The news of Ratiba El-Hefny’s death on 16 September touched the hearts of many. Egyptian artists remember decades of interacting with her on stage and working with her on a multitude of musical projects, and audiences recall the many roles she has played on the country’s cultural scene.
“I am very proud of my many decades of artistic achievement. I think I managed to realise all my dreams and say all that I wanted to say,” Ratiba El-Hefny said in her last interview, published in April this year.
El-Hefny’s career as a soprano took her to numerous international stages. No wonder her singing partner for three decades, Hassan Kami, calls El-Hefny “the master” in reference to her “unprecedented stage presence, style, technique, beauty of voice and versatility of repertoire.”
El-Hefny was also known as a professor and a host of television and radio programmes on music. She was a woman of many roles, but in all of them music was her life and passion.
El-Hefny was born in 1931 to an Egyptian father, Mohamed Ahmed El-Hefny, who authored many books on music. Her mother was of German origins and her maternal grandmother was also a soprano. El-Hefny’s music education began at the Faculty of Music Education in Cairo.
She started playing the piano at the age of five and eventually reached the level of a concert pianist, yet she did not continue any further. She also studied the oud with the renowned composer Mohamed Al-Kasabgui, as well as the qanoun. Since the early years she equally cherished western classical music and Arab music; her life path gave her an opportunity to indulge her interest in both traditions with the same boundless dedication.
Following her studies in Egypt in the 1950s, she became rector at the Higher Institute of Arab Music in Cairo and was appointed dean of the same institution in 1962. By then El-Hefny’s operatic career was already flourishing.
In the 1950s, she had studied operatic singing for three years in Munich and was the first Egyptian opera singer to return to Egypt with a diploma in singing.
Equally interested in Egypt’s musical heritage, she did her thesis on a folk theme, “The Wedding Songs of Fayoum” at the Berlin School of Music. Following that, El-Hefny was offered the post of dean of the Higher Institute of Arab Music in Cairo, and she had to split her time between international commitments, performing and working in the institute in Egypt.
Throughout her career, she established a number of ensembles, many of which operate until today. In 1961, she founded the first children’s choir in Egypt and later the Cairo Opera Children’s Choir. She also established the Umm Kolthoum Ensemble for Arab Music, the Religious Songs Ensemble and the National Arab Music Ensemble. In 1988, on the opening of the new Cairo Opera House, El-Hefny became its chairperson (president of the National Cultural Centre), a post that she held until 1990.
For over two decades, she hosted radio and television programmes dedicated to Arab music. For many years, until 2010, she was the supervisor of the Talents Development Centre operating under the Cairo Opera House. In the late 1990s she became the president of the Arab Society for Music, an organisation associated with the Arab League, a position she was repeatedly elected to by the voting committee every four years.
El-Hefny’s was deeply involved in Egypt’s music scene right up to the last months of her life. Although in April 2013 she said she was considering giving up on some activities, it was obvious that she was still wholly devoted to music.
El-Hefny’s positive spirit seemed to conquer her deteriorating health when I had the privilege of meeting this unforgettable artist, one of the pillars of Egypt’s music culture. Her warm voice walked me through some steps of her career as she looked back on how it all began. She always pointed to the 1960s, and particularly the years during which Tharwat Okasha was minister of culture, as the basis of what she later achieved.
“The years when Tharwat Okasha was the minister of culture were very important to my career. He helped me with my first steps and opened many doors to me. He was an exceptional person and despite having a military background, he had a very profound culture and understanding of refined art forms. Not only did Okasha ensure that there should be all sorts of artistic endeavours addressing all Egyptians, he was also deeply involved in maintaining many of those endeavours.
“My first important appearance was in Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, which was also the first complete operatic work translated to Arabic [by Abdel-Rahman Al-Khamissi] and performed as such in 1961. It was much later that I knew — through my sister’s husband, who at the time was minister of health — how I was cast in this operetta.”
“Tharwat Okasha, who supported the Egyptian production of The Merry Widow wholeheartedly, was in fact thinking of bringing over a soprano from Lebanon. But Gamal Abdel-Nasser, then president of Egypt, had attended the Afro-Asiatic celebrations in which I sung, and told Okasha about me. The next day the office of the minister contacted me. It was a great joy for me, a life-changing moment.”
“After The Merry Widow, we performed The Dancing Years, also translated to Arabic by Al-Khamissi. Both works gave me a privileged status on the Egyptian scene and helped me enter the international stage.”
“Fragments from The Merry Widow were screened on Austrian television. Coincidentally at the time I was in Vienna, and to my surprise I was contacted by one of the opera houses there suggesting that I should sing in one of their new productions. This is how my international career began. I sang in The Magic Flute in Rome, Rigoletto in Berlin, then took roles in operas in the Czech Republic and Yugoslavia.”
