‘It’s surreal,’ says Saudi Arabia’s first opera singer Sawsan Albahiti

‘It’s surreal,’ says Saudi Arabia’s first opera singer Sawsan Albahiti
Albahiti is Saudi Arabia’s first opera singer. (Supplied)
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Updated 22 June 2023
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‘It’s surreal,’ says Saudi Arabia’s first opera singer Sawsan Albahiti

‘It’s surreal,’ says Saudi Arabia’s first opera singer Sawsan Albahiti

DUBAI: “Pioneering” is an often-overused term, particularly in regional media. But in the case of Sawsan Albahiti, it is entirely accurate.  

Born in Riyadh, Albahiti is Saudi Arabia’s first opera singer. It’s a title that she accepts comes with a great deal of responsibility, and one that — at times — she still finds hard to believe. 

“It’s going to take me a while to get over this surrealness of being a Saudi opera singer,” the soprano, who is in her 30s, tells Arab News. “Sometimes it overwhelms me, because I have to be the best. Locally, I represent opera to the Saudi audience, and globally, I represent Saudi to the opera world — and the rest of the world, really.” 

Albahiti’s extraordinay journey began while she was studying mass communications at the American University of Sharjah in the UAE. She took opera as an elective course. Back then, she had no idea what it would lead to.  

“(A career in music) was not on the horizon. . . not at all,” she says. It was the course’s choir conductor who noticed her singing potential and that’s when everything changed. She went on to train with vocal coaches, but still has no formal music qualification.    

But it seems that she doesn’t need one. Music has been a major part of her life from the start, she says. In 1990, when she was 2, her family moved to Jeddah, growing up in a music-loving household that echoed with the revered voices of Umm Kulthum, Fayrouz, and Abdel Wahab, as well as the timeless melodies of Mozart and Chopin. Albahiti was, she says, a typical Nineties kid, whose collection of cassette tapes included the Backstreet Boys, Dido and Sarah McLachlan.  

Albahiti is the youngest of seven children, and her interest in music was further sparked when her sister started playing the guitar. Albahiti decided she also wanted to play, and began doing so aged 6. 

“I remember from the time I was in elementary school, I’d come home, and I wouldn’t even take off my uniform. I’d pick up my guitar and play and sing,” she says. “Music was everywhere. And whether I’m playing it or listening to it, it’s a part of me.” 

It quickly became clear that Albahiti possessed an excellent ear for music. “I was able to listen to a song and play it on the guitar,” she says. “I’d automatically analyze what chords this music was made up of and I’d play it straight away. My ability to hear music was quite strong.”  




Albahiti is the youngest of seven children. (Supplied)

While her interest in pop music and the guitar grew, Albahiti found herself inspired by legendary opera singers such as Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti, and Andrea Bocelli. She was also particularly drawn to Sarah Brightman’s genre-hopping style of singing (the English soprano has sung disco, musical theater, classical crossover and operatic pop in her hugely successful career), and has implemented it in her own repertoire. 

As for Bocelli, Albahiti got to meet the man himself ahead of one of his performances in AlUla. “I was over the moon when that happened,” she recalls. “When I told him that he’d inspired me to pursue opera, he got really emotional.”    

Albahiti’s own career is still in its early stages. A decade ago, she was working in an unfulfilling marketing job and listening to recordings of her vocal training as an “escape.” But the prospect of becoming a professional singer in Saudi Arabia at that time was practically non-existent. 

“If, 10 years ago, someone had told me I’d become an opera singer, I’d have never believed them,” she says with a laugh. And yet, in 2019 she made the shift into full-time music. That was the year she made her official debut in Saudi Arabia, singing her country’s national anthem in an operatic style ahead of the opening of La Scala di Milano’s show in Riyadh.  

“It was overwhelming to say the least,” she says. “I later found out that I was the first Saudi woman to sing the anthem publicly.” 

