Mahka El Qalaa festival has succeeded remarkably and shed light on the abilities of the Egyptian Opera House proving that it can present fine art to a great audience.
Daily News Egypt sat down for an interview with the chairperson of the Cairo Opera House and former ballet dancer, Magdy Saber, about the abilities of Opera and the issues hindering its existence, the transcript for which is below, lightly edited for clarity:
Does the opera have an audience in Egypt?
Yes, of course. The majority of our concerts are fully booked, even for fine arts. Young people also form a large part of our audience and we never have concerts with empty seats. We see Egyptians’ fine taste in all our concerts and the demand for art.
Has there been pressure to allow kitsch in the opera?
Yes, we have been subjected to pressure, but we stood firm against it to maintain the fine level of arts that Egyptians have gotten used to expect from us.
Can we know the names of the people who put pressure on you in that regard?
I do not want to announce those names, but they are well-known.
Are the people responsible for choosing the opera’s festivals and agenda also opera employees?
No they are not. There are employees responsible for preparing festivals, but there is always a distinct maestro and a musician and they are constantly updated and listen very well to all forms of arts presented to them, and gage whether or not they would be successful among the audience because of course it would not make sense to open the doors of the opera’s theatres for two or three persons only.
Why is the Qalaa Festival successful?
Because we worked for an entire year to develop a vision and this year it was highly supported by the Ministry of Culture, in order to achieve cultural balance among Egyptians and build the Egyptian character, as well as use Egypt’s soft power to promote our antiquities and reflect a real civilised image of Egypt, its arts, and its people.
There was also a variety in its programme, as for the first time, there was special participation from 17 foreign and Arab bands, in addition to singers from Egypt, such as Hany Shaker, Ali El Haggar, Mohamed El Helw, Eman El Bahr Darwish, Medhat Saleh, Nadia Mostafa, Sheikh Yassin Tohamy, Magd El Qasem, Hisham Abbas, Ehab Tawfik, Khaled Selim, Ghalia bin Ali, Dalal Abo Amna, Lo’ai, Mohamed Mohsen, Nesma Mahgoub, Ahmed Gamal, Mohamed Rashad, and Mohamed Hassan.
We saw an increase in our audience numbers and provided over 3,000 extra seats, which took the total number of seats to 10,000. We supported them with outdoor display screens covering all outdoor gardens to allow everyone to enjoy the various segments.
Why has the opera not branched out across Egypt?
We hope to see operas in all Egyptian cities and parks, but this requires funding and time. We have no problem playing anywhere in Egypt. Egyptians admire arts and greatly demand all its expressions. For example, in ballet concerts, you find long lines to book tickets and the demand is great. ‘Swan Lake’ was fully booked, as was the case with many Cairo Symphony Orchestra concerts, and others.
What are the challenges you faced in the summer season?
The largest challenge was the World Cup coinciding with the summer concerts. We tried intensifying our programme to avoid any concerts during the time of matches, to the extent that some concerts accommodated up to 1,500 people, which is double the number the theatre can typically seat. We were confident the name of the singer or the band will attract audiences. These concerts included Hisham Kharma, Black Thema, Glass Onion, Mohamed Abbas, and Ahmed Gamal. The summer season started in the open theatre, then in Alexandria, then in Damanhour, and finally the Qalaa Festival which was attended by about 100,000 people.
Have Opera convoys returned to universities in various governorates?
They have been suspended for a while and then returned this year to Cairo University. There is a protocol with the Ministry of Higher Education to allow students to attend with discounted tickets. We proposed to the Ministry of Higher Education to be allowed to present our art in the university halls and we are still awaiting approval. Recently, we made a concert based on soundtracks of Egyptian movies led by maestro Nayer Nagy in the large celebrations hall. The upcoming period will see the return of the opera convoys in universities.
How can the opera’s limited budget be supported?
Inas Abdeldayem played a great supportive towards the opera’s resources. She received great backing from the Ministry of Finance, but our ambitions remain much higher. We wish to see the return of international bands to the opera. My ambition is to expand the opera’s activity, and a large part of the budget is spent on restoring and developing equipment and machines. Recently, we resorted to cooperating with a few foreign bodies to contribute to the opera’s development. We even received an offer from Japan, along with aid from some civil societies and the Italian embassy.
Is the low budget threatening artists’ presence in the opera?
Of course, as the issue of wages is still controlling the situation in the opera, causing a decline in the presence of foreign guests, in addition to resignations by many opera employees. If we assume a newly hired employee receives EGP 1,200-1,500, while older dancers or musicians receive no more than EGP 3,000 or EGP 4,000 after calculating taxes, the result is many resignations, in addition to less demand by foreign artists because they get paid a maximum of $200.
Last year, we presented a new bylaw for wages, which determines fair bonuses for everyone, and we are still waiting for the Ministry of Finance regarding applying a fair system for all employees.
Are limited seats a problem in concerts with high attendance rates?
Sometimes that is the case. The large theatre at the opera can receive up to 1,200 people, but the average is 1,000 seats. In the small theatre, it is up to 350 seats. In El Gomhoreya theatre, there are 650 seats, and in Alexandria theatre there are 650 seats, while in Damanhour there are 350 seats, and in the Arab Music Theatre there are 270 seats. These are the capacities of the theatres, and we cannot expand the large theatre since that was the original design, and any expansions may be unsafe.
When will the October Opera House be opened and what is the situation there currently?
