Amid the political turmoil gripping Cairo these days, Cairenes were treated to an “evening of light” at the Cairo Opera House in celebration of the silver Jubilee of that venerable institution.
The inspiring, aesthetic complex of neo-Islamic buildings that stands on the Cairo Nile island of al-Gezira and which houses the Cairo Opera House was a gift from the Japanese government to Egypt 25 years ago, to host a fine arts cultural centre. The gift gave Cairo a new opera house following 17 years when Cairo had to do with no such building after its late18th-century Khedieval opera house was burned in 1971. The loss of the Khedieval opera house, which was a replica of the Milano La Scala, left Cairenes heartbroken; they realised it was an irreplaceable loss. But it took the joint efforts of the late Egyptian conductor Youssef al-Sisi (1935 – 2000) and Japanese diplomats to bring about in 1988 the wonderful Japanese gift of a new opera house for Cairo.
The evening of Thursday 10 October saw the Cairo Opera House walls and trees erupt in a flash of light to celebrate the event, as fireworks lit the sky. Luminaries, public figures, politicians, diplomats, artists and musicians all flocked to the celebration. The director of the Cairo Opera House, Inès Abdel-Dayem, was on hand to welcome Culture Minister Muhammad Saber Arab and Japan’s ambassador to Cairo Toshiro Suzuki.
While yet on the foyer, the guests were given a warm welcome by the children’s choir
conducted by Nadia Abdel-Aziz, which performed a number of light and patriotic songs.
The guests moved inside to the Main Hall where the national anthem was played by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sherif Mohyeddin. This marked the beginning of the festivities in which more than 500 artists operating in companies under the umbrella of the Cairo Opera House participated, intermixing dance with operatic and symphonic works. The evening was directed by Mohamed Abul-Kheir, with sets by Muhammad al-Gharabawi.
Aaron Copeland’s short piece for brass and percussion, Fanfare for the Common Man, completed the opening.
A documentary of the venerable Khedieval Opera House was screened, reminding the audience of how far we’ve come with the new opera house.
It was then time for Ms Abdel-Dayem to speak. She expressed her pride in the occasion and joy at the celebration, reminding that the opera house institution succeeded in withstanding Islamist pressures that threatened the freedom of the arts during the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood regime which fell last July.
Mr Suzuki then reminisced about his time as a young officer at the embassy in Cairo when the new opera house was established in the 1980s. Today, he said, the building stands witness to Egyptian Japanese friendship.
Consecrating the House
The silver jubilee celebrations were an excellent opportunity to honour former chairpersons of the Cairo Opera House: the late Ratiba al-Hefny, Tareq Ali Hassan, the late Nasser al-Ansary, Mustafa Nagy, Samir Farag and the late Abdel-Moneim Kamel.
The Cairo Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hisham Gabr, performed Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture as a documentary showing the construction and opening of the new Cairo Opera House on 10 October 1988 was screened.
Japan rightly made a contribution to Thursday’s event, with the Japanese-Palestinian soprano Mariam Tamari performing four opera arias to the accompaniment of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, this time conducted by Nayer Nagui. In an exquisite hand-painted silk gown by top Japanese designer Yumi Katsura and her legendary, versatile, rich voice Tamari sang from Puccini’s La Bohème Quando men vo (Musetta’s Waltz), and the poignant Tu che di gel sei cinta from his Turandot; the bluesy lullaby Summertime from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess; and the vivid Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette.
It was then time for an intermission, after which The Ship of Light embarked on a rich artistic
journey of music and dance as the Cairo Opera Orchestra, conducted by Nagui, played. A green-clad Neveen Allouba was the Lady of the Light, the tour narrator who accompanied the audience through some superb performances of ancient Egyptian scenes, African drumbeats, Verdi’s La Traviata and Aida; Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake; Rimsky-Korsakov’s Schehrezade, Bizet’s Carmen; and Ravel’s Bolero, among others.
In the meantime, pictures of past performances were projected on the stage, bringing back many warm memories. One especially poignant act was a dance by Erminia Kamel, the Cairo Opera Balllet Company’s artistic director, while a portrait of her late husband Abdel-Moneim Kamel showed in the background.
The grand finale
The guest of honour, Hassan Kamy, a pioneer of Egyptian opera, was summoned next by the
Lady of the Light who 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 enthralled the audience who clapped to the rhythm.
The intimate dialogue between scenery, song and dance continued with arias by Jolie Faizy, Iman Mustafa, Reda al-Wakil, Walid Kurayim, Mona Rafla, Dahlia Farouk, Hisham al-Gindy and Tamer Tawfik.
On a rising pedestal, Abdel-Wahab El-Sayed forcefully sang Ana al-Masry (I am the Egyptian) by the pioneer of modern-day Egyptian folk music Sayed Darwish (1892-1923).
Finally, the guest of honour Sobhi Bidair, a favourite with Egyptian audiences, sang the patriotic Nasheed al-Gihad which he had performed at the inauguration of the new Cairo Opera House in 1988. His full, mellow voice captivated the audience and madecelebrated peace and love, and an Egypt that embodies both.
15 October 2013
The photos are by Sherif Sonbol, courtesy of Al-Ahram Online