Two in one: Musical performances reveal talents of the young

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Nesma Mahgoub and Raouf Zeidan in ‘The Telephone’ (Photo: Amira Gabr)

Between 12 and 14 May, the American University in Cairo performed one-act opera The Telephone and highlights from Les Miserables bringing to light the remarkable singing and acting potentials of the Egyptian youth.

Published in Al Ahram Weekly and Ahram Online

For three consecutive evenings on 12-14 May, the American University in Cairo (AUC) Malak Gabr Theatre invited the audience to the graduation projects of the bachelor of musical arts degree in performance.

 The evening included two performances: a one act opera, The Telephone (or L’amour a trois), with words and music by Gian Carlo Menotti and highlights from the musical Les Miserables by composer Claude-Michel Schoenberg.

While the first performance was sung in English, Les Miserables was performed in modern Egyptian dialect, translated from English by Sarah Enany. Both works were a collaboration between theatre and music programmes operating under the Department of Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) with Neveen Allouba as Music Director, and both were accompanied by Rosalie Capps on piano.

When The Telephone premiered at Heckscher Theater, New York City, in 1947, it was an instant success. In the AUC production, it was directed by Frank Bradley, Artistic Director of the AUC Theatre.

Directed by Frank Bradley, this 20-minute one-act comic opera, has two main characters and a telephone set acting as a character in its own right. By repetitively ringing and drawing Lucy (Nesma Mahgoub) into endless chats with friends, the telephone becomes a major obstacle in the way of Ben (Raouf Zaidan) proposing to her. Menotti’s plot is simple, limited in space and time.

Performed to the accompaniment of piano, the opera uses just enough dramatic and musical tools to point to a specific storyline and make an impression. Compact and economical, the opera relies on the vocal and theatrical skills of the two main characters. And in this regard the duet Nesma Mahgoub as Lucy and Raouf Zaidan as Ben gave a captivating performance.

Baritone Raouf Zaidan, guest singer in The Telephone, joined the AUC as adjunct professor a few months ago. Zaidan has a long history of singing as well as educational work in Egypt and the US. Not only did the AUC music department gain a renowned professor, it also benefited from Zaidan’s remarkable intellect and knowledge of the performing arts and, on stage, from his captivating presence and vocal skill.

As for Mahgoub, The Telephone was part of the project she accomplished to graduate from the PVA with a major in music. Mahgoub is a talented Egyptian singer, known regionally for winning the eighth Star Academy Arab World, and she had originally majored in mass communication but when the PVA opened a major in music in 2011, she returned (along with another student, Therese Ananian) to enrol in the new degree. Though a major should take four years, Mahgoub had already gained many of the necessary credits from her minor in music.

Mahgoub has remarkable vocal abilities. She can sing a wide range of genres with equal ease: from operatic material to Oriental music and Western pop, always gaining the appreciation of audiences and professionals alike. Over the past few years she has also made significant progress in her theatrical skills. Her graduation with a major in music is an important academic testimony to Mahgoub’s perseverance and continuous need for professional development.

In The Telephone, she was excellent at portraying a character that is charmingly naive, flirtatious and somehow absent-minded, if not deaf to Ben’s attempts at proposing.

Mahgoub continued into the second part of the evening, during which she joined the team working on highlights from Les Miserables. Directed by Mohamed Abou El-Kheir, the performance gathered over 20 young singers from different walks of life and academic backgrounds: some minoring in music or pursuing other degrees at the AUC, others from the German University in Cairo and Cairo University.

There were also talented vocalists from Egypt’s popular bands. All came to the AUC in response to a call for singers to take part in the Les Miserables project, the result of many years of planning and effort by Neveen Allouba, who wished to see this work on stage and in Egyptian dialect.

Allouba, the Egyptian soprano and member of the Cairo Opera Company since 1990,  joined AUC as adjunct professor in 2007 and since then has played an active role in establishing minor and then major music divisions.

