The history of Opera in Egypt – Al-Tahrir News Network

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From ancient Egypt to today, opera continues to hold an illustrious place in Egyptian society.

Opera is an art form that can trace its history back to ancient Egypt. Back then, this art was prosperous and rich with music, poetry and drama. Inscriptions of old Egyptian celebrations were engraved on the walls of temples revealing Egyptians’ great passion for music, dancing and singing. Motivated by their love of music, ancient Egyptians invented many musical instruments including the harp, considered one of the oldest and most beautiful musical instruments in the world.

The “Khedival (Royal) Opera House” was the first opera house ever constructed in Egypt, or anywhere in the African continent for that matter. It contained the largest and most splendid halls in the world. Unfortunately, on 28 October 1971, a massive fire consumed the whole building and nothing was saved except two statues by the sculptor Mohamed Hassan, namely: “Prosperity” and “the Renaissance of Arts”.

The Khevidal Opera House under construction (photo: Bibliotheca Alexandrina)

The “Khedivial Opera House” was named after Khedive Ismail as he was the one who gave instructions to build it in order to celebrate the inauguration of the Suez Canal. Khedive Ismail was so fond of the arts that he wanted the Opera to be an architectural masterpiece that could stand on the same footing as its counterparts across the world. He assigned the task of designing the Opera House to Italian architects Avoscani and Rossi provided that they produce outstanding architecture. Later on, the Khedive hired a number of painters and sculptors to decorate the Opera House because he was profoundly interested in luxurious ornamentation.

Set design by Philippe Chaperon for Act 2, Scene 2 of Aida

Before the building was officially complete, the Khedive began to prepare a great performance for its inauguration, one that would reflect glimpses of ancient Egyptian history. According to a request by the Khedive, the opera Aida was composed by the Italian musician Giuseppe Verdi and its lyrics written by Italian “libretto” Antonio Ghislanzoni. Verdi’s Aida is an opera of four acts that includes dancing performances, songs, and represents the conflict between duty and love. It is a love story between an Ethiopian captive (Aida) and the leader of the Egyptian army (Radamis). In the opera, the king of Egypt sentences Radamis to death for his attempt to escape to Ethiopia with Aida. Khedive Ismail was said to have offered 150,000 francs to Verdi for writing opera Aida. The total cost of designing and constructing the decorations and costumes in Paris are estimated at 250,000 francs. The opening of the Opera House was delayed because the props and costumes for Aida were stuck in Paris. In 1871, Aida was premiered in the Khedival Opera House in Cairo, though Verdi was unable to attend. Aida’s first performance in Europe was in February 1872 at the famous La Scala in Milan, Italy.

Verdi

Against Ismail’s wish, opera Rigoletto was performed in the opening of the Khedival Opera House. He wanted Aida to be held instead, but the delay of the stage accessories ruined his plans. Nevertheless, opera Rigoletto was attended by the Khedive himself, the wife of Napoleon III Empress Eugenie, the King of Austria and the crown prince of Prussia.

The Cairo Opera House 

The opening of the Cairo Opera House was attended by former president Hosni Mubarak and Prince Tomohito of Mikasa, the younger brother of Japan’s emperor. This is considered the first time that Japan has participated in the opening of a cultural centre in Egypt, the Arab world and Africa. The Kabuki was performed by a Japanese group in a highly stylized manner.

The Cairo Opera House

The Japan International Cooperation Agency in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Culture agreed on a design for the Opera house that bore the touch of Islamic architecture. On 31 March 1988, the construction of the Opera House was completed making it one of the most significant cultural landmarks in Cairo. The Cairo Opera House includes three theatrical halls: the main hall has 1,200 seats, the small hall seats up to 500 people, and the open-air theatre contains 600 seats. It played an important role in enriching the artistic life in Egypt as it fosters the Cairo Opera Ballet, Cairo Symphony Orchestra, the National Arab Music Ensemble, and the Egyptian Modern Dance Theater Company. The Opera holds cultural salons, plastic art exhibitions, and summer musical festivals for amateur bands. It also hosts a variety of distinguished artists and renowned international musical groups.

The main hall