Ashraf Sewailam, the talented Egyptian bass-baritone, is singing the high priest Ramfis in Virginia Opera's production of Aida performed throughout the month of October in Norfolk, Richmond and Fairfax (Virginia). The opera is directed by Lillian Groag, the Virginia Symphony conducted by John Demain in addition to the Richmond Ballet. The production includes international singers, with Sewailam being the sole Egyptian in the cast.
For Sewailam, the role of Ramfis is much more than yet another appearance on one of the US's operatic stages. Ramfis in particular holds a special place in his career, as in fact this specific operatic character was the reason that his life turned towards opera singing.
“I became an opera singer so that I can get to sing Ramfis in Verdi’s Aida,” Sewailam told Ahram Online. He recalls the searing intensity of the judgement scene (Act 4, scene 1) performed by Grace Bumbry at the Pyramids in 1987, a performance which to him was a life-transforming experience.
“Since I could never sing Amneris, the next best thing was to sing with Amneris; be her scene partner: Ramfis, the character that instigates this fury and intensity out of her. I didn't know what kind of a voice I had and if it were even capable of singing opera.”
Suweilam graduated as an architect from Cairo University's Faculty of Engineering in 1990, yet started taking voice lessons in late 1980s. He studied privately with Raouf Zaidan. “I didn't only learn singing from Zaidan, but also languages, diction, the whole culture of being an artist, the culture of opera, work ethics, humility before my art,” Sewailam explains.
Then he continued his academic studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he received his bachelors, masters and finally doctorate degree in 2008. Suweilam became member of the Cairo Opera Company in 1990 (a post which he held until 2003) singing in a variety of roles in performances staged in Egypt. “I finally sang Ramfis with the Cairo Opera in 1998 and I have been singing it ever since.”
Sewailam started singing on international arena but his 2007 debut at the Lincoln Centre's Avery Fisher Hall was an important step in his career and personal life. Praise that he received in reviews published in The New York Times and Opera News helped spur him on. “This is when I received my Green Card under a category called ‘person of extraordinary ability’. It usually takes about two years to process the application; mine was done in five months.”
Today, Sewailam has many important roles on his resume: Leporello in Don Giovanni (with Opera Colorado), Colline in La Bohème (with the Seattle Opera, as well as in Alabama, Tennessee and California), Mustafa in L'italiana in Algeri (with Opera Southwest, New Mexico), Pirate King in Pirates of Penzance and Basilio in Il Barbiere di Siviglia (with the San Diego Lyric Opera) among dozens of others.
His upcoming commitments include performances in the US and beyond, well into the 2014/2015 season. “From the US, I am now venturing out into the international arena. I am starting with New Zealand next year, where I will sing Sparafucile in Rigoletto with the New Zealand Opera,” Sewailam told Ahram Online.
Unfortunately, Suweilam’s plans do not include many performances in Egypt. “Unfortunately, the political turmoil at the Cairo Opera House has rendered the last seven years fruitless in terms of my involvement with the company's seasons. However, I have maintained a consistent relationship with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina where I return annually to perform.”
Starting from January, however, he will be giving a workshop at the American University in Cairo (AUC) entitled "Introduction to Vocal Pedagogy". “I feel that it is my duty to share the knowledge I had acquired during my graduate studies, to help establish a new generation of voice teachers in Egypt who are educated on a scientific basis. With the new music major at AUC, there is a real chance to develop not only the voice, but also the culture, mentality, languages, and work ethic. I am planning on being part of that.”
Sewailam’s journey from the Faculty of Engineering to US operatic stages is inspiring for many artists. He looks at his success with a gratitude underscoring that it is hard for anyone to make it in the US. “The standards are high and the competition is fierce. You just have to carve a place for yourself with hard work, discipline, resolve and persistence.”
Sewailam says he has found great luxury in the US. “I came from a background where we had to work under totally unacceptable circumstances in Egypt because of the complete absence of a real arts administration structure in the Cairo Opera House. In Egypt, singers have to work miracles in order to put on a semi-decent show.”
Sewailam underlines the importance of a systematic organisational structure in companies he worked with in the US. “Everyone has his specific job description and there is no pressure from so many elements completely irrelevant to art. In such an environment the artist has freedom and room to excel and do his best.”
With his schedule filled for a few seasons to come, and the Ramfis role in the Virginia Opera's production of Aida, Sewailam shares his special feelings towards home and the opera.
“Ramfis still holds a special place in my heart. During the final dress rehearsal at the Virginia Opera, I found myself in tears on stage during the first act's consecration scene, where I pray to Isis and to Gods to protect Egypt in its battle. At this particular juncture in our history, and in relation to both Egypt and the Cairo Opera House, I felt like praying for deliverance from the evil corrupt forces that run both bodies. It all suddenly rang true,” Sewailam concluded.
The Virginia Opera, founded in 1974, is a leading regional opera company and is the Official Opera Company of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Virginia Opera is known internationally for its identification with and nurturing of young singers. The company is also recognised for its education and outreach programmes, which annually reach more than 150,000 schoolchildren and adults across Virginia and include the acclaimed “Operation Opera” initiative, which brings free performances to community venues throughout Virginia.