Big posters on strategic street corners and ads in Cairo newspapers are promoting an entertainment bonanza -- an opera season, featuring "Carmen," "Tosca" and "Madame Butterfly" performed by The Egyptian Opera Troupe.

This is the most ambitious opera program in years, and fittingly so, because this is supposed to be the year when work finally begins on rebuilding Cairo's storied opera house.

European grand opera is not an art form that appeals much to the Egyptian masses, but it has a modest tradition here going back to the Khedive Ismail a century ago. It was he who commissioned Giuseppe Verdi to write "Aida" for the opening of the Suez Canal.

The Egyptian press rhapsodized about the opera troupe's performance. But nobody who knew better would confuse it with "La Scala." The singers' ambitions generally exceed their talent. Sitting through the mad scene from Norma with the Cairo Opera is like watching a neighborhood theater group do "Macbeth."

Still, the educated Egyptians, the ones who speak English and French and have developed cultural ties to the West, seem to love it. More than that, they cherish its existence as a kind of cultural insurance, part of the web of language, travel, literature and education that protects the country from being overwhelmed by Islamic fundamentalism or some sterile Arab-based political creed.

"Opera is a symbol to us," said Louis Awad, cultural critic at the newspaper Al Aharam, "because it points to the direction in which we are going. Are we in Egypt going to be part of the larger body of humanity, or are we going to live in the isolated inferno called the East?"

This association with European culture, which educated Egyptians have long felt puts them above the Arab and African societies of their neighbors, is the reason why President Anwar Sadat has pledged to rebuild the opera house. The building, a rococo landmark that had stood in downtown Cairo since 1869, was destroyed by a fire eight years ago.

Press accounts of the blaze reported that actors and singers stood weeping outside as firemen battled the blaze that destroyed "Egypt's most famous link with prerevolutionary days" and the sheet music, sets and portraits of the great composers that it contained.

Sadat ordered a new house built a month later, but war and economics have intervened. When diplomatic relations with the U.S. were reestablished in 1974, the Egyptians asked the Americans to pay for it, but Secretary of State Henry Kissinger explained that aid money could not be used for that purpose.

Funds have since been raised through the exhibition of Egyptian art works abroad. An allocation of $2 million in this year's budget is to begin work on the new opera house, which will actually be an integrated cultural center like that in Washington, centered on a main hall with 4,000 seats.

German architect Fritz Bornemann, whose fees were paid by UNESCO, has designed a modern-style, functional complex devoid of the gingerbread that adorned the old one.

The final step to be taken before construction begins is Sadat's approval of the site -- the parking lot in central Cairo where the old opera stood on what is still know as Opera Square. The total estimated cost is about $20 million. When built, it will probably be called the "Anwar Sadat Center of Civilization."