Fatma Said: 'I never thought I'd be singing a lead role in La Scala. Who knows what the future will bring?'
Fatma Said (25) is a soprano. She is the winner of the 2016 Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition and one of the BBC's New Generation Artists. Born in Cairo, Egypt, she currently lives in Milan, Italy
I'm always in search of sleep. When I have nothing to do in the morning, I try not to set the alarm. This job requires a lot of sleep, because that's when your body regains its energy. Your vocal cords get to rest, and your mind rests, too. Being an opera singer is like being a sportsman. You need to get enough sleep in order to be able to perform. These days, directors ask so much from singers. As well as having a beautiful voice, you have to be able to sing in certain positions, and do other things on stage, while singing.
I was born in Egypt. After attending a German school in Cairo, I went on to study music in Berlin. Now I'm living in Milan. I've been here since November 2013. I came on a scholarship to study at the Opera Academy of La Scala. They train young singers, and give us the opportunity to sing small roles at the theatre. To perform on the stage of La Scala is a dream for any opera singer. This is where all the stars have performed - sopranos like Maria Callas. At the moment, I am performing the role of Pamina in Mozart's Magic Flute. Next Sunday, I'll be doing a recital in the National Concert Hall. This is a direct result of winning the 2016 Veronica Dunne International Singing Competition in Dublin.
In Milan, I live in a rather unusual place. It's called Casa Verdi - which is the house of Verdi - and it's a retirement home for old musicians. Before the famous Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi died, he put all his money into one project. The idea is that those who lived their lives doing music deserve to live in a house where people will take care of them. If you saw the movie Quartet, you'd have some idea. There is a clinic here, but there are also music rooms, and it's full of pianos.
When I came to Milan, I didn't have much time to look for an apartment, and it is an extremely expensive city. They started taking in young musicians in Casa Verdi to socialise with the elderly. There are about 12 of us here. It's one of the most interesting experiences I've had in Milan. I have my own room here, but once I get out of this room, there is no privacy whatsoever. I'm living in a big house with so many people, and you even have tourists in the foyer. It's quite a historic place, and Verdi's grave is nearby. Living in this house, every day is a life lesson. Sometimes I find it depressing, because I come from an extremely family-oriented home, and I hope that I would never come to a point where my family would put me in a home. On the other hand, I have so many enriching experiences too. For lunch and dinner, I sit at the same table as these people, and they tell me about their lives in the golden age of opera. They have worked with musical greats like Maria Callas, and conductors Herbert von Karajan and Claudio Abbado. They see me as someone who is out there. When I come home at the end of the day, they want to hear my news.
In the mornings, I'm always in a rush. In Egypt, breakfast is a very important meal, and people eat it together. But it's different here. Italians don't have a big passion for breakfast. They have coffee all the time, and I do too, along with a brioche. Or I might have a late lunch. In Italy, people get together to eat after work. They start with an aperitif at 6pm and finish around midnight. The food is delicious. At first, it wasn't easy for me to control my appetite. I put on six kilos, and I was devastated when my dresses didn't fit me. After that, I lost weight.
When I arrived in Italy, I didn't know how to speak Italian, and it was a disaster. I had to start learning very quickly. I had to overcome the fact that I was making a lot of mistakes while speaking. I nearly had a nervous breakdown after the first three months. Italians are very expressive. They speak with their hands, and have loud voices. I couldn't understand when they were making jokes and when they were sad. It was very difficult, because I'm very expressive too. I wanted to say so many things and I couldn't. Then I surrounded myself with as many Italian people as possible, and I started listening to old Italian music. That helped me a lot.
My days vary. Sometimes I do masterclasses at the academy, or I might have private lessons, or I could be rehearsing. I enjoy every bit of it. We are treated like professionals, and you have to be very well prepared. You must know your music on your first day of rehearsals. If you make mistakes, a nice conductor might give you a second chance, but if it doesn't work out, they will replace you. That is the professional world of opera.
There are so many days when you could hear very bad news - for example, the death of a friend or a family member - and you still have to go out on stage and perform. You are a professional. It's a tough job, and in order to do it, I have to be completely in love with it.
I arrive at the opera house two hours before a production starts. When I am getting my hair and make-up done, I relax. Then I do some physical warm-ups, so that I don't strain myself on stage. Even if I am repeating the opera for the tenth time, I'm always nervous, because the voice is always different. There is a great energy in the house. Sometimes people don't want to clap, because they don't want to ruin the moment. You feel all those little details, as if you are exchanging energy with the audience. At the end, when you take your bow, it's an overwhelming experience. But it's the same feeling that makes you want to do it all over again.
I never thought I'd be singing a lead role in La Scala. Who knows what the future will bring? All I know is that I need to be ready for it.
As part of the Sunday Matinee Series at the National Concert Hall, D2, Fatma Said, soprano, and James Vaughan, piano, perform next Sunday, October 23 at 3pm. Tickets, €20. Tel: (01) 417-0000, or see nch.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine