15 - 21 June 2000
Issue No. 486
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Hazards of the gameA very young singer in a quandary. Tide's right, time too: why not take the plunge?
Profile by David Blake
Don't put your daughter in the opera, Mrs Worthington. This is a spin-off of the famous song by England's favourite playwright and song-writer, Noel Coward, which had the word stage in place of opera, but the warning is just as salutatory, if not more so, to a very young singer of today. Unless she has the constitution, stamina and sheer guts of a paratrooper, leave her to the less arduous career of marriage, or the stock exchange.
The opera world is tough, and kills unkindly, because the greater you are the crueler is the fall from the high glitter of successful performance down to the vie ordinaire of approaching age or sheer lack of the proper technique to sustain yourself on the heights. Vide -- Callas.
First sight of Tahia Shamseddin -- she's tallish. She has an imposing carriage. She was born in 1965, in Mahalla, where all the cloth comes from which dressed some of the most elegant people of the world.
First sound of her, if she's in song -- she's Elsa, Wagner's naturally, there being no other comparable in opera. She is good-humoured, and it shows, even when she sings, for she seems to sing for pleasure when she likes. It costs her no effort.
The voice itself is carried like the person, with dignity. There is not a trace of pretension to the voice, or the person. She enjoys herself. She is natural, discreet and humourous.
And behind her voice, there is Elsa, lurking -- Wagner's dumb goose who isn't so dumb, just cooked by the forces of evil with which she is surrounded. Elsa is ill-fated, she has no luck. She has the worst crack-up marriage night in opera. Her hero, Lohengrin, her protector and guru, walks out on her, leaving her flat to the forces she dreads and misunderstands. Dark evil swathed in moonlight and poison, which in her hands leads to destruction and death. A horrible story, but the music is high romantic and the voice for it is what is called in opera an Elsa voice -- Tahia Shamseddin, lyrica spinta.
Unlike Elsa, Tahia is lucky as well as humourous because she has her two father-gurus to support her when career questions arise.
Her father, Mohamed Shamseddin, and her uncle-father, Dr Holayl, both have supported her to become, at this early age, before her 20s, a well-trained, highly efficient lyric soprano, capable of singing in German, a language she speaks well, Italian and, most interesting of all, Arabic, a language which most Egyptian singers who specialise in the classic repertoire are inclined to downgrade. She sings most engagingly in Arabic, as she has proved when she took the role in Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. Her motto -- "what blows you away, take it on, and don't grumble." Except under the guidance of her two fathers, she is careful to choose the right roles and not injure her voice.
For singers really only have one thing -- their voices, and the care and protection of them is their main concern in life. Particularly by now, 2000, when there is every incentive and pressure to stretch their resources in all directions, dramatic and musical. The media loves you well, until after tomorrow, when they feel you have had enough and all backs are turned. "Guard yourself and be careful." That was the great Mathilde Marchese's advice to all her collection of wonderful sopranos, most of whom followed her advice and gave many generations great nights at the opera.
Tahia has great interest in the operatic classical singers, and she follows names, methods and results. She laughs, and hopes some of the results show in her work.
A long way back over the tracks of time, to Mahalla, where the small girl Tahia was moving out into the quicker tempo of the musical life. She had brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and two Turkish grandfathers to cheer her on. In Mahalla, she sang Arabic music in public when she was at the primary school, which she left after 10 years to go to Cairo. She was a country girl. She had begun to study the piano when she was seven. They found she was musical as well as having a strong young voice. Music meant the Cairo Conservatoire, to which she went.
She studied voice with Violette Maqqar for seven years. During this time, the obvious thing about the young Tahia was that it was a voice, a real one, and not made but "brought forth." Violette Maqqar had said it was a lovely voice. Even ordinary listeners would agree with her, and they are important to singers, because even the untutored respond immediately to a beautiful sound -- and they make up most of the audience at an opera performance. After all, it's the masses who stand up on their seats in the "big" houses, stomp and shout and offer what in the end is love. And so operatic legends are borne by young people, who can face the sheer responsibility of being loved.
When 21, she graduated with high diplomas, and her life took a further turn towards the "goal." What is the goal? Now -- as then -- for Tahia, it is not to become a star, but to find in some operatic institution people who find sufficient interest in her talents to offer her a role which displays her virtues and colours as a performer. Now, as then, it has not changed. A young singer's life is a tale without an end. Their beginnings are always much the same. And so it is with Tahia. She feels at her age it is time she found the special circumstances which might bring this about.
Luck -- stepping into the star's shoes? This does happen. Sometimes stars do die, and the fill-in must take over, but most singers' lives are a dead straight line of hard work and unremitting grind. Hence they enjoy the love they do receive. Tahia is ready, she feels, for some of this love. But the work is frightening. She needs languages. She has more than the usual number: German, most important for her special voice type, Italian, and last but most necessary French. Then comes Arabic. If ever they do a regular repertoire in Arabic, Tahia will be more than ready for the changeover.
