Dame Sarah Connolly on Zarqa Al Yamama, the new opera bringing the Arab and Western worlds together

Composer Lee Bradshaw, Dame Sarah Connolly and soprano Reemaz Oqbi (handout)
Composer Lee Bradshaw, Dame Sarah Connolly and soprano Reemaz Oqbi (handout)

Inside the ornate Goldsmiths’ Hall near St Paul’s, one of Britain’s finest opera singers, Dame Sarah Connolly, is performing a snippet of a new work. As her powerful voice fills the room, busts of George III and George IV gaze on, and chandeliers filled with real candles flicker by the ceiling.

It’s mostly what you might expect of a western classical music concert. All except for one thing: the words Dame Sarah singing are in Arabic. Goldsmiths’ Hall was host to a showcase for the new opera Zarqa Al Yamama, the first grand opera to be produced by Saudi Arabia, and the world’s largest grand opera in Arabic.

Connolly is playing the title role, a woman who can predict the future. The showcase was introduced by the Saudi Arabian culture minister Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, and also featured singing from Sawsan al-Bahiti, who has been called the “first Saudi opera singer”, as well as London-based soprano Amelia Wawrzon. In a reception down the hall, dates and non-alcoholic wine were served, while journalists from Saudi Arabian television interviewed dignitaries in traditional dress.

Zarqa is set to open in Riyadh in April, but its creators have high hopes that it will return to London soon, and are planning an international tour. Connolly explains that she spoke to the Royal Opera House’s departing music director Antonio Pappano about the idea of staging the show, who said it sounded a “fascinating project”.

Connolly is under no illusions as to how unusual the opera is. “It’s a totally new idea, which is as confusing to many people in Saudi as it is to people in the UK and elsewhere,” she says.

Preparing for it has been an “extraordinary challenge”. The singer has been having two-hour Arabic Zoom lessons every day, which leave her exhausted. “Goodness me,” she says, “there are certain sounds that the Arabic speakers make in the throat, which is very difficult for us to use.”  But after some tweaks with the composer, she’s determined to get it right for opening night.

Australian born soprano Amelia Wawrzon (left) and Dame Sarah Connolly (right) attend the launch of Zarqa Al Yamama (Lucy Young)
Australian born soprano Amelia Wawrzon (left) and Dame Sarah Connolly (right) attend the launch of Zarqa Al Yamama (Lucy Young)

While Connelly doesn’t speak Arabic, she explains that’s been the case for lots of her work over the years, in various countries around the world. “I don’t speak Czech or Russian, and I sing quite a lot in those languages,” she says. “I don’t see why this is any different.” She goes on: “I understand every word I’m singing, but only because I’ve been told what it is.”

Connolly says she sang her Arabic language tutor some of the new show, and he was “shocked” by the sound. “He’d never heard Arabic music sung with western opera voices before,” she explains.“I said, ‘Is that good shock or bad shock?’. And he just said, ‘It’s just I’ve never heard anything like it’.” Her teacher explained that not all Saudis will like the show, as there are “very religious people who won’t want to come and they won’t like it — but then they won’t come anyway”. They hope that many others, however, will come along and enjoy it.

Based on an ancient tale from pre-Islamic Arabia, Zarqa Al Yamama tells the story of a Cassandra-like blue-eyed woman from the Geddes tribe who is blessed with the gift of foresight. Zarqa predicts that a rival army will come to destroy her people, and the story follows the heroine as she tries to warn her leaders of the danger.

Connolly explains that some parts of Shakespeare’s Macbeth may have been inspired by the ancient story: in it, Zarqa envisages that neighbouring countries are going to invade like a moving forest, just like Birnam Wood. Zarqa is also somewhat like Macbeth’s witches, foretelling the future.

Just like the rest of the opera, the music is a combination of cultures: taking some harmonic tropes from Arabic music alongside Western classical music, including contemporary.

Connolly speaks well of the Saudi drive for the arts in recent years, part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 project. “They’ve put lots and lots – I mean billions – into educating girls and women and opening up work opportunities in schools and colleges,” she says. “The fact that they’re educating women in the sciences and in language and everything, I think it’s all great” she adds.

Dame Sarah has been a strong opponent of Brexit, and the restrictions which mean that British musicians can only work in the EU for a limited number of days each year. She says that in response, some European music productions have stopped taking on British musicians as a rule. The immediate and obvious issue is that the number of roles available for Brits is seriously reduced, adding to extra competition between musicians.

“I will take the work wherever it is, but I absolutely resent the fact that we are now limited. The opportunities, not only from Europe, are diminishing, but they’re diminishing from our own Government.”

Poet Saleh Zamanan, who wrote the libretto for Zarqa Al Yamama (Lucy Young)
Poet Saleh Zamanan, who wrote the libretto for Zarqa Al Yamama (Lucy Young)

After long periods with little of it, Saudi Arabia is opening up for live music. In 2017, supposedly 25 years since their last public concert, a host of American country music stars were invited to play, and dance music festivals have followed since.

Classical music is central to the plans: the newly built Maraya Concert Hall in the city of AlUla is the world’s largest mirrored building, and late last year, the Saudi National Orchestra and Choir performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.

Art galleries are also in the works. A Saudi investor paid $450 million for Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi in 2017, making it the world’s most expensive painting.

As sports fans know, football too has seen huge investment, with players like Cristiano Ronaldo moving to the Kingdom, and the purchase of Newcastle United — the country is also set to host the 2034 World Cup. The country has also heavily invested in golf, boxing, and Formula One. At his country’s future investment initiative in 2018, leader Prince Mohammed bin Salman famously declared that “the coming renaissance in the next 30 years will be in the Middle East”.

The British Government also looks set to work with Saudi Arabia in the arts. On Wednesday Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer posted a picture with the Saudi Culture Minister, writing in a caption that she took the meeting to “talk about how the UK can continue to collaborate with Saudi Arabia on cultural projects ahead of his meetings with our world-leading cultural institutions”.

The new opera Zarqa is a truly worldwide collaboration. The Italian stage director Daniele Finzi Pasca has previously produced two Winter Olympic ceremonies and worked with the Cirque du Soleil. The show also features the Czech Philharmonic choir, the Dresdner Sinfoniker orchestra, conducted by Spaniard Pablo González, and Australian composer Lee Bradshaw, who worked closely with Saudi writer and poet Saleh Zamanan to create the script.

The words were then translated into Latinised Arabic and phoneticised, which was no easy feat – as Ivan Vukčević, CEO and project manager, explained, calling it one of the hardest but most rewarding projects he’s ever been part of. The cast also includes Saudi Arabian singers and 60 extras. A new concert hall at the King Fahad Cultural Centre in Riyadh is being built especially for the premiere.

Connolly’s ambitions for the show aren’t too lofty. “My wish is that my Arabic is good enough for them not to say, ‘Oh my God, what the hell was she trying?’” she laughs. “That would be my worst nightmare.” She’s quietly confident of success, though. “I’m a perfectionist. I think they’ll be stunned by the beauty of it.”

Zarqa Al Yamama debuts at the newly refurbished King Fahad Cultural Centre in Riyadh on April 25, and runs for a series of performances until May 5. moc.gov.sa