Egyptian soprano Fatma Said speaks to Yehuda Shapiro about becoming a singer, her love of song, and wanting to die on stage
Cairo-born soprano Fatma Said studied at Berlin’s Hanns Eisler School of Music before winning a scholarship to the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala. She went on to perform Pamina in new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the legendary Milanese theatre. The winner of a number of high-profile singing competitions, from 2016 to 2018 she was a member of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, and she has now appeared on major operatic and concert stages around Europe and beyond.
Egypt has a population of 100 million and Verdi’s Aida was famously commissioned for the opening of Cairo’s opera house, but the country is not known for producing opera singers. How did you come to choose this career?
You could say that it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. It’s not usually an option for a young Egyptian to pursue an operatic career and my family is more active in sport than music. This is not to say that Egyptians aren’t musical: the country is No. 1 when it comes to both popular and classical Arabic music, and Umm Kulthūm, who is known as ‘The Golden Voice’, was the most celebrated Arabic singer of the 20th century. She performed in the classical Arabic-Egyptian tradition, which requires a completely different technique and approach from European classical music.
There are a lot of international schools in Egypt, and I happened to go to German-language schools in Cairo from kindergarten upwards. This meant that there was a strong emphasis on music education, and from an early age I learned how to play instruments and sang in the choir. I had a wonderful teacher who let me sing solos and then introduced me to an Egyptian singing teacher, Dr Neveen Allouba. I was only 13, but I was very lucky to fall into her hands. She studied singing in Germany and really understands about the world of opera. There are so many teachers who wouldn’t know what to do with a young voice, but she kept it natural, not trying to make it into something that it wasn’t, and she provided a great basis for my subsequent studies. I stayed with her until I was 17, when I auditioned for the Hanns Eisler Conservatory in Berlin.
Music had always been part of my life and by that point I wanted to know more about it – this was not just about singing. I wanted to understand the relationship between poetry and music, to study form and analysis. Music takes you into languages, literature and history, but also into 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.
The opportunity in Berlin came up at a late stage, since I already had a place to study music at the American University in Cairo. My father was the deciding factor in my going to Germany. Apart from him, everyone around me thought I should stay in Egypt, but he challenged the norms by letting me go alone to another continent – and not to study medicine or architecture. He wanted me to study something that I loved. Music became the priority and focus in my life and I started to look at singing from a more professional angle. It took me a few months to get used to the freedom and independence and to start learning what responsibility really is. It was tough, but it was very important, and I think that going to Berlin was the best step I could have taken.
Why is song so important to you?
I started with song when I was in Cairo – I remember singing Mozart’s Das Veilchen when I was 13 and beginning to learn how to interpret, to create colours. Though I already spoke German, I discovered that you produce the words differently when you sing them, and the same is true of French or Italian or Arabic. All these principles have to be applied in opera too. Opera can’t just be about sound or a beautiful voice. Songs become small operas, and a recital becomes a kind of compendium of 25 operas in an hour-and-a-half.
Opera is very intense too, but in opera you are one person for three hours. In a recital, you need to switch all the time. The most wonderful, but also the most difficult thing, about performing song is being myself. In an opera I am someone else – I put myself in the shoes of a queen, or a princess or a slave, but in song I can really be me. It makes me feel very naked and vulnerable. I perform the song as I feel it at that very moment – it could be completely different the next day.
My time as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist let me indulge my passion for song and chamber music. It offered me great opportunities for mastering the repertoire, and singing for the microphone was a new experience – when you listen to yourself afterwards you find out whether you were really delivering the message in the way you thought you were.
I love 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 – zarzuela, for instance. 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 the chance to hear something new. Very few people sing these songs, so if I don’t, how will people get to know them and form an opinion of them?
This sounds strange, but I always wanted to die on stage – I always looked forward to singing Violetta, Mimì and Manon. Though I aspire to Verdi and Puccini, my voice isn’t ready for them yet. My first ‘dying role’ will be Manon next year. She’s the French Violetta. Because of the language and the way the role is written, it suits the current maturity of my voice. Even though I spent several years studying at the Accademia of La Scala, Italian repertoire remains more of a challenge for me. People tell me I’m ideal for Donizetti’s Adina or Norina, but I don’t feel as ready to sing them as I do Manon.
I love Mozart. Pamina at La Scala was a revelation for me, and later this year I’ll be singing the role in Shanghai. I learn so much when I sing Mozart, about my technique and about myself. It’s good for my voice, it’s good for my soul and it’s good for my being. I’ve studied Zerlina and Despina, and I recently sang in Thamos, König in Ägypten at the Mozartwoche in Salzburg. Arias from Die Zauberflöte and Zaide were added to the score and La Fura dels Baus did a very interesting production, set not in Ancient Egypt, but in the near future, with technology taking over.
Digital media have made music so much more accessible – and as a professional musician it makes such a difference to be able to find and download a score in moments – but it can also be confusing to have so many options at your fingertips.
Where do you want to be in 10 years’ time?
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!