Sawsan Al-Bahiti on her participation in Zarqa Al-Yamamah

The first ever Saudi opera singer tells Al Majalla about working with one of Britain’s finest operatic performers on an ancient pre-Islamic tale sung in Arabic and performed in Riyadh.

Sawsan Al-Bahiti during her participation in Zarqa Al-Yamamah in Saudi Arabia
Sawsan Al-Bahiti during her participation in Zarqa Al-Yamamah in Saudi Arabia

Sawsan Al-Bahiti on her participation in Zarqa Al-Yamamah

Soprano Sawsan Al-Bahiti’s battle to bring opera to Saudi Arabia is ongoing but going well. While Europe has been sold on the genre she loves since the 16th century, the Arab world has been far less enthusiastic.

Born in 1987, her family’s interest in singing influenced her talent from a young age, later graduating from the College of Mass Communication at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Fluency in Arabic, English, French, German, and Italian let her present international operatic performances in London and Berlin, while in Saudi Arabia she has performed in Riyadh and AlUla.

She worked as artistic director in the Music Committee of the Saudi Ministry of Culture and founded the Saudi National Orchestra and Choir, as well as her own institute, in which she trains professional and amateur singers in the Kingdom.

Currently studying in Milan while pursuing her professional career, she told Al Majalla how she came to be involved in Zarqa Al-Yamamah, the first and largest opera show presented in Saudi Arabia that opened last month.

You have been using your talent as a soprano to share Saudi cultural heritage internationally. How did you feel when you were chosen to play one of the main roles in the opera Zarqa Al Yamama in your homeland?

It is a great honour to be selected to perform in this historical opera. I dreamed of it back in 2019, and I am incredibly happy and proud that it came true today. This is the best form of exporting culture, and I believe it has been done in an excellent manner.

Tell us about your role.

I play a bridesmaid. The story is of a wedding with a drastic turn of events. Two bridesmaids—me and Saudi opera singer Reemaz Oqbi—congratulate the bride, Afira, who is played by Amelia Wawrzon in Cast 1 and Dina Iskandar in Cast 2.

We are incredibly happy about her marriage, but when evil King Amleeq crashes the wedding, the scene is filled with terror, and the bridesmaids are heartbroken about what befalls the bride.

What challenges did you face while rehearsing the show?

Learning how to act was somewhat of a challenge as this was the first full opera that I performed in. It was very interesting to both act and sing. It was also challenging to perform well among international opera stars, but it was an incredible experience. Watching them perform, working on their roles, and learning from them was hugely valuable.

What memories do you have of training for this huge work?

Some wonderful memories were when the English mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly so kindly shared her tips and advice on opera singing technique. I was just like an excited student and all ears to her.

Other lovely memories include working with soloists and choir singers to improve the Arabic pronunciation in their singing. They did a really great job at it. And, of course, I will always remember the hotel breakfasts and dinners!

We shared stories, played games, and got to know each other well by bonding together. It’s amazing how, in just a short period of time, you can make and form friendships in such a wonderful project.

Sawsan Al-Bahiti during her participation in Zarqa Al-Yamamah in Saudi Arabia

How was your experience of collaborating with Dame Sarah Connolly?

It is one thing to perform in this historical opera. It is a whole other thing to meet and perform with Dame Sarah Connolly! Besides her incredible vocal and dramatic performance and excellent Arabic pronunciation, she is just so incredibly kind and humble, a true role model of a successful artist. I learned so much from her as a singer and human being. I will forever cherish our time together, working, laughing, and learning from each other.

On a personal level, what does the story of Zarqa Al Yamama represent to you?

It is a timeless story of wisdom, leadership, and an inspirational female character. It teaches us the power of intuition and the wisdom of using it. We learn from our ancestors' successes and mistakes, and this story presents the perfect example of that.

How do you see the future of this artistic genre in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, especially since it is considered elitist?

I was very happy to see the audience grow every night. Some were attending an opera for the first time ever. This is an amazing indicator of a very positive future for opera in Saudi Arabia, specifically Arabic operas, which I believe was a key factor in the success of this show with the local audience.

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