On February 14, 2023, the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East commemorated its tenth anniversary and inaugural Rafik Hariri Awards to celebrate exceptional leaders across the Middle East and North Africa region who embody the center’s values and have excelled in the fields of business, entrepreneurship, social impact, and artistic excellence. Egyptian opera singer Fatma Said was awarded the center’s Artistic Excellence Award.
The soprano has received numerous international awards, including her selection as a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist. She also became the first non-European to win Germany’s Best Young Artist prize and has earned both vocal and young artist awards from BBC Music Magazine and Gramophone, respectively. Our MENASource editor, Holly Dagres, interviewed Said on February 13 at the Watergate Hotel to discuss her life and achievements.
MENASOURCE: Many girls interested in music growing up want to be pop singers. There are so many prominent female pop singers in the Arab world—for instance, Nancy Ajram, Sherine, and Elissa—so, I’m curious, why choose opera?
FATMA SAID: It was very clear from the beginning when I was younger that my voice wasn’t developing into the Arab pop direction at all, so if I tried to sing Nancy Ajram, Sherine, or Elissa, I don’t think I would be as convincing. I had a classical music education at school and that is where it took off. We didn’t learn Arab music education at school sadly—it’s not something that I’m proud of.
I think that in music the education system in Egypt should change, but the only music education I knew was classic musical education, which was Schumann, Schobert, Bach, and Beethoven. So, at a very young age, we learned how to read notes and we had a classical music education and that is where my voice headed. I used to join the choir and we sang classical stuff. I had a big love for pop but not Arabic pop—mostly American pop.
One of my biggest influences—not musically, but artistically—was Whitney Houston and, of course, Mariah Carey. I also love Christina Aguilera and Beyoncé. These were singers I grew up listening to. I wish I had the voice to do what they are doing but they were definitely big influences in my life. I think, at a certain level, it doesn’t matter if you are an opera singer, a pop singer, a jazz singer—the level that you have to have to sing like that and express [yourself] like that is really incredible and that is what I hope to achieve in opera because I think that opera can be just as powerful. But I was just put on the path of classical music. I don’t think that I was put on a path to do anything differently. It was destiny, I guess.
MENASOURCE: It sounds like you were into music at a very young age and that was your trajectory, but where did that all start?
FATMA SAID: Music was always part of my life, but I never decided it was going to be part of my life until my senior year at school. It was a very important decision when I was graduating high school to figure out what I was going to study. I think that was the point when I decided, “You are going to do music. That is something you are going to study.” But, before that, I don’t think that I ever thought about music so seriously. I loved it as a hobby, but I don’t think I was thinking at fourteen that I was going to become a singer. Not at all. It never crossed my mind.
I remember my dream was to be a dentist. I also had other dreams. I thought, if not dentistry, then English literature. These were my thoughts—not music at all. But maybe because [there was no] possibility of doing it in Egypt it wasn’t an option. When I had the possibility to do it abroad, then it became an option. I started thinking about music when I had the option of traveling.
MENASOURCE: When did that happen?
FATMA SAID: That was 2009 when I graduated high school. I went to the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin (Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin) and I did my bachelor of music there in classical music. I then left Berlin and went to study in Milan, where I worked and studied in the opera there at the Accademia del Teatro alla Scala. It was a great and important experience because this gave me a chance to work on stage.
In Berlin, I was very protected. The stage I knew was the stage of the school, but I didn’t get out there. I [wanted so much] to get experience on stage with opera directors and different musical conductors and just get myself out there to see how I feel with opera because I felt it was lacking while I was in Berlin. There was too much focus on chamber music, which I also love, so I spent great years in Milan. Then I decided to go back to Berlin after three years to do my master’s degree after getting my opera degree in Milan. So, all-in-all, I basically studied for nine years, but it was great because I think as an opera singer you’re always a student.
I’m technically not a student now because I finished and I don’t belong to an institution anymore, but it doesn’t mean I’m not a student. I am still in close touch with my teacher. We still work together. I still have coaches. It’s really difficult to think that you have arrived at a certain level and you don’t study, or you don’t need to make sure that everything is working well with your teacher. It doesn’t work like that—or it doesn’t for me, at least. I really need guidance and someone to make sure everything is in place and intact and everything is functioning because, with this job, we travel a lot and it is really easy to fall into technical traps. It’s really good to have someone who knows you really well and has a good ear and is able to quickly tell when something is going south because it happens a lot in this industry sometimes.
