Laura Mekhail, 28, is heading to London with the help of an opera superstar.
Under the scheme, Mekhail will learn the rigours of her craft at London’s Royal College of Music, one of the world’s leading conservatoires for the performing arts.
The scholarship, funded by superstar tenor Andrea Bocelli’s charity and Saudi Arabia's social enterprise Community Jameel, will cover tuition fees for the two-year programme.
Mekhail is the second scholarship recipient after French soprano Clara Barbier Serrano.
Speaking to The National moments after the announcement, Mekhail couldn’t contain her excitement. There was also a hint of relief, as it puts to rest an agonising four-month period, including interviews with instructors from the conservatoire, followed by recording her own audition.
“In a way, it was even more stressful because I am used to being in front of a crowd,” she says.
“To basically make sure that everything was as live as it can be, I had to perform three songs in one take. Of course, this is something I am not really used to.”
Hitting the ceiling
Mekhail's career has mostly been off the beaten path. Born in the Egyptian city of Minya, south of Cairo, her determination to be a professional opera singer meant taking all of the limited opportunities she could find offered at home.
Following in her parents' footsteps by joining the local parish choir as a child, Mekhail went on to land choral and solo slots at the Cairo Opera House.
Despite growing local acclaim, Mekhail felt constrained. “It is really no one’s fault,” she says. “There are not a lot of schools, conservatoires or interest in this music within the region.
“And opera really is all about practice and study, so I knew I would eventually have to leave Egypt.”
More than the opportunity to learn under the maestros, what Mekhail craved was that sense of community intrinsic to thriving music scenes.
She eventually found it in the US. She lived in the states for six years and studied music performance at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where she also gave vocal lessons to children.
Returning Cairo in 2014, Mekhail was heartened by the growing appreciation for classical music in the city. The Cairo Opera House had already established itself as a leading cultural institution and the Cairo Celebration Choir had made strides as a platform for Egyptian talent.
However, after years of participating in various ensembles, Mekhail once again felt limited. “I love performing in choirs because you meet all these amazing people and when you are singing together the feeling is beautiful,” she says.
“But there comes a stage when you realise that you are capable of more than what you are doing. And this was something my professors were telling me; they were encouraging me to further my studies, but then there is this financial gap.
"So I kept pushing back that decision and seven years flew by.”
Reaching her potential
The personal stakes were high when Mekhail applied for the Andrea Bocelli Foundation-Community Jameel Scholarship. More than removing the financial burden of studying in one of the world’s leading conservatoires, it was an opportunity to prove to herself she still has passion for the craft.
While Monday’s announcement certainly proves she's still got it, Mekhail is determined to make the most of the opportunity. “In a way, this is a perfect time to do the studies because hopefully by the end of the two years, the industry will be back to normal and concerts will be back again,” she says.
Her plan is to learn in London, then return to Egypt to focus on her career. “Things are getting better all the time,” she says. “Especially now, with what happened with Covid-19 and concerts slowly coming back in Egypt, you are seeing people really appreciative of the music and they value the role of singers.
“People now are going out just to hear good music, not a specific genre. They are more open to things and that’s a great thing to see.”
Mekhail is already doing her part in ensuring future Egyptian opera singers find kindred spirits closer to home. For the past three years, she has been providing lessons to children and teenagers at Vocal Xtreem, a singing school in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.
“We are lucky in that we ... managed to continue through the pandemic with online classes,” she says. “I love seeing the passion of the kids when they come to class because this is something we didn’t have when I was growing up. So the future is looking bright.”