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WQXR Features

Cairo Opera House Shuts Its Doors after Unrest

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The lights have gone down at the Cairo Opera House, one of the African continent's most celebrated venues for classical and contemporary music, as unrest in Egypt continues.

"It's a disaster," Ashraf Attalla, a solo clarinetist scheduled to perform with the Cairo Opera Orchestra on Monday night. Attalla spoke to WQXR by phone from the Egyptian capital. "Everything is closed as of Saturday. There is lot of unrest and it's not clear where any of this is going."

The Cairo Opera House, with its modern, 1,200-seat main hall, is home to the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, the Cairo Opera Orchestra and the Cairo Opera Company, as well as ensembles that present dance, theater and traditional Arab music. Supported by Egypt's Ministry of Culture, it is roughly analogous to Lincoln Center in New York or the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

Attalla was scheduled to perform in a gala concert featuring classical and contemporary Egyptian music on Monday evening. "Thursday was the last time the orchestra had a rehearsal in the Opera House," explained Attalla. "Then we received a call on Thursday night telling us that was it, don't come in again."

Indeed, all performances at the Cairo Opera House have reportedly been shuttered until further notice due to security concerns. The House was unable to respond to requests for comment.

The Cairo Opera House is part of the country's National Cultural Centre under the Ministry of Culture. The original house opened in 1869 at the behest of Khedive Ismail, in honor of the opening of the Suez Canal. The Khedive soon commissioned an opera to reflect ancient Egyptian history, resulting in the famed Verdi opera, Aida.

Aida had its world premiere on December 24, 1871 at what was then known as the Khedivial (Royal) Opera House. On October 28, 1971, the house was completely destroyed by a fire. The current house was established in 1988 with the stated goal "to promote the arts of music and dance and to preserve and renew traditional Arab music."

The Juilliard-trained American conductor and composer Thomas Ludwig made his conducting debut with the resident Cairo Symphony Orchestra in October 2010. He recalled an international, and liberal, collaboration.

"The orchestra was made up of Egyptians, as well as Germans and Russians who went to Cairo when the Russian economy plummeted," he said. "They have a French man who heads up the percussion." Ludwig led performances of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 as well as an adagietto from Ludwig's own Symphony No. 4.

"The orchestra is a bastion of liberal western value," recalled Ludwig. "I felt very free in that orchestra."

Of the broader political climate during the time of his visit, Ludwig commented, "There was a real longing to see Egypt stand on its feet."