When Fatma Said was announced the winner of eighth Veronica Dunne International Opera Competition in Dublin, Ireland, the news spread like wildfire, with media outlets reporting her success and social media expressing pride as they congratulated her. In fact, apart from the first prize of the competition, Said also won the audience award and the Mozart prize.
Egypt does not lack opera singers who make a mark outside the country, where they perform at renowned concert halls: bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam, whose operatic appearances include New York’s Metropolitan, Paris-based soprano Amira Selim, mezzo soprano Gala El Hadidi, tenors Ragaa Eldin, Hany Dessouky, Georges Wanis, Joseph (Joe) Kauzman. But Said attracts attention with her unique talent, her young age and the numerous prestigious recognitions she has already garnered.
Said’s awards include the first prize in the German Young Musicians’ Competition Jugend Musiziert (2006 and 2009), the Grand Prix in the Giulio Perotti International Opera Competition, Germany, the audience prize, the prize for the best homeland song interpretation (2011) and the first prize in the seventh Leyla Gencer International Opera Competition, Istanbul, Turkey as well as the Public Prize award (2012). She also participated in the 16th International Robert Schumann Lied Competition in Germany (2012), winning the second prize as the youngest contestant.
Through the years, apart from her appearances in Egypt, Said has performed on renowned international stages, as soloist at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, the Konzerthaus in Berlin, among many others. Her roles include Feanichton in Offenbach’s Bataclan, Nannetta in Verdi’s Falstaff, Clorinda in Rossini’s Cenerentola and — last summer — Berta in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, sharing the stage with Leo Nucci as Figaro and Ruggero Raimondi as Don Basilio. The homegrown soprano has also sung alongside renowned musicians, including the Peruvian Juan Diego Flórez at the UN Culture for Peace Concert at the United Nations Palace in Geneva, in 2014.
With all these awards and recognitions, it goes without saying that one of the most important achievements was Said’s enrolment in Italy’s La Scala. She is the first Egyptian talent to have received a scholarship to study at the La Scala Academy in Milan, and having received the “diploma di alto perfezionamento” (Diploma of highest perfectionism), she is now preparing for her first leading role of Pamina, in La Scala’s production of Mozart’s Magic Flute conducted by Adam Fischer and directed by Peter Stein, scheduled to premiere as part of Mozart’s 260th anniversary celebrations in September.
The 24-year-old is the only professional musician in her family. “My family appreciates music a lot and music has always been part of our lives. My childhood was filled with improvisations and imaginary concerts with my siblings Aisha and Hassan who happen to be extremely musical and also have beautiful voices,” Said reveals, adding that as a child she had never thought she’d become an opera singer, “because I didn’t know about this field enough maybe. However, when I started studying music and opera, that’s when I fell in love with it. I was always attracted to music in general and it took me time to realise that I would like opera to become my profession and that the lyric technique is best suited to my kind of voice.”
Said tells of a number of inspirations and important founding pillars that enabled her to arrive where she is today. She mentions that it was the German School in Cairo — one of very few schools which teaches music from Kindergarten till senior years — that played a big role in her developing interest in classical music. “At a very young age I already had an idea about composers like Schumann, Mozart and Brahms. We learned how to read music, classical music history, harmony and theory. I was always part of the school choir and music events were taken very seriously.” At the German School, Harald Bast, Fatma’s music teacher, encouraged her to start taking private vocal lessons. When Said was 14, he introduced her to soprano and voice professor Neveen Allouba who took the young talent into her Vocal Studio.
“Neveen Allouba is someone who always believed in me. She was convinced that I was going to become an opera singer when that option was never even in my wildest dreams. She’s a phenomenal teacher and the improvement I’ve noticed through the years was simply incredible. There are many great vocal professors around the world. However, there are much fewer professors who also know how to deal with young voices.
When I met my teachers in Germany, they thought I had been very well prepared in Cairo.” Said adds that she has remained in contact with Allouba until now, calling her for advice and whenever possible taking lessons with her.
