Restoring Egypt’s Splendor: After the years of mis-management, can Cairo Opera House restore its artistic splendor?

Photo by Mourad Heshmat

It was funded by Japan, as a result of Hosni Mubarak’s 1983 visit to the country, and was the first Middle East and African venue to host the London Royal Philharmonic in 2007. Cairo’s Royal Opera house should stand as a symbol of unity and inclusion – but will it eventually fall prey to the financial and artistic corruption of its inner circle?

Published in The Majalla

No other country in the Middle East has an Opera House with a history of almost one and a half centuries long. The Khedivial Opera House or Royal Opera House was built in 1869, to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. Known as the birthplace of the opera Aida, for hosting dozens of renowned musicians, singers and performances, praised for its architectural splendor and exceptional acoustics, the building burned down in 1971. In 1988, the newly built Cairo Opera House was inaugurated as a gift from Japanese nation.

For many years, the new Opera House remained an ambitious outlet for many artistic propositions while its orchestras, ballet and opera companies excelled on national and international arenas. But the years have passed and The Cairo Opera House is beginning to be directly affected by the general notion of corruption in the country linking it to distorted artistic values.

The early 2000s brought a military person, General Samir Farag as the opera chairman. A significant decline of artistic priorities spurred internal struggles and manipulations whether on artistic or financial levels. In 2004, Samir Farag left the Opera to take over Luxor’s governorate (a post from which he was removed in 2011 for the alleged implication in corruption). Abdel Moneim Kamel, head of Cairo Opera Ballet Company, became opera’s new chairman.

Having an artist chairman gave rise to hopes that the institution would find a new artistic definition. Though over the past years Kamel had managed to introduce many important artistic realizations, their successes were soon over shadowed by reappearing questionable priorities, topped by growing internal discontent.

Understandably, Egypt’s 25 January 2011 Revolution was the main factor that gave voice to hundreds of employees accusing the opera’s management of negligence and corruption. Demonstrations that took place in mid-February 2011 pointed at many angering issues including unequal distribution of bonuses, ranging from few dozens of the Egyptian Pounds to thousands. A number of artists from the Cairo Opera Company were angered by inability to develop artistically.

Once protests were silenced by minor adjustments and a few promises, a series of strikes exploded at the Alexandria Opera House, which was operating under Cairo Opera House’s management. Alexandria employees topped their demands with a long list of complaints, many with financial basis, adding to them deplorable work conditions such as a lack of chairs for the administrative personnel.

Many flaws in the opera management became apparent to the audiences. A nonexistent advertisement and pitiful public relations became frustrating to audiences and the artists alike. At the same time, sources from the Cairo Opera House reveal that the marketing and public relations personnel were among beneficiaries of high bonuses.

The first significant step in fight against the corruption took place in December 2011, when Shaker Abdel Hamid, Egypt’s Minister of Culture transferred files testifying to the corruption of the Cairo Opera House to the prosecutor. Details regarding those files were not revealed, though we know that Abdel Moneim Kamel’s term as opera’s chairman ended in February 2012 and in early March he had been stopped by the Egyptian authorities at the Cairo airport when trying to leave the country defying a travel ban issued by the General Prosecutor.

Corruption of the Cairo Opera House has not only strained it financially. Over the years, a strong network of financial dependencies has been created between its direct beneficiaries and corrupt key players. Moreover, internal sources alarm over equally dangerous artistic corruption.

Many young singers, musicians and directors on the opera’s payroll were not given the chance to practice their craft. To the audiences, it became obvious, that the same cast filled many opera roles. In parallel, the cast grows old and those no longer able to shine perform randomly. Same directors worked over and over again on the opera stages, with young ones – often extremely talented – pushed away.

Today, with problems piling into all sectors of the Cairo Opera House, Ines Abdel Dayem, the newly appointed chairperson has a lot of homework. Years of internal corruption and mismanagement is now topped with new problems such as severely reduced budget for the Opera’s activities.

Preoccupied with internal manipulations, the Opera has lost contact with the many strata of Egyptian society – A fact that is particularly concerning when facing the rising influence of the Islamists, among whom some express statements troublesome to the whole arts sector.

Flutist, former vice-president of the Academy of Arts and former director of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, Abdel Dayem seems aware that while working on restoring the Opera’s forgotten values, she needs to reach out to the audience as well as find a successful language with many rigid mindsets that might not welcome her dynamic plans of change. After a few weeks in the position, Abdel Dayem has already put into action a few impressive plans. However, only time will show if the Cairo Opera House can restore its unique position in the Middle East arts scene.

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