayed said.

Shaken by revolution

The Italian maestro Andrea Albertini conducted the Cairo Opera Orchestra in Un Ballo. In an interview with the local newspaper of his hometown Padua, Albertini said that it took Egyptian opera five years to recover following the revolution in 2011.

“The orchestra consists of many young people who have little experience with opera but are following all my instructions and are very collaborative. I am particularly surprised by their willingness to learn,” he said.

The French pianist and vocal trainer Pascale Rozier, who has worked in Egypt for 24 years and was appointed as director of the Cairo Opera Choir in August 2018, also witnessed a “challenging” period for opera during and after the revolution. The opera house is located less than ten minutes walk from Tahrir Square, the focal point of mass protests and often the scene of violent clashes, and for several years many audience members avoided the opera.

The rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (2012-2013), which artists felt posed a threat to Egypt’s cultural scene, was particularly difficult. On 30 May 2013, a month before massive demonstrations against President Mohamed Morsi, artists staged a strike to protest the dismissal of opera director Inas Abdel-Dayem (the current culture minister).

The culture minister at the time said he wanted to inject ‘new blood’ into the cultural scene. However, the dismissal came amid calls in parliament to cut the opera’s budget and ban ballet because of its ‘nudity’ and was widely regarded as an attempt by the Islamist government to exert more cultural control.

In the last few years, however, audience numbers have been on the rise again, Rozier told Fanack, as have the number of people auditioning for the choir.

Financial challenges

Despite this recovery, funding remains a challenge. Ticket prices are cheap compared to Europe. A ticket for Un Ballo, for instance, was 250 Egyptian pounds ($15), not nearly enough to finance the production. The opera is therefore highly dependent on government funding. Given the economic crisis Egypt has faced in recent years, the government is short on budget in general, and that affects the opera as well. For instance, there is no budget for a larger choir than the 80-85 singers it has now, Rozier said.

“Singers from abroad accept a much lower fee for performing here than in Europe, because they want to have performed in Egypt,” she added. Local soloists often have teaching jobs on the side to top up their salary from the opera.

Singers in the choir receive a monthly stipend as well but it is not enough to live on, so rehearsals always take place in the evening after people have fin-ished their day jobs.

Discovering new talent

El-Sayed, who has not performed for seven months because of voice problems, is also in charge of the opera’s centre for talent development, which opened in the early 1990s. “They were scouting talents from six years old and up and started with classes in violin, piano and ballet,” he said.

From there, the centre expanded and now offers classes in a wide range of arts, from opera singing and Arabic music to various instruments, ballet and painting. It has branches in Cairo, Alexandria, Damanhour and Tanta and more than 3,200 students. It is partly funded by the state and partly by admission fees.

“I love the place. All these talents give hope and energy,” el-Sayed said.

Part of the upcoming generation is Madonna (21), who performed in Un Ballo as a member of the choir. She is an Arabic music student at the Cairo Art Academy and joined the choir after doing a general audition two years ago.

“I love the opera, and besides, [singing in the choir] is a good opportunity,” she told Fanack. She hopes within a year to become a soloist in the Cairo Opera Company. “A lot of people want this, but I feel I stand a good chance,” she said.

Rozier is also impressed by the talent in the choir and Egypt in general. “Egyptians have beautiful voices,” she said. “Reda el-Wakil has a voice of international quality, and Imam Mostafa has a beautiful voice you cannot find elsewhere in the world.”

She believes opera can be better marketed as a tourist attraction. “It should be in the brochures, Egypt can be really proud of it,” she said.

One reason Rozier loves working is Egypt is the “enthusiasm and energy” of the singers, and she hopes in the future the opera can add new productions to its repertoire. “The audience wants to see something new.”

Although financing is vital to make this happen, one thing is clear: there is no lack of enthusiasm and talent.