« The ideal situation will be that next time someone sees a woman with an abaya and a shayla singing an opera, they don’t notice the abaya and the shayla but only the singing. »
Not only Sara Al Quwaini studied Chemistry, International Relations- focusing on women's rights in Egypt and Iran- but she is the first and only opera singer of the UAE. She indeed deserved all our attention. PORTRAIT of a young, beautiful, talented and intriguing lady.
When did you start singing ?
I started playing the piano. In my very first school, that was the only instrument available. Then in my next school, there was a violonist so I started violin. I always liked singing but I was not looking at it as an instrument really. Every year we had a general music exam and part was singing exercices. I enjoyed them and did school plays. That’s when I thought I really liked singing. But still not as an instrument I was going to train. The Head of the Music department happened to be a retired opera singer from the US. She was the one who noticed I had « an interesting voice ». I was 10 so she said we had to see how the tone of my voice developped. When I turned 15 she suggested I studied not only the violin but voice as well. I thought it would be much more interesting to sing all these songs than to study all these scales. It was much less serious and disciplined than violin ! Of course they are both instruments but this is something I only learnt when I came to London.
How did your music teacher describe your voice ?
She has this image of me, at 9, coming out of the chorus line for an audition saying « But I don’t know any song ! » « You have to know a song, she said. Well, at least you know the national anthem. » So a small voice started singing (Sara starts singing the anthem). A very clear, sweet, light voice. But I was only a child. Nevertheless, he spotted the emotional ability, that you either have or don’t. She asked me to sing in a tiny little musical called the « Sleeping mandolin ». I had to wake up the mandolin with my voice ! It’s around that time that she realized that I had this emotional connectivity and the voice. That extra ability that will make people really wanting to listen. It makes you able to express the complex emotions that are in our genre of music. Around 15, when I started to mature she said I should consider study voice. I passed an international exam. It seemed so easy in comparison with the amount of work we had to do for the violin. I ended up stopping the violin when I started university. Although my violin teacher is definitely the person who inspired me the most in my music. But everybody wanted to hear more of the singing so it took over.
How did it go with your parents ?
In school they did not care. It was just a hobby. They could see I was good as far as child goes. They also could see I really loved it despite the performing which I hated. They did not take it seriously. Only when the teacher told them I should really consider studying it, did it become an issue. The cultural thing was a big factor.
It is not a common path for women in this part of the world but also in general. There’s not much understanding of what an opera singer’s life is. People only think of it as singing and performing and make associations that are wrong. My mother just thought that as an artist I was going to be struggling for the rest of my life. All parents are like that. Even artists depending how well their career went. My mother asked me if I was going to be the best singer in the world otherwise I would not have a nice life. My Dad came up with more traditional reasons and just said « No ». « This is not happening ». Singing is not considered a profession in this part of the world. He can understand that in Europe there can be a place for the best of these singers but here there just isn’t. People won’t understand what it actually is. So you will have to work abroad. there was not many « ifs »… At 17, you don’t really know. People talk about this burning desire of definitely wanting to do this ? I didn’t. I don’t think I was confident enough. I had that fire in my belly but I did not really know what it was. If every one says it’s not a good idea, maybe it’s not. So I went to study chemistry at Imperial College in London. The thing is this university is back to back with the Royal College of Music.
This is fate calling, isn’t it ?
Yes, it’s really funny. My music teacher sent them a letter with a recording. The Head of singing heard the cassette and got me an audition there. I checked in twice before telling them I was sick… I think he knew I was too nervous. It was really nerve breaking. I could hear people playing their instruments and singing. It seemed normal. Brilliant.
But there was the echo of what your parents had told you ?
Yes and you feel even more depleted. I persuaded myslef it as a good thing I was learning sensible, horrible chemistry which I totally despised. But I managed to get my Chemistry Degree from a very strong university even if I don’t know what to do with it ! (she burst into laughters). I then had to make a decision because I could not afford to stay on without work in London.
What did you do then ?
I came back to Dubai and started working in a bank. My mother offered to give me the money to learn music if I was really serious but I did not feel ready at 21. All my friends were getting jobs. I had not done music properly for four years. But work here probably did it. I spent two years here, hated the work. I was also doing a lot of history and political reading about the region, things I find interesting… So I figured I would go study something I actually like from which I would get academics’ support. So I went to do a Masters in International Relations. I thought that while I was doing that I would do some auditions and see what happens with the singing. It was never a conscious decision. Maybe on a subconscious level, I knew I had to be there. I had to train with the best.
