Egypt in the West - GulfToday

Egypt in the West

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


The photo has been used for illustrative purposes.

Fatima Said made her singing debut at 14 at the Cairo Opera House and had progressed to become the first Egyptian soprano to win a scholarship to study at the prestigious academy of the world famous La Scala opera in Milan. Instead of following in the footsteps of the 20th century’s Arab grand dames of song, Egypt’s Umm Kulthum and Lebanon’s Feyrouz, Fatima took the road leading to a career in Western operatic and classical music which requires different thinking and techniques than classical Arabic music. She was chosen by the BBC as a “New Generation Artist” and is currently performing at La Scala founded in 1778, one of the world’s most famous opera houses.

She attended a German school in Cairo where she was introduced to Western classical music. In an interview with Final Note magazine, she states, “We had music lessons in Kindergarten until high school and these were taken very seriously.” When Fatima was 13, her high school music teacher introduced her to the international Egyptian opera singer and teacher, Dr Neveen Allouba. Both her teacher and Allouba helped to develop her voice and train her in artistic interpretation. Three months after starting private lessons with Allouba, Fatima was invited to sing at her annual Christmas Concert at Cairo’s Opera House. She said it was both a “surprise” and an “exciting experience.”

It must have been. The Cairo Opera House has been an iconic artistic landmark in the Egyptian capital since 1869 when it was built to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. For this event, Egypt’s ruler, Khedive Ismail, commissioned the opera Aida by Italy’s most beloved composer Giuseppe Verdi. Unfortunately, the Khedival Opera House was consumed by fire in October 1971 and the modern building has none of the splendid history of its predecessor, although it is the home of Cairo’s symphony orchestra, opera and ballet companies, and national Arab music ensemble.

Fatima is full of praise for Allouba, who, she says, knew “how to work on young voices... She always made it a point to use my natural voice and never manipulated it in any way... (as) the natural voice is the most authentic sound.”

Her parents were very supportive while being concerned that she had chosen to embark on a lifelong career at such a young age. She asserts, “My father... felt that this was what I was supposed to do. He believed that more than I believed in myself.” Although she already had a place at the American University in Cairo, her father urged her to go to Berlin at 17 to pursue a “non-traditional” career few Egyptians knew about or adopted. At music school, she was younger than the average age of fellow students and had to work hard to keep up, particularly because her voice had not yet matured. When she completed her studies in Berlin, she enrolled at the Academy of the Theatre of La Scala to develop her voice and perfect her performance.

In an excellent interview in the publication produced by her agent, Askonas Holt, Fatima points out, correctly, “Music takes you into languages, literature and history (as well as) physics, biology and mathematics. In a song that’s just one page long, I can study all these things, and the learning will never stop. At the age of 17 I was like a sponge and I wanted to soak up as much as I could.” An Arabic, German and English speaker, she had to learn French and Italian. Operas and Western classical songs come in many languages.

She does not mention the words politics and conflict when speaking of how music opens the door to so many fields of study. Opera plots include revolts and revolutions and social commentary on relationships between the aristocracy and their servants and the struggles of working people, as well as mostly tragic love stories. Aida, the opera first performed in Cairo’s Opera House, is about the capture by Egyptians of an Ethiopian princess followed by a war in which Ethiopia is defeated. Sounds rather like current affairs, as Egypt and Ethiopia are sparring over the waters of the mighty Nile river.

Fatima’s voice became more resonant and her performances improved after she entered competitions. One of the most distinguished of these events was the Veronica Dunne Competition held in Dublin every three years, which Fatima won in 2016. She was dubbed “one of the most unique young artists of her generation” who not only made a name for herself in the music world but also represented Egypt as an “ambassador of culture and education.”

She loves “sharing music with people — that’s why I sing. I’d hate to put myself in a box where I could only sing opera or art song. I have huge passions and I love so many different types of music and styles... Sometimes I include 20th century Egyptian art songs in my programmes. It’s quite natural for me: Egypt is my country and Arabic is my native language. Singing these songs is something I know how to do and it gives audiences a chance to hear something new.”

One of the most amusing and amazing things she says about roles she hopes to play is, “This sounds strange, but I always wanted to die on stage.” In opera there are quite a few “dying roles,” but she has had to satisfy herself with younger characters as her voice still has to mature to suit older ones.

Asked where she would like to be in 10 years’ time, she replies, “I just hope that I can still be myself. It’s a crazy life, pretending to be other people all the time, and I’m sceptical about thinking too far into the future. In Egypt, our way of saying good night is to say, ‘I wish you a nice morning.’ We just want to survive until the next day.”

Related articles