Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 September 1999
Issue No. 448
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Iman Mustafa

Iman Mustafa:

Cherchez le guru

Profile by David Blake

The vocal impact is total and happy landings may well await

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Iman Mustafa does a good job as the resident top-ranking dramatic soprano at the Cairo Opera House. She is 37-years-old -- which is still young for a dramatic soprano -- but times are hard for this rare species. In the tumultuous shake-up of the classical music scene, the diva is an endangered species, like the elephant or the whale. The scattered remains of the great ones lie around the operatic battlefield. And nothing is as dead as a dead diva. Sad, but true: Callas and her screams and millionaires are suddenly as out of date as the bustle.

Yet there is nothing like a star in any setting, particularly the operatic one. Music is a tone drabber without their sheer courage, reckless bravado and genuine splash of genius. Iman Mustafa, by the luck of natural largesse, belongs to this species, but as so often happens neither she nor those around her understand her predicament or what to do with it.

Mustafa starts to sing at a rehearsal and the vocal impact is total. No lights, costumes or side issues intervene and the voice is under a magnifier. There she goes -- Donna Anna or Thais no matter what -- and there it is, the voice, necessarily loud, full of inherent authority and often unlovely because of faulty traditions of teaching. Sometimes she falters, but it is all there, power, colour and strength.

She needs a guru. She needs a man called Leo Riemens or Jacques Steuchgold -- both dead. She also needs prayer and money. It takes lots of both to make a daughter of Zeus. Successfully launched she will arrive at immortality, a place few living beings achieve and an extremely uncomfortable one. Crowds and critics are often spiteful, revengeful and callously destructive to divas if they make the slightest error. The higher you go the easier the fall. But where is Iman Mustafa in this panoply of opulent warfare?

She is a very nice, straight, honest Cairo girl. Over six feet tall, well built and strong, patiently enduring hours of grilling rehearsal and point-making over the minutest details of her voice. She is a good listener. She says some people think she is awful and to so much of this talk she is immune. She is too big for Butterfly which is a pity because butterflies fill big venues these days. She has a small daughter and is quite unflatterable except when she feels the avenues to her rightful roles are not understood. Dramatic sopranos are not exactly people, so what does Miss Ordinary do about it? She acquires battle armour. But beneath this they remain vulnerable children.

All singers of the big roles have characters somewhere in their lives. Lurking in the shadows behind them are brothers, mothers and then the singing specialists like Riemens and Steuchgold who offer golden advice on production and theatrical know-how. They are never professional teachers but seem to drift with the current created by the "big voice". The singer comes, usually, to rely totally on these people. But Iman Mustafa has no such spirit to help her into the blue skies that surround the dramatic singer's roles.

Her voice has no break in it and goes from the low notes of the mezzo soprano to the D above high-C of the lyric soprano. Thus, she can sing all the lyrica-spinta roles. But the dramatic soprano role requires a sound different to all others for the voice must carry most of the drama of the great tormented characters whose lives are anything but normal. So the voice is louder, grander, more open than any lyric voice can manage.

Norma, the priestess who abandons children, God and country to follow a stupid and conceited general, occupier of the ancient Britons; Medea who kills her children and flies off into celestial security; Lady Macbeth, who everyone knows did a bit of murder and has some of Verdi's most exciting music to sing. Here in Egypt the favoured voice is light, airy, sunlit and happy. So where do all the murderous characters of Iman Mustafa's repertoire fit in to her operatic life?

They do not. In Cairo she is restricted mostly to lyric roles which do not suit her. She is not a frilly person. Her vocal gift is darker than the Cairo public seem to prefer.

Iman was born in Garden City, Cairo, to a violinist father who played in the Arabic Music Orchestra. He encouraged his daughter's musical ambitions. Her older sister is of course Inas Abdel-Dayem, the flautist. She is a star of stature in any orchestra, particularly her own orchestra, the Cairo Symphony. She can enliven an entire symphonic movement alone on her flute whenever the music permits. She mostly lives in Paris, where she plays, often at the Opera.

There is no feeling of rivalry between the two sisters. Iman Mustafa's career took off when she was very young. She studied with the former singer, Violet Makkar, at the Conservatoire. She began as a violinist, but when her voice was discovered, she changed. And it was Makkar whose enthusiasm showed her the way to the opera. Makkar had been impressed with her tall, Tebaldi-like voice. She took off at 20 to study for a month at the Naples Conservatoire. Later she studied in Paris with Caroline Dumas, soprano of the Paris Opera. Her movements are often haphazard, she seems to have enjoyed moving around the various operatic venues more than staying put and going slower at the Cairo Conservatoire. She was in Rome to study with the great baritone, Paolo Silveri, who was impressed and predicted great things for her. She also sang Desdemona in four performances in Paris before coming back to Cairo and the Opera House.

