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In Lebanon, ‘Elitist’ Opera Music is Looking to Redefine Itself

Opera has been part of Lebanon’s entertainment scene since 1930, when the National Higher Conservatory of Music  (LNHCM) was founded in the capital Beirut by the famous Lebanese composer Wadih Sabra. Ninety years later, the art form is looking to redefine itself.

For most music lovers, opera is a major step in understanding European culture and music. In Lebanon, it is the LNHCM that brings international opera figures to the country or organizes private events for neophytes. For example, pianist David Aladashvili and mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili performed an evening of Georgian music – a sign that opera in Lebanon remains mostly European, although this is slowly changing.

In 2016, composer, conductor and Opera Lebanon’s artistic director Maroun Rahi composed Antar and Abla, the first Arabic opera. He was also the assistant coordinator of the first Arabic opera singing program, which started in 1993 at the LNHCM under the supervision of Lebanese soprano Yolla Younès Nassif.

“This program aspired to give the Arab opera performer a technique specific to Arabic singing, sparing him from using a technique of articulation specific to a foreign language, in this case Western,” Rahi told Fanack Chronicle. “Arabs couldn’t bear to listen to their language pronounced in this kind of song with strong deficiencies. This alteration in the articulation has fuelled the idea that opera singing is not meant to be sung in Arabic. But Yolla Nassif was convinced that opera singing was quite possible in Arabic, provided that the letters of this language, or their articulation, were adapted to a singing system that was specific to them. This is what the French and Germans did to distinguish themselves from Italian opera singing … [Yolla] was able to create this technique, generating an opera singing method specific to the Arabic language.”

Lebanese librettist Antoine Maalouf wrote Antar and Abla. It was conceived in two acts and interpreted by 75 singers, all from the LNHCM’s Arabic opera singing program, and featured costumes inspired by Arabic tradition and names. The work was presented for the first time in July 2016, at the Casino of Lebanon, then during a summer festival. “People really related to it,” Rahi said. “They were familiar with the golden age of the Rahbani brothers’ and Feyrouz’s operettas between 1952 and 2010.”

Music-Lebanese opera

Antar and Abla also travelled to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where Rahi said it was well received. “What is important to highlight is that Arabic opera is trying to become an international school like the Russian, French, German and Italian ones. This kind of art is not as widespread in the Arab world as in Western countries.”

But that is changing, he added. “I feel that people relate more to Arabic opera now, and can open their artistic landscape to other types of opera.” As if to prove it, Rahi is currently preparing a new Arabic opera production for the Cairo Opera House in Egypt and Royal Muscat Opera House in Oman for October 2019. The production will then travel around the Gulf before returning to Lebanon.

Lebanese opera singers have also found fame abroad, notably Matteo el-Khodr, 32, who signed a major contract with Universal Music France aged just 18. “I was told that I am a countertenor, a rare voice for men,” el-Khord told Fanack Chronicle. “I studied in Paris at the Ecole Normale de Musique and then introduced baroque music in Lebanon, while touring everywhere in Europe.”

Now living back in his home country, he regrets that opera music and local artists are not promoted more. “Opera remains elitist, and we don’t even have an opera house in Lebanon,” he said. “Many people have tried to revive some places, and organizers of the summer festivals in Beiteddine, Baalbek, Byblos, Tyr and Bustan do their best. We also have Arabic opera now, and I admire this. But opera needs to be open to all.”

He believes that the solution lies in making masterpieces such as Carmen or La Traviata accessible to young audiences. “Everywhere opera is elitist, but not as much as in Lebanon, where the middle class almost doesn’t exist anymore. Opera is for people who can access it, while poorer people prefer popular singers. And us, lyrical singers, are just missionaries.”

El-Khodr may still get his wish. According to Saleh Farroukh, adviser to the culture minister, Oman is interested in building a cultural center in Beirut. The minister of culture suggested Oman build an opera house instead. The plan has yet to be confirmed, but the statement shows at least a certain interest by the government in this art form.

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