Having conquered French hearts, mezzo soprano Farrah El Dibany, Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, sets her focus on recording music and the world of cinema.
The Eiffel Tower twinkled as Egyptian Farrah El Dibany took to the stage on the Champs de Mars to sing La Marseillaise, France’s national anthem, immediately following the re-election of President Emmanuel Macron. He, along with the First Lady, French citizens, and the world looked on as her warm voice sang in triumph, and her red gown by Lebanese designer Gemy Maalouf glistened.
El Dibany’s achievements are often historic “firsts” for an Egyptian – she also received the Prix Lyrique de l’Arop from the Paris Opera House in 2019. This further defining moment in El Dibany’s career speaks to her commitment to cultural and artistic diplomacy. “It came after so much work that I’ve been doing between France and Egypt, between spreading French music to other places, being an ambassador for French music and French opera in other countries, the Middle East, and even Europe,” she says. It is also remarkably timely and parallels a significant expansion of her artistic talent. El Dibany will star in the upcoming film Farrah L’Égyptienne from French director Carole Grigy, whom she met during the production of the 2019 documentary Premiers pas à l’Opéra. In Farrah L’Égyptienne, the singer plays herself as the plot explores the cultural and historical relations between France and Egypt. The story is told through her eyes, as she rediscovers her own county and history. She’s excited for this first venture into film. “I think it’s a good start – it’s close to me in that it’s related to opera and singing,” she says.
Her potential to excel in opera was already apparent when she started voice training at 14 with Dr Neveen Allouba and entered the Arts Centre of the Library of Alexandria. In 2010, El Dibany started training in Berlin, at the Hanns-Eisler Academy of Music. She also obtained a
master’s degree at Berlin University of the Arts and a bachelor’s in architecture at Technische Universität Berlin. She then joined the Paris Opera Academy, where her voice entered a critical phase of transformation as she worked to integrate the qualities that reflect her Arab culture with the rigorous opera training. Her unique voice reflects this blend of influences. “I feel an ability to absorb different cultures, and a closeness to them,” she shares. Enriching this blend are the characters and personas she fully immerses herself in when she performs.
El Dibany speaks fondly of her affinity with the designs of Gemy Maalouf, whom she often turns to for her performances for the likes of Institut du Monde Arabe president Jack Lang. “When I’m on stage, I embody different personalities, characters, and moods. I can identify with the different styles and directions that Gemy uses in her designs,” the singer says. El Dibany highlights the characteristics of Bizet’s Carmen, a signature role, that reflects her values both on and off stage. “I like this freedom and the strength that she has in her, and believing in oneself, in herself, and believing in her ideas strongly,” she says.
Since receiving the Prix Lyrique, El Dibany has steered her career in ways beyond what is traditionally expected of a rising opera singer. “I’m still considered young in the opera world. I’m still growing. Audiences are not used to seeing people my age already doing so many other things,” she says. She followed her instincts to diversify her repertoire to include songs by Dalida and Fairuz. French tenor Roberto Alagna affirmed her talent when she performed on television for him and Dalida’s brother, Orlando. “He said, ‘The voice is an instrument; you can do with it whatever you want and whatever you can do. Why should we restrain it and keep it for only one thing?’” recalls El Dibany.
The Ordre des Arts et des Lettres award confirms El Dibany’s power as a catalyst for change in opera and beyond. “When I believe in something and I want something, and I have a passion, I keep pushing in this direction,” she says. She aims to shift perspectives among current patrons and to grow opera’s audience, one person at a time. During the pandemic, when many of her contemporaries were withdrawing from the field, El Dibany recognized an opportunity to engage with her viewers on a personal level through hosting Instagram Live videos.
In the past year, El Dibany has performed at the Baalbeck international festival, Beirut Chants festival, Unesco’s 75th anniversary concert in Paris, Dubai Opera, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization’s first anniversary concert, and Forum des Mondes Méditerranéens’ opening ceremony. They sustained her motivation during uncertain times in her field, but she concedes that her passion for live performance is stronger than ever. El Dibany endeavors to perform in more full operas and to continue developing her voice for her dream roles, like Delilah in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah and Amneris in Verdi’s Aida. As leadership among global opera institutions recalibrates and adapts to shifts in the performing arts landscape, El Dibany feels that one of the biggest impacts of this tough transition has been decreased visibility within the opera community. “I believe I can do these roles, and I believe I can sing on these stages. I need the opportunities to sing for the people to hear me,” she says.
A roster of projects in the coming months promises her voice the limelight. The Carl Bechstein Foundation in Berlin has engaged her talent for a collection of audio and video recordings with Indian- American pianist Kunal Lahiry. This is new terrain for her. “I feel it’s the time,” she says. “I didn’t feel this before, honestly, that I’m ready to record. But people are asking me more and more about albums or recordings.” This classical repertoire will include arias and songs by Rachmaninoff, Brahms, and Manuel de Falla; a taste of what is to come when she performs at the foundation in October.
This year, El Dibany is also an ambassador for MAWOMA, an international competition for conductors. She will assist the organization’s founder, Clémence Guerrand, in assembling the jury and scouting the Arab region’s small pool of female conductors. Guerrand and El Dibany are also preparing a concert series at Opéra d’Avignon with a program of Dalida and opera songs. She will be the only Egyptian artist among an illustrious cast of singers performing in the Formidable! Aznavour concert to honor Charles Aznavour. She’s also slated to perform close to home for a concert celebrating Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s 20th anniversary.
Her parents have always supported her, with their words of guidance – “Don’t forget your origins” and “Stay true to yourself, don’t get distracted” – helping her stay centered. And when she needs to disconnect and focus on what is true to her, El Dibany returns to a spot on the Mediterranean coast just west of Alexandria, where the white sands and turquoise waves renew her energy. And through her voice the sea’s hallowed waters resound.
Originally published in the May 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia
Style: Marie Cattiaux
Hair: Yuta Umeda
Makeup: Clotilde Sourisseau
Location: Hotel Lutetia, Paris