Saturday, July 11, 2009

'opera in arabic' project gathers pace

above: Don Giovanni performed at the Al Ain Classical Music Festival, Abu Dhabi

Dr Aly Sadek’s “Opera in Arabic” Project
Susannah Tarbush
original of article published in Al-Hayat in Arabic translation 10 July 2009
The past four months have been exceptionally eventful for the Egyptian opera lover and retired medical doctor Dr Aly Sadek as he continues to fulfil his dream of bringing opera – and especially the operas of Mozart operas – to Arab audiences in Arabic translation from the original German or Italian.

In March Dr Sadek was invited to present a performance of his translation from Italian to Arabic of Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Al Ain Classical Music Festival in Abu Dhabi. This was the first time “Figaro” had been performed in Arabic in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region. The production was commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA).

The opera was performed by Arab opera singers and the Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra conducted by Zbigniew Graca.

This was the second year running Dr Sadek had been invited to the Al-Ain Festival, which is now in its ninth year. In March 2008, with the same orchestra and conductor, he had presented his Arabic version of “Don Giovanni”, directed by the Polish theatre and opera director Ryszard Peryt.

Videos of this performance can be seen on the internet site YouTube, where Ali Sadek has setup a channel of videos related to his “Opera in Arabic” Project. One viewer of the video of the final act of the Arabic Don Giovanni on YouTube wrote: “Wow! I cannot believe this is in Arabic! It is GREAT! I haven’t heard anything like[it]! BRAVO!” This reaction is typical of the enthusiasm with which Arab audiences have responded to chance to hear Mozart’s wonderful operas sung in Arabic – an enthusiasm that might surprise those in the West who assume the Arab world has little interest in Western music, and particularly not in the “difficult” musical dramatic form of opera..

On 9 and 10 June Dr Sadek’s translation of “The Marriage of Figaro” was performed at the Alexandria Opera House (also known as the Sayyid Dawish theatre) in Egypt. And on 22 June there was a gala operatic recital at the Egyptian embassy in London, “An Evening with Mozart in Arabic”, hosted by the Egyptian ambassador Hatem Seif al-Nasr and his wife.

The “Mozart in Arabic Ensemble” comprises the Egyptian soprano Mona Rafla, the Egyptian baritone Raouf Zaidan and the Lebanese bass baritone Toufic Maatouk, accompanied on the piano by the notable British pianist Kathron Sturrock.
During the recital they performed arias and duets in Arabic from three Mozart operas – “The Marriage of Figaro”, “Don Giovanni”, and “The Magic Flute”.

As is always the case when “Opera in Arabic” translations of Mozart works are performed, the audience reaction was very enthusiastic. Dr Tarek Ali Hassan, the first and founding chairman of the National Cultural Center of Egypt and the new Cairo Opera, described the recital as “a lovely evening. Everyone enjoyed it.” They found they could understand the sung Arabic, and the translation opened up what without translation would have remained “a closed box of mysteries”.

Dr Aly Sadek passionately believes that opera should be sung in the language audiences can understand; as he explained to Al-Hayat, “an opera is a play set to music”. Unless the audience can follow the words and understand the action and emotions of the play, the opera may sound like “singers being hysterical, and shouting”. To have operas sung in Arabic translation makes opera more acceptable to a wider audience of music lovers, who would never otherwise attend opera.

Opera has a long history of performance in Egypt, where the Cairo Opera House was opened in 1869 during the reign of Khedive Ismail Pasha to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal in that year. That opera house burned down in 1971, and it was not until 1988 that the new Cairo Opera House opened as part of the National Cultural Center.

And yet Dr Sadek believes that despite this history of opera in Egypt the “language barrier” has held back the acceptance of opera by the general public, and is a major reason why opera has not gained the popularity and appreciation it deserves. The audience for opera is still very small.

The debate about whether opera should be sung in its original language or in translation into the language of the audience is by no means confined to the Arab world of course. Dr Sadek points to the example of the English National Opera, which is one of Britain’s two main opera companies and which performs all its operas in English translation.

Dr Sadek has worked with much dedication and determination to bring his vision to reality over nearly a quarter of a century, ever since he founded his “Opera in Arabic” project in 1985. He is so committed to his project that he took German lessons in Vienna, and also taught himself Italian, so that he could translate Mozart’s operas directly from those two languages rather than having to translate into Arabic from an English translation.

Translating opera poses special challenges for a translator. In the view of Dr Sadek, the translator must get to know the opera intimately and “take it completely inside” them. Just as a bee takes pollen inside it and makes honey, the translation of opera is like a transformation occurring inside the translator. Not only does the translator have to get the meaning right, but the sung language should not be “disfigured” but pronounced as normal Arabic. Dr Sadek works closely with the singers to make sure the words can be heard clearly and loudly enough . The translation can be a lengthy process: it took him three years to translate “The Magic Flute” from German to Arabic.

The three events so far this year showed three different Arab audiences for the Mozart operas in Arabic. One is in Egypt itself. A second audience is Arabs at international music festivals elsewhere in the Arab world, such as the Al Ain Festival. In Lebanon there was a recital of pieces from Mozart operas in Arabic at the 2006 Al-Bustan International Festival of Music held annually in Beyt Meri. The singers were Mona Rafla, Raouf Zaidan and Mohammad Abu al-Khair.

