How an Umm Kulthum musical travelled from London's West End to Dubai Opera

'Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era' traces the career of one of the Arab world's most revered singers

Syrian singer Lubana Al Quntar performing as the titular character in the musical 'Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era.' Photo: Darren Bell
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It's better late than never when it comes to the first West End musical dedicated to the life of one of the Arab world's greatest artists, Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum.

Running for three nights at Dubai Opera from May 3, Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era will make its regional premiere after it was launched at the London Palladium in the West End in 2020.

That one-off performance on March 2 served to preview the production to prospective theatre-owners and producers. And according to its creator and writer, Mona Khashoggi, it was a hit.

“It was sold out and we had people flying in from New York and Switzerland to see the show. They knew they were watching something important and that it was a landmark event,” she tells The National.

“Days after the show we started receiving really promising offers to take it internationally to cities in the US and places like Paris. An Australian company also wanted us to take it over there for a tour. It was really all happening.”

That momentum grounded to a halt, however, with the onset of Covid-19 and the subsequent shutdown of the international events industry for about 18 months.

A new version

'Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era' producer Mona Khashoggi addresses the crowd after the premiere performance in London in 2020. Photo: Darren Bell

While disappointed, Khashoggi used the extra time to rework the project.

While Kulthum's hits such as Enta Omri, Alf Leila We Leila, Fakarouni and Al Atlal will feature in the show, expect a more fine-tuned version at Dubai Opera.

"It has been a blessing because we managed to make the script tighter. The time off also gave us a chance to see where we did well and where we went wrong in terms of lighting and sound.

When Umm Kulthum performed in Abu Dhabi

Known as The Lady of Arabic Song, Umm Kulthum performed in Abu Dhabi on November 28, 1971, as part of celebrations for the fifth anniversary of the accession of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan as Ruler of Abu Dhabi. A concert hall was constructed for the event on land that is now Al Nahyan Stadium, behind Al Wahda Mall. The audience were treated to many of Kulthum's most well-known songs as part of the sold-out show, including Aghadan Alqak and Enta Omri.

“These are small details the general audience wouldn't pick up but it is important to the overall production," she says.

"We also downscaled the cast from 24 to 10, with some actors playing multiple parts. This is all in order to make this show financially sustainable when taking it abroad."

The fact that the production has made it this far is an achievement in itself. Born in Riyadh, Khashoggi relocated to London to pursue a career focusing on reviving cultural stories from the Middle East for a global audience.

Her other projects include curating exhibitions for London's Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum.

“I would organise many events focusing on Arabic culture, including music, film and fashion, and I can’t tell you how many times people would say how much they admired Umm Kulthum,” she says.

“It got to a stage eventually where I remember saying two years ago that the Arab world needed our own musical to celebrate our culture and people like Umm Kulthum, and someone replied, ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?'"

'Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era' traces the life of one of the Arab world's greatest singers. Photo: Darren Bell

But it wasn't that simple. Despite Khashoggi’s pedigree in the UK cultural scene, she was an unknown entity within West End circles. As a result, the London show was independently financed by Khashoggi, her family members and friends, and generous donors.

Preparing the script for the two-act show, which traces the life of the singer — born Fatima Ebrahim Al Sayyid Al Biltaji — from her poor upbringing in rural Egypt to her rise as one of the world’s greatest musical artists, was a fraught experience, with the original writer being replaced by Khashoggi.

"The original script was absolutely terrible because it was written like it was a book and it was full of politics," she says. "I wanted it to be fun, full of humour and heart. So I locked myself away for two weeks and wrote it myself."

Aided by the support of Kulthum’s family, particularly her granddaughter and singer Sanaa Nabil, Khashoggi was provided valuable insights into Kulthum’s personality and mannerisms to create what she hopes will be a memorable character.

Nabil will also be a guest performer in the Dubai Opera show.

On the road again

The musical looks at how Kulthum reached the top of the male-dominated Arab music industry. Photo:: Darren Bell

Despite the donations from the family, it's the choice of lead actress that can ultimately make or break a show. And Khashoggi is confident she has a winner with Lubana Al Quntar in the titular role.

The Syrian singer, who lives in the US, is linked to musical royalty as a descendant of revered singer Amal Atrash, known by her stage name Asmahan.

“In a way, Lubana is a throwback to the golden era of Arabic music and film in that she is skilled in the major arts of music, acting and dance,” she says. “She is brilliant and she knows the responsibility of the role. She is very well prepared and when she is on the stage performing as Umm Kulthum it is really magical.”

Khashoggi hopes to pick up where she left off in Dubai. Once again, a number of theatre promoters will be at the venue and she hopes the post-show meetings will result in Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era having more dates added to the calendar.

"With theatres opening up again we are in talks for further shows," she says. "Soon to be confirmed will be Cairo and the US next year and we are working on bringing it to Saudi Arabia soon, inshallah.”

Umm Kulthum and Golden Era will be performed at Dubai Opera from May 3 to 5. Show starts at 8pm. Tickets from Dh350 are available at dubaiopera.com

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Updated: April 29, 2022, 8:51 AM
When Umm Kulthum performed in Abu Dhabi

Known as The Lady of Arabic Song, Umm Kulthum performed in Abu Dhabi on November 28, 1971, as part of celebrations for the fifth anniversary of the accession of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan as Ruler of Abu Dhabi. A concert hall was constructed for the event on land that is now Al Nahyan Stadium, behind Al Wahda Mall. The audience were treated to many of Kulthum's most well-known songs as part of the sold-out show, including Aghadan Alqak and Enta Omri.