Ashraf Sewailam has sung in places as far-flung as New Zealand and Carnegie Hall, not to mention his home city of Cairo, in a voice Opera News has described as “purring and velvety.” Now he’s making his debut with Portland Opera as the narcissistic ruler Mustafa in their modern version of Rossini’s 200-year-old comedy The Italian Girl in Algiers. We spoke to Sewailam ahead of the show’s opening last week and heard about keeping opera relevant and his time as a singing sea witch.
This is your debut with Portland Opera—can you tell us what attracted you to the role?
This is my third time in the role. I’m excited to work with Portland Opera. It’s true, it feels like typecasting, but there’s something in Mustafa that speaks to the region I’m from in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings. That power-hungry nature combined with narcissism—in the end, that’s what makes such people vulnerable.
It’s an interesting piece—sometimes described as feminist—with Isabella essentially beating the powerful Mustafa, though within a system very different from our modern world. How do you ensure a 200-year-old opera like this retains its impact?
That’s the challenge—to make opera relevant to a modern audience, because without that it has no future. But Verdi and Rossini were ahead of their time, in many ways, and have made in Isabella a character who is strong and manages to rally those around her to defeat the powerful. There’s much of that that’s relevant today, in this country and across the world.
The days of the "park and bark" approach to opera are over too—it’s much more about acting and bringing nuance to the characters than it once was. For me, the acting is as important as the musical elements.
You were born and raised in Egypt. How did you end up singing in the US?
I first became interested in opera watching Aida at the pyramids. I got to attend rehearsals and it was the production, the grandness of it—that’s when I knew I wanted that to be my life. At the time I didn’t even know if I could sing! But I trained in Egypt and then came to the University of Colorado at Boulder. I did a Bachelors and then a Masters there and went back to Egypt. I was back there for six years and reached the ceiling of what I could accomplish there. I could have stayed there at the top, but I wanted to keep pushing so I came back to the US.
Is it difficult to find work in such a specific, non-populist art form, especially when you come from somewhere else?
I’ve never had people be anything but welcoming to me. I’ve been here a long time now and I love it. I’ve finally become a citizen so this is the first election that I’m going to vote in!
You return to Cairo often, and started a nonprofit there. Can you tell us more about it?
Some friends and I created a nonprofit which offers voice lessons to Egyptian students, but I have had to take a step back since I moved back to the US.
I heard you were once the voice of Mickey Mouse...
Yes, back in Cairo I became the music director for dubbing Disney into Arabic. I voiced and sang Mickey Mouse. Often when the actors were not the best singers, I was tasked with the songs. I sang as Ursula the sea witch from The Little Mermaid. If you watch Ursula’s "Poor Unfortunate Souls" on YouTube in Arabic, that’s me singing!
The Italian Girl in Algiers plays at the Newmark Theatre July 29 and 31 and August 4 and 6.