As the curtains swept open on the stage of Cairo's historic Opera House in late May, spectators held their breath waiting to be regaled by Giuseppe Verdi's classic Aida, which opens with the Egyptians bracing for invasion by Ethiopians seeking to rescue their princess, Aida, from a lifetime of servitude. What they got, however, may have left Verdi himself on the edge of his seat.
Instead, the cast and crew stood shoulder to shoulder, some in costume, many with placards in hand, denouncing what they called the "Brotherhoodization of the Opera" and declaring the country's Muslim Brotherhood-led government "illegitimate." As the crowd shot to its feet cheering "Bravo!" and chanting "Long Live Egypt," conductor Nayer Nagui announced:
"In a stand against a detailed plan to destroy culture and fine arts in Egypt, we decided as artists and management to abstain from performing tonight's Opera Aida."
It was, for artists and art-lovers alike, a declaration of war.
The move followed the dismissal of the highly respected head of the Cairo Opera, Enes Abdel Dayem, which prompted hundreds to take to the streets in protests that continue even today. Her dismissal came only weeks after President Mohamed Morsi appointed Alaa Abdel-Aziz, a professor of film editing, as the new minister of culture. Abdel Aziz said the decision was in an effort to inject "new blood" into Egypt's art world, which he said is growing increasingly corrupt. That same week, the country's upper house of parliament recommended budget cuts for the Opera, which has been reeling from a drawback of funds in recent years. On Wednesday, prominent artists and intellectuals stormed the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, vowing to stay there until the minister steps down.