In parallel, Said recognises “the endless support” of her parents, who had their share of understandable worries, never stood in the way to her travels and career. “My mother was very worried at the beginning because she thought I was too young to travel abroad and live alone, which I believe is a normal motherly feeling. My father was worried as well but he believed that this was what I was supposed to do, he believed that more than I believed in myself at that point in time. He was convinced that I had to study music and he wanted to invest in my talent as much as he could. I know it wasn’t easy at all to let me go like that but there is this German saying that says, ‘Lieben ist Loslassen’, which means, ‘Love is letting go’.”
Said first left Egypt when she enrolled in the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin, where she was guided by professor Renate Faltin. Said underlines that knowing German played a huge role in her musical education, not to mention how it helped her understand the German Lied, which requires deep understanding of German poetry. “At the German School I studied a lot of the literature that I performed later in life, for example: Goethe’s Faust. When I started singing Schubert’s Faust during my university years, I was able to understand what I was singing.
Knowing the language and the literature helped me a lot in giving a personal touch to my interpretation.”
As her passion for opera grew it deepened her development in many fields. Finding herself at a young age in the big world of international opera, Said always enjoyed the challenge. “I remember feeling all the time like a ‘sponge’. I wanted to absorb everything I saw, felt or heard. I wanted to learn and study all the time. I was overwhelmed by how studying music can be so detailed, interesting and eye opening.”
Following her studies in Germany, Said moved onto Italy’s famed La Scala Academy where she worked with world-renowned professors and musicians, mostly Italian, graduating last July. Apart from the highly prestigious certificate she holds and the major recognition of her talent, Said is also happy that the experience allowed her to explore the Italian repertoire more. She calls her studies in Italy “a bonus, and a very important [experience] for any opera singer. Most of the teachers and guest professors have very reputable backgrounds. Many of them are world-renowned musicians who have made it quite far in the opera world. The best thing about the Academy of La Scala, something that makes the degree better than a mere Master’s degree is the fact, that the Academy gives us the chance to be part of the Scala season. We get practical experience on the La Scala stage. This practical experience in my opinion is the most important thing at the beginning of a career.”
Said has now been offered a third year of enrolment for special engagements and productions and she will sing the lead, Pamina, in Mozart’s Magic Flute. “I’m very honoured to have been the first Egyptian soprano ever to perform at La Scala — let alone having a lead role — which is the opera house that’s considered the most important theatre in the world. I’ve performed there many times before in the past two years, but never such an important role. So I’m really looking forward to the performance this year.”
No doubt, a leading role at La Scala is one of the major dreams of any opera singer and undeniably a great recognition for any talent. To Said it is also an opportunity to perform one of the composers she cherishes and whom she finds suitable for her current vocal development. “Mozart is considered balsam for the voice. I also feel Mozart is a genius in each phrase he composed. It’s always great for a young voice to start off with Mozart rather than Puccini, for example, which requires a more mature and better trained voice,” she comments, adding that in the coming years she sees herself singing a lot of Mozart. Said says she is taking her future one step at a time, but she hopes that one day she would be able to sing her “dream role” of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata.
Said also has another “long-term dream,” one linked to Egypt, her home country. She hopes that one day she will “have an influence on the music scene in Egypt, [where] one must start with the younger generation. I wish one day I will have the chance to be in a position to implement a good music system in all public schools in Egypt where they learn not about Mozart and Schubert but about our own music which is: Om Kalthoum, Sayed Darwish and the revolution that Mohamed Abdel Wahab made in Egyptian music, for example. We have such a rich musical culture and, exactly as it is obligatory for the Germans to know about Mozart at school, it’s of extreme necessity for the Egyptians to know about Sayed Darwish at school. Music shouldn’t be considered a luxury, music should be considered a basic human right and a necessity in everyone’s life.
Music is so much education and enlightenment: it’s history, it’s poetry, it’s language, it’s maths, it’s therapy, it’s politics, it’s philosophy, it’s even physics. It’s everything!”