Joys of making opera speak Arabic

Saturday, 9 July 2016
James Haines-Young
The Daily Star

BEIRUT: “Antar and Abla” is a tale of love and war that’s centuries older than “Romeo and Juliet.” Based on the life of warrior poet Antarah ibn Shaddad, the tale was composed during the Jahiliyya, the Arabian Peninsula’s pre-Islamic period. The story is so woven into this region’s cultural history that many regard it as a defining story of the Arab people.

With all the pomp and ceremony that Casino du Liban can muster, Opera Lebanon’s first performance of “Antar and Abla” opened Friday.

Sitting in on one of Opera Lebanon’s dress rehearsals, the dozens-strong chorus gives a bassy weight to the crescendo of sound, topped off by the trembling high notes of the soprano in the center. The large cast and the detailed costumes certainly lend weight of numbers to the performance, but it’s not an unearned weight.

The set piece scenes have the air of a wide, expansive cinematic grandeur, far beyond the simply dressed stage. As the classic tale progresses and the two tribes go to war, the pulsing throng of on-stage bodies are reminiscent of a crowd sequence from film classics like “Ben-Hur.” Blades arch and slice as the singing raises and falls with the ebb and flow.

Nearly a year and a half in the pipeline, the performance bills itself the first true Arabic opera. While there have indeed been operas both in the Arab world and in the Arabic language, the show’s director Mirana Naimi explains that the majority of these have been Arabic-language translations of European operas. She also points out that their production of “Antar and Abla” is the first to use a new vocal technique that weaves Arabic to the music.

There are always distinct challenges when reconciling Western and Eastern classical music. Classically trained vocalist Rima Khcheich, well-known for her incorporating Western instrumentation and styles into the performance of Arabic forms like muwashahat, is adept at transcending such boundaries.

A voice instructor at the Conservatoire Libanais – who was not involved in preparing “Antar and Abla” – Khcheich describes the challenges of any project that looks to adapt an Arabic style to a predominantly western musical form.

“There’s a difficulty working with different arrangements that have limitations of the Arabic scales,” she notes. “So many change the scales or simplify the melody for western instruments, which just ruins the flavor of the music.”

This is one challenge that Opera Lebanon and the performers came up against.

“Lots and lots of vowels and consonants in Arabic come from the throat,” says soprano Lara Jokhadar al-Aro, who plays Abla, “and in opera singing from the throat sound horrible.”

She says the Lebanese Conservatory has designed an academic curriculum that has overcome many of these challenges and allows the singers to project their voice in their native tongue but remain in keeping with the traditions of opera.

“What I wasn’t expecting was the beautiful oriental perfume that you can smell in the music,” Jokhadar al-Aro explained. “It really sounds like an Italian bel canto but there are many places that you hear the oriental flavor coming through. The beats and the percussion of the music that you can hear is really beautiful.”

Despite studying for years at the Lebanese Conservatory, and traveling widely in Europe to study operatic singing and music theory, Jokhadar al-Aro considers herself a novice next to her co-stars – particularly veteran Ghassan Saliba.

“Saliba is a star, a really big star,” she explained. “I grew up listening to his voice and watching his musical theater. He’s amazing. He has a gorgeous voice, and he’s been doing this for almost 40 years on stage. I learned a lot from him.”

Both Jokhadar al-Aro and Charbel Akiki – who plays Amara Abs, a wealthy and unscrupulous arms-trader – say they have learned a lot through the process, despite having studied opera for years.

“I studied for seven years in the Lebanese Conservatory in the Arabic field and I have previous expectance in singing the Latin opera, but this is definitely different,” Akiki explained. “It was very fun to do this story because it is something purely oriental.”

Akiki did think there was a heavy weight in performing such a well-known story. “You can’t deceive the audience by telling them that Antar was like this when he wasn’t,” he said, “because the image of Antar should remain the same as it was.”

This weight of doing justice to such a beloved tale played on Mirana Naimi as well.

“Yes it’s a big responsibility,” Naimi explained. “The weight you have as a director is that you have a true story – Antar was real and you’re reading what he wrote. I was very scared but also very confident because you will see the beauty in [what we have made].”

While preserving the authenticity of the text, Naimi wasn’t worried about adapting it to fit her own production. “Like in every work, in every text, you try to create a new perspective and a new vision.”

“Antar and Abla” finishes its two-night run at Casino du Liban