Safe Play: Raising the curtain on the new Opera House season

Photo by Sherif Sonbol

On 8 September, the Opening Night Gala inaugurated the new artistic season of the Cairo Opera House. The 54th season brings a multitude of events across the Opera House’s companies, all amidst challenging national realities

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

On Saturday, 8 September, a large number of artists — musicians, dancers and singers — participated in the large-scale opening of a new artistic season of the Cairo Opera House.

The 2012-2013 season is the 54th of the Opera House and the first to be fully initiated and managed by Ines Abdel Dayem, who became the Opera House chairperson in February 2012. This is also the first full artistic season to take place after the political transformation in Egypt. While opera regulars anticipate a year filled with new and interesting events, they are also curious to find out the role of the prestigious institution, the nation’s cultural pride, will take after the January 25 Revolution. A closer look at the Opera House’s upcoming season may provide some clues.

On 8 September, the Opening Night Gala featured hundreds of artists and aimed to underline the diversity of the musical forms and artistic skills that the Opera House holds within its walls. The evening was attended by many important officials, such as Mohamed Saber Arab, the minister of culture, Osama Kamal, the governor of Cairo, Osama Kamal (same name), the minister of petroleum and mineral wealth, Yasser Ali, the presidential spokesman, and other top officials.

Following the performance of the national anthem and a welcome speech, the Cairo Opera Orchestra, conducted by Nayer Nagui, the A Cappella Choir with choir master Maya Gvineria and Cairo Opera Company soloists Iman Moustafa, Jolie Faizy, Hisham El-Gendy and Reda El-Wakil opened the evening with the 4th movement from Beethoven’s Symphony No 9.

Under the batons of young conductors, a number of Arabic and religious music ensembles also took the stage: the Arab Music Heritage Ensemble, the Religious Song Ensemble, the Abdel Halim Nowera Ensemble for Arab Music, the National Arab Music Ensemble and the Alexandria Opera Ensemble for Music and Arab Singing. The evening also saw a contribution from the Cairo Opera Ballet Company with artistic director Erminia Kamel presenting a scene from the ballet The Nile, with the participation of its composer, Omar Khairat.

The evening was directed by Gihan Morsi.

All the Opera House’s companies deal with a multitude of challenges, such as the watchful eyes of the new Egyptian government and apparent budget limitations.

Though the new season will depend on better utilisation of Egyptian talent, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra welcomes its new principal conductor, Jiri Petrdlik, from the Czech Republic. The Cairo Symphony Orchestra, under Jiri Petrdlik, will give its first concert with Stravinsky, Haydn and Schumann’s Symphony no. 1 on Saturday 15 September in Cairo and on Sunday 16 September in Alexandria. Petrdlik will also conduct the orchestra a week later. At the end of September the orchestra will give a concert conducted by Ahmed El-Saedi and on 6 October, Hisham Gabr will return to Schumann, yet this time with Symphony no. 4.

It is still hard to judge the detailed plans of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra as the full season programme has not been published — nor has the orchestra’s official website been updated. A newly developed free website has been launched to provide information on the orchestra, yet as of the day of writing, it too lacks the yearly programme. Though obviously managed on a voluntary basis, the site has the potential to become the indispensable provider of information on the orchestra and its activities.

For its part, the Cairo Opera Orchestra, with Nayer Nagui as its principal conductor and artistic director, has published a comprehensive brochure of all its events in the 2012-2013 season. According to the brochure, since the Cairo Opera Orchestra was founded in 1994, it has played a main role in the Egyptian music scene, its repertoire ranging from accompanying the Cairo Opera Ballet Company in performances such as Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and Giselle, as well the performance by the Bolshoi Ballet Company, to such operas as La Traviata, La Boheme, Thais and The Marriage of Figaro. This season will bring back a number of ballet and opera productions, topping them with a few galas and operettes.

With the principal conductor conducting most of the events during the new season, the orchestra has invited guest conductors to a few performances. An interesting highlight of the Cairo Opera Orchestra is the Children’s Gala planned for 7 October. Taking into account the lack of music events tailored to the young, this gala is definitely something families can look forward to.

The orchestra will accompany the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, which returns with a few standard ballets taken from the classical repertoire: Corsaire, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Zorba. There are no plans to include a contemporary repertoire in the upcoming season. According to Erminia Kamel, the company’s artistic director, a new addition to the company’s repertoire will come in March 2013 when a few young Egyptian choreographers selected by a jury will have the opportunity to present their work in two performances on the stages of Al-Goumoreya Theatre and the Cairo Opera House Main Hall.

Due to social and religious pressures, ballet could be one of the first art forms subject to censorship. Though Kamel assures the audience that she will not cut or modify any of the scenes in the repertoire, she also says the right choices need to be made from the beginning of the season. “I am sure that the classic repertoire will not offend the sensibility of anybody. After this first step, it might be easier to add some new items,” Kamel comments, adding that she is still monitoring the cultural scene, expecting some transitions to take place.

Playing it safe seems to be the recipe for the Cairo Opera House’s survival in times when question marks hang over Egypt’s cultural scene.

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