‘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.”  


Dave Chappelle to perform at Abu Dhabi Comedy Week

Dave Chappelle to perform at Abu Dhabi Comedy Week
Updated 19 April 2024
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Dave Chappelle to perform at Abu Dhabi Comedy Week

Dave Chappelle to perform at Abu Dhabi Comedy Week

DUBAI: US award-winning comedian Dave Chappelle is set to perform in the UAE at the Abu Dhabi Comedy Week on May 23, organizers announced on Friday.

The capital city’s first-ever comedy festival will run from May 18-26 at Yas Island’s Etihad Arena.

Chappelle will join a long list of comedians performing at the event, including Chris Tucker, Aziz Ansari, Tom Segura, Jo Koy, Tommy Tiernan, Kevin Bridges, Andrew Santino, Bobby Lee, Andrew Schulz, Bassem Youssef and Maz Jobrani.

With numerous accolades and awards to his name, including multiple Grammy Awards and Emmy Awards, Chappelle is renowned for his wit and fearless commentary on contemporary issues.

While May 23 will mark Chappelle’s inaugural performance in Abu Dhabi, he has previously captivated audiences with two sold-out shows in Dubai.


Manal AlDowayan on her work for the Venice Biennale 

Manal AlDowayan on her work for the Venice Biennale 
Updated 19 April 2024
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Manal AlDowayan on her work for the Venice Biennale 

Manal AlDowayan on her work for the Venice Biennale 
  • The acclaimed artist is representing Saudi Arabia at this year’s ‘Olympics of the art world’ 

DUBAI: The acclaimed Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan is on a roll. Earlier this year, she opened two well-received exhibitions in AlUla, where she is also working on an ambitious land art commission for the upcoming Wadi AlFann cultural destination. And this week, AlDowayan will represent her country at the 60th iteration of the Venice Biennale — dubbed “the Olympics of the art world,” consisting as it does of multiple national pavilions — which runs until Nov. 24. She will be presenting what she describes as “two of my most major works in my career at this point.” 

AlDowayan has participated at Venice before. In 2009, she showed her work in an onsite exhibition organized by the Saudi art-focused initiative Edge of Arabia, alongside fellow Saudi artists including Maha Malluh and Ahmed Mater.  

AlDowayan will represent her country at the 60th iteration of the Venice Biennale. (Supplied)

“I’ve been going to Venice for about 12 years,” AlDowayan tells Arab News. “The first time I showed there, I knew in my heart that I would be coming back to represent Saudi Arabia; I would do everything in my power to come to this moment and prepare myself. It’s something very important for an artist: to participate in the Venice Biennale.” 

It was only last August that she was visited in her UK studio by Dina Amin, the CEO of the Visual Arts Commission, and cultural advisor Abdullah Al-Turki, and told she had been selected to represent the Kingdom in 2024.  

“My first thoughts were: ‘There’s no time,’” she says with a laugh. “To come up with a concept, complete the research, execute the concept, build it, and install it, is really complex. But my team, my studios, and I were ready. I already knew what I wanted to present, and within one week I had put together my proposal and it was approved. The artwork is a continuation of my language, my research and my forms that I work with.”

Participatory workshops for 'Shifting Sands - A Battle Song' by Manal AlDowayan. (Supplied)

The Saudi pavilion’s theme at Venice this year is “Shifting Sands—A Battle Song.” It is curated by a trio of female art experts, Jessica Cerasi, Maya El-Khalil, and Shadin AlBulaihed. In AlDowayan’s sound-meets-sculpture installation, she brings together much of what she has explored in her practice over the past two decades — community engagement, participatory art, media (mis)representation, and the visibility, or lack of it, of women in Saudi culture. The work is also about the momentous changes taking place in the Kingdom today, and her response to them.  

The work comprises two key parts: sound and soft sculptures. Saudi and Arab women’s voices are front and center; AlDowayan allowing them to reclaim their narrative, which she believes has consistently been misrepresented.  

“If you’re always told that you’re oppressed, repressed, depressed… you sort of lose the sense of yourself,” she adds. “And this artwork talks about this sort of constant hounding by Western media — and local media — speaking about the Arab woman; her body, her space, the rules of her behavior, and how she should exist in the public space.” 