You actually studied all the way to the Phd, so that was not a faint excuse to do music ?
Exactly. I am really interested in my studies.
What is the subject of your thesis ?
It is looking at women’s history in the Middle East but specifically in Egypt and Iran in the last hundred years. So I look at nationalism, revolutions and the role of women when they became politicised as a group and why. Whether or not a real feminist movement continues to exist after all these recent various events and development.
Do you get criticism ?
Some people underline the fact that a lot of what I do is based on defending feminine rights even as a performer. But it makes it sound more dramatic than it actually really is. I don’t think there is a link between me studying women’s rights and performing. It is not a question of trying to make any political statement at all. When somone is naturally drawn into something that isn’t the norm, it will naturally attract questions, different reactions and opinions. This is very good in a developping society. It is important that there are people who do that.
Do you feel in opposition with your culture ? Are you shaking it ?
I don’t think I am shaking it because our culture is evolving. That is probably the good thing for me. Whereas my parents said no one would understand this, that this was not a real profession, even a semi profession. At this stage, I think you absolutely could do. Maybe when I started of ten years ago, things were different but now, things have come along.
It’s evolving ?
Not completely. But I think there is a lot of genuine interest from Emiratis and especially women who come to my concerts. They like music and are interested in the history of music. I did not even know that there was a group of women who do competitions with their instruments in Abu Dhabi and like to peform. It’s great.
What is against the culture actually in that ?
Music has always been part of every culture and performing as well. But I think it’s the way performance women are perceived. There is a lot of negativity associated with women in performance as truly entertainment. For certain exceptions like Oum Khaltoum, performance in the Middle East is a lot more about entertaining an audience and singing at cultural events, a party, or a wedding. And that’s not what we do. The questions people came up when I started performing out here were hillarious. There were very technical questions like « how do keep your voice going without breathing », etc. That is the kind of questions you ask when you want to understand something and this is great because they understand it even better than some Europeans.
How much time do you dedicate to singing ?
Not much with my thesis. Two to three times a week. At least one technical session.
What was your most amazing singing memory ?
Probably when I sang the good witch as a child in the Wizard of Oz. I just remember being so happy. I have no idea why ! All these children dressed in munchkins : our costumes were so bad and I was in this awful dress. For every perfomer there is a moment like that no matter how simple the situation. It is just something that clicks in your head like everything seems to come together.
And as a professional ?
The last Sorbonne concert in Abu Dhabi with Hugues Leclerc and Institut Français singing French songs, Debussy mainly and Fauré. I was not expecting people to appreciate it so much. It is not big arias. But so many people came up and loved it. A 7 year old Emirati girl, also called Sara, prepared all these questions for me after the concert. She even gave a class presentation about it.
What language do like to sing in the most ?
All of them. They are all great for different things. They offer different challenges. You work with language coaches to make sure you can say those words and then you sing them. Singing and saying are two completely different things because you cannot compromise the sound quality in singing. I work with Italian and German coaching.
Do you sing in Arabic ?
No. We don’t train Arabic. There is no opera and composers. I might sing a song but I don’t train and it’s not my repertoire.
You became quite famous in the UAE. You actually sang for the country’s 39th birthday ?
At Burj Khalifa. It was kind of my public debut in the UAE. I was studying in London and not really performing here. It was my first time here in front of a massive audience. They were looking for an Emirati talent for the UAE national day and a friend of mine told me to go. They were actually looking for musicians but when I told them I was an opera singer, they took the opportunity and told me they would write an opera piece for me ! Oh dear ! A piece written for Sheikh Khalifa they were going to translate into english for me to sing. The composer made a great job but there was a lack of knowlegde about writing for a voice. There was massive octave jumps which is not particularly nice for a singer to make. He had litteraly written to the top of my range until the bottom of it. In the end it all worked out. We did this song with a children chorus. My mother insisted I sang an opera aria first so people would know I was trained to sing opera. We incoporated it in the show. Unfortunately I had a laryngitis.
And this is the whole country watching you ?
