Encore! Saudi opera singer performs at Arab News French launch event

Encore! Saudi opera singer performs at Arab News French launch event
Sawsan Al-Bahiti made her debut in the Kingdom in 2019. (Instagram)
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Updated 15 July 2020

Encore! Saudi opera singer performs at Arab News French launch event

Encore! Saudi opera singer performs at Arab News French launch event

RIYADH: Saudi opera singer Sawsan Al-Bahiti added a French twist to the virtual launch event of Arab News en Français on July 14 by singing “La Vie En Rose,” the iconic song popularized by legendary songbird Edith Piaf.

It was a natural choice for the Kingdom’s first professional opera singer, who performs in five languages: English, French, German, Italian and Arabic.

“I prefer to sing in French,” Al-Bahiti told Arab News.

“I feel like it suits my voice more, somehow, or maybe because I learned French in school and I speak it just a little bit. And it sort of brings out my voice in a nicer color,” she added.

The singer made her debut in her home country in June 2019 at an event in Riyadh organized by the Ministry of Culture. Accompanied by the symphony orchestra of the Teatro Alla Scala Academy, Al-Bahiti opened the event with the Kingdom’s national anthem, sung in operatic style.

She received a standing ovation from more than 3,000 spectators.

“I was so nervous of course,” she said, adding: “It was my first public official performance on such a huge stage. And in Saudi, I mean, that was such a big deal for me … I mean, I was in my country and these are my people in front of me. And I stood there, and I was super, super proud to be there.”

Al-Bahiti, who received her bachelor’s degree in mass communications from the American University of Sharjah, has sung opera since 2008, performing several times in the UAE before returning to Saudi Arabia in 2011.

She fell in love with music as a child, teaching herself how to play guitar, and while in university, enrolled in a choir singing course. Her professor at the time, who was also the conductor, recommended that she train as an opera singer. “Of course, that came to me as a great surprise,” she said, adding: “I didn’t think that, oh, I’m the first Saudi or anything. I just thought, how can I even sing opera?”



A post shared by Sawsan Albahiti (@sawsanalbahiti) on

While she began developing her professional vocal skills after university she had day jobs, including working as an assistant brand manager for Lipton Green Tea at Unilever between 2012 and 2015, and as an assistant production manager at the Saudi Airlines Catering Co. in Jeddah between 2017 and 2018. She also owns the Jeddah-based company La Mamma Catering.

“For eight years I was struggling,” Al-Bahiti said. “I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t call myself an opera singer or perform or do anything about it because it wasn’t going to be accepted,” she added.

All that changed with an invitation from the Minister of Culture to sing at last year’s event.

“I mean, it all happened so quick,” she said. “It was arranged in a matter of 10 days or less that they saw me in an immediate interview that I appeared on and called me after that. But the fact that they give all the support and they made it happen … honestly, it gave me such a sense of pride and only more excitement and inspiration to continue and carry this forward.”

This, of course, would not have been possible without the changes of Vision 2030, which have not only brought live music performances back to the Kingdom’s stages, but also given women a more public role.

“All of that changed everything,” Al-Bahiti said, adding: “It gave us all the courage to go and follow our dreams and support our country and what they’re doing. Before Vision 2030, my family would be concerned that I would appear anywhere singing.”

Al-Bahiti added a French twist to the virtual launch event of Arab News en Français on July 14 by singing “La Vie En Rose.” (Supplied)

In the same way Al-Bahiti’s professor once inspired her, the singer now tries to inspire others through teaching.

“I see a very bright future for our Saudi Arabia in leading the field of opera in the Middle East because we are aspiring to add to the opera, not just take part in it. We are aspiring to be, to add our own identity to it. And this is what we are working on now … and we look forward to great success.”

Now that she has an opera career of her own, does Al-Bahiti have any words of advice for future aspiring singers in Saudi Arabia?

“Nothing is impossible,” she said, adding: “If you follow your dreams, if you plan for it, if you set goals for your dreams, nothing is going to stand in your way. And most importantly, you have to keep your identity intact. You have to show your identity and your art. So make sure you keep your art going and shine. It’s so bright to the world.”