Manal AlDowayan's 'Shifting Sands - A Battle Song.' (Supplied)

For this section, AlDowayan put out an open call inviting women to take part in workshops. They proved very popular, attended by all ages, professions and backgrounds.  

“In Riyadh, within three hours, 350 women registered,” she says. “We had to block the registration link because I don’t know how to control 350 women. I’m just one.” In the sessions, participants reacted to negative press headlines and media clippings, and AlDowayan recorded those reactions.  

“I always say that people are trying to define what a Saudi woman is,” explains AlDowayan. “We researched thousands and thousands of articles in my studios, in seven languages, and there were some very dark things written. I showed the women these articles and said, ‘Do you really feel these articles are really speaking your truth?’”  

She also asked them to write and/or draw their own stories. Examples included: “Two women equal one man.” “Thanks love, we don’t want to be saved.” And “Surrendering doesn’t look good on us, for we are wars.”  

Detail from Manal AlDowayan's 'Shifting Sands - A Battle Song.' (Supplied)

A selection of the written quotes were then read out loud by participants. While reading, they had headphones on, listening to, and harmonizing with, the eerie humming sounds made by sand dunes, which AlDowayan had previously recorded.  

“It was beautiful and meditative. You will see women with their eyes closed, their arms stretched out. It was a very spiritual moment,” AlDowayan recalls. The whole ‘performance’ was inspired by ‘Dahha,’ a ritual in which warriors celebrated victory with music and dance.  

Inside the pavilion, where the women’s recordings play, stand three soft black-and-brown sculptures, full of folds, shaped like the sand crystals known as desert roses — a recurring motif in AlDowayan’s work.  

“The rose is a very weak and delicate (thing),” she says. “But this crystal is born in extreme circumstances. First, it needs to be pouring rain, then there needs to be high temperatures and that’s how it crystalizes. I feel like I’ve adopted this form as a body and I deal with it like skin.”  

The folds of the enlarged sculptures are imprinted with “a cacophony of what Western media has written: the veil, repressed, oppressed, women, sexuality… All the words that always float over our heads,” says AlDowayan. They also include some of the women’s positive messages, as well as their drawings.  

“While you’re taking this journey you will hear the sound, and sound is sculptural in my opinion: It occupies but you can’t see it,” she says. “I feel the invisibility of sound, and its ‘presence’ is like the Arab woman. She’s strong, she’s there; it’s undeniable. Just because you don’t see her, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t exist.” 

As for how visitors will react to her work, AlDowayan hopes to provoke conversations.  

“I want questions. I want extreme emotions. They can hate it, they can love it, they can cry. But, I can’t do neutral,” she says. “Neutral means I did not succeed. If they have questions, then I’ve succeeded. If they talk about it after one day, I’ve succeeded.” 


US Kuwaiti artist Latifa Alajlan — ‘I used to compare myself to other artists’ 

US Kuwaiti artist Latifa Alajlan — ‘I used to compare myself to other artists’ 
Updated 19 April 2024
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US Kuwaiti artist Latifa Alajlan — ‘I used to compare myself to other artists’ 

US Kuwaiti artist Latifa Alajlan — ‘I used to compare myself to other artists’ 
  • The third in this year’s series focusing on contemporary Arab-American artists in honor of Arab-American Heritage Month

DUBAI: Kuwaiti artist Latifa Alajlan moved to America in 2016 to study art at Grossmont College in San Diego, followed by a Master of Fine Arts program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where alumni include major American artists Georgia O’Keeffe, Joan Mitchell and Grant Wood.  

Now, Alajlan is based in New York, where she is represented by Franklin Parrasch Gallery. “New York is the Makkah of the art world,” she tells Arab News. “You have so many galleries and institutions — that’s what I do every Friday. It’s very meditative for me and I enjoy walking around the city.”    

Alajlan, Latifa, Ishq, 2024. (Supplied)

But she is also aware of the competition in such an established artistic environment. “In New York, when you’re a young artist what’s dangerous about it is that you compare yourself to other artists,” she says. “I used to do that a lot and I had to take a step back and realize it was unhealthy. Everyone has their own journey.” 

Hers began in Kuwait, where her parents, especially her strict father, would “force” Alajlan and her siblings to visit museums and write essays on artworks. “I just didn’t understand. People were enjoying their summer, and we were going to museums,” she says. “That was boring.”  