We focus too much on interpretation and doing what the director and the conductor are telling us to do and we don’t realize we have been neglecting other things that we need to do. That can sometimes drive our technique to a place we [don’t] want and we could have some vocal issues because of that in the long run. So, I think having a teacher is important and my musical education was never actually finished in that sense.
MENASource: Tell me more about your latest album, Kaleidoscope. I know you mentioned Whitney Houston and saw one of her songs was included. The album truly is a kaleidoscope of music genres.
FATMA SAID: So, Kaleidoscope is basically born out of my love and passion to sing all of these different things. It’s how I grew up and this album represents me in so many ways because I’m definitely not only an opera singer, with all my respect to opera singers.
I know opera singers who tell me they don’t know how to sing happy birthday. If they sing, they have to use their big opera voice and, for me, this felt very limiting because I didn’t grow up in a musician’s house and that gave me the chance when I was young to listen to so many different things. Classical music wasn’t obligatory to listen to and wasn’t the only thing I had to listen to at home.
There was a lot of pop music, musicals like Phantom of the Opera, Arabic music, French music, so that was what I heard while growing up. When I used to sing when I was young that was what I sang. Maybe not so greatly, but that was what I really brought to Kaleidoscope. It was a way to say, “Yes, I’m a classical opera singer. I know how to do that, but this is also me.” And the idea of Kaleidoscope is a bit philosophical in the sense that I feel like the kaleidoscope. My soul doesn’t change but with every click and every turn you hear a different voice. I think this is something a lot of opera singers don’t get to do on a disc—to show these different voices—and I was very happy to show it on a classical disc.
MENASOURCE: You mentioned listening to Arabic music growing up. The first person that comes to mind is Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.
FATMA SAID: Umm Kulthum is definitely one of the most important—if not the most important—singer of all time in the Arab world. But she wasn’t really someone I [listened to] so much. I think she was too hardcore for me growing up. I used to listen to Abdel Halim Hafez and Mohammed Abdel Wahab instead—also, Farid al-Atrash, Mohamed Fawzi, and Fairuz. Of course, I adore Umm Kulthum. She’s really incredible. I think that she is the greatest singer. She had a great combination of connecting her soul with the world and making sense of the sound more than just the words she was singing. It is very hard to find singers who can follow this [incredible] skill. Without even understanding the words, you can understand what her soul was telling you just by listening, but I didn’t listen to her at all growing up.
MENASOURCE: Can you explain the importance of bridging the gap between the east and west in music?
FATMA SAID: The moment I left Egypt and went to study in Germany, it was immediately like, “In your country you do that and, in our country, we do this,” which is absolutely fine. I came extremely prepared. When I went to Germany, I was prepared to learn about the country itself while still being true to myself and my roots, but I felt so much that people—instead of looking at similarities and what we have in common—were looking at how different we are.
I wanted to celebrate this difference and what we have in common, especially musically. On my first album, El Nour, the main idea was to combine influences of Spanish, French, and Arabic music. There were so many European composers inspired by the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and so much music that has been composed in the last hundred years has been inspired by MENA. The orientalist period was very influential in music. No one is doing anything on their own. We are all inspirations to each other all throughout history, so I always want to celebrate that.
I feel extremely responsible for representing my language and my country’s music abroad when I have the chance to and [feel] responsible as an opera singer to bring opera closer to my people. I’m not saying that people must love opera, but they must have the choice to love it or not. It must be represented. So, I hope I can always represent the classical voice in the best way possible.
MENASOURCE: Do you feel there is prejudice towards our region’s music or is it just seen as stylistically different?
FATMA SAID: Things have changed in the last four or five years. In 2009, I was in Germany, and I felt that people weren’t as open to my world as they are receptive to learning about it now. The 2011 Arab Spring played a role and the influx of refugees played a role as well. There has been [more] global awareness of what else is happening in the world in the European countries and I think this is good. I think it was well received.
I lived in Germany a long time and it made the Germans—I respect it a lot—very open to starting to get to know more about the culture that is being received in their own country. I have a lot of respect for that. So, it has become different. When I started singing in Arabic and showing them my culture and my sound, it was very well received, and I’m extremely touched and moved by the reactions I have received.
MENASOURCE: What does it mean to be a pioneer Arab woman in this field?