Yes, well I did not think about that… I lost the ability of singing very quietly because my voice was quite ratle from all the coughing. Anyway it went better than ok. I remember going on stage and thinking « what am I doing ? » I was wearing our traditional abaya and shayla that I don’t usually wear and I was wondering how I would sing with it on. But I came on stage and the music came on and it was ok. I was not gone with the fairies but I was there. I remember the applause before the aria finished. I remember the amount of sound and thinking « that’s good ». I thought « that must be the expats… Nationals must think it’s weird. » But when I came down the stage, all the Dubai Police who had been securing, got up and clapped. It was super moving. They were not sure I was Emirati when I came up on stage and after the show they started talking to me in Arabic. Then a lot of young women came to tell me lovely things. A traditonal women in nikab came and I thought « Here it is. Get it out… »
What criticisms did you expect from a traditional woman?
« What are you doing ? Why are you performing ? What was that ? That was wierd. This is not how our girls should be… » This was extremely ignorant and judgemental of me. I could only hear her voice. She was aroung 50. She congratulated me telling how proud she was and had never heard something like this before.
Are women here really beyond the veil controversy ?
It’s part of our culture. It’s our traditional dress and I think it’s a beautiful garment to wear. I just think that the association of it as a barrier has changed. I mean that in terms of the international community looking at it because I don’t think that women themselves ever felt it as a barrier to do things. The history of this region, our exposure to other things, in comparison to other countries… Look at the amount of development in the amount of time. Men and women in this country are just incredible in terms of how quickly they adapt and how flexible they’ve been. I don’t know of other exemples of people willing to incorporate all these ideas and at the same time they try not to lose their heritage and their culture. They put a lot of importance to that. And the dress has a lot to do with this. It’s a real pride : this is our abaya and it looks different than the rest. You’ve got all these designers trying to modernize it as well. I have worn quite a few of these and I really like it and think that they look very nice. I just never wanted that to become a guimick either. I am not somebody who wears it on a day to day basis. My mother is Iranian. I did not grew up seeing it in the house. We walk in T-shirts and all kind of clothes. I did not want to give the impression that I was the first veiled opera singer because that’s not the case. The ideal situation will be that next time someone sees a woman with an abaya and a shayla singing an opera, they don’t notice the abaya and the shayla but only the singing. That’s what it’s about. But it can’t be about that now and it has to develop. You need an education campaign.
It’s all a matter of what lenses you’re wearing ?
It has nothing to do with what you wear. It depends on the person looking at you, the mentallity they have. Whether they are going to look at you in the wrong or in the right way. The main thing that I found outputting is that there’s a limit placed not by women but by society, especially if society is men lead. That’s the issue. I experience it in music as well. Women are in all positions and there should not be an argument over who and what’s on stage. There should not be a limit regarding how women are doing on a stage otherwise the same will be applied all the way through. Whether you are a doctor, a cabinet minister, you still have these rules because that’s what you have in common as a gender group. This is the final frontier : look at a woman in an artistic setting, in a performing setting, whether she is a ballet dancer, an actress, an opera singer, from a serious strend of the art form and not see a woman. Forget about the gender which is not the key thing and understand that it’s not an attack on anything.
Are there things that you have to sacrifice as a woman more than a man ?
As women from this region I think you have got different challenges 100%. We share the usual challenges. Having this massive expat community here, our society is very different from other ones. We have the issue of nationalism that comes up that we are very passionate about. We also have social issues on our roles and questioning some more traditional ideas regarding what we are supposed to do. But we are more domestic oriented people. No matter what you do, at the end of the day, you still are a family person otherwise there is something not quite right there. But the good thing about it here at least it that it applies to both men and women. At a certain age you get the same question : « What are you doing ?» To a certain extent this applies to women in Europe as well… Sometimes there is even more of a double standard in Western countries : he’s a guy he can take his time… Other than that, it’s breaking a few of these stereotypes. I actually have been surprised at male Emiratis who don’t think the way you expect they will. You assume they judge you because you don’t wear abaya etc and they don’t at all. It depends on the person, his education and background. I did not delibarately wanted to shake things that frustrated me but I dealt with them personally. The personal choices I made. I fought the things I wasn’t happy with.
What were they ? What frustrated you ?
The fact that women should behave in a certain way or that our social life has to be different, that peforming is not seen as a respectable thing. It all depends what you do on stage… You can work in a bank and be totally disrespectable. I saw it when I worked at the bank some girls were there to work and others to socialize. It’s the same in any profession : some people are there because they’re serious and others because they just want an outlet.