Highlights from this year’s Egypt International Art Fair

Highlights from this year’s Egypt International Art Fair
Updated 15 January 2021

Highlights from this year’s Egypt International Art Fair

Highlights from this year’s Egypt International Art Fair
  • Works from 100+ artists from the MENA region will be on show in Cairo from Feb. 12-14



This 2020 painting is typical of Zidan’s exuberant, colorful and loving portrayal of the female form (her Master’s degree was on “Human Anatomy for Artists”). The 30-year-old Egyptian artist began depicting plus-size women as a response to the “unrealistic beauty standards” of Instagram, she once told Cairo West magazine. “The most important point is that I portrayed them feeling happy and satisfied. I want every woman to feel accepted and confident about how she looks.” In another interview, with Executive Woman magazine, she said: “We aren’t supposed to look alike. Everyone is different, and every woman is enough the way she is.”



The Cairene multidisciplinary artist has described himself as “much concerned with the changing perceptions and the state of continual metamorphosis that Egypt, as an African, Arab, and Middle Eastern country that was colonized and liberated, has witnessed in the last three decades.” In his paintings, such as this one, he is “obsessed by human movement and the quest for freedom,” and uses bold colors and impressionist techniques to imply that movement.



The 55-year-old artist is one of the most significant figures in Yemen’s art scene and his paintings have sold around the world — particularly to fans of Art Nouveau work. His art is inspired by city life in Yemen before the civil war, depicting simple, colorful urban scenes often featuring female residents. “These cities, and their inhabitants, form a primary reference for my work… the clothing, the weather, the nature and the environment,” Alakel is quoted as saying on synkroniciti.com. “You’ll find that Yemeni women actually form the main inspiration for my work. They are unique in their style, their vision, their dress… and there is also a certain kind of silence in their faces. I see these women as symbols of the larger environment in which they live.”


‘Peacock’ (series since 2018)

El-Masri is a Lebanese artist who was born in Syria and now lives and works in Paris. According to Ayyam Gallery, his practice “revolves around the repeated examination of a single material subject as he explores variations in depth and space through abstracted compositions. … Like Morandi's vases or Cezanne's apples, El-Masri's depictions are less about the objects themselves and more about the possibility of transformation that is derived from paying close attention to the object over time.” El-Masri explained this practice to the Attasi Foundation. “Every time you repeat a shape, you perceive it in a different way,” he said.

“The Peacock” is a series he has been working on for the past few years, reportedly intended as an homage to his father, who was kidnapped in Syria, after which El-Masri stopped painting for some time. When he started again in 2018, the peacock was the first thing he painted, and he has since completed several works on the same theme.



Sudanese multidisciplinary artist Salah El-Mur is based in Cairo, but spent many years traveling throughout East Africa and the Middle East. This, according to a statement from the organizers of the Egypt International Art Fair, “has given him a rich and diverse background, while still maintaining a distinctive and peculiar Sudanese identity, to the extent of becoming a (flag bearer for) Sudanese art.” His vivid and colorful paintings of street life “do not (portray) significant events or actions, but characters — each with a concealed story of their own.”



This painting comes from the UAE-based Syrian artist’s “Family Portrait” series. His expressionist-style works, according to the fair’s organizers, is based on “the inherent psychology of portraiture in compositions that depict a revolving cast of characters” and was “initially inspired by the confessional elements and sense of freedom in children’s drawings.” But the inspiration for this series came from childhood visits with his family to photographers’ studios. “These psychological portraits capture the fatigue and uncertainty experienced by millions,” Maymanah Farhat, director of art at Ayyam Gallery, told Time Out last year. “They remind viewers that the future of countries such as Syria now rests in the hands of displaced youth; children shaped by the trauma of war.”


‘Egyptian Girl’

Abdelwahab is one of Egypt’s most-respected contemporary sculptors. His work is something of an homage to Ancient Egyptian civilization and visual references, and he often uses traditional techniques and materials to create his sculptures. But while he celebrates his country’s heritage, his style is modern — even incorporating Western influences no doubt inspired by his time studying in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, he earned a three-year scholarship in the Rome atelier of the acclaimed Italian sculptor Emilio Greco in the late Sixties.