Based on Victor Hugo’s famed novel, the plot takes the viewers to 19th-century France and story of Jean Valjean who searches, in vain, for a normal respectable life after years in prison. All takes place against the backdrop of urban social and political turmoil fuelled by Paris’s bitterly anti-monarchist republicans. As such, the story depicts young lives trapped in the injustice dominating France during the first decades of the 19th century. They are angered by the glorious French Revolution (which reached its climax in 1789) having been stolen from their fathers who had managed to put an end to absolute monarchy only to give in to it once again a few years later.

Though different in its historical context, Les Miserables makes for unique and timeless material that allows the viewer in today’s Egypt to draw parallels with the reality surrounding them. As such its performance in Egyptian Arabic can only intensify its power. Sara Enany translated the songs from the English-language libretto of Les Miserables, a musical based on Hugo’s novel.

It is one of the many celebrated translations by Enany, a faculty member at the Cairo University.  Apart from her translations of theatrical and poetic works to Arabic, she also provided the Egyptian Arabic text for Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. Enany is also a member of the Cairo Opera Company and performed in a variety of operas, directing a number of theatrical productions.

Her translation of the musical Les Miserables captures the essence of the text and creates a natural ambience reflecting Egypt’s spoken culture. Enany infused life into the songs, allowing the viewer to draw parallels with the country’s circumstances.

One might have felt estranged listening to tunes one knows from Les Miserables performed in a language other than English, yet Enany provided a new and very fresh text born of the culture and language as well as the social and political reality of Egypt. Allouba, in her turn, helped by giving the text a few final touches to make sure it reflected the musical accents.

The success of the text was topped with mise-en-scene designed by the always interesting Mohamed Abou El-Kheir, who also teaches Arabic singing at AUC. Taking into account the fact that he dealt mostly with amateur actors, Abou El-Kheir stressed the strong points of each. Working in the melting pot of opera and theatre, Abou El-Kheir always builds strong, distinctive routines through which music and theatre are effortlessly married to each other.

With all these elements the result was a valuable musical theatre performance incorporating an immense amount of young talent, with many performers not knowing how to read music and without stage experience.

What is more, Mahgoub as Eponine gave yet another brilliant performance. She not only excels in her solos; whenever on stage, she also has a power to musically boost those who accompany her, whether in a duet or a larger group. Therese Ananian, a graduate with a minor in music, delivered several captivating solos including “Castle on a cloud” (Fouq El Sahab). Playing Fantine was Dalia Fadel, who graduated with a political science degree but has been active in the art scene since the age of seven.

Fadel demonstrated the exceptional musicality that made her especially suitable for the role, something that was particularly evident in the solo “I had a dream” (Helemt Helm), the iconic song of Les Miserables.

Hani Mostafa, originally a singer and songwriter, took the lead role of Jean Valjean, and he managed to underline in the many songs the warm sensuality of this dignified character. Many male singers stood out for their vocal or theatrical abilities, or both. Sherif Rizkallah, the youngest member of the team, infused his character Thénardier with energy and spontaneity without undermining the artistic output, while Mostafa Rashad provided a well balanced performance in the role of Javert.

It is impossible to enumerate the whole team of which each member had something interesting to offer, whether in solo, duets or group numbers. Looking for perfection and for the sake of a fair argument, one can debate some vocal slips appearing sporadically throughout the evening, problems which are harder to accept when they come from more experienced performers: delayed entries or issues with on-stage confidence. Yet the overall effort deserves unanimous applause.

For the Egyptian arts scene, the three evenings offered by the AUC’s department of arts bear testimony to potential that will definitely develop. With further musical and theatrical progress, the young singers will have a leading role in shaping the future cultural scene. Hopefully they will persevere while the professionals continue to support them, and the opening of the music major programme is an important step to this goal.

According to Allouba, the success of The Telephone and Les Miserables should be measured at yet another level.

The performances attracted the attention of the many students who hoped to develop in the arts but whose families consider the field marginal. Having attended both performances, they noticed the gems emerging from the PVA and its music programme, and as such many barriers were broken and interest in the arts departments generated – even more evidence of how Egypt’s cultural scene needs such initiatives to go outside universities and operas and speak to a wider audience.

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