Christmas at the Opera

15-12-2011 09:05 AM

Nader Shukry


The Cairo Opera House this year pursued its tradition of marking Christmas and the New Year with a bevy of programmes.

Coptic and Sufi … A unique experiment
In an experiment that was extremely well-received by the audience, the Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House (COH) hosted a concert that merged Islamic religious chanting with Coptic hymns. The performance was the fruit of cooperation between the COH and the German Embassy in Cairo.
The Group of Religious Chanting, conducted by Sheikh Mohamed al-Helbawi and his son Ali teamed up with the Karouz Ensemble for Coptic Music, conducted by Maher Fayez and the Egyptian singer Ali al-Haggar to give an unforgettable performance.
The idea of the joint concert was the brainchild of the Egyptian musician Bassem Darwish together with German pianist Matthias Frey and saxophone player Budi Siebert. The purpose was to illustrate that all Egyptian religious music—Coptic and Muslim—derived from the same source that went back to authentic ancient Egyptian roots. Frey and Siebert’s interest in spiritual music had led them to study Indian and Chinese religious music; their success encouraged them to attempt to fathom the secrets of ancient Egyptian spiritual music.
The three musicians participated in the concert, together with qanoun player, Hussam Shaker.
All the lyrics sung extolled the love of God. Sheikh Helbawi performed Sufi chants, while Fayez on the oud sang with his ensemble a number of Coptic hymns. The two ensembles then joined in singing The Alfa and Omega, and Siwa. This was followed by a performance by Haggar, who sang his famous Where did we perform the Dawn Prayer?.
The concert thrilled the audience who gave the performers a standing ovation. The German Ambassador in Cairo Michael Bock, together with Abdul-Moniem Kamel, President of the Cairo Opera House, presented roses to the performers, and asked for a repeat performance next Christmas.
“The experiment,” Darwish said, “is a pure musical journey penetrating the depth of the Egyptian heritage for music out of which stems both the Coptic and Muslim spiritual music of today.”

Carols of the Bells
“The Bells” is a choir which started off in 2003 with seven members and has today become 60 members, using 120 bells to present a unique music of various melodies. Mary Maher, who founded the choir and heads it, says it is formed of three groups the smallest of which consists of 15 players aged five to eight.
The Bells teamed up with the Anba Athanasius Choir to present two distinguished concerts at the Gohmouriya Theatre. The repertoire included Christmas melodies as well as a variety of the most popular English and Arabic hymns, among which were “While shepherds watched”, and “Away in a manger”.
Originally, only one concert was scheduled at the Gohmouriya Theatre. This was directly sold out, and the management of the COH was urged to schedule a second concert on the following day—which it did.
The large number of both choirs—60 members of the Bells and 40 of the Anba Athanasius Choir—posed a particular problem since the number exceeded stage capacity. The stage was thus set on two levels, the Bells occupied the lower level and Anba Athanasius’ the upper one.
“The sounds of bells,” Maher said, “are new and different, since every bell has its own distinct ring. Training children to use them poses a specific challenge. And the maintenance of the bells is a delicate process; one bell costs on the average EGP2300, and has to be imported from United States, the only country that manufactures them.”
Maher relates one particularly interesting situation, when the Egyptian singer and musician Samir al-Iskandarany could not believe that the melodies he heard originated solely from the bells, and thought that some recorded music was involved. “This proved the harmony created by the bells, which were used to perform Coptic, international and classic pieces, was really impressive,” she said.
The Bells is the only choir of its kind in Egypt and the Arab World.

For the Virgin
The recent apparition of the Holy Virgin at her church in Warraq, Giza, prompted the choirs of Chanting heart and St Augustinus to chant praises for the Virgin in a joint performance of Christmas hymns at the Gomhouriya theatre. Some 50 male and female performed, conducted by Hany Saber and Samir Suliman, sang praises, beginning with the classic: “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women,” (Luke1: 28). They moved on to Jingle Bells and the famous Kyahk praises sung in honour of the Virgin.
The St Augustinus Choir of the church of the Holy Virgin in Garden City, Cairo, was formed some 45 years ago by Dr Makram Mehanna, the majority of its members being students of Cairo University’s Faculty of Pharmacy. The Chanting Heart Choir was founded in 1999 at St George’s Church in Almaza, Cairo.
As regular Christmas performers at the Cairo Opera House, the Umm al-Nur (Mother of Light) Choir conducted by Saad Ibrahim, and the Umm al-Nur Orchestra conducted by Hanaa’ Tanius, this year gave a pair of distinguished performances. Aptly named “Between East and West”, the Choir’s repertoire included Coptic praises along with Christmas carols and international compositions among which was Beethoven’s ninth symphony. The Umm al-Nur’s Choir was established in 1976 by a small group of youth and today includes 65 male and female members of different generations.
The Umm al-Nur Orchestra is the first Coptic orchestra and was founded by Dr Tanius in 2002. It was joined by the Singing Heart Choir to present Coptic, Arabic, English and French Christmas songs. It is the first in Egypt to present traditional hymns in several voices and modern musical arrangements.

Nutcracker and Christmas tree
It has become an annual tradition of the COH to greet the New Year with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker which never fails to charm audiences. True to custom, this year will see six performances—starting today—of the The Nutcracker by the Cairo Opera House Ballet group, supervised by Erminia Kamel, accompanied by the Cairo Opera House Orchestra conducted by Nader Abassy. Abdel-Moniem Kamel, head of the COH, promised that this year’s shows will witness new attractive elements of light and décor, including a seven-metre-tall Christmas tree.

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