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In Plain Arabic

Newly graduated from university, Star Academy winner Nesma Mahgoub teams up with her mentor to make opera accessible to the masses.

By Angie Balata

Two years ago, Nesma Mahgoub — then a 21-year old student at the American University in Cairo — captured the heart of the nation when she was crowned the winner of Star Academy’s eighth season. She’s been a busy girl ever since, performing as the lead female vocal for the heavy metal band Origins, preparing her first solo album and completing her undergraduate degree in Performance at AUC. But it was her graduation project, featuring songs from the blockbuster musical Les Miserables translated into colloquial Arabic, that propelled her back into the national spotlight this summer. Satirical TV host Bassem Youssef was in the audience and was so captivated by the performance that he invited the ensemble, including Mahgoub in the role of Eponine, to be on his show El-Bernameg.

The response was overwhelming because as Mahgoub explains, “the way Les Mis was translated reflected the things we were living today. The idea of seeing tomorrow, which is a key message in the play, resonates with us. There was a link between the characters on stage and our daily lives.”

Rewind to the end of the school year in May when Nesma Mahgoub, specializing in performance with a major in opera, had to submit a graduation project. Mahgoub had already been singing since she was a child and had really wanted to do something that combined both her love for opera and for musicals.

Mahgoub’s professor and longtime voice teacher is Niveen Allouba, an icon in the world of opera. A veteran soprano with the Cairo Opera Company, Allouba is a professor of music at the Cairo Conservatory as well as AUC but more importantly, she has performed lead opera roles internationally, including in Paris, London, Rome, Vienna and Amman. For a young musician like Mahgoub, who had already been working with Allouba for six years, the voice teacher is the dream mentor.

For her graduation project, Mahgoub wanted to offer a performance that would integrate different genres and approaches. After discussing it with Allouba, she decided to do a split performance, the first half with an opera piece and the second half integrating the work of Fabrica, an association co-founded by Allouba that translates major theatrical pieces into colloquial Arabic. Officially launched in 2010, Fabrica tries to bridge the gaps between the general Egyptian audience, particularly the younger generation, and theater.

Mahgoub’s graduation project, which she was being assessed for class credit, turned into a full night’s repertoire with an ensemble cast. Under the direction of AUC’s Dr. Frank Bradley, Mahgoub started the evening with a short piece from the famous Gian Carlo Menotti opera The Telephone, performed with the eminent Egyptian baritone Dr. Raouf Zaidan. The second half was a partial performance of Les Mis by an ensemble of AUC’s performing arts students under the direction of Mohamed Abo El Kheir. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Mahgoub is quick to clarify that Fabrica is an association belonging to Allouba and translator Dr. Sarah Enany, but it is clear that Mahgoub embraced the opportunity to take part in the initiative. Les Mis is the second project for Allouba’s Fabrica, after an Arabic language performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but even with the involvement of musical heavyweights in the project, the idea wasn’t an easy sell. Many viewed it with skepticism: Western plays in Arabic? That was just a disaster in the making. Mahgoub lobbied her friends in the local music scene to help out.

Singer/songwriter Hany Mustafa, who sang Les Miserables’ leading role of Jean Valjean, recalls, “I was approached by Nesma, an old friend, to do a role in the play Aida. We worked together on this and it was great. On the opening night, Niveen Allouba was there in the audience and she came back stage to congratulate me. A few days later, Nesma called because they had wanted me to come play the role of Jean Valjean. I refused, saying that translating is really hard and in Arabic it’s not so simple. I was really against it. Then Dr. Allouba called me and asked me to come see the rehearsal. I went and I saw that there could be something when I heard the voices together.”

Hearing the Arabic version, one completely understands and relates to the characters because they have been translated to fit with our sense of self and being. Enany was able to translate Les Mis in a way that connected the audience with the storyline even as the actual story took place in a different country, under a different revolution and centuries ago.

For the purposes of the graduation project, the normally elaborate Les Mis was greatly scaled down, with a skeletal set and conceptual costumes. “We were all dressed in black,” says Mahgoub, “and when I had to play the part of Eponine, I’d simply put on a shawl and the audience would understand I was moving into a character.”

Since the Bassem Youssef appearance, Mahgoub says, the Fabrica group has grown from 23 to 50 people after recent auditions, and they are working on a full production of Les Miserables that will likely be ready around the start of the New Year.

Mahgoub has come a long way from her Star Academy days. “It was scary and exciting at the same time. Being in a reality show was a big responsibility, so I needed to take care of what I said, [and how I] dressed, ate, drank, acted and sang. People were watching and most importantly, my family was watching and I want to make them proud of me. I am a hard-working person, so I was mainly focused on my work, rehearsals and performances. Of course, I made friends in the academy also but my main goal was to win.”


But being on the show did give her lots of experience on stage. “I had to sing, act and sometimes dance with the dancers around me. Above all of that I had to focus on my camera and address not only the audience on the set, but also the audiences watching me on TV. This experience was one of a kind. It helped raise my self esteem and confidence on stage. I’ve performed on stages since I was 10 years old, but the multi-task performances were a bit new to me and they made me a stronger performer, thanks to the professors there who gave me the chance to stand on that stage and give my all.”

For the up-and-coming star, Fabrica is something Mahgoub enjoys participating in as a side-project. With her first patriotic song/video clip “Ad Eldonia” out, she’s focusing on her follow-up album to Hatolly Eh?, which was fully produced by her movie director father Alaa Mahgoub. “I am working on my next video clip for a song from my album. I’m also preparing for my Christmas concerts that will be performed next month. et
— Additional reporting by Yara ElNarsh

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