Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
14 - 20 December 2000
Issue No.512
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Muse, muse where are you now?

By David Blake

David BlakeSo Nabila Erian shines again, not this time as a star-encrusted luminary of the crown and coronet era of the jewel box of Ezbekiya, but as a muse.

The vanities never really get burned up, as David Blake well knows; they rise and shine again. Nabila Erian has begun what she hopes will be a new gold rush of her own -- the first Arabic grand opera about Christmas and the Holy Family, to be shown for two nights (20 and 21 December at the Main Hall of the Cairo Opera House). She calls it a drama, rather verissimo, because there is only one act and in it the family is literally on the run. They get as far as Assiut, and then begin the trek back home.

Erian has always had courage and she will need it for this enterprise. She has been responsible for the entire work: the idea originated with her and she is producer and director. She assembled the costumes, and will sing, too, as a sort of commentator to the action. The singers will be accompanied by what is left of the Cairo Opera Orchestra after its recent spin of rough weather.

Nabila ErianDespite limited funds, Erian remains full of hope. The reason? Because of the quality of the music, she says.

Egyptian opera, she thinks, has been halted by a white elephant -- the idea of something purely Egyptian coming from the special cadences and melodic blocks that form the sung music of Egyptian operettas. Yet the tarab, the Egyptian bel canto, must somehow be adapted to fit the melodic lines of western opera, forged in a tradition that combines the words with the musical notes.

In some ways these two forms, the Arabic tarab and the long-flowing vocal lines --prima la musica, doppo la parole -- of European opera, have never been combined successfully. They stand apart, with an almost racist dislike for each other.

Nabila Erian says the composer of her creation, From Egypt I Called My Son, is the first to come up with a successful answer to this problem. His name is Nagui Youssef Zamar, an attorney who spends his days at the courts of law and his nights writing music. He would so far be classified as an amateur. Her claims for his work, therefore, are high. She says the music is dramatic and directly descriptive of what is going on on stage. The Virgin is a soprano and sings a duet with Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist. Joseph does not sing, but the archangel Gabriel does, and his name is George Kayrillos. There is a large chorus. The music does not roll up into large climaxes, as in Europe; no aria is even five minutes long; short parlando sounds is perhaps the best way to describe it. One's sympathy goes with Madame Erian. She has done everything, even to marketing the tickets. Her own feelings are rather like those the late, great Lillian Baylis, creator of the original Sadlers Wells opera. Let us, like Lillian, fall to our knees and hope the soprano can manage without a salary for a month or two.

It is pennies from heaven, and a lot of love. And if "From Egypt I Called My Son" can help hoist the opera house from out of the doldrums into which it has lately sunk, truly the powers that be will have shown divine propensities.

Parsley for clover

Banat El-Nil; Small Hall: Cairo Opera House, 8 December

Here come the banat. They make no bones, they make no fuss, but they make good music.

They go quickly but very diligently, to their places in the orchestra, a 17 piece band. They're tall and composed, well set up and absolutely healthy. They have been healthy for a long time now, from the time they first played at the Al-Ghouri Palace and Cairo had found something new. And they're still new. They are no dead white sisters with withering masks, long black hair falling over the eyes. They are not chic; they are fresh. It is not horrible. Fresh smells good, and they have a nice parsley and primrose smell about them.

This was how they started and they have continued in the same way. En route, though, they have acquired a remarkable musicality and insight into how tunes are placed in space, an insight that any orchestra in Cairo would do well to emulate.

Bints, girls, young ladies -- but they are neither homely nor aunt-like. They are hard-working musicians who understand their director, Mervat Rifaat, and they make rich and fruity tones. The singers in the choral parts of the programme do not absent-mindedly mouth their words but are perfectly straight and to the point. Often the sounds are full of thrill.

A look and a listen at what's going on around the orchestra increases admiration for what they do with their own music. The company is made up of 17 players, naturally all girls, and the same number of instruments.

After an overture came the solo singer of the evening, Abeer Amin. She fits into the Banat show very sleekly: tall, black-clad, but in song full-voiced and ironic with her words. She never solicits or flirts. She is amazingly sophisticated and has her dignity. Abeer Amin fits so well with the ensemble because she sings like the orchestra plays. They all seem to go back to their beginnings, making a sort of synthesis of classical Egyptian songs with an injection of something else more worldly and, like the orchestra, the singers give the impression that they keep their ears open.

Abeer Amin's performance was backed by a small chorus of five. An Abdel-Wahab song, Travel Alone, showed how their treatment could freshen up the original yet keep the romantic atmosphere going, with its swishy, decadent, smiling surface.

Flutes and the ney were much used. This most Egyptian of all instruments kept its sadness, but the players, Hanaa and Maha Rifaat, the latter the sister of the Banat's manager, never let the music slither into easy nostalgia. So the ney shed no tears, and instead smiled bravely from out the orchestra.

Even the small chorus was interesting. This all-girl outfit never slipped into soft-edged material, nor did it go into macho show-girl muscle flexing. It stayed feminine, and showed how rewarding such a ploy can be. Nothing was boring or sexist. They were just expert musicians doing their best and asked only for their just rights as artists. This they more than received from a large audience.

In a few of the choral pieces they showed, with merely five voices, what changes can be wrung from simple material. There was a soprano, mezzo, counter tenor, and a type of voice with stentorian, dark baritonal tone. They all know how to let go, and sent the Small Hall into shivers, especially the baritone. The Banat never do anything by halves, and so the baritone really let out her full voice with a Rigoletto-like vibrato.

The Major key suits them best. All their singing and playing had the same interesting feeling -- the long, slow decline of the routine romantic sound does not suit them. They are a romantic team, but they play it bright, active and full of tension. They gave the comforting feeling that, dressed in golf suits or see-through strip pearls and silver lamé, the Nile Girls will get it right. Funny bunnies may be, but to them it is the music that is the serious stuff.

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