Now, however, Alajlan can look back on her childhood and understand her parents’ intentions. “That’s what I appreciate: the fact that they kept pushing me,” she says. 

Lilith's Garden, 2024. (Supplied)

As for her creative practice, Alajlan has experimented with ceramics, glass-blowing, blacksmithing and sculpting. But such labor-intensive mediums weren’t for her. “I almost lost my fingers,” she says. “It’s intense. . . I’ve realized painting is my thing.” 

Through her abstract work, Alajlan addresses political, cultural and architectural attributes of her homeland. But she finds inspiration everywhere, she says — from her friends to conversations with strangers. There is an element of mystery to her canvases; she might hide certain parts of her composition with splodges of paint, filling them with gentle gestural strokes and motifs from mosques.  

“To me, painting is very therapeutic,” she says. “It’s my way of praying.” 


Recipes for success: Chef Lorenzo Buccarini offers advice and a pasta and caviar recipe 

Recipes for success: Chef Lorenzo Buccarini offers advice and a pasta and caviar recipe 
Updated 19 April 2024
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Recipes for success: Chef Lorenzo Buccarini offers advice and a pasta and caviar recipe 

Recipes for success: Chef Lorenzo Buccarini offers advice and a pasta and caviar recipe 

DUBAI: “I discovered my passion for cooking at a young age, being drawn to the sights and smells from my family’s kitchen,” Zenon Dubai’s executive chef Lorenzo Buccarini tells Arab News. “My earliest memory of cooking is helping my grandmother prepare lasagna. Those moments ignited a lifelong love affair with the culinary arts.”. 

Zenon, located at Kempinski Central Avenue in the heart of Downtown Dubai, offers Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. 

“Working with Zenon Dubai has been an enriching experience filled with creativity and collaboration, allowing me to push boundaries,” said Buccarini. 

Zenon is located at Kempinski Central Avenue in the heart of Downtown Dubai. (Supplied)

From the vibrant culinary scene of London in 2012 to Istanbul in 2014, Bali in 2016, and Morocco in 2018, Buccarini has dabbled in an array of cuisines over the years. Here, he discusses his go-to dish, favorite cuisine and most challenging dish to prepare. 

Q: When you started out, what was the most common mistake you made? 

A: Underestimating the importance of proper seasoning. Achieving the perfect balance of flavors is essential in every dish, and mastering seasoning techniques was a valuable lesson early in my career. 

What’s your top tip for amateur chefs? 

Invest in quality ingredients and don’t be afraid to experiment. Additionally, learn fundamental cooking techniques such as knife skills and proper seasoning, as they form the foundation of any great dish. 

Zenon offers Mediterranean and Asian cuisine. (Supplied)

What one ingredient can instantly improve any dish? 

Fresh herbs — whether it’s parsley, basil, cilantro, or thyme, incorporating fresh herbs adds depth and complexity to your cooking. They elevate the flavor of any dish. 

When you go out to eat, do you find yourself critiquing the food?  

Naturally, as a chef, I pay attention to the details if I’m dining out. 

What’s the most common issue that you find in other restaurants? 

Something I often notice is inconsistency in execution — whether it’s undercooked proteins, over-seasoned dishes, or lackluster presentation. Consistency is key to delivering memorable dining experiences. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Zenon Dubai (@zenondubai)

And what’s your favorite cuisine when you go out? 

I do enjoy exploring different cuisines, but if I had to choose a favorite, it would have to be classic Italian cuisine. There’s something inherently comforting and soul-satisfying about dishes like homemade pasta or a perfectly cooked risotto that never fails to delight the palate. 

What’s your go-to dish if you have to cook something quickly at home? 

Spaghetti aglio e olio. It’s a simple yet flavorful pasta dish made with garlic, olive oil, chili flakes, and parsley. It’s quick to prepare and showcases the beauty of minimalistic Italian cooking. 

What customer behavior most annoys you? 

It can be frustrating when customers request significant modifications to a dish without considering the integrity of the recipe. While accommodating dietary restrictions is important, excessive alterations can compromise the intended flavors and balance of the dish. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Zenon Dubai (@zenondubai)

What’s your favorite dish to cook? 

One of them is osso buco. It’s a classic Italian dish made with braised veal shanks, aromatic vegetables, and a rich tomato-based sauce. The slow cooking process allows the flavors to meld together beautifully, resulting in a dish that’s hearty, flavorful, and deeply satisfying. 