Some of her favorite numbers to sing, she says are “Habanera” (an aria from Bizet’s comic opera “Carmen”), the classic Neapolitan song “O Sole Mio,” and “O Mio Babbino Caro” from Puccini’s opera “Gianni Schicchi.” She also entertains the crowd by singing in Arabic and tries to incorporate Arabic instruments into her shows.  

While opera’s popularity has waned over the years, its powerful vocals and dramatic themes of love, revenge, power, death, and war mean it still captivates audiences across the world.  

“When the singer is trying to express a strong emotion, it really affects the listener intensely. That intensity is what people go back (to opera) for, over and over again,” says Albahiti. 

“What (hits) me most about opera is the power of expression through the voice, and the amount of skill required,” she adds. “When people hear opera, they think the singers are screaming. We’re not. The trick is to direct the voice (with) your whole face, not just your mouth. Perfecting that is really difficult.” 

Opera singers need to be borderline-fanatical about taking care of their voices, and Albahiti is no exception. She trains — and hydrates, she adds — constantly, doesn’t smoke, and before a show she avoids perfumes and aerosol sprays. As for criticism, as someone who hasn’t followed the traditional career path of an opera singer, she admits that “at weak moments, it bothers me,” but she perseveres, learning along the way. 

She’s also eager to foster the kind of creative community that was lacking in the Kingdom when she was growing up, when, she says, “there was barely music in cafes and restaurants.” In 2019, she founded a school, The Soulful Voice, at which she is one of the vocal coaches, and at the Saudi Music Commission she is leading the establishment of the Saudi National Orchestra and Choir.  

She is currently planning performances in London, Milan, and Riyadh and is looking forward to helping launch the Saudi Opera House in 2026. It’s all part of her main goal: “To elevate singers’ skills and improve the music scene in Saudi Arabia.”  


‘Beauty is needed for your soul,’ Saudi artist Nasser Almulhim says

‘Beauty is needed for your soul,’ Saudi artist Nasser Almulhim says
Updated 30 May 2024
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‘Beauty is needed for your soul,’ Saudi artist Nasser Almulhim says

‘Beauty is needed for your soul,’ Saudi artist Nasser Almulhim says
  • The Saudi artist discusses societal shifts, art as therapy, and ‘putting it all out there’ 

DUBAI: The emerging Saudi artist Nasser Almulhim is an open book. A little over 10 minutes into our interview, Almulhim, speaking from his studio in Riyadh, admits to dealing with mental health issues, particularly depression. He copes, he says, by deep breathing, praying, walking barefoot on the grass, and getting in touch with his spiritual side. The topic arose when I asked about his childhood in Saudi Arabia, at a time when the country was much more restrictive.  

“I never confronted this question, because I always feared looking back at memories. It wasn’t an easy lifestyle for men or women,” Almulhim, who was born in 1988, tells Arab News. 

 'Balance' by Nasser Almulhim. (Supplied) 

Almulhim comes from a large family of four sisters and three brothers. They were raised in Riyadh’s Al-Malaz neighborhood, largely populated by an expat community of Sudanese, Egyptians and Jordanians, according to the artist. Interacting with people of different backgrounds enriched his upbringing.  

“My parents raised me well and taught me to respect people from a young age,” he says. “It was a very simple lifestyle. We didn’t have much, but my family provided us with safety and a good education. I studied in a public school and we were in the street a lot. We were playing football and we used to spray paint, just being rebellious, and the police would come,” he says. “Art was dead back in the day. It was haram.”  

Despite this, Almulhim, who enjoyed math and science as school subjects, was always sketching. “My parents saw something within me,” he says. It is also possible that Almulhim, who describes himself as a visual, nature-loving person, inherited his artistic sensibilities from his family. Almulhim says his grandmother was a poet, and his father was passionate about analog photography. 

The aritst's 'Distance is Near.' (Supplied)

“I believe he has an artistic side, but he is not embracing it,” he says. “He has a beautiful vision, even with the way he decorated the house. It came from someone who was vulnerable and sensitive.”  

