Talent for the times

Published in Al Ahram Weekly

Photo by Sherif Sonbol

On Thursday 29 December, over 20 students of Sobhi Bidair’s took the stage to perform a Christmas concert. Operating under the Talents Development Centre at the Cairo Opera House, Sobhi Bidair — Egypt’s renowned tenor — is teaching a total of over 50 amateurs: passionate singers, all, of all ages, from a 10-year-old to people in their 40s.

Sobhi Bidair is known for his decades-long interest in both pop and classical music. One of the first occasions on which he was involved in music was Les Petits Chats, a band of the 1960s and 1970s that became known in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. Later Bidair started exploring the classical repertoire, joining the Cairo Conservatory and eventually continuing his studies in Belgium and France. His resume boasts operatic roles and recognitions in both Egypt and abroad: he was one of the finalists at the Pavarotti International Singing Competition, receiving the title of Cavaliere from the Italian government, and the Egyptian Opera Shield of Honour for his remarkable achievements in opera. In the 1990s, Bidair was the head of the Cairo Opera Company and the head of the singing department of the Cairo Conservatory, holding both posts more than once. Today he has gone back to pop with his band Sobhi and Friends, where he is the principal vocalist, attracting a large number of devoted fans; one such concert took place on Sunday 8 January at the Cairo Opera House Small Hall.

Shortly, Bidair is an exceptional singer with the rare ability to perform two different styles — mastering both the pop and classical-operatic techniques. Shortly after the January Revolution, Bidair returned to the Talent Development Centre, reconnecting with many enthusiastic young singers hoping either to explore or to master their vocal abilities.

The Christmas concert that took place on 29 December included half of Bidair’s current class performing a range of Christmas songs and carols from pop to jazz as well as remixes of classical tunes. The concert was scheduled to begin at 7 pm but, due to the usual lack of proper organisation at the Cairo Opera House, some tickets were issued with 8 pm marked on them. No one from the Opera personnel bothered to come on the stage and explain — let alone apologise for — the delay. For almost one hour, the audience who arrived at 7 pm waited silently; understandably, by the time the concert started, it consisted largely of the singers’ families and friends.

Shortly before 8 pm, the evening opened with a jazzed-up, gospel version of Handel’s Alleluja. The group gave a wonderful kick to the spiritually soaked evening. The concert continued with many carols and songs, mostly with a pop flare and catchy arrangements walking the listeners through many one discovery after another of the students’ interesting voices.

Noha Kayss, for one shining star, has lovely stage confidence: her natural humbleness is complemented by great control over her vocal material. Kayss’s experience was apparent whether in a duet such as “O Christmas Tree” (O Tannenbaum), a traditional German carol that she performed with Miriam Mamlouk or David Foster’s “The Prayer” which she sung with Ahmed Sami, or in an solo performance like the carol “Away in A Manger”, which particularly highlighted her remarkable voice. Kayss’s experience was equally apparent in numbers where she was supporting other singers.

A number of other ladies excelled, too: Nada Hassan’s interesting voice surfaced in her Ave Maria despite her rather shy attitude, while Ingy Azmy’s “O Holy Night” by A. Adams was a correct run through the composition. Although Rita Samir did not have a solo number, her interesting vocal abilities, dedication and preparation were clear in “Amazing Grace”, which she sang with Ahmed Essam and Jessica Jabbar, in J. Lennon’s “Happy Christmas” — sung with Caroline Sherif — and in “All I Want for Christmas is you” in which she stood out.

Though ladies formed a significant majority on stage, men managed to maintain their presence in a variety of ways. With many singers still needing to loosen up, Amr Hussein’s “Jingle Bell Rock” was a lovely show. For Hussein, the stage seems to be a second home; his dynamic presence revealed a singer, performer and entertainer. Ahmed Essam took up the challenge of “The Christmas Song,” apparently influenced by Nat King Cole’s first and most popular interpretation. Essam’s skills found their way to a number of other songs as well: “O Happy Day”, which he shared with Jessica Jabbar, Rita Samir and Yasmine Nasr El-Din. For his part, Ahmed Sami gave a good closure to a quartet “Adeste Fideles” by J. Reading. The strength of group numbers added much energy to the evening, especially among those supported by all singers such a very well coordinated version of Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me.”

We must not forget to highlight the youngest contributors to the evening: Jessica Jabbar, Laila Diaa and Lara Riad. The three girls — each not more than 10 years old — adorned a number of songs. Don Gardner’s “My Two Front Teeth” was a perfect choice for their age and abilities, possibly better than the old Welsh air “Deck the Hall”, sung towards the end of the evening. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, sung by the whole group, created a nice final accent.

It was the freshness of the singers and their efforts that helped the listeners close their eyes or rather ears to some faults, most of which were normal for young and passionate performers in the learning process. For some, it will take time to loosen up, to master microphone techniques and control stage presence, to musically coordinate with the other singers, to avoid vocal slips or, perhaps most importantly of all, to stop chewing gum before coming on stage. There was an obvious agreement on specific dress codes for most of the singers. It would have helped, on the aesthetic level, had the few “originally dressed” participants abided by it.

Nevertheless, despite all the drawbacks that I would consider as minor, taking that the performers are still learning, it is the initiative itself that added value to the evening. The seasonal flavor and expertise of Sobhi Bidair joined by dedication of many singers created a sense of success and accomplishment.

It is important to continue and capitalize on this wealth. The Talents Development Centre at the Cairo Opera House offers a variety of musical activities, vocal class of Sobhi Bidair, ballet classes, violin, flute, guitar among others. Bidair’s class only reminded us of the importance of all those activities. Hopefully all of them will continue and the Cairo Opera House will, once for all, find a solution to the lack of rooms for the centre’s activities, an issue that threatens many classes’ sustainability.

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