What’s the most difficult dish for you to get right? 

For me, mastering the perfect risotto has always been a challenge. Achieving the ideal balance of creaminess and texture while ensuring the rice is cooked to perfection requires precision and attention to detail. It’s a dish that demands patience and practice to get just right. 

As a head chef, what are you like? Are you a disciplinarian? Or are you more laidback? 

I try to maintain a balance between discipline and approachability. I do set high standards for my team, and I expect professionalism in the kitchen, but I believe in fostering a supportive and collaborative environment. Effective communication and mutual respect are essential for success in any kitchen. 

Chef Lorenzo’s pasta, cream reduction and caviar 

Chef Lorenzo’s pasta, cream reduction and caviar. (Supplied)

INGREDIENTS 

For the cream reduction: 1L double cream; 500g dried porcini; 1L water 

For the fresh pasta (can be substituted for store-bought pasta): 600g semolina flour; 1400g 00 flour; 8 fresh eggs; 300g water 

INSTRUCTIONS 

1. To reduce the cream, add it to a pan and gradually reduce the heat to a slow boil, stirring frequently. As the water boils off, the cream will be reduced. You want to reduce it by half. Then place the pan to one side. 

2. For mushroom stock, add the dried porcini to a pan with the water and simmer for one hour. Strain immediately. Reduce the stock by ¾. 

3. For the pasta, mix all ingredients together to make a dough. Put in the fridge for one hour. Remove from the fridge and shape it as you like (here at the restaurant we do rigatoni). You can just use standard, store-bought pasta too.  

4. Cook the pasta in boiling water for five or six minutes (or as instructed for store-bought pasta), then drain. 

5. Put 250g of the cream reduction and 20g of reduced mushrooms into a hot shallow pan. Add a pinch of salt. Add the pasta to the sauce. Stir. Add a little parmesan and top with caviar.


REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Crashing Eid’

REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Crashing Eid’
Updated 19 April 2024
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REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Crashing Eid’

REVIEW: Netflix’s ‘Crashing Eid’

Shying away from the traditional, comedy television show “Crashing Eid” presents quite a progressive viewpoint — but certainly not an uncommon one.

The four-episode series follows the story of Razan, an independent young Saudi woman who fled her old life and built a new one in London along with her teenage daughter Lamar — only to find herself in love with a Pakistani Brit, Sameer.

The show opens with a surprise spin as Razan takes it upon herself to initiate a proposal to Sameer, who she has known for two years. She and her daughter then plan to take a short trip back to hometown Jeddah during Ramadan, without her family knowing that she has no plans to move back home — or that she is engaged.

Sameer decides to return the surprise by showing up to her family’s home, only to be met by Razan’s father, who mistakes him for a maintenance worker. This spurs the show into a flurry of misunderstandings and awkward interactions that surface some rather crucial unresolved family issues and traumas.

As Saudi has become more global in its population, in many ways including international marriages, the issues in “Crashing Eid” have become more vital to discuss than ever.

Rather than focusing on the difficulties that come with marrying a foreigner, such as lengthy legal procedures and official marriage approvals, the show hones in on societal acceptance. The aspects of honor and locality of marriage are brought to the surface.

The show also uses the main plot to dig up some underlying issues prevalent in any society, not just in Saudi Arabia. Through Razan’s homecoming, she is forced to revisit the reality of her previous marriage to Lamar’s father, who had been physically abusive. Choosing to leave him and start a new life abroad, she is met with societal condemnation and victim blaming.

While Razan’s brother Sofyan battles divorce and child custody issues, the family reveals the challenges of generational gaps. It also demonstrates the common shift to the globalization of younger generations and the tight hold on traditions within older ones.

The show has a unique way of making difficult or rather taboo topics palatable for a general Saudi audience. It sets the table for conversation, at the very least.

Sure, some of the acting seemed fairly novel, reminiscent of early 2000s sitcoms sans the laugh track, and the show also had a peculiar style of direction and editing.

But certainly, “Crashing Eid” must be applauded for its bold statements, proving that it is not afraid to rock the boat for the chance to tell authentic Saudi stories. For anyone looking to get a deeper sense into the modern-day Saudi household, the show is a must-watch.