“Okasha continued to lend great support to my artistic meanders. I remember when I was cast in an opera in Egypt and I had to sing during the opening night. In parallel, an opera in Germany wanted me to perform in their production of Rigoletto.”
“At first, Okasha didn’t want to hear about it. But when I told him how important the role in Germany was and that my international career was only taking off, he did not want to stand in its way. He asked the Cairo Opera to move the opening night date so that it would fit my schedule. No wonder I was often called ‘Tharwat Okasha’s singer’.”
“My international commitments were multiplying, and my ‘baby-face’, as they were saying, started to cover up my real age. This allowed me to take many leading roles and deal with the international competition for much longer than other artists.”
“However, Egypt remained the home I always returned to. I continued to perform in Egypt and the audiences could see me in many operas along with other renowned Egyptian singers and accompanied by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra.”
“One of the important artistic stepping stones for me was Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (1970), the last opera performed in Arabic at the Khedivial Opera House. By then Egypt had a lot of renowned singers performing in many operas and Orfeo gathered them all. It was a sort of artistic statement against the Italian version of this opera, which was performed in Cairo a bit earlier.
“And we definitely succeeded. The opera was attended by many foreign diplomats and critics as well as opera regulars. Everyone was saying that the Orfeo with the Egyptian cast was much better than the Italian one.
“In my life, I performed in hundreds of international operas; a few of them are particularly close to my heart. There is something special I feel for Violetta from Verdi’s La Traviata, Gilda from the Rigoletto, Rosina from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
“Equally Puccini’s La Boheme is such a delight to sing. On the other hand singing leads always gave me a different and unique artistic satisfaction as they overlapped with many elements of my culture. I also cherish the many performances I did with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra.
“I sang in many languages. I know Arabic and German fluently and I also know French well enough. I learnt Italian through the operas, not to forget countless rehearsals with the Italian-born pianist, choir master and repetiteur Aldo Magnato at the Cairo Opera House. He was always directing and helping me to understand and express the beauty of his language.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t like translated operas. When singing fragments from Verdi’s Aida in Arabic, I did not have the same feeling as when I was singing it in Italian. It was not completely satisfactory. Verdi’s La Traviata is a delight to sing in Italian, something that does not come through in its Arabic translation. I think that any opera is strongly linked with the language in which it was originally written, as language has its own musicality and plays an important role in the work. However, today the audience can follow translation on the screens.
“For the singer, undeniably, it is important to understand the language in which one sings to capture its dynamics and the ‘vocal mise-en-scene’ that the language itself dictates. I was lucky to work together with the many remarkable Egyptian singers — Carmen Zaki, Sobhi Bedeir, Hassan Kamy among many others — who mastered many languages, since knowing different languages was a natural part of life. They also represent a profound culture, and it was a pleasure to interact with them.
“While practising the western repertoire at the beginning of the 1960s, I became dean of the Higher Institute of Arab Music in Cairo. Though I was already deeply involved in Arab music, when I was offered such an important post I had to make sure I was better than the many professors and lecturers at the institute.
“This led me to further profound studies of Arab musical wealth. One of the continuous practices involving Arab music were the radio and television programmes I launched. They continued for over two decades, every single week... It was a very enriching experience for me as I enjoyed the whole process of research and tailoring material to the programme so as to keep it always new and interesting for the listeners.
“The following years brought so many responsibilities. Apart from the Higher Institute of Arab Music, the programmes and the festivals, I was appointed chairperson of the new Cairo Opera. Back then at the Cairo Opera House, there were much fewer tools we had at hand, in comparison to the wide range of possibilities the institution can offer today. I am satisfied with the artistic level of the Opera’s present repertoire; there are a lot of talented artists.
“But there came a time when I stopped singing. I felt it was enough when my singing partners, Hassan Kamy and Sobhi Bedeir, withdrew from the operatic scene. Though there were many new talented singers I didn’t feel we would make suitable duets.
“This was also when I recalled the words of Mohammed Abdel Wahab: ‘An intelligent artist leaves the artistic path while still at the top.’ This way people can still remember the artist’s best roles instead of witnessing the natural deterioration in her vocal abilities that comes with age. And it was the right decision, I think.
“I will never forget one of the very rewarding comments I received after stepping down from the operatic stage. One day I had coffee with Rafik Al-Sabban, a film critic and a man who appreciated all art forms. He told me, ‘I will not attend the upcoming performance of La Traviata. I want you to remain in my mind as the heroine of this opera.’ I found it a very gratifying comment, a moment any artist might live for.”
In the last words of the April interview, despite the many obstacles challenging the scene, El-Hefny expressed her appreciation of the cultural development of Egypt. She pointed to the younger generation as her hope for the future and to audiences of all ages that keep attending artistic performances.
“We cannot stop creating — art has to move forward and develop. It is the artist’s role to keep pushing the wheel and hand the flame of art to the following generations.”