The Opera House and its multiple buildings. Image Credit: Supplied

Cairo Opera House Chairman Dr. Magdy Saber reveals what makes the cultural landmark a scintillating jewel in the crown of Egypt’s legacy. By Ayesha Shaikh

Inside the lavish expanses of Cairo Opera House that sits before the Nile in Zamalek, echo the solar high notes and brooding depths of sopranos. Their grandeur of tone is a fitting match for the architectural glory of the building, which is a scintillating jewel in the crown of Egypt’s cultural legacy. It’s a promising harbinger of performing arts in the country, with its packed halls often delighting guests with global art forms.

“The Cairo Opera House has played a significant role in bringing world cultures together under one roof,” says Dr. Magdy Saber, chairman of the organization. “It’s fostering an understanding and appreciation of the performing arts among people, especially the youth,” he adds.

The old Opera House, here in the 1890s, was originally built in 1869 as the Khedivial (Royal) Opera House Image Credit: Supplied

Its building is a visual tour de force with a post-modern facade that’s infused with nostalgia. Originally built in 1869 as the Khedivial (Royal) Opera House, it marked the inauguration of the Suez Canal upon the instruction of Isma’il Pasha, the khedive of Egypt. Designed by Italian architects Avoscaniego and Rossiego in only six months, it offered a lesson in composition and construction, quickly emerging as the first opera house on the African continent to host world-famous performances, like Aida by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. However, in the morning hours of 28 October 1971, the building tragically burnt down–nothing remained except for two sculptures by Egyptian artist Mohamed Hassan (1892-1961).

In 1988, Japanese architect Nikken Sekkei rebuilt the Opera House, imbuing it with the architectural refinement and elegance that are characteristic of his work. The restoration project was a collaborative endeavour and financed by the Japanese government to the tune of $50 million. Cairo Opera House sits inside an elegant yellow stone structure with crenelated roofs, domes and arches that summon up Islamic architectural influences. The fountained courtyards are lined with hedges trimmed to perfection, and seasonal blooms for a splash of colour. The main auditorium features one thousand two hundred seats and is dressed in pink and fuchsia colourways, bringing to life Japanese design sensibilities.

“The building features two domes–one over the lobby and the other over the stage,” shares Dr. Magdy. “An interesting design element over the main theater is the chrysanthemum motif, which is a symbol of the Egyptian royal family.”

Interestingly, the flower represents longevity, rejuvenation and nobility in Japan, making it an apt addition to the restored cultural landmark. The Japanese design team opted for tiles instead of velvet coverings for the walls, a practical choice for Cairo given the desert sand that’s difficult to clean from textiles. The location’s visual language offers a unique coming together of global influences, much like the performances that it houses. The wood for walls and flooring, and furniture for the Scandinavian-style cafeteria, have been sourced from Sweden, the crystal chandeliers were gifted by the Czechs and marble for the entrance hall is Italian. The doors, windows and elevators have been created using local materials from Egypt.

Today, the Cairo Opera House serves as a cultural and educational center, housing seven theaters that are doorways to global creative vocabularies. They include the Open-Air Theater, El Gomhouria Theater, National Arab Music Institute, Alexandria Opera House, Roman Amphitheater, Small Hall and Fountain Theater, each of which is equipped with state-of-the-art lighting and acoustics.

“The Opera House is a comprehensive cultural complex that offers a diverse spectrum of performances and events, including ballets, musicals, recitals, chamber music, opera, orchestras, festivals and Arab music through the ages,” notes Dr. Magdy.

Also, part of the venue are teaching and rehearsal spaces, an art gallery, music library, decoration workshop, VIP halls and the Opera Museum, that showcases rare photos of the building, including some of the night the Royal Cairo Opera House burnt down in 1971. Each venue offers its own loving, lyrical essay to the cultural landscape of Egypt. The main hall offers the most comprehensive technical facilities in Africa and the Middle East. It rises on four levels, with two upper circles, one grand circle with seats near the stage and a presidential box, which have been thoughtfully designed to ensure a great view of the stage for all the guests.

The inside of the opera is covered in tiles, respecting the architecture of opera houses while adapting to the local climate Image Credit: Supplied

The National Arab Music Institute building was registered as an Egyptian antiquity and given a facelift whilst its ornaments were sensitively restored. The Roman amphitheater was discovered in the area of Kom el-Dikka and features twelve semi-circular marble terraces, columns and mosaic flooring. Visit in July and August and you’ll experience a string of Arab musical performances there. Last year, Cairo Opera House opened the doors to the Musical Instruments Museum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab Museum at the Institute of Arab Music, with the latter named after the legendary Egyptian icon. It illustrates the breadth of mediums in musician and the man. The Musical Instruments Museum houses a collection of pieces that were found during the restoration of the Arab Music Institute. The space and its offerings are attuned to Cairo Opera House’s aim of commemorating and introducing icons of music in Egypt and the Arab world to new generations.

“Besides providing new avenues for global art forms in the region, a key focus for us is to improve the efficiency of Egypt’s own performing arts organizations,” Dr. Magdy adds, referencing the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, Cairo Opera Orchestra and Cairo Opera Choir, among others.

After the 1952 Revolution, a training center was founded in the city, where Gilan Rathie, one of the most eminent voice professors, coached many aspirants who later became renowned Egyptian opera singers. Graduates of the center form the core of the present-day Cairo Opera Company. In 1968, the Company, alongside the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, Cairo Opera Choir and Cairo Symphony Orchestra staged its first production of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with local performers. Among the most famous performances that have been shown at the location are by the Nuremberg Symphony Orchestra from Germany, Austria’s Bruckner Orchestra Linz, American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the Russian Bolshoi Ballet. Over the next few months, it’ll see a packed schedule of international and local performances.

As the sun sets on the Cairo Opera House and it glistens in the reflection of the Nile, it continues to shine its light as an enduring force in Egypt’s rich cultural landscape.