Saudi Arabia hosts its first-ever Arabic grand opera, 'Zarqa Al Yamama' – a timeless ancient tale that still speaks of contemporary concerns
audi Arabia is in the midst of a remarkable cultural transformation, marked by major investments into groundbreaking new projects. As part of this development, the country’s Theater and Performing Arts Commission has announced , the first ever grand opera to be produced by the Kingdom, and the world's largest grand opera in Arabic, set to premiere in Riyadh this April.
Based on an ancient tale from pre-Islamic Arabia, tells the story of a legendary blue-eyed woman, born of the Geddes tribe and blessed with the gift of foresight. Foretelling the approach of a rival army that threatens to destroy her people, the story follows the eponymous heroine as she tries to warn her leader and his advisors of the imminent danger.
The visionary behind the project, Sultan Al-Bazie, CEO of the Theater and Performing Arts Commission, sees “as a landmark moment in the Kingdom’s cultural journey that will inspire a new generation of Saudi artists and showcase Saudi Arabia’s culture to a global audience”.
The making of Zarqa Al Yamama
Staging and writing an opera in Arabic, and one featuring non-native speakers in a country unfamiliar with the artform, had its challenges, but through the engagement of a world-class team and cast, and the support and vision of the Ministry of Culture, the production has managed to overcome this.
“Music is the only international language,” says Ivan Vukcevic, CEO and project manager for Arabian Opera, the company delivering . “It’s transcendent of everything, and having the opportunity for audiences across the globe to hear the Arabic language set operatically for the first time is groundbreaking – we are very proud of what we have achieved.”
When working on the original score, composer Lee Bradshaw worked closely with Saudi writer and poet Saleh Zamanan, to create a story that would captivate both local and international audiences. This was then translated into Latinised Arabic and phoneticised, ensuring that the bloodlines of the music reflected the rhythms of the original Arabic and maintained the language’s beautiful intonation.
Zamanan says of the production: “I am very proud to have scripted this opera, as it introduces a new artistic and aesthetic perspective in the Kingdom and the broader region. embodies a bloody and tearful tragedy depicting ancient history, and at the same time it symbolises the sorrows of Arabs in today’s world. However, the production is not devoid of hope, and offers the promise of a bright and happy tomorrow.”
The end product is a grand opera that marries Western opera culture with an intrinsically Saudi story, promising to delight even the most discerning of opera lovers while also encouraging locals to discover an age-old folk tale through a totally new medium.
“At the end of the day, I like to think that I’m contributing to a lineage and being a part of something greater,” muses Lee. “Music will always be the winning force, and we’re excited to deliver this project to the world.”
Bringing the production to life is a cast led by world-acclaimed mezzo soprano Dame Sarah Connolly DBE in the title role of Zarqa, with three of the other main roles being performed by Saudi artists, representing the incredible development of the Kingdom’s national music programme. Other principal cast members include bass singer Rafal Siwek, soprano Serena Farnocchia and soprano Amelia Wawrzon.
Developing a domestic opera industry in the Kingdom
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