Producing a modern-day fairytale woven around the romantic Nabati poetry written by the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai is no easy feat.
But the celebrated Lebanese composers, Rahbani Brothers, took on the challenge of shaping the musical Al Faris (The Knight) in nine months.
The musical, about a saviour’s quest to build a utopian city, brings together a multimedia showcase of cinematic vistas of the desert, pre-recorded orchestra-led Oriental music and live theatre.
It is set to debut at the Dubai World Trade Centre on Wednesday and runs until Saturday.
A huge production
The larger-than-life story, inspired by the poetry of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, was created by an international cast and crew from Dubai, Lebanon, Kuala Lumpur, Prague and Kiev.
The lead roles of Faris and his beloved Shomoos will be played by the Lebanese theatre actor Ghassan Saliba and Emirati soprano Balqees Fathi. More than 800 singers, dancers and crew members are part of the mammoth production.
“What should take about two years to produce, we’ve managed to put together in less than a year,” says Ghady Rahbani, a co-composer of the music.
“This is a story of Faris and his dreams of making an ideal city in this world – the battle of good and evil. Whether he succeeds or not is for the audience to determine.
“Shomoos loves Faris and she is kidnapped by some bad guys. Faris’s love is divided between dreaming of this city and her. Shomoos represents the Arab woman and all the positive attributes of the Arab mentality,” he says.
The Arabic production, with English surtitles, is embellished with the poetic musings of Sheikh Mohammed. The producers have maintained the Nabati style and Emirati dialect in the songs as well.
“But this is not a story about Sheikh Mohammed or Dubai,” he clarifies. “It’s an abstract portrayed as a dream.”
Ghady says their production house has never composed with the Khaleeji dialect before, and that this was a challenge they enjoyed taking on.
“We are used to making music for a Lebanese audience, so working with a new dialect was difficult in the beginning,” he says. “But after a while you understand it and see the meaning in each word.”
Emirati starlet’s big break
Marwan Rahbani, who also co-wrote the story, says they worked with a dialect coach to ensure that Saliba gets the regional dialect down to a tee.
“Ghassan had to practice more to get the accent and pronunciation right for the songs,” he says, referring to the tracks recorded with a live orchestra in Beirut, Kiev and Prague.
“But the beauty is when you hear it with the certain music and orchestra, the music transcends from local to an international flavour. So anyone listening to it will be able to relate.” The 27-year-old deep-voiced Fathi, who also has a successful pop music career under her first name Balqees, felt more comfortable singing in her native dialect, but says her vocal range was tested in this musical.
“I felt this huge responsibility when singing Sheikh Mohammed’s poems and that too under the guidance of the Rahbani Brothers,” she says.
“I always knew that I had a wide range because I am an opera singer, but it hasn’t been put into such dynamic Arabic style music before. I’ve performed in front of a foreign audience but never tested my range with an Arab audience.” Fathi, who also makes her acting debut with Al Faris, believes this is her big break.
“I’ve always dreamt of working with the Rahbani Brothers and see this as a boost to my career.”
A Dubai showcase
The moving visual backdrop of the desert complementing the live theatrics, was shot in Dubai. “It will be a dialogue between cinema and theatre,” says Marwan, who has directed several musicals, including Gibran and the Prophet in Lebanon, Zenobia in Dubai and The Nation and the Leader in Qatar.
“We have used audio and visual effects not just to dazzle the audience but to move the story forward also,” he says.
“But at the end of the day, the poetic work of Sheikh Mohammed is the most-important aspect of the show.”
The production is also the part of the Dubai Government initiative, Brand Dubai, which aims to underscore the culture and heritage of the UAE. “The flavours in this musical are deeply rooted in the UAE culture,” says Ghady. “Dubai aims to be a cultural destination for the region and Al Faris adds to that by carrying a message of peace to the world.”
Salem Belyouha, the director of media services at the Government of Dubai Media Office, says the project brings together Arab icons to promote Arab theatre.
“This is the first time the poems of Sheikh Mohammed have been rendered into music by an international orchestra,” he says. “The poems have an innate flexibility that allows them to be expressed in musical compositions. They reflect the cultural background of the Emirates.”
• Al Faris will be staged from Wednesday to Saturday from 6pm at the Sheikh Rashid Hall in Dubai World Trade Centre. Tickets are from Dh195 on www.platinumlist.net