When the uprising broke out in Egypt in January 2011, celebrated soprano Neveen Allouba and opera director Mohamed Aboul Kheir felt an urge to revolutionise Egyptian arts as well.
Fabrica, a group that mostly performs international musicals translated into colloquial Arabic, was created in 2013 to reinvigorate the performance arts scene in Egypt, with a focus on musical theatre.
“Egyptian audiences are not accustomed to musicals. At the same time, the production of musical theatre costs a lot,” said Allouba, who is an adjunct professor of vocal pedagogy at the American University in Cairo and a professor at the Egyptian Academy of Arts.
The first show by Allouba’s students — before Fabrica officially began — was an Arabised version of “The Magic Flute” opera by Mozart performed at Bibliotheca Alexandria. The production was translated by Sarah Anany.
Things really got under way afterward and the group was founded, performing “Les Miserables,” based on French novelist Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, in its inaugural show. The musical, also translated by Anany, was well-received by audiences and critics.
“Les Miserables,” in a certain way, reflected the January 25, 2011, uprising that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Allouba said. “The general feel was there and the young people who sacrificed their lives for their homeland were reflected to some extent in the performance,” she said.
The musical deals with the 1789 French Revolution, which deposed the monarchy, and has been translated into several languages and performed around the world. Fabrica was invited by the American Centre of Cairo to perform the Arabic version of “Les Miserables” and to tour New York, Washington, Boston and Vermont.
Fabrica is not just a troupe performing songs and musicals, Allouba said. “Rather, it’s an educational project for promising singers as well as a podium for them to express their talents,” she said.
Fabrica started with 12 singers and has added ten more since its inception. “We sometimes resort to others from outside Fabrica, if needed, who have the necessary talent,” Allouba said.
One of the most popular performances of Fabrica is an adaptation of the iconic 1960 Egyptian puppet operetta “El Leila El Kebira” (“The Grand Night”) but in the case of Fabrica, humans played the roles of the puppets singing, acting and dancing. Fabrica added sketches and songs that were not present in the original “El Leila El Kebira.”
“El Leila El Kebira” refers to celebrations on Mawlid an-Nabawi, the observance of Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. It was written by late poet Salah Jaheen, directed by Salah El Sakkah with music written by Sayed Mekawy.
“As a puppet show, it was very popular in the past but we realised that the younger generations don’t know much about it. We thought that it’s a shame that such a masterpiece sinks into oblivion,” Allouba said.
“Fabrica’s performance of ‘El Leila El Kebira’ was quite outstanding, depicting, to a great extent, the original show,” said Heba Ahmed after seeing the performance at El Sawy Cultural Wheel in Cairo during Ramadan.
“Costumes to a great extent fit the general mood of the show,” she said.
Allouba said she hoped there could be original performances written and composed especially for the group “but funding remains an obstacle as musicals usually require a lot of money to be produced.”
“We perform private shows that inject money to the group but this is not enough to produce musicals of our own,” Allouba said. “To produce musicals, we need a theatre allocated specially for us, suitably equipped for the shows and where we can have performances lasting for months, not days.”
“We also need special costumes, decor, an orchestra, singers, actors, a director and assistant directors. At Broadway, for example, shows are performed for several years,” she added.
Allouba said “true talents are not appreciated in Egypt.”
“They need the support of the state. I was once a member of the Cairo Opera Company and I found out that singers turned into civil servants rather than artists. An artist/civil servant stops being creative with no inclination or incentives to perfect the job,” she said.