During Almulhim’s high school years, he started to notice how ‘different’ he was as a Saudi, compared to other Arabs in the region. “We used to travel to Syria and Lebanon,” he recalls. “In Beirut, everyone was hanging out on the beach. People were doing their thing, and then I would come back to Riyadh, and it was the complete opposite. I would ask my dad, ‘Are we outsiders?’ And he would say, ‘There is a system. This is our tradition and culture.’ So I was always trying to do the opposite.” 

After graduating from high-school, Almulhim, who didn’t speak English at the time, travelled all the way to Sydney, Australia, to study intensive English courses, and later moved to the US to pursue a bachelor’s degree. “The funny part is, I went there to study engineering,” he says, adding that the men in his family were doctors or engineers. At university, he spent time with creative people studying music and theatre, and they noticed something about him.

 'Face Your Own Madness.' (Supplied)

 “They saw me reading books, sketching, playing the guitar, watching art documentaries, and going to museums. They were telling me to shift my major. It was a big deal for me and for my family as well. I shifted to study fine arts, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I felt light, I felt like myself,” Almulhim, who graduated with a degree in studio art from the University of West Florida, says.  

As reflected in his colorful paintings, Almulhim isn’t afraid of embracing his feminine side, something that stems from his close relationship with his sisters.  

“I always felt comfortable talking to them, even about sensitive topics, which I couldn’t talk to my parents about. There was a gap,” he says. But, it has invited criticism from male viewers. “With using pink, for example, I’ve had men ask me, ‘Why are you using pink? You’re a man.’” 

He says he wants to go “back to basics” with his painting, by appreciating beauty again.  

“In art, beauty is my greatest inspiration. The late Lebanese artist Etel Adnan said that, nowadays in the art scene, we’ve neglected the idea of beauty and we’re just focused on the conceptual,” he says. “People like distraction, which makes sense because we live in distraction. But I feel like beauty is needed for your soul, your physical self, and being nice to other people.” 

Nasser 'Gazing at The Sea Horizon.' (Supplied)

Almulhim fills his calming canvases, composed of floating geometric forms, with open spaces of color.  

“In painting, I like colors that bring happiness and might heal you. It puts you in a state of mind that doesn’t numb you, but makes you disconnect from the distraction around you. I always say that art is therapy for me. Part of it is, I feel like I’m escaping, maybe from some pain that I need to heal from, and part of it is that I’m confronting that pain,” he explains, adding that he hopes to one day pursue a doctorate degree in art therapy. His paintings also contain a psychological and spiritual element, creating a universe of his own, where he is “channeling the Higher Power, Allah, this great universe, this divinity that is outside and within us.”   

On June 6, Almulhim will open his new exhibition, “On In-Between,” at Tabari Art Space in Dubai. Through his new paintings, the artist is tackling the psychological stages of the subconscious, pre-consciousness, and consciousness.  

“I’m telling the audience that we have to understand this world to heal and to know ourselves,” he says. “Also, it’s fine to flow between these two or three fields. I’m telling you as a humble human being, I am all of these things: My chaos, my order, my vulnerability, my beauty, my ugliness. I’m putting it all out there.”  

Almulhim is also driven at this stage of his career by collaborating with fellow artists in the Arab region. He would like to set up art-residency exchanges, where artists from Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan can work in his Riyadh space, and vice-versa. He says it was the ongoing tragedy in Gaza that sparked this idea.  

“I’m an artist, but, above that, I’m a human being,” he says. “How can I help? How can I contribute? How can we learn from each other as Arabs and as citizens of the globe? I feel in our region, we are in need of this unity.” 


HIGHLIGHTS: Rana Al-Mutawa’s exhibition ‘Everyday Life in the Spectacular City’ 

HIGHLIGHTS: Rana Al-Mutawa’s exhibition ‘Everyday Life in the Spectacular City’ 
Updated 30 May 2024
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HIGHLIGHTS: Rana Al-Mutawa’s exhibition ‘Everyday Life in the Spectacular City’ 

HIGHLIGHTS: Rana Al-Mutawa’s exhibition ‘Everyday Life in the Spectacular City’ 

DUBAI: The exhibition, which runs until July 4 at Dubai’s Kutubna Cultural Center, features images from Rana Al-Mutawa’s book of the same name, which is subtitled “Making Home in Dubai.”