She sang concerts with Hassan Kami, odd performances of La Traviata (Violetta), Aida and particularly the Ballo in Maschera of Verdi. This difficult opera suited her best of all. She seemed to have abandoned floating and produced a performance genuinely moving. Perhaps the wild, unruly actions of Emilia permitted her to relate somewhere to something because in life she seems unrelated to anything. An air of abstraction surrounds her.

Does she concentrate? Her critics say no. Anyway, the role of Emilia suits her. She belongs in it and is not a visiting outsider from another opera. The voice manages the nasty difficulties of range, tempo and feeling Verdi imposes on the character. In the long and tremendous duet with the strange king and the imperious solo arias her voice made the nights. It is frayed at the edges when pressed, but strength and sheer volume is what the role requires. In these performances it became clear what Iman Mustafa is, and she is elemental. She doesn't think or plan her effects and her technical needs are simple because of her voice. She is just there on the scene, period. She just sings. She gets lost. It doesn't matter. She suits the roles that belong to her. Her performances keep the door open to the roles that really await her: Norma Fedora, Fanciulla del West and the Puccini Manon.

Will they ever perform Wagner at the Cairo Opera? If so, Iman Mustafa is ready. Her repertoire is growing. She is ideal for late Strauss (Richard). But this is the German repertory -- the never never land of the Cairo Opera. Two concerts permitted her to sing the Liebestodt from Tristan and Isolde. The second performance was better than the first. The huge wave note she must deliver at the climax of the scene was the real thing. The German idiom suits her tone.

She also sings Strauss's four last songs, alpine heights for the soprano of power which were dedicated Flagstad. Again in the last song of the four she loosed a long soft tone, autumnal and palpitating which intimated exactly what this singer might achieve.

Probably the highlight of her operatic life so far is her performance of Thais at the Cairo Opera. Some critics said, as usual, that she looked like a headmistress at a girl's finishing school. This was because the clothes, in spite of being French, were hideous on her. Instead of being tall and alluring, as she is, the clothes made her look like a wheelbarrow. Her performance, though, was affecting. At the rehearsal for this performance, under Patrique Fournillier, the musical director, she repeated long stretches of the opera, alive with high-Cs and sweeping phrases. Again and again Fournillier demanded repeats. It went on and on, for hours, with Iman almost wilting. It looked as if she would almost faint. "Just once more, Iman," the quiet but lethally demanding voice of Fournillier came. So Iman gave it out and there was the scene of Thais before us, perfectly steady and vocally shining. It was a triumph. The prima donna of the abstract transparent approach had been vindicated.

Iman Mustafa's story at the Cairo Opera is not an original one. All opera houses have weary, troublesome hours over their "dramatics". Again not original. These sopranos do carry all the vocal punch in the grandest opera houses. Their roles are the longest, most complex in any repertoire.

Everyone, as a matter of course, goes to see and hear a new hochdramatische -- the largest, biggest and best of anything is granted them. But as a rule they are the best behaved of singers. There are so few big voices for any category, for the exalted first dramatic singer, her choice of parts, producers and maestros is endless, endlessly troublesome and exciting. She is paid the most and needs the most and if agreement is not immediate she mostly walks out. One famous prima donna at the Milan Scala chucked her recalcitrant partner-hero down the grand staircase. She had been a very good friend of Napoleon Bonaparte so the all-powerful Scala directors bowed to her wishes for her tenor's immediate erasure and got on with the job of doing as she wished. And history tells us that she wished for Norma and became the greatest of her day.

Norma is a name Iman Mustafa must surely be getting used to these days. There are no Normas around at present: the world is large, rich and extravagant but still no Normas. Italy, Britain, and Germany are bereft. Finland may have one later in the soprano Carita Mattila. Nice to say Egypt has one for sure if given the right production and care -- Iman Mustafa. Since the New York Academy of Music became the New York Metropolitan it has in all these years had only five Normas. Yet this Opera fills the house with vocal splendour, dramatic fireworks and controversy. Not a bad idea for the Cairo Opera House to work on because if Iman Mustafa's voice improves, as it has done in the last year, for sure an engagement will take her far away. She is rapidly reaching a position of having all the guns to fire but no one to take a shot at.

She might try the late Strauss Operas. Daphne, the Greek legend of a beauty who turned into a tree because God became jealous of her. She could try Danae, who loved money and gold more than men. Zeus raped her in a shower of golden rain. To get the gold she had to put up with the other.

Iman Mustafa's position at the Cairo Opera is curious. Having all these talents she yet allows everyone to treat her without due respect for her true worth. She is unlucky because German is not, for any of the Cairo pundits, the language of song. And what of Schubert, Brahms and Wagner. At present they find it impossible to take the jump, but keep to Italian.

But times really are changing everywhere, even in the Opera-Theatre of Cairo. Perhaps if authority pays the same attention to German, Arabic and American as it does to Italian, even though it was thumbs down on Puccini's Turandot, the Cairo repertory will take a jump somewhere out of the present rut. And Iman Mustafa, if given at least encouragement, might be just the one to start the fireworks at the Opera House. So where is the guru to watch over her?

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