Fatma Said (25) is a so­prano. She is the win­ner of the 2016 Veron­ica Dunne In­ter­na­tional Singing Com­pe­ti­tion and one of the BBC’s New Gen­er­a­tion Artists. Born in Cairo, Egypt, she cur­rently lives in Mi­lan, Italy

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Life - - WAKING HOURS - In con­ver­sa­tion with Ciara Dwyer

I’m al­ways in search of sleep. When I have noth­ing to do in the morn­ing, I try not to set the alarm. This job re­quires a lot of sleep, be­cause that’s when your body re­gains its en­ergy. Your vo­cal cords get to rest, and your mind rests, too. Be­ing an opera singer is like be­ing a sports­man. You need to get enough sleep in or­der to be able to per­form. These days, direc­tors ask so much from singers. As well as hav­ing a beau­ti­ful voice, you have to be able to sing in cer­tain po­si­tions, and do other things on stage, while singing.

I was born in Egypt. Af­ter at­tend­ing a Ger­man school in Cairo, I went on to study mu­sic in Ber­lin. Now I’m liv­ing in Mi­lan. I’ve been here since November 2013. I came on a schol­ar­ship to study at the Opera Academy of La Scala. They train young singers, and give us the op­por­tu­nity to sing small roles at the the­atre. To per­form on the stage of La Scala is a dream for any opera singer. This is where all the stars have per­formed — so­pra­nos like Maria Cal­las. At the mo­ment, I am per­form­ing the role of Pam­ina in Mozart’s Next Sun­day, I’ll be do­ing a recital

Magic Flute.

in the Na­tional Con­cert Hall. This is a di­rect re­sult of win­ning the 2016 Veron­ica Dunne In­ter­na­tional Singing Com­pe­ti­tion in Dublin.

In Mi­lan, I live in a rather un­usual place. It’s called Casa Verdi — which is the house of Verdi — and it’s a re­tire­ment home for old mu­si­cians. Be­fore the fa­mous Ital­ian com­poser Giuseppe Verdi died, he put all his money into one pro­ject. The idea is that those who lived their lives do­ing mu­sic de­serve to live in a house where peo­ple will take care of them. If you saw the movie you’d have some idea. There is a clinic here, but there are also mu­sic rooms, and it’s full of pi­anos.

When I came to Mi­lan, I didn’t have much time to look for an apart­ment, and it is an ex­tremely ex­pen­sive city. They started tak­ing in young mu­si­cians in Casa Verdi to so­cialise with the el­derly. There are about 12 of us here. It’s one of the most in­ter­est­ing ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve had in Mi­lan. I have my own room here, but once I get out of this room, there is no pri­vacy what­so­ever. I’m liv­ing in a big house with so many peo­ple, and you even have tourists in the foyer. It’s quite a his­toric place, and Verdi’s grave


is nearby. Liv­ing in this house, ev­ery day is a life les­son. Some­times I find it de­press­ing, be­cause I come from an ex­tremely fam­ily-ori­ented home, and I hope that I would never come to a point where my fam­ily would put me in a home. On the other hand, I have so many en­rich­ing ex­pe­ri­ences too. For lunch and din­ner, I sit at the same ta­ble as these peo­ple, and they tell me about their lives in the golden age of opera. They have worked with mu­si­cal greats like Maria Cal­las, and con­duc­tors Her­bert von Kara­jan and Clau­dio Ab­bado. They see me as some­one who is out there. When I come home at the end of the day, they want to hear my news.

In the morn­ings, I’m al­ways in a rush. In Egypt, break­fast is a very im­por­tant meal, and peo­ple eat it to­gether. But it’s dif­fer­ent here. Ital­ians don’t have a big pas­sion for break­fast. They have cof­fee all the time, and I do too, along with a brioche. Or I might have a late lunch. In Italy, peo­ple get to­gether to eat af­ter work. They start with an aper­i­tif at 6pm and fin­ish around mid­night. The food is de­li­cious. At first, it wasn’t easy for me to con­trol my ap­petite. I put on six ki­los, and I was dev­as­tated when my dresses didn’t fit me. Af­ter that, I lost weight.

When I ar­rived in Italy, I didn’t know how to speak Ital­ian, and it was a dis­as­ter. I had to start learn­ing very quickly. I had to over­come the fact that I was mak­ing a lot of mis­takes while speak­ing. I nearly had a ner­vous break­down af­ter the first three months. Ital­ians are very ex­pres­sive. They speak with their hands, and have loud voices. I couldn’t un­der­stand when they were mak­ing jokes and when they were sad. It was very dif­fi­cult, be­cause I’m very ex­pres­sive too. I wanted to say so many things and I couldn’t. Then I sur­rounded my­self with as many Ital­ian peo­ple as pos­si­ble, and I started lis­ten­ing to old Ital­ian mu­sic. That helped me a lot.

My days vary. Some­times I do mas­ter­classes at the academy, or I might have pri­vate les­sons, or I could be re­hears­ing. I en­joy ev­ery bit of it. We are treated like pro­fes­sion­als, and you have to be very well pre­pared. You must know your mu­sic on your first day of re­hearsals. If you make mis­takes, a nice con­duc­tor might give you a sec­ond chance, but if it doesn’t work out, they will re­place you. That is the pro­fes­sional world of opera.

There are so many days when you could hear very bad news — for ex­am­ple, the death of a friend or a fam­ily mem­ber — and you still have to go out on stage and per­form. You are a pro­fes­sional. It’s a tough job, and in or­der to do it, I have to be completely in love with it.

I ar­rive at the opera house two hours be­fore a pro­duc­tion starts. When I am get­ting my hair and make-up done, I re­lax. Then I do some phys­i­cal warmups, so that I don’t strain my­self on stage. Even if I am re­peat­ing the opera for the tenth time, I’m al­ways ner­vous, be­cause the voice is al­ways dif­fer­ent. There is a great en­ergy in the house. Some­times peo­ple don’t want to clap, be­cause they don’t want to ruin the mo­ment. You feel all those lit­tle de­tails, as if you are ex­chang­ing en­ergy with the au­di­ence. At the end, when you take your bow, it’s an over­whelm­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But it’s the same feel­ing that makes you want to do it all over again.

I never thought I’d be singing a lead role in La Scala. Who knows what the fu­ture will bring? All I know is that I need to be ready for it.

I didn’t speak Ital­ian. It was a dis­as­ter. Ital­ians are very ex­pres­sive. They speak with their hands and have loud voices

As part of the Sun­day Mati­nee Series at the Na­tional Con­cert Hall, D2, Fatma Said, so­prano, and James Vaughan, pi­ano, per­form next Sun­day, Oc­to­ber 23 at 3pm. Tick­ets, €20. Tel: (01) 417-0000, or see nch.ie

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