164 years ago ...
The home of Maroun Naccash, where the first "musical" theater act in the Arab world was performed.
In February 1848, a young man in his thirties, square built, with dark skin and eyes, took the platform of a wooden stage which he built in his home in Beirut, located in the neighborhood of Jemmaizeh, near Achrafieh in Beirut. Maroun Naccach took the platform with full enthusiasm and determination to give his opening speech and present his first musical theatrical show, entitled: "Al-Bakhil" (The Stingy).
"Al-Bakhil" (The Stingy), is a musical theatrical play written by Maroun Naccash. It was an unprecedented art in Lebanon and in its wide oriental region. Maroun Naccash, who is a Lebanese merchant, became acquainted with the rules of this operatic musical theater in Italy and France, where he discovered its social, economic, and artistic benefits. He invited to his first act, consuls, high members of the State, as well as Ministers of the High State (Title of the Ottoman Empire).
Maroun Naccash's speech included(1): “...It is well known that the West is more advanced than the Arab countries, in terms of education, arts, and civility. However, my hope grew through reading and hard work and allowed me to discover the reason behind the West's superiority over my region, and I later understood the reasons for our delay are the following:
1- In our society, we do not search for public interest.
2- Despite all our potentials, and capabilities, we normally rely on others.
3- We lack patience. We have the tendency to rush. Thus, we do not plant a tree unless it gives us fruit on the same day, which is something impossible.
4- Our shrouded shyness and arrogance have led us to be afraid of stepping forward and taking initiative. This has made us comfortable with excuses of incapability, and negligence, and yet before trying, we judge that in our country it cannot be done.
He added: "Here I am pushing forward without you, and founding a musical and literary theater: "Foreign gold produced by Arabian art."”
In his speech, Maroun Naccash drew an artistic road map for the Arab-Oriental nations, highlighting the points of weakness, and trusting the effectiveness of the experiment.
Despite the arguments of the skeptics and those who completely refuse the musical and theatrical work of Maroun Naccash, as not being an operatic work according to the global operatic standards, Maroun Naccash’s true vision towards this sophisticated art remains. As for the dilemma(1), it remains the subject of a historical research, until reaching its irrefutable truth.
(1) Nicolas Naccash, Arzat Lobnan (The Cedar of Lebanon) - The public Library - Beirut 1869
(2) Antoine Maalouf: The Opera Problematic in the Emergence of the Arab Theater issued by the Arab theater committee, Beirut 2011.
The Lebanese Initiative
The Lebanese Opera troupe performs the "Elixir of Love" Opera, and in the bottom of the picture, the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra accompanying the musical troupe. (Al-Nahar Newspaper)
164 years after the first musical theatrical play by Maroun Naccash, and at eight o'clock, on the night of February 10, 2012, the Lebanese Symphonic Orchestra broke the silence, playing the musical opening "Overture" of the opera, "Elixir of Love"(1). On that winter night, the crowd's eyes were anxiously waiting for curtains of the UNESCO palace in Beirut to open; thus launching the act of a national opera troupe.
Among doubts and dreams, bright lights emerged like sun rays from behind the red curtains of the palace(1), opening to a scene of elegant young women in their loose operatic wardrobe, and a number of young men confidently singing the "Polyphony" verse of the opera, capturing the attention of the audience. This group of young men and women is the forefront of the global Arabic opera groups in this Orient. This scene/moment, was a staggering response to years of questioning; a response to a nation that has long been searching for a nation in its history and geography, and for an economic, social and cultural role (2) .
- It is Lebanon, the face of the Orient, the land of absolute freedom of thought and belief.
- It is Lebanon, the birth land of the alphabet, and the light of human civilization(3).
- It is Lebanon with its competing economy and trade(4).
- It is Lebanon of artistic creativity, and cultural presence that emerges from its history, geography, and human conscience(5).
(1) UNESCO palace theater, Beirut; built in 1948, and accommodates 1200 seats
(2) Jawad Boulos: The importance of history and geography in the establishment of nations
(3) Michel Shiha: Lebanon in its personality and presence
(4) Charles Malek: Lebanon, an entity and destiny
(5) Jawad Boulos: Importance of History and Geography in the Rise of Nations
The audience enjoyed from the first scene of opera "Elixir of Love". They enjoyed the performance of the Conservatoire opera troupe, composed of a few teachers and students, accompanied by the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra.
