Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
The Opera in Arabic project is the brainchild of Dr Aly Sadek, who aims to make Mozart's operas more friendly.
The Opera in Arabic project is the brainchild of Dr Aly Sadek, who aims to make Mozart's operas more friendly.

Translating Mozart's musical moods

Looking back on what it was like to attend the opera as a child, Oscar Hammerstein wasn't impressed.

Looking back on what it was like to attend the opera as a child, Oscar Hammerstein wasn't impressed. "Listening to people sing words you didn't understand," he said, "wasn't much fun." At the time (Hammerstein grew up in the early 20th century), there wasn't the technology for surtitles so theatregoers had to squint at the minimal action onstage and try to piece the plot together as best they could. Not good enough. Hammerstein got so fed up with it that he created Carmen Jones, his adaptation into modern ebonics of Georges Bizet's masterpiece, Carmen. It's a wonderful example of how opera - so often the peakiest of the arts, at least as far as attendance figures go - can be brought to vigorous life. It just has to speak in one's own language.

Such thinking underlies the Opera in Arabic project, the brainchild of Dr Aly Sadek, an Egyptian-born anaesthetist now resident in London. Since the late 1980s, Sadek has been producing Arabic-language translations of Mozart's operas with a view to making them, as he puts it, "more acceptable, and opera in general more sort of friendly". To this end, no fewer than three of his translations are available in complete recordings. Working with soloists from the Cairo Opera Company, backed by the Polish National Radio Orchestra and the Silesian Chamber Chorus, Sadek's versions of Cosė Fan Tutte, Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro have been released in handsome triple-CD sets, including trilingual editions of the book to each work. All three appear on Sadek's own OIA (Opera in Arabic) imprint. A copy of the last-mentioned performance even found its way into the hands of the great cultural theorist Edward Said, who worked a modestly laudatory reference to it into a piece he wrote for Harper's. The article was mainly a counterblast at Said's old nemesis, Bernard Lewis, who had suggested that the Islamic world took no interest in western music. "Unrelieved rubbish," said Said. "I own a commercial CD of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro sung most competently in Arabic." Take a bow, Dr Sadek.

This Figaro seems to have been the best-received of Sadek's seven Mozart translations. Since 1991, it has seen more than 50 performances at the Cairo and Alexandria opera houses; it reportedly drew the largest audience in Cairo opera history. And now it is receiving a complete staging as part of the Al Ain Classics Festival, a follow-up to the successful production of Sadek's Don Giovanni, which took place last year.

For Sadek, an understanding of Mozart's plots is crucial, and not only for a complete appreciation of the work. To get people to sit through it at all, it is necessary to engage them at the level of narrative. "The story is so complicated and so sort of human," he says. "There are so many relations and beautiful personalities, I thought it would be better to present this in Arabic for an Arabic public so that they can really enjoy the story... in this way they can receive the music better. Because they're not short. They're long operas."

Sadek's procedure for translating the work is laborious. Mozart's musical moods can shift in an instant, so he has to get the meaning right "word by word - or sometimes, you know, at least in the same line." To this end, he immerses himself in the original book. "I have to know the operas by heart in Italian," he says. "Then, slowly, slowly, I try to substitute the Italian for the Arabic until I get the real meaning." He adds: "The more you dig, the more you find treasures in the language."

Once he has excavated all he can, there's the conundrum of writing his text out against the musical stave, which of course reads in the opposite direction to Arabic. "I have to write it on the notes, from left to write, in syllables. And all the singers who are working with me in Arabic have learnt to read Arabic the other way around." He chuckles. "They're used to it now." I ask if Sadek was at all tempted to transpose the action of the opera to an Arabic setting - to Jones the Carmen, so to speak. Not at all, he says. "I don't like to, like in some productions in Europe and America, to work on it, make it modern or more old or whatever." His own production is "like a museum piece... and of course this is the first time Arabs are exposed to Mozart, so at least we present to them the original version." The authentic article, then. It's rare enough to get that in Italian. Arabic speakers should be in for a treat.

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Hajer Almosleh, the winner of the last year's short story competition, at her home in Dubai. Duncan Chard for the National

Get involved with The National’s short-story competition

Writers have two weeks to craft a winning submission, under the title and theme "The Turning Point".

 It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms

Could the force be with us? The search for Star Wars truth

On the hunt for the Star Wars: Episode VII set, which a growing number of people are sure is in Abu Dhabi, but no one can seem to find.

 With an estimated 18,000 comic and film fans having already paid a visit to this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con, organisers are hopeful they will have surpassed last year total, of 21,000, by its close. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

In pictures: Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai

Dubai's World Trade Center was awash with people visiting this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con. Here's some of our best pictures.

 Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, presents Quincy Jones with the Abu Dhabi Festival Award as the Admaf founder Hoda Al Khamis-Kanoo applauds. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival.

A candid talk with Quincy Jones about the UAE, Lil Wayne and the Abu Dhabi Festival award

The Abu Dhabi Festival honoree Quincy Jones discusses his legendary career as a music producer, the return of Dubai Music Week and why he can’t handle the rapper Lil Wayne.

 Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge arrive at Wellington Military Terminal on an RNZAF 757 from Sydney on April 7, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Chris Jackson / Getty Images

In pictures: Will and Kate visit Australia and New Zealand

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge are on a tour Down Under for three weeks.

 A protester gives a victory sign during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Street life: humanity’s future depends on ability to negotiate and sustain public space

Negotiating our ever more crowded cities and maintaining vibrant public spaces are among the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National