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Tuesday, 20 October 2020

'Fabrica is evolving all the time': Egypt's soprano Neveen Allouba on her musical theatre company

Egypt's musical theatre company has numerous successes in their portfolio, with the latest one being an award for Best Music Video at the ninth annual MoziMotion festival, held in Hilversum, the Netherlands

Ati Metwaly , Thursday 24 Oct 2019
Rock project (Photo: courtesy Fabrica)
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Views: 8408

When earlier this month news of the Fabrica musical theatre company winning at the MoziMotion – iPhone Film Festival started spreading across social media, I felt an immediate urge to revisit the troupe.

Last time I wrote about Fabrica was back in 2014, not long after the official founding of the company. Fabrica’s pilot production of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute translated to Egyptian Arabic by Sarah Enany (2011) – staged in collaboration with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina – was followed by numerous appearances on stage and screen. The troupe’s dynamo, Egyptian soprano Neveen Allouba, had nursed the idea of Fabrica for years before she finally turned her dream into a reality with help from director Mohamed Abo El Kheir.

Ever since its founding, Fabrica has returned to the audience with fresh material, always driven by the aim to develop the contemporary performing art scene in Egypt through musical theatre. Their rich portfolio includes works such as the musical Les Misérables, Brecht’s Threepenny Opera and adaptations of local shows including El Leila El Kebira by Salah Jaheen and Sayed Mekawy, in addition to Rock, Jazz and Disney concerts where the mise-en-scene, choreography, scenography, costumes combine with the music to give the performance a rich musical theatre packaging. Fabrica also performed during the inaugural El Gouna Film Festival’s opening ceremony (2017), the SNL Bel Araby’s 50th episode celebration, the Egyptian Media and Production Company’s 20 year anniversary, and the Intra-African Trade Fair (2018), among other events.

This time Fabrica was brought to light again, as the company won the award for Best Music Video at the ninth annual MoziMotion festival, held in Hilversum, the Netherlands (5-13 October) for Mercury Rising: A Queen Tribute, released in January 2019 (a few months after Bohemian Rhapsody was released in theatres) and on their YouTube channel on 25 February. The video is a medley of songs by the famed band. As the actors sing, the camera follows them backstage, in the changing rooms and the corridors, and then onto all the stage itself. Most of the video was recorded in one shot, something that adds artistic weight to an already unique approach.

“Fabrica is evolving all the time; different people join, adding their unique talents and interests to the company. Today we have many multitalented members who are not only singers but also musicians or artists with a variety of skills. They all add different colours to Fabrica,” Allouba explains.

“Back in 2018, we wanted to do a rock concert. We chose the songs, reworked them and gave the first performance of that project in August 2018 at El Sawy Culturewheel. It was a success, with all the musical theatre components: mise-en-scene, costumes, makeup, choreography etc. Until end of 2018, the same production was performed again several times at other venues across Cairo and Alexandria and at private events.”

This naturally led to the idea of a music video. Since in those months rock fans were preoccupied with the newly released biographical drama Bohemian Rhapsody starring the Egyptian-American Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, Fabrica thought of making its own tribute.

Neveen Allouba in Fabrica studio, 2014 (Photo: Sherif Sonbol)

“Queen was a revolutionary band which changed the face of rock and music at large. There was no one like them and there never will be; they left an important imprint on the history of music. Coupled by the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, we believed that Fabrica should contribute to the international acknowledgement of the band,” Mohab Kaddah, Fabrica’s artistic team member, singer and lead guitarist adds to the conversation. Having worked on the arrangement, Kaddah reveals how challenging it was to make choices, since “everything that Queen composed is great. Choosing, picking some songs and disregarding others, was not easy but necessary for a seven-minute medley.”

The final mash-up includes segments from 11 of Queen’s hits: “We Are the Champions”, “Somebody to Love”, “Killer Queen”, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”, “Don’t Stop Me Now”, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “We Are the Champions”, “Another One Bites the Dust”, “We Will Rock You”, “The Show Must Go On”, “Love of My Life”.

Repeatedly, Allouba stresses the efforts, dedication, hard work, as well as talent and sheer passion of everyone involved in the video: Mohab Kaddah, director Mohamed Koushi, art director and choreographer Omar Warda, Mina Samy who also worked on arrangement as well as recording and editing in his studio, singers (sopranos Alia Khaled, Nardine Reda, Farida Tamer; altos Hana Afifi, Laila Ashraf, Nathalie Alain; tenors Ali Ballout, Adel Badawy, Omar Warda; basses Amir Zarkani, Mohab Kaddah and Mina Samy) and all the crew.

Allouba explains that Queen’s songs are not as easy as they seem, in fact they require great skills from the singers. “Among the singers we have two tenors that are high and fit perfectly Queen’s repertoire. We have done many rehearsals before spending a whole week in the studio recording the medley, then moved on to Falaki Theatre where we spent a total of 19 hours in two days shooting. With most of the video being one-take, any tiny mistake would mean that we had to start from the beginning. It was not easy but very rewarding; I produced the video but it was done by all those young people. I am extremely proud of them and happy with the results,” Allouba says, stressing how overjoyed she is with the recognition received at the MoziMotion festival. She adds that the video was submitted to almost 10 competitions, reaching the finals in three of them.

