Ismail Pasha, Khedive (viceroy) of Egypt and Sudan, was an ambitious man. Determined to turn Egypt, then a province of Ottoman Empire, into an independent European state, he wanted Cairo remade into a cosmopolitan beacon of culture. To celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the infrastructure he hoped would transform Egypt, he ordered the construction of the first opera house in the African and Arab world in Cairo. He invited Giuseppe Verdi - then the premier opera composer of his era - to write a piece for the inaugural of his opera house, an 850-seat replica of La Scala. Verdi declined. Empress Eugenie of France, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Emile Zola and Henrik Ibsen who attended the opening in November 1869 amongst other luminaries, had to settle for Rigoletto.
Verdi did accept the Khedive’s commission to create an opera based on Egyptian history. But in writing Aida, he was persuaded as much by a great story as the 150,000 Franc commission. The poet Antonio Ghislanzoni wrote the libretto based on a book by archeologist Auguste Mariette. Originally scheduled for January 1871, the premiere of the opera in the Khedivial Opera House was delayed by the Prussian siege of Paris, where sets and costumes were made. Verdi was absent. Giovanni Bottesini, a renowned conductor and a composer in his own right, conducted the opera. The cast of 300 was led by Antonietta Anastasi-Pozzoni in the title role opposite Pietro Mongini.
The Opera House & Its Surroundings
The Khedival Opera House, designed by the Italian Avoscani, was the centerpiece of several cultural and entertainment venues constructed by Khedive Ismail in the Azbakiya district of Cairo. The area, known traditionally for public celebrations, was already replete with cafés, many offering music and entertainment of dubious taste. The cultural venues complemented other structures such as a public garden, palaces - most notably Abdeen, foreign consulates and schools to bring respectability to the neighborhood. These establishments augmented the new, Paris inspired, wide avenues of the district.
The wooden opera house had a limestone foundation. Dance studios and rehearsal space occupied the first of its three floors. Scenery sets and musical instruments were stored on the second floor, whilst the third floor housed costumes, furniture, and theatrical gadgets.
The main hall, decorated with gold and precious wood, contained boxes for women of the harem complete with thin curtains to ensure privacy. Ateliers for producing costumes, sets and furniture, as well as a display room for the accessories used for various shows, completed the complex.
The life of the opera house
The opera’s first superintendent, Draneht Bey – a Greek, trained as a pharmacist - maintained a strictly Italian repertoire and cast, augmented later by French ballet troupes. The first full season of the Khedivial featured 66 performances. While opera had an enthusiastic following in Alexandria, few Cairenes showed interest. To attract locals, lyrics were translated and printed in Arabic, starting with Offenbach’s La Belle Helene in 1869 and continuing in 1870 with Rossini’s the Barber of Seville and Donizetti’s La Favorita. In addition, journalists and students were given free tickets.
Ismail Pasha’s financial difficulties forced the transfer of the heavily subsidized opera to the state in 1876. A year later in 1877, the opera ceased regular operations, although occasional performances continued. Around the same time, Ottoman Syrian actors and impresarios, many of them Christians, were brought in to add an Arabic flavor to the house. In the aftermath of the British invasion of Egypt in 1882, the opera house gave the upper crust Egyptians a forum to show their patriotism by attending Arabic performances with nationalistic flavor. The collaboration between the Syrian manager Suleiman Qardahi and the Egyptian singer Salama Hijazi in the 1880’s yielded many successful performances. Singer Abduh al-Hamuli also gave concerts at the opera house in this period. The political bent of these performances prompted the English to ban Arabic performances for a time in the 1890’s.
In 1908, Adolfo Bracale, known for recognizing young talent, became the manager of the opera. Previously in the 1890’s, he had successfully managed the small theater in Azbakiya Gardens employing a young Neapolitan named Enrico Caruso. During his tenure, he hired many outstanding young singers who later became famous. They included Amelita Galli-Curci, Hipolito Lazaro, Salomea Krusceniski, Eugenia Burzio, Carmen Melis, Antonio Magini-Coletti and Eugenio Giraldoni.
To broaden the appeal of the opera, Bracale staged Aida at the Pyramids in March of 1912. The specially constructed stage took advantage of outdoor light . One of the two performances was timed to coincide with sunset and moonrise, and the other to occur under the full moon. Both performances were attended by a diverse audience. Since then, performing Aida at the pyramids as well as other outdoor venues – such as the Verona arena – have become a tradition.