‘Flanerie’ 

The exhibition is billed as an “urban ethnography that reveals how middle-class citizens and longtime residents of Dubai interact within the city’s so-called superficial spaces to create meaningful social lives.”  

 

‘Fountains’ 

In her book, Al-Mutawa argues that Dubai’s often-spectacular (at least in size) buildings, though regularly criticized as superficial and soulless, in fact “serve residents’ evolving social needs, transforming (these spaces) into personally important cultural sites,” perhaps disproving “stereotypes that portray Dubai’s developments as alienating and inherently disempowering.” 

 

‘A Sense of Belonging’ 

In a press release, Al-Mutawa says that the work is an attempt to show that “superficial” places are “important cultural sites: ones where social and gender norms are observed and negotiated.” She adds: “I hope (the work) can generate debate about how to go about understanding these places without repeating the stereotype about inauthentic Gulf cities.” 


Saudi designer Mohammed Ashi to create Riyadh Air cabin crew uniforms

Saudi designer Mohammed Ashi to create Riyadh Air cabin crew uniforms
Updated 30 May 2024
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Saudi designer Mohammed Ashi to create Riyadh Air cabin crew uniforms

Saudi designer Mohammed Ashi to create Riyadh Air cabin crew uniforms

DUBAI: Saudi designer Mohammed Ashi, founder of the Paris-based label Ashi Studio, is set to design the inaugural fashion line for the cabin crew of the Kingdom’s new airline, Riyadh Air, which is on track to make its maiden flight in 2025. 

Ashi is set to unveil the uniform design concepts and share his inspiration for the creations at Haute Couture Week in Paris from June 22-27. The full uniform launch is scheduled for later this year.

Riyadh Air’s CEO Tony Douglas said: “The cabin crew fashion line is one of the first things our guests will see when they board our aircraft in 2025, and we are confident that Ashi’s unique designs will leave a lasting impression, ensuring the experience lives long in their memory after they have landed.

“It’s such an honor to collaborate with Riyadh Air to design the airline’s first ever cabin crew fashion line,” the designer said in a released statement. “The airline will play an important role in the future of Saudi Arabia by making Riyadh one of the world’s key destinations.

“I am delighted to be part of a project so significant for our nation. It’s an exciting time to be in Saudi Arabia and to witness another Saudi brand going global,” he added. “I am looking forward to sharing the cabin crew fashion line with the world, and to seeing the Riyadh Air team wearing my creations when it takes its maiden flight in 2025.”

Ashi became the first couturier from the Gulf region to join the Fédération de la Haute Couture in Paris as a guest member in 2023. He also became the first designer from the Gulf to be included in the BoF 500 list, the Business of Fashion’s index of the people shaping the fashion industry in 2023.

Ashi’s creations have been worn by the likes of Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson, Kylie Minogue, Penélope Cruz, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor, Queen Rania of Jordan and more.  


Dua Lipa denounces ‘Israeli genocide,’ calls for Gaza ceasefire

Dua Lipa denounces ‘Israeli genocide,’ calls for Gaza ceasefire
Updated 29 May 2024
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Dua Lipa denounces ‘Israeli genocide,’ calls for Gaza ceasefire

Dua Lipa denounces ‘Israeli genocide,’ calls for Gaza ceasefire

DUBAI: British singer Dua Lipa has taken to social media to denounce Israel’s military operations in Gaza as an “Israeli genocide” in an Instagram Story post shared with her 88 million followers.

The Grammy-winning artist, who has Kosovo Albanian heritage, also used the trending hashtag #AllEyesOnRafah that is being used online following Israel’s bombing of the Palestinian city.

