When Maurice Ravel first came across One Thousand and One Nights in the late 18th century, the then-teenager was immediately enchanted by the short story collection's fictional narrator, Scheherazade.
Years later, the acclaimed French composer attempted to create an opera revolving around Scheherazade's life.
Taking the stories, settings and atmosphere from the page to the stage, however, proved an insurmountable task.
What remains of the project is the 1904 three-song cycle, also titled Scheherazade, which comes with lyrics lifted from the poetry of French writer Tristan Klingsor.
These works open Fatma Said's debut album, El Nour.
While Ravel didn’t complete the project, the Egyptian soprano says his dream of fusing cultures speaks to both the heart of her album and her career goals.
Said imagined Ravel sitting down in his Parisian den with a pen, paper and a flute while making a valiant effort to capture the Arab feel of Scheherazade, she tells The National.
“This is what I love about that time in 19th-century France,” she says. “It was a period of painters, composers and authors who all had these amazing imaginations of what the Orient was like without ever having been there. The beautiful thing about it is they had no limits to their dreams.”
A fusion of influences
Such flights of fancy, however, inevitably crash into reality. Ravel's western classical music training made it hard for him to capture the idiosyncrasies of Arabic melodies.
“He was trying to write the Arabic ornaments, which are actually impossible to write down on paper,” Said says. “The difference between western composition and Arabic traditional music is that we play and sing the notes in between.”
Scheherazade is often described as a glorious failure by Ravel, but his sense of adventure and respect for other cultures allow the works to echo in opera halls today.
That sense of respect also informs El Nour, an eclectic collection of traditional songs by French, Spanish, Egyptian and Lebanese composers.
Translated to mean “the light", in English, Said, indeed, illuminates the musical connections forged between these rich cultures.
These crossroads also mirror Said’s journey into a somewhat more niche art form within the industry.
Signed to major music label Warner Classics, she is one of a small group of touring and recording Egyptian opera singers that includes mezzo soprano Gala El Hadidi and The Three Egyptian Tenors, made up of Hany Abdel Zaher, Ragaa Eldin and Amr Medhat.
“We don’t talk all the time but there is a deep respect for each other in what we do,” Said says. “We all try to see each other perform if the opportunity comes.”
A soprano on mission
Born in Cairo to a music-loving family, Said was 14 when she took her first singing lesson with Egyptian soprano Neveen Allouba.
That regular instruction dominated the next decade, during which she lived in both Berlin and Milan while studying at the Hanns Eisler School Music and Accademia del Teatro alla Scala.
It was an experience as fruitful as it was fretful.
“The pressure I was under to succeed was quite high and that came not just from the teachers, but mostly from myself,” Said says. “To go to Europe and study music is not something that is really done in Egypt. So failure wasn’t an option. I couldn’t come back home and say ‘I’m not good at it.’ I was on a mission to succeed.”
That zeal also extends to her performances, with a heavy touring schedule that has included engagements with the Salzburg Mozartwoche, BBC Proms, Boston Symphony Orchestra and gala concerts with Peruvian star tenor Juan Diego Florez.
“It’s not like being an engineer, which is something a lot of families from our backgrounds would perhaps approve more of,” she says. “I want to prove, particularly to a lot of people in North Africa and the Arab world, that a professional life in the arts is viable if you are prepared to work hard enough and go out and get it.”
Said misses the energy of the stage, but the pandemic allowed her to put the final touches on El Nour.
While many of the songs have been performed live throughout the years, she says to experience them as one collection paints a better picture of who she is as an artist.
From Elias Rahbani's Sahar El Layali and Nana de Sevilla by Spain's Federico Garcia Lorca to the aforementioned Scheherazade, El Nour aims to continue the work of these masters by connecting them to one other.
"The bonds between the cultures represented on El Nour have never been broken," she says.
"The main idea of this album is to convey a cross-cultural message; to try to make classical music more accessible to cultures that are unfamiliar with classical music, and vice versa.”