Crowning a decade of substantial investment, the Chinese government gifted Algeria, its “comprehensive strategic partner” since 2014, with its very first opera house. After suffering through over half a century of political upheaval and extreme violence, Opera d’Alger represents the Algerian people’s hope for a future characterized by peace and cultural resurgence.
In 2010, the Chinese government announced a $40 million gift to Algeria in the form of the country’s first opera house, to be built in Algiers. After six years of planning and construction, the Opera d’Alger was completed in 2016.
Internationally, those keeping tabs on China’s rapid economic growth and increasing foreign investments see the Opera d’Alger as a symbol of Beijing’s considerable economic influence in Algeria. It is true that the Chinese-Algerian partnership has created close economic ties between the two countries. Since 2013, China has been Algeria’s top importer. According to Analyze Africa, a digital database providing macroeconomic data from leading global sources, “China’s influence in Algeria’s economy is undoubtedly most pronounced in the construction sector. Chinese firms have won billions in government infrastructure contracts in the past 15 years.”
Before 2015, when energy prices were favorable and Algeria’s economy was stable, the government announced a housing development plan to combat the rapid population growth and urbanization that had catalyzed a serious housing crisis, which had pushed many Algerians into slums and even into homelessness.
The government program, one of the most ambitious in the region, promised free, modern housing to those in need. Chinese firms fulfilled the majority of this exorbitant demand for construction; Chinese corporations have built nearly 250,000 homes in the country since the beginning of the 2000s. In addition to low-cost housing projects, Chinese construction contracts have included an East-West highway, an airport and shopping centers.
The foundation of the Chinese-Algerian partnership began in the 1950s, when China was the first non-Arab country to recognize Algeria’s bid for independence from France. Though ultimately successful in securing independence, the Algerian revolution was marked by extremely violent terrorist acts and a high civilian death toll. The post-revolutionary government in Algeria failed to achieve true stability, and in 1991 a civil war erupted between the state and various Islamic rebel groups. Algerian civilians once again suffered extreme and brutal violence, and tens of thousands of citizens were “forcibly disappeared”, never again to be heard from by their families.
Now referred to as the “Black Decade” in Algeria, the national recovery and reconciliation process is, according to many, still incomplete. The government’s housing program has been regarded as a significant step toward reconciliation with the Algerian people, but experts have criticized its efficacy, and the state’s newly instituted austerity measures necessitated by depressed energy prices have delayed its completion.
China’s gift of an opera house, then, is especially symbolic as a “home” for all. A glance through the events promoted on the Opera d’Alger’s Facebook page is indicative of the inclusive spirit its directors hope to promote in Algerian society. One of the first performances considered to be of a world-class standard given at the opera house was “Beyond Bollywood”, a theatrical showpiece of various traditional and modern forms of Indian dance. Recent performances include a concert dedicated to the memory and legacy of Algerian culture given by the National Ensemble of the Algerian Opera, a performance entitled “Rhythms and Colors of Algeria” given by the Algerian Ballet, “Agora: Greek Musical Fusion” and a rock concert by Algerian band Ithrene.
Though a concert of selected opera scenes from repertory standards such as Verdi’s La Traviata and Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro was given at the Opera d’Alger earlier this month, a complete opera has yet to be staged at Opera d’Alger. It is likely that the Chinese-Algerian partnership will be furthered by tour performances by the Peking Opera.
Noureddine Saoudi, the director of the house, stated in a recent interview that aspiring artists will soon be able to participate in free creative master classes at the Opera d’Alger, as he and his colleagues hope to see the opera become a “radiant centre of culture and arts”.
With a recent history fraught with conflict and violence, and fresh disappointment caused by the current economic downturn, the Chinese government’s gift of Opera d’Alger seems to have come just in time to renew the Algerian people’s hope to rebuild their communities and usher in a new era of pride in their homeland.
– Savannah Bequeaith