Fabrica with the company's founder Neveen Allouba in the centre (Photo: courtesy of Fabrica, 2019)

“We are currently waiting for the results of a few other competitions we entered, though MoziMotion is already an important step.” Allouba clarifies that prior to work on the medley she contacted Queen’s management company for permission to use their songs as “otherwise we would have not been able to post it on YouTube or submit to any competition”. Allouba adds that it was their success in MoziMoton that prompted the festival’s organisers to direct Fabrica to other competitions. It is obvious that a part of the musical and creative values, the festival’s Dutch organisers found human values in Fabrica’s work as “they suggested that we produce a video for a competition which focuses on shedding light on underprivileged children. We are actually thinking about it, but we have to find songs which resonate in this area and acquire permissions to use them, so it is a bit lengthy process.”

"Mercury Rising: A Queen Tribute" is not the only musical theatre video released by Fabrica. On 16 September this year, the company released a scene from their take on the famed musical Fiddler on the Roof, directed by Omar Warda with music by Jerry Bock and lyrics translated to Arabic by Sarah Enany. Realised in cooperation with NRJ Egypt radio station, the video is a perfect example of Fabrica’s work which while aiming to present a musical theatre whether born to Arabic music heritage or linked to Western traditions, is full passion and innovation.

“We are growing slowly but surely,” Allouba said, reminiscing about Fabrica’s almost decade-long career. “We experience waves, as nothing is stable in Egypt. Still, Mohamed Abo El Kheir and I work hard to keep pushing the wheel. Abo El Kheir directs all our productions. We have a wonderful team of passionate people, and some of them – inspired by Fabrica –consider shifting their non-art-related careers to performing arts.”

Today Fabrica Musical Theatre Company is one of two major projects (the second being the Fabrica Vocal Academy founded in 2017 and now counting over 80 members) managed by the soprano who, after many years on stage and many leading roles in operas, working at the American University in Cairo’s Music Program (Department of Performing and Visual Arts) and teaching at the Cairo Conservatory, decided to dedicate her time to the young generation and musical theatre.

“I stopped singing with the Cairo Opera Company three years ago. Teaching at Fabrica takes a lot of energy and it takes away from my vocal abilities; should I sing on stage again, I’d have to stop teaching for at least two weeks. I love teaching and it is a natural course of life. Today, I limit my performances to the annual Christmas concert at the Cairo Opera House and teach at the Conservatory only once a week. Other than that Fabrica’s growth and all those wonderful young people deserve my full attention,” Allouba says.

Yet as she shifted her attention to Fabrica, the opera remembered her numerous creative achievements. Earlier this month, during the two-day celebrations of the Cairo Opera’s 31st anniversary, Minister of Culture Ines Abdel Dayem and Opera chairman Magdy Saber honoured Allouba – among other 12 cultural figures – for their contribution to promoting art and enriching creativity in Egypt and the Arab world.

Scene from Les Miserables by Fabrica (photo courtesy: Fabrica)

Allouba’s portfolio and well-established position in the field combines with an unconditional belief in the young generation and a natural – almost motherly – dedication to enable her to support and promote young talents. Her many students find their calling outside Egypt, continuing their education either in the operatic or the musical theatre sectors. It is due to Allouba’s persistence that some of her students participated in the annual Egyptian-Finnish Musical Bridge and took part in musical workshops in Finland. A few were offered the Sawiris Arts and Culture Fully Funded Scholarship for Artists, others flourished internationally, with soprano Fatma Said, mezzo Farah El Dibany and baritone George Gamal being three of many examples.

Allouba’s connections and dynamism, as well as the support of many people who believe in Fabrica, helps to open many doors, “though there are still many more we need to knock at”. But Allouba’s dreams have no boundaries as she hopes one day Fabrica will have its own home, a stable theatre that will embrace all the young talents and produce great shows.
“This needs a lot of funds. Egypt has many non-operative theatres, they just need to be restored and revived. We also have a great musical theatre heritage which needs to be addressed, brought back to the audience in an innovative way.”

Even when she talks about the challenges faced by Fabrica, Allouba’s voice remains bright and full of optimism. She reveals that among the great achievements is the fact that last year the doors of the Cairo Opera House and venues operating under its wings finally opened to Fabrica. Many of the company’s projects – Les Misérables; Rock, Jazz and Disney concerts presented in theatrical setting – were welcomed by Saber. Fabrica’s next performance, entitled Disney Mania, will take place at the Cairo Opera House Small Hall on Sunday 27 October.

Archival photo of Fabrica, with some older company members. In the centre Neveen Allouba and Mohamed Abo El Kheir

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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