Sunday 26 November 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Jordanian celebrations of a Khedival Love

Listen to the Jordanian opera singer Zeina Barhoum below:

Just after I wrote in a previous post here that most Arab women tend towards altos, I discovered a whole slew of singers who are not, naturally! what else should happen when anyone reads and believes such silly generalisations :)

‘I’m out of here! Off to Europe!’

Since we are on the subject, let me just say a word about the Arab taste for opera – the origins lie in Khedive Ismail’s Cairo of late 1800’s, with Verdi’s Rigoletto and then Aida being performed in the Khedival Opera House. Bear in mind Ismail was the ruler who was obsessed with all things European, his overarching vision for Egypt was summed up by – “my country is no longer in Africa, we are now part of Europe. It is therefore …natural for us to adopt a new system in keeping with our new circumstances…” He modernised Egypt in huge ways – postal systems, duties and taxes, industry, agriculture, the Suez, education, town planning, railways, you name it, Ismail either built it or he reformed it. 

And of course, Ismail who was called the Magnificent, also maintained a phenomenally extravagant lifestyle which, coupled with his monumentally ambitious reforms and projects, bankrupted Egypt in the end and put the country under European power. But I digress.

Ismail had the first Opera House built in 1869 in Cairo for the opening of the Suez Canal, and commissioned a show that would reflect ancient Egypt’s epic historical arc. The famous opera Aida was composed for this event and performed with a lag due to the Franco-Prussian War, which meant the costumes and supplies could not be transported into Cairo for the opening. So it was inaugurated with Rigoletto instead.

Dust and ashes

The Khedival Opera House played a pivotal role in Egyptian cultural life throughout the 1900’s and many famous productions were performed there, well known foreign celebrities of their times came to work and perform there too. Sadly, the Khedival Opera House burnt down in 1971, under mysterious circumstances, the hows and whys and wheretofores have not been conclusively answered till date. A multi-storey car park occupies the site of the original Opera House in Midan Opera now. Watch the acclaimed documentary ‘The Burning of the Cairo Opera’ to get a glimpse into its past.

The present Cairo Opera House is part of the National Cultural Centre complex, built and gifted to the Egyptian people by the Japanese. It was inaugurated in 1988, 17 years after the Khedival Opera was destroyed.

Who else is watching?

Apart from the Cairo Opera House, the others in the Middle East include The Royal Opera House in Muscat (inaugurated 2011) and the Bahrain National Theatre (2012). Damascus had an opera house in the 1900’s and built a new and improved version in 2004, though I don’t suppose audiences are flocking to it right now. Last year Dubai inaugurated its 1900+ seat Opera House, and Beirut has plans for a new one for which it is negotiating grants from China. Most of the North African Arab countries either have a grand theatre/opera house or are in the process of building new and/or renovated versions.  Amman hosted its inaugural Opera Festival this year in the capital’s Roman amphitheatre. Zeina Barhoum, whose clip you heard at the start, sang there and also organised it.

...and why??

Is it surprising – this Arab taste for a thoroughly Western classical artform? Not to me, it isn’t. In the heartland of conservative Arabia maybe, operas in Dubai and Abu Dhabi? that takes a bit of effort to do the head wrapping round, because, for all its hype, the UAE is a very conservative country at its core, quite unlike Bahrain and Oman.

Not surprised in the case of Egypt though, it was always uniquely cosmopolitan and Mediterranean. Close to the Western centres of civilisation, cherry picking the best parts of the West’s ideas in arts and sciences and technology and adapting them for its own use. Add that to its own rich traditions of music and theatre, and Arab Opera feels kind of inevitable. The Egyptians love their opera – and watching a performance of Aida in 2011 I could see that for myself. Which may partly be due to Arabic subtitles of the original Italian lyrics and dialogues made available on screens on either side of the stage. It did not feel elitist in spite of the sumptuous sets and costumes, did not feel 'foreign.'

For Cairenes, the Opera is more than just an artform, it is an institution, a symbol of the wider artistic and cultural atmosphere in Egypt, a marker of identity almost. During the short rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2012-13, there was a clampdown by the conservative government on funding and what they perceived as ‘un-Islamic’ arts by requiring the women to cover up. When the Head of the Opera House refused to comply with this ridiculous idea, she was summarily dismissed which led to the entire cast of Aida going on a wildcat strike. Watch the conductor address the audience on that evening and the support he has in this clip below.

Monarchs of all they surveyed…

The other thing one must point out is that each of these opera houses have been built on a commission from a monarch. Most Middle Eastern leaders who have commissioned such buildings, from Khedive Ismail to Sultan Qaboos were/are Western educated with a taste for Western culture. Baghdad for instance never got its opera house, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, no less, because the execution of the landmark design was interrupted by the toppling of the monarchy in the 1950's.

Be that as it may, more and more Arab cities are putting up opera houses and hosting opera festivals or planning to. Some merely to nudge their image towards a more highbrow end, and others due to a genuine interest on the part of the governments. Upshot is - if you are a fan, then you have much to look forward to in the coming years. 


Okay, so that’s much more than a word, I wanted to talk about something quite different today but will have to keep that for some other time obviously. Thank you as always for your patience. 


  1. I was devastated to learn that Cairo has been hit (again) by terrorist obscenity and hope that their cultured and joyous spirit can rise again.

    1. Egypt has been having such a hard time with terrorism lately, it's beyond heartbreaking what's happened. Sinai is the most breathtakingly beautiful place, feel so very saddened that it's being disfigured by this senseless violence.

  2. Hi Nila - the history is so interesting - then the destruction of buildings, and murder of peoples ... just such a mix - that one would think would in this age be able to live harmoniously ... not to be apparently. Thanks for such an informative post - cheers Hilary

    1. Not a very good mix just at the mo. Harmony doesn't seem to be a human specialty, sadly. Can only hope sanity prevails sooner rather than later...

  3. I love most kinds of music, but I was never a huge fan of opera. As it turns out, however, opera singer Polyna Stoska (1911-?), whose heyday was in the 1940s and 1950s, was born about twenty minutes away from where I live today. I only mention that because in our family, she was better known as my mother's Cousin Polly!

    1. Would have liked it better if it wasn't in Italian :) or in languages I don't follow. But have to appreciate the dedication that goes into the performance! And Aida is quite spectacular...

      You have very enviable family connections!

  4. Oh, the terrorists might think they can win by blowing up stuff, BUT - the arts live in the soul of the people. Music, writing, art, etc simmers beneath turmoil. I have no doubt the opera, etc can keep living and breathing. Your post helps keeps the good thoughts alive. Take care!

    1. Oh yes, can't take away art from people, they might try to destroy venues etc for a time, it will always find another route. And Arabs are totally passionate about their arts and their lifestyles, can't mess with that!!

  5. An enlightening piece. I've never associated opera with Arab countries. Interesting to read the bit of Egyptian history. That first musical number is so beautiful.

    Tossing It Out

    1. I don't have any in-depth understanding of opera, however I came across that piece by chance and it enthralled me. It reinforced that music cuts across all language and other barriers.