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Review: 'Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era' is more a concert than a musical

Despite a weak script, fans of the Egyptian music great are in for an evening of outstanding performances

The musical Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era opens with one of its best scenes.

It is the early 1970s and Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum is meeting a promoter who's offering her a performance at the hallowed stage of the Olympia Paris. At the peak of her powers and clad in designer gear, including her signature shades, Kulthum is impervious to the prospect and coolly demands she is paid double the amount afforded for then opera superstar, the American-Greek soprano Maria Callas.

The promoter, shocked by the force of personality, reluctantly agrees, before turning towards the audience to recall how that fateful gig, in 1971, became renowned.

This anecdote is more than a fun fact of Arabic pop culture.

It is an insight into Kulthum's transformation from a poor and insecure child prodigy, raised in a village on the Nile Delta, to becoming one of the Arab world’s biggest stars, overcoming gender and class barriers.

The well-executed scene also sets up the production, playing in Dubai Opera until Thursday, telling the much-needed, rags-to-riches story for a new generation.

That it doesn’t fully follow through on its promise, however, is a lost opportunity.

While promoted as a musical, dig deeper into the fine print of the online poster and you will see it described as “a musical tribute".

The latter is a more accurate description as Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era is best viewed as a series of exceptional concert performances, mostly by Syrian singer Lubana Alquntar, in the title role, with the aid of a number of minor scenes explaining the inspiration behind many of the classic tracks.

Those looking for the full experience associated with the musical genre, including music and dance sequences, will be somewhat disappointed as the script falls flat at various points.

The chief problem is the dramatic scenes serve less to fully explain Kulthum’s inspirational story, but more to hurry us through to the next performance by Alquntar.

As a result, many fascinating aspects of Kulthum’s character and career journey are left unexplored.

These include her respectful-yet-fraught relationship with her father, the local village imam and spiritual singer Ibrahim El Beltagy, who was initially troubled by her initial fame.

Other aspects lightly touched upon are how Kulthum battled the male-dominated and classist Arabic music industry, and how she became a force to be reckoned with by doubling down on her dedication to her craft, much to the cost of a tumultuous love life with poet Ahmed Rami.

Instead, Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era, works better as a breezy series of snapshots of pivotal life moments augmented by some brilliant musical performances.

Alquntar, a seasoned singer and descendant of the family of Syrian singer Asmahan, is mesmerising and skillfully captures the passion, ache and humour in Kulthum's tracks such as Enta Omri and Alf Leila We Leila.

Strong support is also provided by Jordanian Hani Dashan, who in his role of mentor and acclaimed composer Mohamed El Qasabji, delivered some wonderful solo performances set in Cairo salons.

Giving the show that extra emotional heft is Saana Nabil, the singer and great granddaughter of Kulthum, who appeared as the show's special with a number of solo performances, a standout being Fakarouni..

Umm Kulthum and the Golden Era has the potential of touring internationally.

While the lack of English subtitles to explain the Arabic lyrics of the songs may limit the show’s appeal to the Arab diaspora, it nevertheless remains a worthy project.

In an era where classic Arab music artists are celebrated with a growing number of hologram concerts using pre-recorded footage and performances, credit is due to Saudi Arabia’s Mona Khashoggi for bringing this live flesh-and-blood representation of Kulthum’s life to the stage.

The effort is not only worth celebrating, but will also surely contribute to keeping the artist’s legacy alive.

Umm Kulthum and Golden Era is running at Dubai Opera until Thursday. Show starts at 8pm. Tickets from Dh350 are available at

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