"Opera Lebanon" troupe was complete. It consisted of professional ambitious Lebanese artists, from directors, dancers, light and sound engineers, as well as decor and wardrobe specialists. Together, they formed the first national opera in Lebanon and the Middle East. This was the fruit of the success of a series of experiments and attempts since 1848. The "Opera Lebanon" experiment was renewed the following year, and on February 8, 2013. February was the month, during which the first Arabic theatrical work of Maroun Naccash was presented 164 years ago. The second performance of the Lebanese opera troupe at the conservatoire was entitled "Carmen". It was performed for the occasion of the opening of the Notre Dame University (NDU) grand theater.
The picture shows a complete panoramic of the Opera's components taken from ‘‘Carmen”: The Lebanese Opera troupe appears performing the opera, in both its singing and dancing aspects. In the back we can see the Opera decor, while the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra can be seen sitting in the pit in front of the stage, whereas in the bottom of the picture, the audience fills the theater hall.
The third performance which took place on February 28, 2014, was different from the previous two, since the first two performances were inside a fully equipped theater, in terms of large space, decor, and having the Orchestra sit in the Orchestra pit; which is its original classic location. Meanwhile, the third performance, "Cavalleria Rusticana", which was held inside a church, was similar to the so-called opera concert. This performance in a hall, where the orchestra intersected with the singers, due to the small area, proved that operatic works can be presented in their various acts, from the Grand Opera performance, to the ordinary, reaching the short performances*(1). Many people said that the Opera can only be presented in its original form, which is the Grand Opera. However, the latest performance of the Lebanese opera troupe proved otherwise. As a result, many were surprised with the ability of the Lebanese opera troupe, to adapt to different conditions, circumstances, and areas. This was because of the wrong concept that had been prevailing in Beirut for many years, which prevented many opera lovers from attempting to step forward, for fear of harsh criticism. Consequently, the Lebanese experience in operatic performance was long delayed, despite being a pioneer of art and global music in the Arab Orient region.
The preparation period for opera "Carmen", the masterpiece of French author Georges Bizet, allowed the newly established Lebanese troupe to grow. It experienced the staged operatic work, in terms of theatrical scenography, decor, and the organization of individual and group rehearsal times. In addition, logistical arrangements and transportation required by the enormous opera Carmen performance took place. There was a large number of participants such as children and adult choir, in addition to the orchestra. The introduction of literature writer at Al-Nahar Newspaper, May Mnassa, came as an honest testament of what was achieved by the Lebanese opera troupe. She wrote: (1)"The dream of building an Opera House had always been Dr. Walid Gholmieh’s* dream. He left this world without witnessing its birth despite being the one who strived to achieve it, if not in structure, then in placing the milestone of the opera, through which Arabic and global operatic work would rise. Maroun Rahi, the professor at the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory for Music, looked towards the missing element and began to pave the way ahead of a Lebanese National Opera."
The Lebanese theatrical direction of opera "Elixir of Love" and opera "Carmen", imprinted an oriental fingerprint on the two global works. The direction was a joint work between directors Mirana Naimeh, and Joseph Sassine, whom are graduates from the Arts Faculty at the Lebanese University, in its theater division. Those who are familiar with the Western production of the two operatic performances, and the different direction approaches of their directors, can clearly see the difference between the oriental-Arabic performance in its Lebanese version, and the European performances. It is evident that the Oriental spirit is strongly present in the movement of the actors and their expressions, in addition to their portraying of the scenes in a manner that stems from the depth of the Lebanese environment and social pattern. For this reason, it was necessary to translate this oriental vision, under the direct supervision of the directors who followed every aspect step by step, from wardrobe, decor, accessories, and lighting... In the art of the opera, as in any other art, creativity is best seen if it is based on the social and environmental roots of the artists. In order for the Arabic opera to progress and sit on the thrown of global operatic works, it must reflect the authenticity of its artists. Concerning the theatrical direction of the opera, the presence of a director, who is from the oriental environment, is a guarantee that the identity of the Arabic opera will be highlighted and inevitably excellent.
(1) Plantamura, Carol, The Opera Lover's Guide to Europe, Citadel Press, 1996.
- (Al-Nahar Newspaper, February 12, 2012 - May Mnassa.)
The Royal Opera House in Cairo or the Khedivial Opera House
In 1871, the theater of the Royal Opera house (1)(2) located in Cairo, capital of Egypt, opened its curtains to present opera “Aida”, the Operatic masterpiece of Italian global author Verdi. Opera “Aida” performance in 1871 was a World Premiere. Ironically, the curtains of the Opera House closed definitely. It coincided with the 100-year anniversary of its first preview, as fire broke out in the Khedivial Opera House (named after Khedive Ismail, the king of Egypt during that time) in 1971, burning down everything in it, even the memories.