“Burning children alive can never be justified. The whole world is mobilising to stop the Israeli genocide. Please show your solidarity with Gaza,” the singer wrote.

The singer shared a post on an Instagram Stories. (Instagram)

It is the strongest condemnation Lipa has made so far in Israel’s eight month bombing campaign that followed an Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

In December, she wrote: “With each passing day, my heart aches for the people of Israel and Palestine. Grief for the lives lost in the horrifying attacks in Israel. Grief as I witness the unprecedented suffering in Gaza, where 2.2m souls, half of them children, endure unimaginable hardships. For now, I desperately hope for a ceasefire in Gaza and urge governments to halt the unfolding crisis. Our hope lies in finding the empathy to recognise this dire humanitarian situation. Sending love to Palestinian and Jewish communities worldwide, who bear this burden more heavily than most.”

Meanwhile, English singer-songwriter  Paul Weller, who performed in front of a Palestinian flag on his recent tour, spoke against Israel in an interview with British newspaper the Observer in May, saying: “Am I against genocides and ethnic cleansing? Yes, I am, funnily enough. I can’t understand why more people aren’t up in arms about what’s going on. We should be ashamed of ourselves, I think. One minute you’re supplying bullets and bombs and guns, and then you’re sending over food. How does that work?”


Elisabeth Moss turns British spy in action thriller ‘The Veil,’ alongside Lebanese actress Yumna Marwan

Elisabeth Moss turns British spy in action thriller ‘The Veil,’ alongside Lebanese actress Yumna Marwan
Updated 41 min 39 sec ago
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Elisabeth Moss turns British spy in action thriller ‘The Veil,’ alongside Lebanese actress Yumna Marwan

Elisabeth Moss turns British spy in action thriller ‘The Veil,’ alongside Lebanese actress Yumna Marwan
  • Lebanese-Palestinian actress Yumna Marwan plays suspected terrorist
  • Show explores the fraught, surprising relationship between the 2 women

DUBAI: US actress Elisabeth Moss — who made her name through prestige shows including “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” — is returning to television as a British MI6 agent in FX’s “The Veil,” available to stream in the Middle East on Disney Plus.

“I love the spy genre. I love all the spy franchises, but I don’t know if we’ve seen this kind of story on television before. At least, not in a while. For that reason, I am excited for people to get hooked by how fun, entertaining and global this story is,” said Moss in a recent interview with Arab News.

Elisabeth Moss is MI6 genius Imogen Salter. (Supplied)

The show explores the surprising and fraught relationship between two women who play a deadly game of truth and lies on the road from Istanbul to Paris and London. Moss is MI6 genius Imogen Salter, while Lebanese actress Yumna Marwan plays Adilah El-Idrissi, a suspected commander of a terrorist organization.

Imogen finds Adilah in Turkiye and convinces her to flee with her. During their journey, Adilah and Imogen bond in unexpected ways, while the rest of the world’s spy network hunt them down.

“‘The Veil’ is an action-packed and international drama. I think that’s the hook. And then, of course, there are these two characters at the center of it all. Imogen and Adilah are the emotional truth and the emotional heart of the story. I think we’ve achieved a great balance between the character drama and the complexity of that, as well as a lot of fun,” added Moss.

For Moss, all of 1.6 meters in height, playing an action hero did not come naturally. “I’ve done a fair amount of fight scenes before, but it’s usually on the defensive. Usually, I play a character who isn’t trained to fight.

“What was really fun and different about this was she’s a trained fighter, so she would have learned how to do the things she does and be quite good at them. That was really cool for me,” said Moss.

The actress took quite a few hits in the process, too.

“When there’s a huge, massive leap and fall, obviously I physically don’t know how to do that, so my stunt double would do that for me — but I certainly got pushed really hard.

“I actually fractured my back when we shot on the rooftop scene (in episode one), so we had to go back six weeks later and shoot that again. What you see in the show is actually our second attempt. We got really good at it by then,” she said.