FILE: Egypt's Ministry of Culture Enas Abdel Dayem
19 February 2018: Prior to the upcoming presidential election, a new dominant aspiration towards a developing arts and culture scene continue to prevail in Egypt. With ambitious artists gearing up for a new busy year packed with innovative and first-time artistic outcomes, the new Culture Minister and head of the Cairo Opera House Ines Abdel Dayem speaks to Egypt Today about the new diverse performances leading the classic scene this year, assesses the current Egyptian artistic scene, and passionately describes her love for music.
She led several solo flute performances and played with orchestras worldwide, including the UNESCO International Orchestra in Paris and the Orchestre d’Aix-en-Provence, while dedicating and establishing an entire academic semester to teach children how to play flute at the Cairo Opera House in 1999. Artistic advisor of renowned El Noor Wel Amal (Light & Hope) orchestra for blind women, Abdel Dayem has also been appointed head of the Arab Academy of Music in late December and is expected to lead new plans in the region alongside with professional artistic experts during her assigned period within the upcoming four years.
The newly appointed minister emphasizes the importance of cultural education, ensuring that Egypt plays a leading role in driving the arts and culture scene forward in the entire MENA region. Originally an international flutist, Abdel Dayem has not only managed to meticulously build a free major ground for classic arts at the heart of the opera, but also is considered the first woman to preside the Culture Ministry since its establishment in 1958. Abdel Dayem has been previously offered the position in 2013 and is also considered the second minister resonating from an artistic background.
1-Tell us a bit about what is in store in 2018?
Our seasonal programs start off in September and end in June. We seek to strongly focus on the projects and works held by the artistic troupes of the Opera, including Cairo Orchestra Symphony, Cairo Ballet Company, Cairo Celebration Choir, and Egyptian Modern Dance Theater Company, and Cairo Opera Company, among others. Each troupe is entitled its own program throughout the year, and we add to each troupe’s repertoire every year. This year’s activities and events include Swan Lake by Cairo Ballet Company in January and La Traviata Opera. Other new additions in 2018 will include for the first time "Sleeping Beauty" ballet by the Italian Ballet Troupe Balleto Del Sud Company in February. The Italian Ballet company will also be performing ballet “Carmen”.
February is packed with many important events, including the commemoration of Om Kolthoum through a major ceremony, a performance by the Japan Drums Company at Alexandria Opera House, and Valentine’s Day celebration through multiple events such as Arab Music Masterpieces in which prominent music pieces from the “Golden age Classics” will be performed. This segment is really special because classic songs are dear to our hearts, showing various beautiful elements including the voice, melody, music piece, and lyrics.
Other significantly important events taking place this year also include “Gems of the Classical Era”, an Egyptian- German joint performance by Horus Ensemble and “The Fall of Icarus” by Egyptian Modern Dance Theater Company which celebrates 25 years since the establishment of the troupe. The sixth edition of the Damanhour International Folk Festival and concert “Wahabiat” commemorating the late Egyptian legend Mohamed Abdel Wahab are among 2018’s important events.
3- Are there any cultural initiatives that the opera will be carrying out in search for new talents in 2018?
We have been working with several organizations in Europe and with the Heritage Ensemble for Arab Music to participate in performances held beyond Egyptian borders, such as the performances commemorating Abdel Halim Hafez in Sharjah, UAE and Saudi Arabia, among others.
The Cairo Opera House is keen to set a plan to explore more artistic talents, but planning such initiative will be held next summer following the end of the upcoming presidential election. However, the Cairo Opera House is also keen to provide constant support to new talented generations, resonating from the opera’s Educational Development Centre. The center is divided into six departments that seek to cater emerging talents, including the Opera Studio, Piano Division, Classic Ballet Division, Choral Group Division, Suzuki Violin Division, and the Arabic and Instrumental Music department.
4- Are there any plans to send troupes from Cairo Opera House to carry out performances in Upper Egypt as part of plans to spread inclusive art geographically? Have there been any challenges in implementing that?
Within 10 days, we will be carrying out a performance in Assiut; we are also planning several events in other governorates in Upper Egypt. There are many challenges reagrding carrying out performances in Upper Egypt and launching events outside the Opera House in general as it is not easy to allocate funds for transportation and residence. Despite the financial challenges, the Opera House has been able to coordinate such activities outside the opera’s premises through the support of governors and other officials.
There is also a plan to carry out regular artistic performances in Upper Egypt which is currently being discussed with the Culture Ministry. The plan needs the collaborative efforts of several institutions and organizations to be executed; the Opera House will be able to manage the artistic part of the plan but other parties will need to provide theaters for performances, and places for the artists’ temporarily residence, among other logistics.
5-what efforts has the Cairo Opera House exerted to include non-Egyptians in the Egyptian scene?
All our troupes consist of foreign artists and many visitors from around the globe come over to Egypt to watch their performances. Communication between foreign artistic troupes and the opera has been on the rise; those troupes are keen to launch their shows at the Cairo Opera House. Effective communication and transparency created credibility that further attracted several foreign troupes to perform in the Opera House, thus increasing cultural exchange.
6-Are there any challenges the institution is facing at the moment?
Our activities have been staging regularly and never stopped; on the contrary, we keep on launching new performances and expanding the opera’s role in general, which emphasizes an important message to the world that Egypt is stable and safe.
7-Is there still a lack of artistic freedom?
Not at all, we are provided great space for freedom of artistic expression. In 2013, during the ruling of the Muslim Brotherhood, we didn’t face the challenge of lack of freedom in artistic expression but we faced a greater challenge of existing or not! Our current space allows us to freely express ourselves and to add more to our repertoire and invite foreign performers with different cultural backgrounds.