The Khedivial Opera House was renamed the Royal Opera House after Egypt gained independence from British rule. Actor, filmmaker, and politician, Suleman Naguib directed the opera house from 1938 to 1954. During his stint, the opera house appeared in Egyptian cinema, featuring in romance films such as “Lahn al-Wafaa” starring Hussein Riad and Abdel-Halim Hafez and “Hikayit Hubb”, starring both Hafez and Mariam Fakhr El-Din.
In the wake of the 1952 revolution by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the word Royal was dropped in 1954. The programing became eclectic to include, for example, a magic show by an Indian. Tenor Hassan Kamy, known as the Egyptian Caruso, made his début in the Opera House in 1963. He sang the lead in an Arabic translation of La Traviata the next year as part of the newly formed Cairo Opera Company. Nabila Erian, only 16 at the time, played the role of Violetta. Kamy was the first Egyptian tenor to sing Radames, at Vilnius in 1974 and in Rome in 1976. He sang the role at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, in 1991, the same year he became the artistic director of the new Cairo Opera House.
The Burning House
While the opera house went through many changes over its lifetime, one event remained constant: the annual staging of Aida. That is, until October 1971.
In the early hours of October 28, 1971, a fire claimed the Opera House in a matter of hours. Only two statues remained, both on display in the gardens of the current Opera House in Gezira. Along with the building, costumes, accessories, jewelry, scripts, documents, archives, and historical artefacts, all were destroyed.
Presumably started by a faulty electrical circuit, the fire has been the subject of many conspiracy theories. A 40-minute documentary by Egyptian filmmaker Kamal Adel-Aziz includes eyewitness accounts as well as an 8-millimeter amateur film that demonstrates the incomprehensible incompetence of the firemen. They watched the building burn while waiting for an order from above and their hoses lacked sufficient water pressure to reach the top of the building.
Was it the Moslem Brotherhood, flexing its muscle under the new moderate president Sadat, who burnt the building and stopped the firemen? Was the date, almost to the day 100 years after the house’s inauguration and 13 months after the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser, significant? Or was the fire set to obscure the theft of precious documents – including Verdi’s handwritten notes – to be sold privately?
Perhaps Hercule Poirot can be called to solve the mystery.
The influence of the Opera house
Opera has never gained popularity within mainstream Egyptian culture, nor has it engendered a new musical tradition the way Baku opera did. The few Cairenes who frequented it, including students, praised its elegance and fine performances. And many Egyptian leaders from Ismail Pasha himself to Farouk and Nasser, used the opera house to entertain foreign dignitaries, showcasing Egyptian sophistication and opulence.
The opera house did, however, help Azbakiya become a respectable entertainment destination for middle class Egyptians. The nearby Teatro Al-Azbakiya complemented the Khedivial Opera by presenting predominantly Arabic performances. Um Kalthoum, a national icon in Egypt, sang in Azbakiya Park earlier in her career. Mounira Mahmoudyeh performed the adopted and translated versions of operas such as Carmen and Tosca in the area venues in the 1920’s. The opera house commemorated the 44th anniversary of Um Kalthoum’s death in 2019.
The opera house also launched the career of many young Egyptian singers and dancers who went on to succeed on a global stage, including Ratiba El-Hefny, Nabila Erin, Magda Saleh and Hassan Kemy. The infusion of Italian/French music and Arabic influenced the work of Sayyid Darwish.
And the music lives on
A new opera house in Cairo funded by a Japanese grant was inaugurated in 1988. Its location in the heart of tony Zamalek makes it safe to attend, but cuts it off from the energy of Azbakiya. This new opera house has hosted the premiere of the first Egyptian Arabic opera, Anas el-Wugood in 1994. Composed by Aziz El-Shawan in 1970, the opera is based on stories from “One Thousand and One Nights”. Soprano Nabila Erian sang the lead in the opening.
Today, Ismail Pasha, who died broken and bankrupt under house arrest in Istanbul, is long forgotten, and all that is left of his opera house is a multi-story parking garage near Tahrir Square. But Aida is very much alive. We are still awed by the "Triumphal March" and moved by “O Patria Mia” and “Celeste Aida”. The tragic fate of young lovers caught in political conflict still resonates with us, no matter who we are or where we come from.