A Cairo Christmas musical tradition

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

For 17 years, Nevine Allouba, a leading soprano in the Cairo Opera House company, has entertained local audiences at Christmastime with a combination of classical music and Christmas favorites. This year, before a packed Small Hall last Monday, Allouba produced another smashing success.

In 1991, Allouba and baritone Raouf Zeidan launched their annual Christmas concert, and for a few years, they played mainly before audiences of their friends and colleagues. The music was light, fun, and sometimes frivolous. It developed a cult following that has stuck by Allouba through many developments.

Bassist Ashraf Zweilam was the first addition to her band, then tenor Mohamed Aboul Kheir, and mezzo soprano Gala Hadidi, followed by a steady stream of Allouba’s colleagues from the opera. Audiences grew. It became a Christmas tradition.

Three years ago, Allouba took the bold step of shedding her colleagues, and inviting her students to join her. It was a risky move that nevertheless proved enormously popular; hence the sold out concert on Dec. 22.

As Allouba’s singing career matured, she took up teaching. First with a small number of students, which has grown to more than a dozen, and then as a professor at the American University in Cairo where she teaches voice coaching.

Allouba’s small family is a treasure of musical talents. Her husband, Sherif Mohie Eddin, formerly conducted the Cairo Opera orchestra before becoming the Maestro at the Alexandria Library. Her youngest son Seif is a successful pianist who will audition this March to join the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, one of the premier music schools in the US. Her sister-in-law is a well known harpist with whom Allouba occasionally performs.

Until two years ago, Allouba only trained women vocalists, but she finally agreed to teach a young man, artist/choreographer Adham Hafez, who has the somewhat rare voice, a contra tenor. In the baroque period in Europe, women did not perform in the Catholic Church. So, men who had the vocal range and timbre of female singers played the female roles in masses and other religious music. They also sang much of the concert repertoire of the period. It was the musical equivalent of No Theater in Japan, where all the female roles are played by men.

In a post-concert interview, Daily News Egypt asked Allouba about her students and their opportunities to grow in Egypt. “We really don’t give young people enough chances to perform, she says. “We do four or five operas a year; it isn’t enough to satisfy the talent that is coming along. Likewise, the opera season is not intense enough to build up a loyal audience. With all of these excellent young voices, we need to do more.

Monday’s concert featured five of Allouba’s students, four young women in addition to Hafez. As always, Allouba described the concert to the audience in English and Arabic, and then went on to introduce, in Arabic, each new singer and the song she was going to perform.

Allouba has always been accompanied by Greg Martin, a longtime Cairo resident who added his own flourishes to some of the most popular pieces. Martin is a master of light improvisations in the interludes between verses and at the ends of the musical phrases. His accompaniment never overshadows the voices, but always adds to the performance.

Fatma Said sang “I Want to be a Prima Donna so convincingly it may well get her into Juilliard in New York, where she hopes to continue her singing career. Nesma Mahgoub whipped the crowd into a frenzy of cheers and applause with her rendition of “All That Jazz. Hafez’s “Lascia ch’io pianga moved the audience with its dynamics.

Allouba has obviously concentrated on diction, an often forgotten element of singing. In whatever language, the listener could follow every word. The musical phrases always ended with energy.

Seif Sherif’s Chopin’s “Nocturne in C Minor produced wild applause both for its skill and sensitivity, and, no doubt, because it was the first time Allouba’s son had joined her other ‘children’ at a Christmas concert.

Seif showed his jazz side with a few bars of some popular pieces on a backstage piano.

The concert finished with a rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells with Allouba inviting the audience to join, something they might well have done without her encouragement. The enthusiasm carried over backstage after the concert with friends and family members coming to congratulate the performers.

I don’t know what to say to those who missed the concert. I personally know many of Allouba’s fans waited too long, eventually to find out that the concert was sold out. Next year, buy your tickets early. Or perhaps Allouba should move to a larger hall.

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