8- Can you tell us in more details about the lawsuit filed against the Cairo Opera House by the Committee of Composers (Sacerau)? Are these disputes still going on?
This is not the first lawsuit; in fact, these disputes have been going on since the 1990’s due to a misunderstanding between both institutions. As a government-owned institution, the Opera House is operating upon laws and policies but Sacerau are raising demands that require the existence of certain legalities. Despite the misunderstanding, this lawsuit and disputes are trivial and solely require effective communication and confirmed approval from several governmental institutions on legal matters relevant to the case.
9- Could you tell us about some of your plans in the upcoming four years as the president of Arab Academy of Music?
In the upcoming phase, several meetings are to commence to discuss matters related to the academy, including preserving heritage and the identity of Arabic music. As president, I am entitled to proceed with efforts and plans conducted by previous academy presidents; however, I am also keen to focus on diverse activities of geographical and artistic importance across the Arab region.
10- One of the Academy’s responsibilities is merging music with educational curricula; why is there still a lack of musical appreciation in schools and among audiences? What are your plans to fill this void, and who do you think would make suitable partners for the resolutions?
Focusing on musical education in school curricula is not only part of my plan; it is also the major duty of several institutions in Arab countries. Each country faces its own challenges in this regard, whether they’re related to ignorance, finance or others, which tend to either halt or cancel implementation of such plan. I will, however, manage to stress the importance of bringing this plan to life, specifically in Egypt, where in previous decades musical courses were among the most important parts in school curricula. Musical education in Egypt has helped raise generations' cultural knowledge a, and installed discipline in their life style. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case as these courses exist only in private schools, while the public schools have far more serioous problems than the lack of musical and artistic education.
The Cairo Opera House is planning to sign protocols with the Ministry of Higher Education and the Ministry of Education to intensify artistic courses in schools and universities across Egypt. Civil society will later have an effective role to play in further developing this plan after implementing the initial steps.
11-You have dedicated an entire semester to teaching flute to young children in 1999, tell us a bit about your passion for the flute? In your opinion what musical value does it add to an orchestral music piece?
My relation with my flute is indescribable; no one in my close circle of acquaintances and family would dare touch it. During one of the performances, held in the past period, I accidentally fell on stage but tried my best to keep my flute from falling; however, it was hit. At that moment, all my thoughts were filled with distress and inner pain over my flute and not my shoulder injury.. My flute is currently being reformed and fixed abroad.
This flute resembles a long journey of learning in life; I bought it when I was a student after saving up money. A major element of success in my life, my flute is literally my wealth and an embodiment of passion for me. The flute adds a special musical value in any performance I have participated in through never disappointing or failing me.
12- Tell us about a project that you worked and considered special to you?
There are many projects that I consider special to me, I am proud of everything I have produced in my life throughout my long journey. A professional musician’s success is only achieved when he/she is able to master the greatest number of production in a repertoire that is solely composed for a specific music instrument, so this was my main goal throughout my career as a musician. This is what a musician is evaluated upon as it shows the musician’s ability to use certain techniques.
I have always sought to reshape music pieces I have played throughout constantly developing the techniques, and methods I use.
13- At the current moment Egypt is dealing with its political and economic challenges, other Arab nations are quietly stepping in to fill the cultural void, how is this affecting Egypt's stage scene?
Egypt is still leading the scene in the MENA region regarding filling the cultural void, despite the growing projects in various Arab countries such as the UAE, including an increase in the number of opera houses, artistic theaters, and activities. Egypt is stable on this primary level because of its ability to always develop, support and encourage local artists, and to invite foreign talents.
Some Arab countries lack what it takes to be a cultural education institution, despite their logistic capabilities and artistic venues; moreover, their audiences are not culturally shaped or ready enough to accept various types of arts. To fill this shortage a country needs to work on developing local talents, educating the audiences and providing regular diverse artistic performances rather than focusing on inviting foreign artists to their scene.
Egypt is rich in manpower and resources including local artists, cultural education, intellects, and cultural heritage that enable it to create newly edged productions in the scene on a regular basis. When one of the Arab countries wants to carry out a special Arab music performance, they resort to inviting Egyptian musicians to lead the performance; therefore, the next step is to maintain that success and further develop it.
The Cairo Opera House is the only opera that contains its own local artistic troupes.
14-How can we draw audiences to the classic music scene? Does promoting talents of the scene through prominent TV talk shows help?
The major indicator of success is the audience. Success has been reached in many ways including hosting an opera performance and a ballet show that have been fully booked throughout its three or four days of display; this was only one step closer to success because the Opera House has worked on launching unconventional performances, adding different vibes to its annual repertoires; therefore, attracting more audiences. A great majority of the audience is comprised of youth and this is also another type of success that emphasizes that the classic scene in Egypt does not attract a specific segment of society.
Steps to success require a lot of work and manpower; however, we work in silence with various divisions in order to maintain a good standard in three governorates.
15- What does the Egyptian audience highly prefer in the classic scene?
Egyptian audience is very unpredictable because they show different interests; in many days I saw some members of the audience who come almost daily despite the different shows presented each day. Generally speaking, each performance has its own audience; for example a great number of young Egyptians attend performances of artists and bands of different genres that aren’t associated to the opera. On New Year’s Eve all six theaters within the opera house were fully booked and each theater hosted a different show; this alone verifies that the opera house attracts all segments of society and speaks to each segment in a different way.
The Cairo Opera House managed to even reach typical street audiences; for example the annual Citadel Festival held at Salah El Din Citadel in August has witnessed the attendance of 9,000 people during one of the festival’s days.