Ramadan Nights opens at Cairo Opera House

Arabic traditional music and Sufi chants replace Western ballets and operas during the holy month

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The Cairo Opera House has a strikingly different vibe during Ramadan: performance-goers swap heels, dresses, suits and ties for trainers and casual wear. Instead of ballet and operas, traditional Arabic music and Sufi chants take centre stage.

Close to 50 Ramadan concerts are taking place during the fasting month at the opera houses and their associated venues in Cairo, Alexandria and Damanhur in the western Nile Delta. Last year, there were 27.

Ramadan Nights got under way on Tuesday night at the Cairo Opera House’s outdoor Fountain Theatre.

The 15-strong Brass Sound Band played a mix of well-known upbeat Arabic and international tunes, such as a Fairouz medley and Pharrell Williams’ Happy. El Hadra ensemble for Sufi Singing followed with renditions of Arabic Sufi poems that focus on zikr (remembrance of God), accompanied by percussionists and oriental instrumentalists.

Among the Sufi chants were: “Oh God of the universe, our fasting is for you. Hear the praise of the prophet and be at ease, you who created the world.”

Wael Loay, 29, who attended with a group of friends, said it was "a nice idea to have concerts in Ramadan", especially events that elevate people’s spirituality.

Nagwa Fahmy, 60, has been an avid Cairo Opera House patron over the past decade, attending several times a month.

She recently went to the Moscow Ballet’s Nutcracker on Ice, but said she enjoys the “informal” and “shaaby” (popular) ambience of the opera’s events during Ramadan.

“Every Ramadan I like to come to one or two of the Ramadan-themed events taking place at the Opera House,” she says. “This year the opera is putting on so many events and the programme is excellent.”

El Hadra ensemble for Sufi singing performed at the Cairo Opera House's Fountain Theatre for the opening of Ramadan Nights. Nada El Sawy / The National

The Cairo Opera House, which was inaugurated in 1988 after a fire gutted the Egypt’s first opera house in 1971, includes several venues besides the 1,200-seat main hall.

Other concerts scheduled at the Fountain Theatre include Egyptian singer Ali El Haggar, Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali, Sheikh Yassin El Tohamy, Syrian-Armenian singer Lena Chamamyan and Egyptian singer Medhat Saleh accompanied by pianist Amr Selim.

Marimba player Nesma Abdel Aziz and the Umm Kulthum Arab Music ensemble led by Maestro Mohamed Abdel Sattar will perform in the Open Air Theatre, which is also in the Cairo Opera House complex.

The Small Hall will host six Islamic and Arab evenings, featuring the musical and lyrical heritage of Algeria, Indonesia, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Yemen.

Performances at the Arabic Music Institute in central Cairo, across the Nile from the Opera House in Zamalek, include local band Wanas and the Heritage Arabic Music ensemble. The nearby El Gomhouria Theatre includes the Abdel Halim Nowera ensemble and a religious song ensemble.

Meanwhile, El Hadra ensemble for Sufi Singing and Tunisian singer Benali will have repeat performances at the Alexandria Opera House, a Greek architectural-style building constructed in 1918 and renovated in 2000.

The Damanhur Opera House, built in 1930, features concerts of Sheikh Mahmoud El Tohamy and Noor Al Nabi ensemble for religious chanting.

Several of the regular events, such as cultural salon talks and the Cairo Symphony Orchestra performances, will continue in the Main Hall.

Magdy Saber, who has been chairman of the institute since 2018, said the aim of the Ramadan events was to enrich the cultural scene.

Tickets are priced between 30 Egyptian pounds ($1.63) and 410 Egyptian pounds.

At El Hanager Arts Centre in the Cairo Opera House complex there are also many free shows starting at 8.30pm throughout Ramadan, although they are only advertised on-site. They include the National Circus, Sheikh Mahmoud El Tahawy, Egyptian singer Wael El Fashny and even El Hadra ensemble.

The full schedule can be found here and tickets are on sale online here.

Updated: April 14, 2022, 5:51 PM