October 5-7 and 10 are important dates for the Cairo Opera House, marking the return of Verdi’s Aida to the Pyramids area.
Published on 14 Oct 2010 in Al Ahram Weekly
The opera Aida, in four acts to an Italian libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni and based on a scenario written by French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, was first performed at the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo on 24 December 1871, conducted by Giovanni Bottesini. The opera had been commissioned by the Khedive Ismail Pasha.
Ever since Aida has been among the most notable operas performed on international stages, cherished especially by audiences in Egypt. In recent Egyptian history, Aida was performed on a yearly basis on the stage of the old Opera House in Cairo until it burned down in 1971, a date which affected not only Verdi’s work, but also shook classical music in Egypt.
“The best performance of Aida was in September 1987,” recalls Hassan Kami, tenor, former artistic director of the Cairo Opera Company and executive director of Opera Aida Productions. Kami himself has sung the role of Radames in Egypt and internationally 440 times.
According to Kami, the 1987 Aida was among the greatest cultural events of the 20th century. “We had 1,600 artists on stage, which in itself was the largest stage built at the Pyramids (4,300 square metres). The opera was performed on eight consecutive evenings, attracting 27,000 spectators. I managed to find the funds for this particular production, jeopardising my own company and actually bankrupting it in the process,” Kami adds.
“However, I scored a great point for culture and for Egypt. My dream had been realised.” Among many remarkable artists, the production included Ghena Dimitrova, the Bulgarian soprano, and Giuseppe Giacomini , the Italian dramatic tenor. The production was conducted by Carlo Franci and directed by Mauro Bolognini.
It was also in 1987 that Aida was performed at the Pyramids for the first time, and the production met with unprecedented success. After the event, Kami was appointed executive director of all following productions of Aida in Egypt. The opera then moved back indoors and was performed at the new Cairo Opera House.
“Another mega production of Aida was in 1994 at the Hatshepsut Temple in Luxor,” Kamel says. Three years later, in October 1997, a further performance was organised against the backdrop of the Deir Al-Bahari Temple. However, terrorist attacks on tourists a month later ended opera performances in Luxor, and in 1998 the opera moved to the Pyramids, being performed on a stage built specially for the production behind the Pyramids.
The event coincided with the 10th anniversary of the new Cairo Opera House, and the opera was performed at the same location in 1999 and 2000. “We planned for one more mega production in October 2001, but this was cancelled,” Kami explains. The show was expected to attract more than 26,000 people over six evenings, but it was cancelled as a mark of respect in the wake of the 11 September attacks in the US.
Once again, Aida returned to the Cairo Opera House, where it remained until 2009. This October has been marked by the first performance in a decade of Aida at the Pyramids, this time at the Sound and Light location, with the Pyramids and Sphinx as the backdrop.
“This year, we did not have enough funds to create a mega production, and we depended mainly on Egyptian artists, the Cairo Opera Company and three guest singers. Outdoor stage productions need different audio equipment and different engineers. The Cairo Opera House has very good indoor equipment and technicians. We were going against all the odds and had to deal with many financial and logistical difficulties.”
However, in spite of such obstacles, judging by the size of the audience during all four days of the production of Aida, this year has seen hopes that the opera will be re-performed in the Pyramids area, attracting not only music lovers and international artists, but hopefully also regaining the attention of financial supporters.
This year’s production of Aida was directed by Abdel-Moneim Kamel, with the Cairo Opera Company, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and the Cairo Opera Orchestra conducted by Marcello Mottadelli. The mostly doubled cast included Cristina Coleman and Iman Mustafa (Aida), Marc Heller and Walid Korayem (Radames), Dragana del Monaco, Hanan El-Guindy and Jolie Faizy (Amneris), Mustafa Mohamed (Amonasro), Reda El-Wakil (Il Re), Abdel-Wahab El-Sayed (Ramfis), Gihan Fayed and Amina Khairat (Sacerdotessa), Tamer Tawfik, Ibrahim Nagui, Hani El-Shafei and Ragaaeddin Ahmed (Un Messaggero).
Sherif Sonbol has been following the opera since 1987, duly documenting the performances. Over two decades after the first mega production — which understandably was Hassan Kami’s pride — once again Sonbol’s lens captured the opera as it was performed today with the Sphinx and the Pyramids as the backdrop.