Egyptian opera singer Farrah El Dibany on what’s next after Macron performance

The mezzo-soprano sang the French national anthem at the re-elected president’s victory event

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Egyptian mezzo-soprano Farrah El Dibany made an impression on French President Emmanuel Macron when she performed songs by Fairouz and Dalida at the Institut du Monde Arabe in July 2021.

"He told me, 'Your voice really touched me,'" El Dibany, 33, tells The National.

Fast-forward to April this year, and the rising star was asked to sing the French national anthem at Macron’s victory event after having been awarded the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) by the French government.

“Definitely it’s a very important milestone for me,” she says. “I represented Egypt, I represented opera … It was historical. It is something that will always mark my life.”

Much like Amanda Gorman, who was propelled to fame when she read her poem The Hill We Climb at the 2021 inauguration of US President Joe Biden, the performance put El Dibany in the international spotlight.

With several notable achievements to her name, El Dibany, who was born in Alexandria, is blazing a trail for young Egyptian opera singers — and she is only just getting started. She says she intends to keep up her international performances, record an album this year and prepare for the ideal roles she would like to play over the next decade.

The road to opera

As a girl, El Dibany did not know that she wanted to be an opera singer.

“I didn’t plan for this,” she says.

She sang in the choir at her German school and was introduced to opera through her grandfather, who enjoyed listening to operatic classics. At aged 14, she started voice lessons with Egyptian soprano Neveen Allouba and began participating in international singing competitions.

In 2005, El Dibany entered the Arts Centre of the Alexandria Library. Following her high school graduation, she started studying architecture at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology and Maritime Transport in Alexandria before deciding to move to Berlin in 2010 to attend the Hanns-Eisler Academy of Music.

At one point she was studying for two degrees at the same time, earning both a master’s from the Berlin University of the Arts and a bachelor’s in architecture at Berlin’s Technische Universitat. Along the way she took high-level Italian courses, adding to her fluent Arabic, English, German and French.

She nabbed the title role of Carmen at Berlin venue the Neukollner Oper in 2015. The following year, she moved to Paris and became the first Arab opera singer to enter the Paris Opera Academy. She went on to win the Paris Opera’s high-status Prix Lyrique de l’Arop award in 2019.

Career highlights

El Dibany has received numerous awards, but counts France's Order of Arts and Letters as one of her career highlights. Photo: Farrah El Dibany

El Dibany counts the Prix de l’Arop award as one of the highlights of her career, as well as being honoured as a chevalier (knight) with the Order of Arts and Letters award.

“I didn’t expect it and it was nice recognition from France,” she says.

The medal recognises significant contributions to the field of arts. Fellow Egyptian recipients include Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, artist and women’s activist Inji Aflatoun, novelist Alaa Al Aswany, composer and conductor Hisham Gabr, and more recently film producer Mohamed Hefzy.

In addition to the Berlin and Paris opera houses and top venues in Cairo and Alexandria, El Dibany has performed all over the world, including at the Bolshoi in Moscow, the Venice Art Biennale, Dubai Opera and the Beirut Chants Festival.

Among her favourites was an event in November celebrating the 75th anniversary of Unesco at its Paris headquarters, attended by 30 heads of state including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

Last Tuesday, she was back in her home town to perform at the Biblioteca Alexandrina, marking the 20th anniversary of its revival.

On June 3, she will perform a concert at the Petit Palais art museum in Paris and receive yet another award celebrating her achievements in the arts, this time from La Fondation Signature-Institut de France.

New projects

Although it is still in the concept stage, El Dibany hopes to begin recording an album of Dalida songs and famous mezzo-soprano arias by the end of this year.

“Now I’m starting to feel I’m ready to do an album, so I’m working on it,” she says.

Two roles that she would love to play in the next five to 10 years include Dalila in Samson and Dalila and Amneris in the opera Aida.

“This is something I’m working on now, just to have it in my voice,” she says. “Strong voices take more time to develop, more time to mature.”

Her role models include her American voice coach Janet Williams, Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, American-Canadian soprano Sondra Dee Radvanovsky and the late American opera singer Jessye Mae Norman.

Incidentally, Norman was invited to sing the French national anthem in 1989 in honour of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.

“She’s a huge inspiration. By coincidence, she was the only non-French who sang the national anthem in France,” El Dibany says.

Blazing a trail

Farrah El Dibany performs at the 75th anniversary celebrations of Unesco's headquarters in Paris

El Dibany and other well-known Egyptian opera singers, such as Fatma Said, have blazed a trail and elevated interest in opera.

“This generation did a different thing to opera in Egypt,” she says. “There is much more interest among the younger generation … there is more confidence that it’s possible, that it’s not that far.”

At the same time, she cautions that it is a high-pressured field that is extremely selective and perfectionist.

“It’s a very difficult path and very competitive and mentally not easy, so don’t think you’ll just be singing in la-la land, living in a pink world,” El Dibany says. “You really have to be determined to do this career.”

Along with triumphs, El Dibany has seen her fair share of disappointments. But she says she never had to make an “extra effort” to prove herself just because she is Egyptian or Arab.

“Opera has many different nationalities. It’s a very international career,” she says. “You prove yourself with your voice.”

Updated: May 26, 2022, 1:08 PM