It was a heavy a loss for the most important cultural landmark in the Arab world. Its burning took away the opportunity of inspecting the first global operatic arena in the East. Opera Aida(1) was performed in 1871 to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, which in turn was a great international achievement. Its opening required an artistic performance that was in line with the greatness of this achievement and that is what Khedive Ismail, the King of Egypt, had requested from Italian author Giuseppe Verdi, and so his wish was granted.
The Arab art nourished from the beats of the Royal Opera House, which heart beats in Cairo. The big House attracted artist works for all over the world for a hundred years. The artists and intellectuals of the Arab world(2) followed the activities of the opera house, through which they became acquainted with art in its higher classes. Meanwhile the Egyptians experienced the opportunity to manage such a landmark and began to run trials in different directions, in order to access the art of the opera, and bring it into the heart of the Arabic art.
These trials included translating foreign operatic works into Arabic, which were met with other attempts to write an opera in the Arabic language. At that time, Egypt was the only country that was taking a serious step towards establishing the art of the opera, and experiencing it. This was a consequence after Maroun Naccash's attempts ended due to his sudden death. Only individual shows could be seen performed by some Lebanese opera singers in Beirut in the form of a concert.
- The Most Beautiful Opera Houses in the World Guillaume de Laubier - The National Trust Guide to Great Opera Houses Karyl Lynn Ziet.
- Thomson Smillie: Opera Explained – Aida.
The Egyptian Opera House Troupe
Egypt had been presenting opera performances in the voices of foreign artists since1840 until 1869 even after the construction of the first Egyptian Opera House, according to the historical archive. The graduates of the Conservatoire, which was established in the 50's of the past century, formed a nucleus for the first Egyptian opera group, where in 1961, it performed the musical theatrical play "Al-Armala Al-Taroub" (The Merry Widow), starring Ratiba Al-Hofna.
On the other hand, Amira Kamel and Violette Makkar, achieved special Egyptian success in the opera "Aida" performances in Belgrade in 1962. The Cairo Opera troupe officially saw light in April 1964, and performed opera "La Traviata" for the first time in Arabic, translated by Engineer Ibrahim Rifhat. Many stars shined in this opera, such as, Nabila Aryan(1), Hasan Kama, Yousef Sabbagh, Rogina Yousef, Jaber Al-Baltaji, and Yousef Izzat. The successes of the Egyptian opera group continued with the presentation of acts such as, "Madam Butterfly", "The Dancing Years", "La Boheme" and the "9th Symphony", until the Opera House was burned down in 1971.
Despite the burning of the opera house, the group struggled to keep the art alive, by performing at the Republic Theater, the Ewart Hall at the American University in Cairo, and in Sayed Darwish Theater in Alexandria. The new Cairo Opera House was inaugurated in 1988, when young voices appeared such as: Sobhi Bedeir, Rida Al-Wakil, Iman Mostafa, Nevene Alouba, and Hanan Al-Jondi, whom continued the success of the opera troupe and its message. The Egyptian troupe's Repertoire included 32 soloists who presented the world with the masterpieces of operatic literature since the era of Baroque until the Modern era.
A number of group members participated in operatic performances on the biggest stages in the world, while the names of great Egyptian artists were written down in the global encyclopedias of the opera. Furthermore, the names of the stars of the future opera also shined bright, such as; Amira Salim, Dalia Farouq, Tamer Toufic, Jala and Al-Hodeida. These artists will carry the nation's banner in the world of the opera in the future, until the dream becomes a reality. Furthermore, it will continue until an Egyptian opera is composed by the hands of an Egyptian author, and tunes from a scientific operatic form, containing the attractive oriental color of Egypt, and portraying a story inspired by Egypt's heritage.
Some attempts of performing complete operatic works in the Arabic language were carried out throughout various cities in the Arab World. What connects these works is that they are in Arabic, and what differentiates them is the Arabic language itself, in terms of the correct technical way of Operatic singing. They were called sporadic experiments due to the difference in their singing style. Another difference is the vision and spirituality of their directors and authors. who come from different countries and cultures. The experiments of the opera in the Arabic language remained sporadic because they did not comply with the experiments and past experiences of the Arabic artistic pioneers, neither from the technical nor the artistic aspects. However, these experiments continued to rely on Western connections, experiences, and experiments that were different from the Eastern environment and its culture.
The missing Lebanese experiment
The first to create an opera music in the Arabic language was Lebanese Wadih Sabra, the composer of the Lebanese National Anthem, and it was entitled "The Two Kings" written by Libretto writer Father Maroun Ghosen. It was presented for the first time in Beirut in 1927. There is not much information about this opera since its first performance and this is due to the loss of its script. In 2005, "The Oeuvre of Kadmous" written by poet Said Akl and composed by Lebanese music writer Iyad Kanaan, quoted a complete Operatic work made up of three acts.