The main buildings of Sixth of October Opera House are completed, but they are presently in the finishing phase. Of course, this phase requires substantial money, especially, with the high prices of sound technology and decorations, but if the funds were available, we would open soon.
How do you deal with the increasing prices of artists and stars?
We had a vision for the summer festival in Alexandria before it started, and these festivals have a great audience and their concerts are always fully-booked. We give those starts humble wages compared to concerts outside the opera. I believe the sponsorship from a non-government bodies will have a great positive impact on us.
Speaking of sponsorships, are the regulations flexible enough for them?
The regulations of support and marketing were amended and there is flexibility according to the law. The conditions are that the sponsor must be appropriate for the opera and mutual benefits must be achieved.
Why were the rights to broadcast the Qalaa Festival not sold to a private channel?
After amending the opera regulations, this became possible, however, the law obliges the Opera House to sell the concerts through auctions as per ‘the law of tenders and auctions’, and art requires more flexibility and cannot be dealt with as a commodity. As the director of the Opera House I do not look for profits, but at the same time I do not want to bear losses. This is our work strategy and this is what we call “sustainable development”. Marketing concerts with flexibility contributes to refreshing resources and the budget, however, many satellite channels deal with the opera as a government body that offers heritage arts, and nothing more.
How do you support folkloric bands?
We have employed the Arish Folklore Band in the Qalaa Festival. The Opera House always supports folkloric art, and we have an annual festival titled, ‘Damanhour for Folk Art’ which we organised over a period of nine consecutive nights with the participation of 10 bands from all the country’s governorates, including Halayeb and Shalatin. Some of them participated for the very first time, including ballet bands who presented folk arts called “Egyptian Nights”. Additionally, we organised a Pharaonic ballet show for three days in Italy in the presence of the Egyptian ambassador there and Rome’s Opera House director. Egypt has very distinctive bands and the Cairo Opera House is special as it offers all genres of Arab music, as well as classical music, ballets, and orchestras.
Why are there no new methods of presenting atypical ballet shows?
There is a real crisis in the number of Egyptian ballet dancers, especially, after foreign dancers left. The idea of creating new ballet shows every year requires a vast budget. Every year we offer two new ideas, in addition to the old ones. Additionally, there is a demand on specific shows, such as the Nutcracker and Swan Lake. This year, for the first time, we will present a new ballet performance called “La Bayadère”. We used an Italian director for this. There is also “Carmina Burana”, which will be presented in a new and different way compared to 15 years ago, and there are always the classical shows, which our audience loves.
What is your plan to celebrate the 30th new opera house anniversary?
We have prepared a programme in cooperation with the Ministry of Culture and the Arab Music Institute. The programme started in September and will end in June 2019, with the participation of a large number of international bands, musicians, and singers as ambassadors from 20 countries, including Syria, Korea, Hungary, Czech Republic, China, Russia, Italy, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, Germany, Morocco, US, Kuwait, France, Finland, Austria, and Japan.
What about the Arab Music Festival?
The 27th festival events’ session will be launched and it includes a group of singers from Egypt and the Arab world. It will take place for two weeks from 1 to 15 November.
Will broadcasting the event remain exclusive to Egyptian television?
Currently, this protocol is being considered, in order to incorporate some changes and allow other channels to broadcast it.
Why do we not see cooperation between you and the Ministry of Tourism?
The Ministries of Tourism and Culture must cooperate because we present a cultural artistic product, which benefits tourism, and the benefit is mutual. However, the General Authority for Tourism Development wants the opera to bear all the expenses. Previously, there was a concert that the UNESCO wanted to organise in Luxor, in coordination with the Ministry of Tourism and the latter demanded that the opera participate in the event and bear all the expenses, and that did not make any sense to us. However, the cooperation became fruitful and differed during Abdeldayem’s tenure, and the Ministry of Antiquities supported us tremendously in the Roman theatre and the Castle. We have good relationships with all the governors from Luxor, Alexandria, and others, which positively affects our final product. We can say that we are now living the best cooperation era between all the bodies of the Ministry of Culture.
What about considering establishing a channel for the Opera to benefit from its heritage?
We are about to launch a YouTube channel in addition to a radio channel online in October as part of the opera’s celebrations of its 30th anniversary. As for a TV channel, this is also something we are considering because we have a library, which includes Egypt’s art heritage from 30 years ago and we aim to get a frequency from the National Media Authority, Maspero. However, this needs a feasibility study because it will embody a strong funding source that requires independence for the opera.
Has the experiment of online booking succeeded?
Yes, because it has achieved equality and attracted new audiences to the opera, from Egypt and overseas. We have currently applied this new booking to the large and small theatres, as well as the open theatre, and the theatre of Alexandria, and Damanhour.
Is there strong competition between us and Arab opera houses?
There is no room for comparison. They have funds, but lack the experience we have in Egypt’s Opera House. We are able to prepare the best technical offers with the least cost possible. I know this well as one of the opera’s old employees. I have been working here since I was a ballet dancer. We have art, management, and technique.
How do you view opera concerts in Saudi Arabia?
We have organised several concerts in Riyadh and were surprised to hear the audience sing all of Um Kulthum’ songs, whether men or women. I did not feel like a stranger in Saudi Arabia even though all the concerts were not in the Saudi capital. They were in Jeddah, Abha, Ta’ef, and Dammam. We found very strong reactions, even though we were initially worried about organising a concert there.