The United Arab Emirates has been a particularly fruitful location for “Opera in Arabic” performances. Before the 2008 and 2009 performances of “Figaro” and “Don Giovanni” at the Al-Ain Festival, there was in 2007 a recitals at a concert organised by the Abu Dhabi Concert Committee and ADACH, and also at a concert in Dubai held by the Sultan Bin Ali Al Owais Foundation.

The recent recital at the Egyptian embassy in London was to a third main target audience of “Opera in Arabic” - Arabs living outside the Arab world in Europe or North America.

The “Opera in Arabic” project has also attracted interest in the wider world of international opera. In 1991, there was a recital of pieces from Mozart operas in Arabic at the Alte Rathaus (Old City Hall) in Vienna. Mozart spent the last ten years of his life in Vienna, where he died in 1791 at the age of only 35. Dr Sadek says: “In Vienna there is great interest in Mozart opera in Arabic”. His project is so highly appreciated that in 1991 the “Mozart Gemeinde in Wien”(Mozart Society of Vienna) presented him with both the Mozart Medal and Honorary membership of the Society.

The combination of a career as a medical doctor specialising in anaesthesia with the opera project is an unusual one, but Dr Sadik’s love of Western classical music, and especially of Mozart, developed at an early age.

Aly Sadik was born in Cairo in 1945 and undertook his school education at ‘Les Freres’ French school in Cairo before entering the faculty of medicine at Cairo University. He graduated as a doctor in 1970, and specialised in anaesthesia. He did his postgraduate training and practice in England where he was awarded the Fellowship of the Faculty of Anaesthetists at the Royal College of Surgeons in London in 1976. He followed his medical career in the UK, and lives in London.

His love of classical music began when he was a small boy. “Although I enjoyed, and still enjoy, the music of a large number of composers, Mozart’s music was always the nearest one to my heart,” he says. He adds: “My life without Mozart’s music would have been for me much poorer and less fulfilling. My opinion was, and is, that Mozart’s music stands as unique in its perfection and beauty, beyond comparison in the world of music.”

Not long after launching his Opera in Arabic Project In 1985 he started to translate Mozart operas, producing Arab versions of Cosi Fan Tutte (1987), The Marriage of Figaro (1988), Don Giovanni (1990), Idomeneo (1992) and The Magic Flute (1994).

At the same time he worked to get Mozart operas digitally recorded on CD. In this he received much encouragement from the acclaimed Egyptian orchestral conductor Youssef El-Sisi. El-Sisi had appeared as a guest conductor in Poland, and he suggested to Dr Sadek that the CD recordings be made in Poland. The recordings were made in Katowice, southern Poland, with the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by El-Sisi, and opera singers from Egypt.

Each CD recording is accompanied by detailed booklets of 200 or more pages prepared by Dr Sadek which include the sung Arabic texts, the texts in their original language and in English translation, and full articles on the historical background to the operas.

So far three Mozart operas have been recorded on CD. “Cosi Fan Tutte” was recorded in 1989 on a set of three CDs. The recording of the “The Marriage of Figaro” followed in 1990, and “Don Giovanni” in 1992.

The late Palestinian scholar and activist Professor Edward Said, who was himself very musical and an accomplished performer on piano, praised one of these recordings in an article he wrote for Harpers in July 2002. The article was a highly critical review of the book “What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response” in which neoconservative academic Bernard Lewis stated that Western music “falls on deaf ears” in the Islamic world (except for Turkey and Israel).

Edward Said wrote that this was “a total falsehood”. Said pointed out that several Arab capitals have very good conservatories of Western music. In addition, “the Cairo Opera House has pioneered the performance of opera in Arabic, and in fact I own a commercial CD of Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ sung most competently in Arabic.”

Dr Tarek Ali Hassan, who is like Dr Aly Sadek an Egyptian medical doctor with a deep involvement in music, very much supported the “Opera in Arabic” Project when he [Dr Tarek Ali Hassan] was the first and founding chairman of the National Cultural Center of Egypt and the new Cairo Opera from 1989 to November 1992.

Dr Hassan shares Aly Sadek’s love of Mozart’s operas, which he says are “a microcosm of human emotions”. He describes Mozart as “a great treasure, not just for the West but for the whole of humanity”. In the past, “this treasure was closed to Arabic speakers”.

The first live performance of an opera translated by Dr Sadik was on 12 March 1991 when the Arabic version of “The Marriage of Figaro” had its premier at the Cairo Opera House . A year later Don Giovanni , directed by Ryszard Peryt , had its premier there. The Arabic version of “The Marriage of Figaro” has been particularly popular in Egypt, and it has been performed more than 50 times at the Cairo and Alexandria opera houses although the recent performance at Alexandria Opera House was the first time it had been performed in Egypt since May 2005.

Dr Sadek is now translating Mozart’s last opera “La Clemenza di Tito” [meaning “The Clemency (ie mercy), of Tito”] written in Italian and composed in the last year of Mozart’s life. It is based on the life of the Roman Emperor Titus.

Looking to the future Dr Sadek hopes that further full performances of Mozart’s operas in Arabic, as well as recitals of pieces from the operas, can be organised, for audiences including Arab communities in Europe and North America. Such performances will of course depend on the necessary sponsorship being arranged.

above, from L: Aly Sadek, conductor Zbigniew Graca, director Ryszsard Peryt

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