Egyptians had their first taste of Japanese Kabuki theater at the grand opening of Cairo's new Opera House, but the some who saw the music-and-dance drama found it puzzling and even funny.

As solemn-faced Japanese actors in elaborate costume and makeup told with mournful music and sobbing voices a tragic story of prisoners exiled on an island, many in the audience were cracking up with laughter.The haunting wail of the background music and songs in the hour-long performance was too close to Egyptian wails of mourning. The stiff, measured movements of the actors were alien to Egyptians nurtured on free-wheeling, gesticulating emotion in their drama.

President Hosni Mubarak sat solemn-faced in the presidential box during the performance and applauded politely at the end. His face became animated, however, and he tapped his fingers when the orchestra and chorus struck up a song by Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab after the Kabuki performance.

The 50-member Kabuki troupe's performance, the first in the Middle East, was the first part of the gala inauguration ceremony for the $50 million neo-Islamic Cairo Education and Culture Center, the new Opera House.

Kabuki was included on the program as a tribute to Japan, which financed and built the sprawling cultural complex.

Several Egyptians in the plush, rose-colored main auditorium watched the actors with seeming interest. Many others either sat in bored resignation or had difficulty hiding their laughter.

Farid Shawky, a well-known actor in the Egyptian cinema, left the hall during the performance, apparently unable to contain his mirth.

During the intermission, several dignitaries were overheard saying they found Kabuki a bit hard to take. One said that perhaps the art, which dates from the 16th century, is an acquired taste.

Although attendance at the inaugural performance was by invitation only, the whole inaugural was broadcast live on television and radio.

"I am not narrow-minded. I appreciate Western classical music and music from other cultures. But I just find no rhythm in the wailing that accompanies Kabuki," said Amina Eissa, who watched on television.

"It was just too different from our music and acting," said Heba Kamel, a teacher and another viewer. "Even after the announcer explained the story before the show, I found it difficult to absorb. And it was all so tragic."

Two of the government's three channels broadcast the drama. The third, which normally features a heavy diet of Egyptian soap operas, was off the air.

"We like the Japanese people and it was very nice of them to give us the opera house, but I didn't like their Kabuki," said Mohamed Said, a garage attendant. "Then again, I don't think they would appreciate our music and theater either."

Mustafa Hussein, cartoonist for the daily newspaper Al-Akhbar, depicted on the newspaper's back page the reaction of many Egyptians. His cartoon showed a lawyer in court, with a terrified-looking young woman sitting in the background. The lawyer, waving papers, tells the judge:

"I demand a divorce for my client on ground of cruelty. These are medical certificates showing that she had a nervous breakdown because her husband stood at the bottom of the stairs and performed Kabuki in front of her."