After debuting in 2012, Egyptian bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam has become a familiar presence in subsequent seasons at San Diego Opera (Murder in the Cathedral, Aida, A Masked Ball) and stepped in at a moment’s notice to lend his deeply resonant voice to Leporello in SDO’s current production of Don Giovanni. Here he describes his experience in advance of the Feb. 14 opening, his passion for teaching, and dubbing Mickey Mouse in Arabic.
EM: It must have been quite a whirlwind for you to get here with so little warning.
AS: Less than a week ago believe it or not, the day before rehearsal started, I was sitting having a late Mediterranean type dinner, glanced at my phone and here’s this Facebook message from my agent saying, “Alex Esposito canceled, let me know.” I jumped from my seat and called and answered with two words, “I’m ready.” Of course me and my partner jumping up-and-down, very happy. I ordered dessert [Laughs] and then…
EM: You got on a plane.
AS: Exactly. The flight was at 3 AM. I set my partner at the piano and we went through the recitatives of Don Giovanni while I packed. [Laughs] I arrived here 8 PM on Tuesday and had to start rehearsing the very next morning.
EM: Good thing it’s a role you know very well! I’m delighted to see you here. I’ve seen all the operas you’ve done in the past few seasons. I remember being very fond of your voice.
AS: I remember your being very kind to me. [Laughs] It’s such an honor. They’re treating me so well. “You saved the situation, you saved the company.” They saved me from being idle until my next thing. It was good karma.
EM: Let’s back up a bit. When did you first come here?
AS: I came to this country in two phases, from ’92 to ’96. I originally was an engineer and had a degree in architecture. Fell in love with opera watching Aida at the pyramids, with Martinucci, Bumbry, Dimitrova and Bruson.
EM: That must have been amazing.
AS: I got to attend rehearsals. Between the Egyptians and the Italians their organization left a lot to be desired. The final dress rehearsal lasted from about 7 PM to 2 or 3 AM. At some point in the middle of that I thought to myself, “I really want this to be my life.” I was 21 and had never sung.
EM: A perfect time to start singing.
AS: It took me a year chewing on the thought that I wanted singing to be my life. I didn’t know if even I had a voice. It was one of those instruments you built from the ground up. Very few singers actually sound impressive right off the bat. About a year into thinking about it I met the person who became my teacher and mentor in Egypt, Raouf Zaidan. He also had studied in Texas and before that in the UK so his educational pedigree was from Europe and the States. He taught me for four years. Then I came to the University of Colorado at Boulder. I did a Bachelors and Masters back-to-back in four years in music and vocal performance. I went back to Egypt in ‘96 to 2002. I was a house bass at Cairo opera House, a music director for dubbing Disney into Arabic – I did the voice of Mickey Mouse myself, which was fun. And I was professor at the American University in Cairo. At some point I had climbed that mountain. I reached the ceiling of what you can reach in Egypt. I started winning competitions in Europe and somebody said, “You really need to get out of there. You have potential for a more international career.” I moved back to Boulder in 2002 and started my DMA. I finished it in ‘08 but by 2004 I had started auditioning in New York. Opera Colorado picked me up right away. I did Leporello for their student matinees.
EM: Was that your first big role?
AS: My first Leporello. In Cairo I had done Pasquale, Dulcamara, Ramfis. I already had a nice resume by the time I came to the States. Peter Russell, who used to run the Lindemann Program, did an act of tough love. After a couple of seasons he said, “You’re cut off, get out of town. You can do better. You’ll never go anywhere as a local.” It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I started going to New York and auditioning. At my age, mid 30s, I was too old for young artist programs that launch important careers. I had to keep auditioning until something bit [Laughs]. It did, pretty quickly. In the University of Colorado you get a good, solid technique. It was a doctorate of both performance and pedagogy. You have the science under your belt. You don’t freak out as easily or get insecurities. If you run into trouble vocally you have the tools to deal with it. It was a good education I got in this country.
EM: Then you started singing on stage?
AS: I started doing workshops for new music, then singing in Colorado and smaller regional houses like Mobile and Reno. In ‘06 I auditioned for Seattle and Speight (Jenkins) hired me for Colline in La Bohème. He was known for hiring on the spot.
EM: And for his good taste.
AS: Oh, thank you [Laughs]. My niche really is coloratura so I get hired quite a bit for Sparafucile, Alidoro – not everyone can do the big transformation aria in Cenerentola.
EM: What roles haven’t you sung that you would like to sing?
AS: Definitely Figaro. Every time I got asked to do Figaro I was already booked. The other one is Giovanni. I have this fantasy to do the switching thing switching thing that Sam Ramey and Furlanetto used to do. Giovanni fits in my voice very well. Handel doesn’t get done very often. Rinaldo, Orlando. I love doing Trovatore – I’ve done it multiple times. If you have coloratura this is your Verdi. Philip in Don Carlo, maybe in my 50s. I’m one of the singers who believe you have to be as good an actor as a singer, to know how to move on stage. In opera acting is not just dressing – it merges acting and singing in equal measure. The opera singer has to acquire both. We’re much better than we used to be – the “park and bark” era is kind of over [Laughs] but opera acting is still kind of utilitarian. Any character in Mozart is so subtle and deep that the possibilities for exploring the character are almost limitless. Leporello of course is just a feast. [Laughs] Furlanetto was a God to me because of his acting. Truly. I never imagined when I first fell in love with him that I would one day stand on stage next to him. When we were doing Assassinio I begged him to coach me on Leporello. He said, “I really cannot presume to coach or teach anybody.” This is a lesson in humility. He sat with me and talked about what Leporello wasn’t. Not buffoon or sidekick or comic relief but with just as much resident darkness as Don Giovanni – a Giovanni who has compassion and a conscience.
EM: And knows his dark side.
AS: What I like about SDO’s production is that it explores the dark side of Leporello, starting with the very first note. It’s my first time with (Director) Nicholas Muni. He’s wonderful. Deep. He brings dramaturgy into the process – actually talking about the background of the character. Leporello takes a lot of pride in being a butler but hates working for “that guy.” The story happens at the edge of enlightenment as the middle class was starting to form. He would be the best candidate to get educated because he has the wit, intelligence and work ethic.
EM: Speaking of work ethic, tell me about your work with young people.
AS: In Cairo I’m involved in a nonprofit for education and production outside the government machine. Bringing a sense of work ethic, particularly the American, in the arts and efficiency in production, and teach master classes. The US State Department had our kids come and tour Les Miz in Egyptian translation, the first Middle East production. I believe in the importance of education and imparting your knowledge, especially if you’ve received training to be a teacher as well. It’s a duty, but I also got to love it. You’re actually dealing with a live instrument. The magnitude of this responsibility is scary. It’s amazing how many voices are ruined by bad teaching. But I totally got bitten by the teaching bug.
EM: So did Leonard Bernstein. You’re in good company. What are your future plans?
AS: Aida with Opera Colorado, Cenerentola in New Zealand this year. Ballad of Baby Doe with Central City next year, Magic Flute in North Carolina, Capulet in Romeo and Juliet.
EM: Hopefully you’ll get a Figaro or Giovanni soon.
AS: I hope so.
EM: Ashraf, this has been a delight. Thank you so much. Toi, toi for Leporello.
AS: Thank you, Erica. It was lovely chatting with you.
Photo Credit: Ashraf Sewailam