FATMA SAID: I don’t know if I am one. I definitely look up to so many women who are pioneers in their field. I think it’s important, especially for young girls and young women, because it is such a great feeling to know that you are able to inspire people to be better people, better at their jobs, or better at what they love, [and that you are able to] encourage them to make the decision they want to make just by being yourself. I think this is really amazing. It is really fantastic. I’m really thankful to all of the pioneer women I have met, even [those] not in my field. At a certain point, it doesn’t matter if you are a tennis player or a singer or a writer—at a very professional level, it is all the same. They’re all very inspiring stories and its great and I hope for more women to become pioneers in their field and inspire other young women, especially in the Arab world. We need more of that.
MENASOURCE: What would be your advice to a young girl interested in music and looking to you for inspiration?
FATMA SAID: I would tell young people not to give up and work really hard because, when you want something at a very high level, there is a cost that comes with it. It is easy to say you want to work really hard, but part of the cost is things pushing you to give up. It is easy to say, “I am done. I give up. I’m tired.” This job comes with a lot of sacrifices that aren’t on social media and aren’t there while we’re taking our bows in front of a standing ovation. A lot of people underestimate the amount of strength, resilience, and determination it takes to actually do that. And that’s not talked about enough. That’s why a lot of artists feel extremely lonely because they face this alone. But I want to tell young people not to give up when they face that because that is the hardest challenge.
MENASOURCE: What was your most memorable performance?
FATMA SAID: Maybe the last one. The one at the newly-opened Grand Egyptian Museum. It was a very memorable concert. I worked really hard to present some of the songs at this concert. The thing is, with Arabic music, it isn’t like you just go to a music library or you contact a publisher and they give you the score. More than 90 percent of the scores are not officially registered, so you cannot really just go and find a score. This is a really big issue in my country and I’m working really hard to change that—it is a big project I’m working on.
However, I have worked very hard to get very special arrangements written for the music I choose. If we just keep doing the same things, people will get bored. So, my joy and my happiness were being able to sing a lot of new things in that concert that I worked on to bring to life to this wonderful audience. That was also the first ever concert taking place in the new museum, and that was so special because I was singing and a tall statue of Ramses was amid the audience just looking at me. I don’t think that I will ever experience something like that again. Singing songs about Egypt in the Egyptian museum and singing about the pyramids and having them two kilometers away is something really special.
MENASOURCE: If you could perform alongside anyone, who would it be?
FATMA SAID: Beyoncé! I don’t know how, but definitely Beyoncé. She is one of the artists I really admire. I have watched all of her documentaries and all of her performances. From what I see—through what she portrays and when I see her talk and interview—I feel Beyoncé is a very honest person and is very true to what she does. That is something that I really admire. It is not easy to see when you look at such powerful figures. They tend to hide this side and I feel that she is very much herself. This is what attracts me in an artist. That’s why I want to sing with Beyoncé. She is truthful. She is real.
Same with Ed Sheeran. I think he is also one of my role models. I would love to sing with him more. That is something I’m looking for: real people, because the experience with them on stage would be really genuine and would come from the heart and to the heart. These people can teach you so much just by being real and through their art.
MENASOURCE: What music are you listening to right now?
FATMA SAID: I listen to completely different things [on any given day]. I don’t stick to any one album. It could be classical and then Arabic and then a Latin American salsa. Or a Korean melody—it could be anything. My playlist is a huge mess (she pulls out her playlist). A lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber—he is one of my favorite composers. I have Abdel Halim Hafez, Strauss, Algo Contigo, which is completely different, and tango songs. One of my favorite composers, Michel Legrand, who is French, and then L’Elisir d’Amore [the opera], out of the blue. I don’t think I have a proper playlist.
MENASOURCE: What’s next for you?
FATMA SAID: I’m starting my residence in Berlin this year, which is really nice. I’m an artist in residence at the concert house there and it will be nice to be back in Berlin. I will be going back next week and staying until Mid-March and going and coming until May for concerts. I’m going to do a Baroque project and a lovely concert—more Egyptian inspired music. I’m doing Strauss concerts with Iván Fischer and then another Baroque project separately.
And I’m doing the Schubert festival in Austria at the end of April. Then I have to prepare for the new opera written by George Benjamin, which will be premiering in July in Aix-en-Provence in France, which I’m very excited about. And it has been written especially for my voice, so it is a world premiere.
Holly Dagres is editor of the Atlantic Council’s IranSource and MENASource blogs, and a nonresident senior fellow with the Middle East Programs. She also curates The Iranist newsletter. Follow her on Twitter: @hdagres.