In happier times, Gala El Hadidi has been photographed with royalty and presidents, with ambassadors and business tycoons, and the leading lights of classical music.
The Egyptian mezzo-soprano is a towering presence on the stage of opera houses in Europe and beyond. Seven years ago, she was named the BBC’s Cardiff World Singer of the Year in a career breakthrough that saw her rendition of Carmen’s ‘When Will I Love You?’ hailed as one for the ages.
She has been singing as long as she can remember. By El Hadidi’s own account, her passion for classical music and opera was pre-ordained in the womb.
An only child, she grew up in the quiet suburban avenues of affluent Heliopolis with parents who were avid listeners to classical music. While neither played an instrument or performed, there was a distinct culture of appreciation for the arts in the family.
It inspired a mood in her mother, Elly, while pregnant with the future diva that would turn out to be fateful. After reading that babies in utero can not only hear music but develop an ear for it, Elly would fill the air with melodies all day long.
At night, she strapped a headset around her belly tuned to the FM easy listening radio station with its late schedule of symphonies, concertos and sonatas. “So that means that for maybe six hours at night, I was listening constantly to classical music,” El Hadidi says. “My mum did it without any thoughts or plans.”
At various points throughout her life, she has felt a guiding hand defining her destiny. An impromptu yet lively performance in her kindergarten’s annual Nativity play marked her out as the little star of the cohort. In fact, the young Gala was the only child not dumbstruck by stage fright.
"I probably had stage fright at that point, too," she told The National. "And then I made the decision... actually the decision of my life that I will not let people laugh at me; I would only let them laugh if I wanted them to laugh at what I was performing.
“In that moment, I created a stage persona. My fear evaporated in an instant. I went on stage and delivered my line, and everyone was astounded.”
It was then that her teacher informed her parents that Gala’s calling was on a stage. She was almost seven. At nine years old, anyone with an interest in classical music could recognise that she was developing an operatic voice, unusual in that the vocal range for the genre tends not to be evident until later in life. Moreover, Gala’s voice was low for a girl, enabling her to evolve an operatic sound with a characteristic cadence and pitch by her early teens.
To this day, a favourite role is one she performed in those earliest stage appearances: that of Hansel, in Englebert Humperdinck's fairy-tale opera Hansel and Gretel.
“It's a Christmas opera mostly, and I love it to pieces,” she says fondly. “It was also the first thing that made people discover me as an opera singer at the age of 13, because I sang in the duet of Hansel and Gretel.
“As Hansel, I was a very present voice. I loved playing that role of a young boy, and I love the playfulness of it. Operatically, it is one of the big operas – it's practically bordering on Wagnerian style, so it's really heavy, but you have to always sing it with a light heart.”
The recollection gives rise to a brief moment of self-reflection about the two works that El Hadidi believes have shaped her as a singer and diva. In perhaps an odd juxtaposition, next to the mischievous boychild Hansel has to stand Carmen, the fiery Spanish gypsy and title character in the opera by Georges Bizet, whose wiles bring about the downfall of naive soldier Don Jose.
“I'm known for that role,” says the woman often referred to as “the Egyptian Carmen”.
It is rare that an Arab woman would be at ease taking on a character that requires such a seductive and sensual portrayal, and possibly even less common to find people of Middle Eastern origin willing to accept an Arab woman doing so. El Hadidi understands the significance, and has a sense of pride in seeing herself cast in this light. Her Carmen received nothing but accolades.
“This is a role that I love to perform,” she says. “It's also part of me because it has a certain type of playfulness, however, there’s a faithfulness to it, a gravitas in how it concludes – and how she already knows from the beginning that her life ends in a certain way. It is one of those operas, especially with its famous ‘Habanera’ song sung by Carmen, that can attract someone with an untrained ear and entice them to listen to this music genre."
So much did El Hadidi cherish her experiences as Carmen on stage that she based her MA in English and Comparative Literature thesis on the opera.
She has worked hard to achieve academic success, notching up three degrees altogether – a BA in Philosophy and another Masters in Opera Performance from Yale University – on top of her fluency in five languages.
From the age of 17, her future moves were carefully planned on a roadmap, sometimes changing but always building on success. It was then that she made a full debut at the Cairo Opera House, a year later becoming the youngest soloist in the resident company.
Soon after she was awarded her second post-graduate degree, El Hadidi was chosen by the Saxony State Opera, one of the big three houses in Germany, known as the Semperoper Dresden. Six years later, she was still with Semperoper, earning along the way the title of the first Egyptian main soloist on contract with an opera house.
Germany has become her second home. The cultural heart of the profession remains rooted in Europe and El Hadidi is in great demand from institutions and festivals across the continent – Covid-19 lockdowns notwithstanding, of course.
There is, though, a special place in her heart for Mediterranean audiences; something she finds unique and intoxicating as a performer. “When I sing to Egyptians especially, as well as people in neighbouring countries, there is a warmth that makes any performance a thousand times more intimate and more fun than anywhere else – probably because I come off as familiar to them,” she says, in a reference to her long dark locks, prominent brows, and what she concedes can be a temperamental personality.”
Ordinarily, El Hadidi would be jetting off from one European country to the next, for either a premiere – requiring a stay of six to eight weeks in the venue city, preparing daily up to the opera’s opening night – or a one-night performance.
“Of course, every time your main home is your luggage,” she says, with a shrug. “Looking from the outside at my life – every artist's or even athlete’s life, I would say – we travelling performers get homesick. Being an artist is quite glamorous, but also quite lonely.”
There is a flip side to it, however – the camaraderie of the road. “We do get chances to develop very close familial relationships with people we work and train with,” she says.
The drawbacks of a peripatetic life are one thing, but nothing could truly have prepared El Hadidi for the degree of isolation that she is enduring in the coronavirus pandemic. Since March, her career has been abruptly put on hold. Artists, she says, were the first people that Covid put out of work.
“Germany has officially cancelled all entertainment. It’s destructive for us musicians because art is not a medium that can really stand alone. We need the audience, and the audience needs us.”
One consolation of confinement has been time to enjoy the aesthetic of her apartment in Dresden. As she speaks via Zoom, a beautiful, handmade Egyptian Kilim carpet hangs across most of the wall in the background. She displays it for the camera, enumerating the many similar tapestry-woven soft furnishings throughout her home.
“Beautiful and vibrant earth tone colours are, to me, a reminder of my Egypt,” El Hadidi says, eyes bright at the mention of her birthplace. “Ironically, my home in Cairo does not have a single Kilim carpet anywhere. They’re needed here in Germany, a constant reminder of my family and my heart.”
And there she waits for the coronavirus restrictions to ease, until a time when theatre drapes and stage curtains may rise again.
Perhaps the magic of Christmas will bring a fairy-tale ending for the locked-away singer, whose calling was recognised when her younger self strode forth so boldly in that Nativity play all those years ago.
For one night of the year at least, fans in Cairo have come to rely on her presence in late December for a seasonal concert at the opera house that El Hadidi says she would travel from anywhere in the world to perform.
The hopeful are snapping up tickets fast for the annual event, where the girl grown up is due to step into the festive spotlight once more.
The mezzo-soprano, with her trademark dark eyebrows and cascade of wavy hair, casting a spell on live audiences anew. “Alhamdulillah,” she says.