Charting the life of Wadia Sabra — the (almost) forgotten Lebanese star

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DUBAI: On Oct. 28, a concert took place in Beirut honoring the late Lebanese composer Wadia Sabra, who died in 1952.

Sabra should — by rights — be renowned in his homeland. He wrote the Lebanese national anthem, established its first conservatory, and was reportedly the first to compose an opera in his native tongue. However, over the years, he has largely been forgotten. Now, Lebanese baritone Fady Jeanbart is trying to revive his memory.

Wadia Sabra in Paris in 1908. (Supplied)

Jeanbart was commissioned to research the composer’s archive, which was donated to the Lebanese Musical Heritage Center by his family in 2016.

“Everything had been forgotten and lost because the family was hiding the archives for two main reasons,” Jeanbart told Arab News. “First, there were family feuds and then, when Sabra passed away, his wife asked the Lebanese government for a retirement pension, since Sabra was the founder and longest-standing director of the National Conservatoire, but he got nothing, he died penniless. She was so frustrated, she hid everything.”

In 1892, when Sabra was just 16, he won a scholarship to study music at the Conservatoire de Paris, becoming the first Lebanese student at the renowned institution, where the likes of Claude Debussy and Georges Bizet were educated.

A classical musician who added touches of oriental music to his repertoire, Sabra opened Lebanon’s first conservatory in 1910 (it is still open today). The 1920s was a productive time for him; not only did he set music to the words of the Lebanese anthem in 1927, but he also wrote an Arabic opera, “The Two Kings,” in the same year. Over the following decade, Sabra mainly composed French operettas.

This was all happening at a time when Lebanon was emerging from Ottoman control, which ended in 1918. Through his music, Sabra contributed to the making of the young nation’s identity. “When he was born in 1876, there was no Lebanon,” said Jeanbart. “So, he is really symbolic of the birth of Lebanon.”

The recent Beirut concert featured Jeanbart, soprano Lara Jokhadar and mezzo-soprano Natasha Nassar, among others. They performed three operas, as well as the national anthem in its original key.

“The purpose was to shed light again on our past,” said Jeanbart. “It is important to remember it to know how to go forward.”