The Black Nightingale descended at the Dubai Opera for a pair of landmark shows.
Held on Thursday and Friday, the Downtown Dubai venue hosted premiere concert performances featuring a hologram of Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez.
Backed by a live orchestra, the digitised version of the star – who died aged 47 in 1977 – glimmered at the front of the stage, performing a hefty catalogue of hits spanning a 25-year career.
Such was the success of the sold-out shows, producers MBC announced further Dubai Opera dates for May 27 and 28. Tickets for the new gigs are now available online.
The National can also exclusively reveal an emotional homecoming show is planned for Egypt's capital, Cairo, with dates to be confirmed later in the year.
"It is going to momentous and a source of real pride and joy, not only for Egyptians but for the Arab world," Egyptian Minister of Culture Ines Abdel Dayem told The National.
The Hafez hologram follows a similar show featuring pioneering Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum. Premiering in Saudi Arabia's Hegra in 2019, it went on to tour both the Gulf and the UK the following year.
“While we are reliving some of the great moments of the past, we are experiencing them in a new way through technology,” Abdel Dayem said.
“This is a really important development because it allows us to show people not only the culture of the Arab world, but the important role Egypt has played in that development.”
Abdel Dayem, however, had initial doubts about the hologram concept in general.
As an accomplished flautist and former chairwoman of the Cairo Opera House, she wondered whether the cutting-edge technology would resonate with a live audience.
“I come from a stage background, so I did have those concerns,” she said.
“A lot of it was down to not really comprehending how it can all be done. But this show, as well as Umm Kulthum, really blew me away because of the detail and care that went into it.
“More than feeling just entertainment, there is definitely a sense of emotion and a sense of pride seeing these important artists on stage once again.”
Hafez 2.0 is a leap forward
Whether you are a fan or just curious, the Abdul Halim Hafez concert offers an elegant evening's entertainment.
Similar in format and stage design as the Umm Kulthum show, with the hologram and orchestra performing amid a dim and palatial setting featuring glittering chandeliers, the Hafez iteration offers its own music and visual thrills.
It also proves what will surely be a future showbiz adage: not every hologram star is the same.
As technology evolves, producers can tweak shows by using the latest developments.
On that score, the Hafez hologram is a definite upgrade on Umm Kulthum.
Where the latter was a pioneering feat in its own light, the hologram often felt stilted and static, yet managed to do enough to sustain an audience’s interest.
Hafez 2.0 is more engaging.
Developers added more signature mannerism, taken after consultation with the family’s representatives and studying hundreds of hours of concert footage, which elicited knowing applause from the audience.
This included the endearing way Hafez, referred to as Al-Andaleeb Al-Asmar (The Black Nightingale), would famously straighten his sleek black hair at the end of a particularly emotive number.
Then there is the trademark expressive performance posture: erect, eyes wide and glistening, head and shoulders swaying along with the strings section and both palms outstretched to the audience.
While both Umm Kulthum and Hafez have yet to make the technological leap of actually addressing and bantering with the crowd, slight progress is being made.
A number of times during the show, Hafez would turn around to face the physical orchestra and count them into the next tune.
It may be a small gesture, but the mixture of "aahs" from the crowd only points to the potential of the form.
The timeless tunes
But all that technological know-how would make no difference if it wasn’t for the music.
With such a massive catalogue to choose from – Spotify has Hafez playlists ranging from 13 to 15 hours – producers did well in building a strong two-hour show featuring 13 well-known hits.
The opener, Abo Oyoun Garee'a (The One with Dazzling Eyes), was a beautiful introduction to both Hafez's intimate deep croon and lush romantic odes, with lyrics often casting him as that starry-eyed dreamer whose object of affection is so close, yet so far.
In Ahbek (I Love You), he ruminates on the meaning of the phrase: "I love you is a word in which I melt in it days and nights/ It wants to go to you, but you are far away from me/ And the word that I live with."
Typical of that era, Hafez’s songs ranged from a short five minutes to 15-minute epics.
However, through collaborations with masterful Egyptian composers, including Baligh Hamdi, Mohamed El Mougy and Kamal Al Taweel, the songs are full of memorable melodies.
These include cinematic strings and yearning flutes in the opener of Asmar Ya Asmarani and summery hooks of Ahwak (I Adore You).
These works are not only timeless, Abdel Dayem said, but are also universal.
“And it is time now to show this to the world.
“What shows like Hafez and Um Kulthum do is that it allows us to use technology to communicate with the world and showcase the culture of the Arab world.
“This is something to be really excited about. “
The Abdel Halim Hafez hologram concert will take place in Dubai Opera on Thursday and Friday, May 27 and 28 at 10pm.
Tickets from Dh350 at dubaiopera.com