Thursday, October 16, 2014

Meet Our Singers: ASHRAF SEWAILAM, Leporello

Ashraf Sewailam sings Leporello at tonight’s rehearsal of Don Giovanni. Hailing from Cairo, Egypt, this versatile bass has been singing with Seattle Opera since 2007, in roles such as Colline in La bohème, Pistola in Falstaff, and the Mandarin in Turandot. But he sings all over the world, and has much to say about Don Giovanni and opera in Egypt and the Middle East—and places even further afield.


Ashraf Sewailam and colleagues sing a passage from the Don Giovanni sextet

You’ve worked at New Zealand Opera, the former home of our new General Director, Aidan Lang.
Yes, when I heard that Aidan had been hired to run Seattle Opera, I was thrilled. I was impressed that you found him! He’s really an awesome guy. New Zealand Opera is a wonderful company; it’s welcoming, generous and friendly. Aidan really raised the stakes there, he established a wonderful Young Artists program, and he brought in singers from all over the world. Working there was a great experience. We did the best updated Rigoletto I’ve ever seen. I’m heading back there soon to do Alidoro in La Cenerentola, a co-production with Brisbane, in Australia. And I’m so looking forward to the trip. You can’t have a bad cup of coffee in Wellington! I thought Seattle was the be-all and end-all of coffee until I went to New Zealand.

Now, one of the things Aidan is known for is expanding the scope of New Zealand Opera so that the company performs in multiple cities.
Yes, we did nine performances, first in Wellington, then in Aukland. You know, the Kiwis tend to be a little down on themselves, and I think it’s totally unwarranted. It’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen, with wonderful art and artists. Yet they feel they’re in the boonies; there’s a feeling that all the young ‘uns have to go to Europe, to “the real world,” to get experience. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to travel, to go abroad; but it’s not good to go because you feel that you’re not good enough. You are.

Ashraf Sewailam as the Mandarin in Seattle Opera's Turandot, 2012
Elise Bakketun, photo

Speaking of moving from country to country, we see a lot of bad behavior in the opera Don Giovanni. Do you think this is universal, or is Don Giovanni about a specific culture?
Pondering the dramaturgy of Don Giovanni...you know, Spain was occupied by the Arabs for 700 years. So this whole idea that honor resides between the thighs of the female—that’s where it came from. In the Middle East, people can be very Puritanical. And yet they’re obsessed with sex. That’s the duality of Don Giovanni.

Interesting. Technically this takes place in Seville, but you’re saying it could take place in North Africa....
...or in Cairo, my hometown! [chuckles] I would dare place it in Saudi Arabia, or someplace like Emirates, where it’s more open on the surface—more affluent, modern architecture, diverse nationalities, and...a lot goes on. And yet every now and then you hear, “A couple were arrested for kissing on the beach.” But if you check Google statistics, it’s one of the countries where people look for sex the most.

So you find the behavior in Don Giovanni universal, at least in terms of geography. What about in terms of time? Do you find there’s anything dated about this opera?
No, it’s not at all dated. The tug-of-war between Puritanism and libertinism is an ebb and flow, then as now. Compare America of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the sexual revolution and freedom, with the Calvinism which followed in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This opera will never go out of fashion, because that fight will never end.

Ashraf Sewailam (Pistola) and Steven Goldstein (Bardolfo) in Falstaff, 2010
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Tell us about doing Julius Cesar in Egypt at the Egyptian Philharmonic. Do you get to sing in Egypt very often?
Yes, I try to sing at home as much as possible. I feel it’s my duty to contribute what I can. Some friends and I have a nonprofit which offers voice lessons to Egyptian students, and we’ve taken shows on tour, in Egyptian translation. Bassem Youssef, known as ‘the Jon Stewart of Egypt,’ featured videos of our performances, which then went viral. But in terms of Caesar, yes, they hired me a couple of years ago for that opera, so I thought, Oh, I’ll play the bass role, you know, Achilla. But due to budget cuts, the opera house had to scale back the production, and they called me to discuss which arias would be cut—and we went in circles until I realized they were expecting me to sing Caesar!

But...it’s a mezzo role! Or a countertenor. And you’re a bass.
Well, yes, but in the Middle East they’re not going to listen to a countertenor, sorry. It’s a cultural thing. So I found a recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and learned to sing Caesar as a bass!

Right, and Norman Treigle did it in the U.S. But really, if there’s a cultural objection to the way Handel wrote his music, why do it at all? Why not hire a composer and write a new opera?
Funny you should ask, because I’ve been going back and forth to Egypt for several years now, including the year of the revolution, doing new operas. Some great works of literature, stories from the ‘60s and ‘70s, set to music by Egyptian composers. Amazing experiences for me. One of these works was on a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian novelist who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1988. It was amazing to meet him, and to premiere the opera in Alexandria, which is where his novel takes place.

