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Cairo Opera House embraces change with world artists, new music

Cairo's venerable opera house is working to restore its past glory and lost audiences by expanding its program.

For Marianna Musotto, playing Verdi’s "Aida" at the World Youth Forum in November was a joint homage to her homeland, Italy, and her host country, Egypt.

Bringing in foreign musicians such as the young Italian trumpeter who joined in September is one of several initiatives by the Cairo Opera House to modernize its image. The goal is to lure a diverse audience and revive some of its old glory from the 1950s and '60s.

The Opera House, which houses the Symphony Orchestra and the State Ballet, is reaching out to various sectors of society, particularly young people. As part of these efforts, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra was invited to play at the World Youth Forum, a prestigious international conference in Sharm el-Sheikh that took place Nov. 4-10.

The orchestra’s choice to play "Aida," Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi’s four-act opera that takes place in ancient Egypt, at the opening of the forum was deliberate and nostalgic. The original plan for the opera house's grand opening in 1869 was to stage "Aida," but the Franco-Prussian War had made the transportation of sets and costumes from Paris impossible and the opera opened its doors with "Rigoletto" instead. "Aida" had its world premiere at the Cairo Opera House in 1871, two years later.

When the impressive opera house burned down in 1971, it took 17 years to rebuild and reopen it in Cairo’s wealthy district of Zamalek. Its audience grew discouraged and lost interest during the extended closure; a growing conservatism in the country also took its toll on audience interest. There often was little or inconsistent information about the opera schedule and the tickets were very expensive for a country where the average monthly income is $300. Although the orchestra found an audience on TV, especially during Ramadan, it has long been unable to attract large audiences to its halls.

“Cairo Opera spent the last 50 years in darkness. Most of the blame goes to the education system,” Beram El Merghany, first French horn player in the opera’s orchestra for over two decades, told Al-Monitor. “Public schools don’t teach kids to appreciate music as they used to. This is only done at international private schools.”

He said that if there is to be a change of attitudes toward the opera and classical music, it must start with education. “All education levels should offer music classes or musical events in their curriculum. We organized concerts for children but there has been little interest. Kids prefer sports,” he added.

Today the Cairo Opera House boasts a diverse program with various kinds of music, dance events and festivals, from jazz performances to cinema galas. Arab popular music, which celebrates national pride and traditions, offers a departure point to lure a young audience back to the Cairo Opera House. The new programming now includes Arabic music festivals, local jazz players and a bit of pop music to attract the 52% of the Egyptian population under 25. El Merghany believes the administration did well in diversifying the musical offerings and hopes this will help it become both locally and internationally relevant again. “It was the strategy we needed to overcome the crisis. Now more concerts of Arabic music and collaborations with modern local composers are bringing some audiences back,” he said. But the road is still long, he added.

The Cairo Opera is also offering international folkloric music events and attracting foreign orchestra players, both seen as marks of sophistication and prestige.

Many young musicians come to Egypt from Eastern Europe, France, other parts of the Arab world and even Asia. Masaki Okajima is from Japan, a country with historical links to the Cairo Opera. The Empire of the Rising Sun donated the funds to complete the new opera house building, and the brother of the Japanese emperor brought a kabuki performance, the first ever to be staged in the Middle East and North Africa region. A tuba player with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra since 2007, Okajima claims to be very satisfied with the opportunities he was given in Cairo. “I think now is the real Cairo Opera’s golden age, because today our programming has much more to offer than it did in the 1960s,” he said.

Many of those foreign players are Italian. The reported stagnation and intense competition in Italy’s music sector led them to seek a career in Egypt. The Cairo Opera House has always enjoyed a special connection with Italy, despite the recent diplomatic crisis between the two countries over the torture and murder of Italian doctoral student Giulio Regeni, after which the two countries withdrew ambassadors.

“Egyptian players have a really high artistic sensitivity, something I didn’t expect at all before coming here. Their professionalism and capabilities didn’t make me feel a huge difference with Europe,” Musotto told Al-Monitor. She said that despite cultural differences, all musicians and employees know each other and collaborate well, making the work environment that of a family business.

El Merghany said Egyptian musicians who study and play abroad can bring back new energy and restore the opera's appeal to local audiences.

Ahmed Ashraf, first violin since 2011, is hopeful that Egyptians can rediscover their passion for art. He pointed to the presence of venerable music schools, such as the prestigious Cairo Conservatory and the Royal Academy of Music. “All kinds of art have developed in Egypt, and Egyptians appreciate all of them. They just need the means to rediscover their dormant passions,” he said.

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