BBC Music Magazine

An enchanting journey begins

Fatma Said’s superb debut album was the result of a deep immersion in the richly varied sounds and cultures of the Mediterran­ean, as the Egyptian soprano tells Jeremy Pound


In July 1984, Ahmed Said swam 100 metres freestyle and butterfly in 55.01 and 57.71 seconds. That’s impressive­ly quick, if not entirely surprising – he was representi­ng Egypt at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles at the time. A proud moment for the Said family, no doubt, but by no means the last. Ahmed’s strong lungs, natural talent and fierce determinat­ion evidently passed down a generation as, 37 years later, his daughter Fatma is making waves of her own. Not in the pool, however, but on the stage.

The first ever Egyptian soprano to perform at Milan’s La Scala, Fatma

Said, now 29, has appeared on major stages across the world, rubbing operatic shoulders with the likes of tenors Rolando Villazón and Juan Diego Flórez and appearing as a soloist in Mozart’s Requiem at the BBC Proms. Recital partners, meanwhile, have included the clarinetti­st Sabine Meyer and pianists Malcolm Martineau and Roger Vignoles. Two years as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist from 2016-18 provided a wealth of concert and recording experience before, in 2019, she signed a recording contract with Warner Classics. And it is her first disc,

El Nour, that has won her both the jurydecide­d BBC Music Magazine Newcomer of the Year Award and also the Vocal Award, voted for by the public. ‘Listeners will swoon’ was how our reviewer Natasha Loges neatly put it. And swoon they have.

It’s not just Said’s elegantly alluring voice that marks El Nour out, however, but also the brilliant – not to mention daring – imaginatio­n of its programmin­g.

In a journey across France, Spain and north Africa – and singing in three different languages as she goes – Said combines works by the likes of Ravel, Berlioz and Falla with those by the less familiar Obradors, Serrano and Gaubert, rounding it all off with four Arabic songs at the end. Musical partners across the disc range from Malcolm Martineau and Rafael Aguirre as her piano and guitar accompanis­ts to a string quartet and a Middle Eastern-infused jazz combo. There are twists and turns aplenty, most daring of which, perhaps, is the addition of the ney flute to ‘La flûte enchantée’, the central movement of Ravel’s Shéhérazad­e, giving this most seductive of pieces an added oriental tinge.

It’s a wonderfull­y effective touch, but did she worry that the ney might have its naysayers? ‘I worried about the whole album, not just the ney flute!’ she says. ‘Often when sopranos bring their first album out, they show off their voices with famous opera arias. I could have done that, but it has been done so many times before.

What I was doing – namely focussing on song, singing Arabic music, performing in different languages and so on – was quite risky, and I was very insecure throughout the whole process. I wanted to do something different, however. It’s always nice to think out of the box.’

Thinking outside said box was, she explains, good fun but also hard work. ‘Trying to find the right combinatio­n of songs involved a lot of research. But before one even puts together a concept like this, an artist must really love singing the pieces. So, my love for French, Spanish and Arabic music was there, and the research involved exploring the musical link between the dynamics of the three cultures. And that link is very strong – people tend to think of Arabic music as something that comes from so far away, but it is actually the influence for so many different other types of music, including classical, that we listen to today. So, as we move from one country to another over the album, I wanted to show that the atmosphere from one to the next doesn’t really change, and I wanted to connect my own culture, my world, to classical music. There’s a musical harmony there.’

Several moments in El Nour merge the cultures into one, not least Berlioz’s Zaïde, a French song about a Middle Eastern woman recounting an experience in Spain, accompanie­d by the sound of the castanets. In this instance, the castanets player was one Fatma Said. ‘They took a long time to learn!’ she laughs. ‘However, what was nice was that it is something that you can practise anywhere, any time – it’s all about teaching the muscle memory to do a certain function in your hands. And so, I would continuall­y do the hand movements when I was, say, on the bus or in a car. You really have to conquer an instrument to be able to play with

‘I wanted to do something different – it’s nice to think out of the box’

certain dynamics, rhythm and whatever while you are singing at the same time.’

Intriguing­ly, within the Spanish section of El Nour are three songs by Federico García Lorca. To many, Lorca will already be familiar as the eminent poet and playwright who was (or so it is believed) captured and murdered by Nationalis­t soldiers at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. Fewer, one suspects, are aware of his talents as a composer. ‘So many people have recently told me that they didn’t know Lorca wrote songs,’ says Said. ‘It was actually Rafael Aguirre who first suggested that I should do these songs in a recital. I started practising them, really loved them and, because I was working on a concept for my album that could include them, I put them in. Had I not had this recommenda­tion from a someone who was Spanish, I don’t think I’d have known about them for a long time. But that’s the wonderful thing about working closely with friends.’

Said says that her own journey into classical music, which began in earnest with singing lessons at the age of 14, also had an element of chance about it. ‘I think I was extremely lucky in how I landed in this world – it’s not as if you regularly meet people in Egypt who tell you they are interested in classical music! It was because I went to a German school in Cairo that I had a classical music education, and knew terms such as “symphony”, “concerto” and “Lieder” from a young age. My teachers at the school were then very supportive of me going to Germany to study singing and were able to help me to do so, as it was really quite a unique path to take. The step of leaving my home, my family and my country to live alone was, of course, very hard. It was, though, something worth taking the risk for.’

That continuing journey has seen Said set up home in both Berlin and London, plus perform around Europe and beyond, lapping up cultures and languages as she goes – an avid linguaphil­e, she already has Arabic, German, English, Spanish and French tripping fluently off the tongue.

But what about Fatma Said’s musical journey? In particular, given the success of El Nour, is there a second album in the pipeline? ‘There are some thoughts in place, and I am already brainstorm­ing,’ she replies. ‘But it takes time to come up with a nice concept – you don’t just do it overnight. So let’s just say, then, that there is something cooking.’

The prospect itself is appetising. And it’s probably safe to say the ingredient­s won’t consist of favourite opera arias.

‘So many people have recently told me they didn’t know Lorca wrote songs’

 ??  ?? All-embracing: Fatma Said sought to combine different cultures in El Nour
All-embracing: Fatma Said sought to combine different cultures in El Nour
 ??  ?? Fatma Said El Nour
Fatma Said (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano), Rafael Aguirre (guitar), Burcu Karada  (ney),
Tim Allhoff (piano) et al
Warner Classics 9029523360
Fatma Said El Nour Fatma Said (soprano), Malcolm Martineau (piano), Rafael Aguirre (guitar), Burcu Karada (ney), Tim Allhoff (piano) et al Warner Classics 9029523360
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Soprano on song:
Said records El Nour at Emil Berliner Studios
Soprano on song: Said records El Nour at Emil Berliner Studios

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