After 21, her voyages began. Samha El-Kholi had taken a great interest in her, and had arranged a trip to Spain accompanied by Reda El-Wakil, to study with Irmgaard Seefried, the celebrated singer from Vienna. She learned the special style necessary for one of her loves -- German lieder. Seefried was a great and special lieder expert, and from her Tahia learned a vocal diction for the language which will help her future moves, because her voice type fits exactly into German opera.
At about this time, she began singing Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, a role she has sung 25 times. One begins and ends with Mozart, she says, and later with Verdi. They are the singer's standby and private curse, because these two composers adored the soprano voice so much they made music for them so difficult they sent singers to hell. Their melodies surpass all others, and sopranos know it and rush to the sacrificial fires.
At this time, she took on the role of Donna Anna, the dramatic soprano in Don Giovanni. She was so young -- too young, really, for Mozart's cynical termagent, but she cut a thrilling, lovely figure and sang the horribly taxing music with fire, dash and ease. It was an international performance, as Dr Thomas, the conductor, said. This role widened her scope and her life. The production, much derided unfortunately, suited her emotional state at that time, and she was thrilling for an international audience.
In 1995 she was granted a scholarship as a pre-study for the Austrian PhD at the Salzburg Mozartium. Soon, she will finish her thesis, which is about opera singing in the 20th century. Her teachers in Salzburg are Professors Joseph Waling and Wolfgang Niesner, and Professor Samha El-Kholi in Cairo. She studied while in Salzburg with Barbara Ann Martin, and lastly with Thomas Hampson, a brilliant pupil of Schwarzkopf. So her schooling is of the best, and it shows: confidence, ease and naturalness, and she knows what she's talking about. She's self-critical but not self-destructive. The very bright, probing side of her opinions suggests Thomas Hampson, so she is well-armed for battle.
In Cairo, she has sung Leila in the new production of the Pearl Fishers of Bizet and in the Bizet Carmen she impersonates Michaela, the sweet country girl used by Bizet as a foil and to douse the fires of Carmen. Tahia avoids too much country girl stuff, but sings the arias strongly with thrilling notes, allowing Michaela a couple of quick critical cuts at Carmen. She is a hick of character.
Apart from a few mimis and a Musetta or two, that's about Tahia's repertoire at the Cairo Opera. And now as time moves into a new era and almost anything goes in opera -- so what is the future for Tahia Shamseddin? Her voice is on the move, growing powerful and shot through with new colours, deepening and maturing. She sings coloratura firmly and powerfully, but as a recent concert here shows, like Schwarzkopf she dislikes hurrying her coloratura, prefers proper note definition to a sweep of impressionist notes, and she likes time to place her high notes squarely in the middle, not a hit-or-miss shriek. She is a singer who sings her notes fully with no varnish or surface tricks. All this points to Wagner -- and Elsa and a lot besides.
Her difficulties now lie not with her voice but where to put it -- into which music. The mother of us all is OK, but she has a unique method of dealing with opera and its protagonists. They are suspended by the neck over a void with nothing in front and nothing behind, and where everything is inadmissible. "Wait for it, but I may be singing Musetta next season."
Tahia knows all about operatic finance: even Salzburg feels the pinch sometimes, so for Cairo opera to appear to be on its uppers is nothing new. The next season's menu is not yet announced, but it appears not to offer much for anyone, let alone a new young soprano.
Elsa has been mentioned, but Tahia has another opera heroine she's stalking: Charpentier's Louise. This is a stunner for a young lyric soprano. Fanny Heldy and Grace Moore made history in Paris with it. Music, character and age all suit Tahia. It's about a city -- Paris. Louise is not in love with anything but Paris. Provincial life stifles her -- her boyfriend bores her. Only her father, powerful bass baritone, stands in her way to liberty. He needs her, but filial love doesn't count -- Louise skips off in the night to the bright lights by the Seine, full of hope. Almost -- another mother of us all has a new victim. Will Tahia Shamseddin say anything about all this writing? No, she laughs: you do the talking, I sing.
So she may be on her way -- somewhere. Does she have enough whatever it takes to sustain her on the voyage? She laughs, but there are limits. Where's her guru? She has two. The German repertoire is as far away as Siberia. Who cares about Siberia when it's a question of sopranos?
She is the future. She has everything in reserve. Verdi: Trovatore Leonora, Fidelio and, lying in the wings, the Don Carlo Elizabeth, Otello's Desdemona. Best of all, Strauss, Arabella, Capriccio and the Marchallin.
Everyone's jealous of you if you have a top to your voice. Remember what they used to say about Viorica Ursuleac, Strauss's favourite singer. Tahia's voice is opalescent, on top, and opalescent all the way through. So why worry? Jump.
photos: Sherif Sonbol