How many different performing groups do you work with there?
There’s the Cairo Symphony Orchestra; then there’s the Cairo Opera, with Cairo Opera Orchestra, which is the pit orchestra that accompanies ballet and opera; and then a smaller group, the Cairo Philharmonic. The Alexandria Library is another entity which produces concerts and operas. I did a Magic Flute, in Egyptian translation, with them.

Any upcoming plans to go to Egypt?
December and January of this year, yes, I’m going to be giving a solo recital.

You must have a pretty good fan base built up there.
In Cairo and Alexandria, yes.


Ashraf Sewailam sang the voice of Louis, the jazz-loving alligator, in the Arabic dub of Disney's The Princess and the Frog

Do they like Don Giovanni, in Egypt?
We’ve done it, both in Italian and in Arabic, at the Cairo Opera. Culturally it’s a bit foreign. On the other hand, Egypt’s opera audience tends to be a bit more Westernized than the people of mainstream Egypt.

Have you sung elsewhere in the Middle East?
I sang Carmen in Dubai, in the UAE. The resources they have available there are amazing. They didn’t have an opera house at the time, so they turned a ballroom in the Grand Hyatt into a theater. Lights, costumes, sets, orchestra, the whole thing; a bunch of us singers from America were flown in.

You’re a dual citizen, both Egyptian and American.
Yes, I was naturalized earlier this year. I’m based in Boulder, Colorado, where I did my graduate work at the University of Colorado.

Ashraf Sewailam made his Seattle Opera debut as Colline (left) in La bohème, 2007, with Tony Dillon (Benoit), Marcus DeLoach (Schaunard), Scott Piper (Rodolfo), and Michael Todd Simpson (Marcello)
Rozarii Lynch, photo

Let’s talk about Don Giovanni. As a bass, you could probably sing a bunch of the characters in this opera.
Yes, Masetto was one of the first roles I ever sang. I’m not really the right voice for the Commendatore. You need a voice like a cannon for that. Leporello is my favorite. I’ve actually done excerpts of Don Giovanni in Arabic, you can find it on YouTube.

What is important to you about the Don?
Giovanni is not pure evil. That’s the easy way out. You have to make him likeable; he has to have some redeeming quality. Ultimately, though, he is a person of no consequence. He does not change his world; he’s so wrapped up in his own desires, he’s not interested in anybody or anything else. It’s funny, because he may be a libertine, but there is nothing free about him. He is trapped. I find Leporello shows more promise, in terms of the future, because of his work ethic and his intelligence. He is the one who would get educated and become middle class, which is the core of modern society. Masetto, on the other hand, is salt of the earth. He’s genuine; but his IQ isn’t that high. He is all brute force, all absolutes. Because of that, I doubt Masetto will get anywhere in life or change his situation. For me, Leporello is the ideal character.

What motivates Leporello?
His professionalism. He is a professional butler, and he takes his job very seriously. Watch all those British movies and TV shows about the servants—they take a great pride in their craft. At the end of the opera, Leporello says he needs to go find a new, better master. He’s a fantastic professional butler, with just enough conscience to tell Giovanni off every now and then. He’s intelligent and resourceful, but not cultured, not educated. He wants to repeat all the eloquent vocabulary he hears Giovanni use.

It’s important that Leporello is not a buffoon. He’s a real man. He disapproves of Giovanni’s morality, but he’s fascinated by how it works. He wouldn’t do it himself.

Why does Leporello stay with this man who’s so awful to him?
It was a very class-oriented system. You’re born a servant and you remain a servant for the rest of your life. There was no middle class; there was no education, unless you were nobility. So you were stuck with where you were. If you were intelligent and resourceful you made the most of it. Last year, I was at San Diego Opera working with Ferrucio Furlanetto, who is my idol, in terms of Leporello.

Furlanetto, one of the all-time greats Leporellos.
Yes, a tremendous actor and with impeccable vocal technique. And he’s the one who told me: Leporello is a real man. The comedy comes from the situations, not from him. It will be funnier if Leporello plays each situation seriously.

Do you find Leporello funny?
I think he’s witty. He has a sense of humor, and he uses that to deal with the different situations he’s in. I come from Egypt, which is a country where we deal with calamities by making fun of them. Egyptian humor makes fun of everything. They downed Mubarak by making fun of him, ultimately.

Don Giovanni runs for seven performances from October 18 – November 1st. For more information, please visit seattleopera.org.

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