The leading Egyptian experiment
Moving from Lebanon to Egypt, where the opera experience in the Arabic language was attempted in 1948, under the name of "Antara". It the story of an Arab knight and poet. It was written by Egyptian music composer Aziz Al-Shawan, who later wrote opera "Onas Al-Wajoud" (The people of Existence) in 1970. Sayyed Awwad created opera "Masraa Cleopatra" (The Death of Cleopatra) by writer Ahmad Shawki. Moreover, Kamel Al-Ramali wrote opera "Hasan Al-Basri", inspired by the stories of One Thousand and One Nights. In addition, author Naguib Mahfouz, who is the winner of the Nobel prize for literature, wrote a masterpiece named "Miramar". It is considered the contemporary Arabic opera in Egypt. It was composed by Egyptian author Sharif Mohieldine, and presented in Damanhour Opera House in Cairo. Poet Sayed Hjab wrote its operatic part- Libretto.
The Qatari Experiment
Opera "Ibn Sina" translated as Avicenna was presented in Doha, capital of Qatar, in 2003. It was written by Dutch music writer Michiel Bortslap. Italian opera director Attilio Colonello chose Lebanese singer Carole Samaha to play the leading role in Opera "Ibn Sina". The performance was presented in Doha, on October 12, in one of the ancient Arab castles. Dr. Ahmad Al-Dosari wrote opera "Ibn Sina". Qatari musician Hamed Al-Nihme composed its music. It was distributed by Egyptian musician Ahmad Al-Hanawi, whereas Syrian artist Dr. Ahmad Al-Mohla designed the decor and graphics. The wardrobe was designed under the supervision of artist Lobna Al-Khaled. Arab artists that participated in the leading roles of this performance included Rasha Rizk and Ghassan Saliba from Lebanon, who played the role of President Sheikh Ibn Sina. There was Lotfi Bou Chnak from Tunisia who played the role of Prince Samarkand. Egyptian singer Afaf Radi, who will returned to opera singing through the role of "Al-Arrafa" (The Godmother). In addition, Lebanese artist Rafik Ali Ahmad played the role of Prince Teimour. It was decided that another performance of Opera "Ibn Sina" would be presented in English. Thus, its music was composed by Dutch musician Michiel Borstlap, while the roles were played by a bouquet of world famous opera singers. These singers were chosen by Italian director Colonello, who had previously directed opera "Aida" in Egypt in 1997, at the footsteps of the Hatshepsut Temple in Luxor.
The Algerian experiment
On April 17, 2013, Mohyi El-Din Bashtarzi presented an opera performance in the Arabic language at the Algerian National Theater. This opera represented a transition in the history of Arab art, in addition to being the first Arabic Classical "Symphonic" direction. The "operatic" performance was by Algerian expatriate artist Tarek Bin Warakah, who excelled in terms of tune and lyrics. He insisted on launching his project from his mother country Algeria. Artist and distributer Tarek Bin Warakah said that through the work he accomplished under the title of "Al-Nafes" (The Soul), he tried to monitor his childhood memories in his homeland Algeria, which he had left when he was less than 5 years old. He pointed out that the performance included many Arab artists, topped by Lebanese artists Ghada Shbeir, Lara AL-Ayan and artist Gaby Othma. Furthermore, there was Egyptian artist Geroges Wneis. In addition to great artists who participated in the performance that was presented for the first time, there were 300 children participating from the schools of Algeria. (alarabiya.net)
The Palestinian experiment
The Palestinian Cultural Theater in the city of Ramallah, presented three shows of Opera "Al-Sultana Ba'iat Al-Samak" (The Fish Vendor Sultana) on July 24, 2004. It was the first Palestinian Opera in Arabic, produced by the Edward Said, and Daniel Barenboim music foundation. Its music was by G.C Ariaga, and written by German Paola Vonvak. Anna Sofi Browning conducted the orchestra. The opera was highlighted with about 90 children who were singing and acting. It was directed by Palestinian French theater director Francois Abou Salem, who dedicated his life to establishing a Palestinian theater, with German Paola Vonvak. The orchestra consisted of only children. Palestinian opera singer Inas Msalaha, from Nazareth, played the role of princess Amira, who falls in love with a fish vendor "Jamil", played by Palestinian opera singer Marwan Chamieh. Inas Msalaha, described the opera as a Historic event, and said:" As Palestinians, we thirst for work to prove our identity and to work with each other. This opera gathered children from Haifa, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Nablus.