Do you feel you are paving the way somehow ?
I never thought that was what I was doing but if somehow it allows people to ask the right questions and gives more opportunities I would be extremely happy. I never did that to open up possibilities to other women : I wish I was that great !
What did you discover on women’s rights in the region while working on your thesis based in Egypt and Iran ?
I had all these ideas and suddenly there was the revolution in Egypt and the protests in Iran and I had to rethink a lot of my ideas. But the most fascinating thing is to watch how women’s rights are associated with nationalism in our region more than in the Western world. In the West there are real feminist unions based on humans rights no matter what happens. In our region it’s linked to the regime or political ideology. If a feminist is associated with a socialist group and ideology she then clashes with a more rightist feminist who then clashes with a more traditional/islamist one. They don’t unifiy as easily under the pretext of human rights.
Some academic told me women here don’t necessarily want the same rights as women in the West ? It’s not necessarily universal. What do you think of that ?
It’s the standard of thought you will find. For me its : I don’t mind different as long as you have many. Don’t say diffreent and then have less because then you are just fooling yourselft. They say « I don’t want that right… ». Well, ok, then don’t exercize it but allow other women to have it. When there are rules that limit what you can do, you have a problem.
Are there things to improve for women in the UAE ?
I think they are improving. We have a leadership who immediately saw that women in this country are amazing. The women in this region, how they achieved. They are extremely focused and managed to do it all. They are dedicated to their families and profession. They are very open and warm to each other as well. There is an energy to help each other and that unity and spark helps women to achieve. Family or social dictated behavior is still difficult for certain women to join their sector of activity. If I had decided to become a professional violonist, I don’t think there would have been such a negative response and controversy. The fact of being out there to be looked at, is still an issue. Hidden behind a piano or a violin is tolerated but singing in front is still an issue for some people. And this is what I really think has to go. Don’t see me, but what is happening. If you can only see the legs of a female athlete at the Olympics, then go home and think about yourself. These are the same people.
How do you explain women achieved so quickly here ?
Historically they were not complaciant socially. They have never been sitting at home. They were very much involved in their communities. They sometimes had very active role and it was a very small community so you did see a lot more activity. It’s not the same in Egypt where you have a very long history of women accomodated in harems. Women have always been involved here and had rights. They’ve never been secluded. They always shared the responsibilities and now that things are changing, they continue to share them. They’ve come from sharing to leading and doing so much more. They want to be the very first this and that. This is a question of ambition and I don’t know whether it comes from education, social inspiration… You also want to contribute.
How is it to lead this double life between your Phd and the singing ?
It’s tough and I will eventuall have to make a choice at the end of this year.
What do you miss when you are abroad ?
Family and friends. I don’t really miss places that much. We live in a capitalist society, how can you miss Starbucks ?! But the feeling of the neighbourhood. I miss my Mum, Dad, Brother…
Are you the only girl ?
Yes I am the eldest by a year. My Dad came up to a lot more after I did my performance to the ensemble of Carnegie Hall in New York. He figured it was not just a hobby. It was all great musicians from all over the world. The opera singers, musicians and orchestra were coming out great. Suddenly I was affiliated with them. The latest one was in Opera Garnier and he knows what the venue is. He still struggles with the idea of me being a full time professional singer. He is retired he used to work for the Ministry.
Sara Al-Qaiwani is an Emirati national, Academic, and lyric-coloratura soprano, fluent in four languages. ?She is the only trained Emirati opera singer to date. ?She was discovered at school by an American opera singer and completed many international opera and music exams with record-breaking distinctions. ?Her Iranian mother and Emirati father on the other hand, encouraged her to pursue an academic career.
She received her BSc in chemistry from Imperial College London university, during which time she auditioned ?for the Royal College of Music. ?She was awarded her MSc History & International Relations with Distinction and the Academic Prize of Excellence from leading university The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). ?She expanded her thesis with a PhD in political history at LSE, assistant lecturer there between 2008-2009.
In the same year she began studying with renowned international conductor Bruno Cinquengrani and vocal coach Paula Anglin. ?Based in London, she has worked with highly reputed coaches in the UK and Europe, musicians and directors from the Royal College of Music, Royal Academy and Guildhall, performing roles in Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Massenet operas within post-graduate music programs and ?independent opera companies
She performed publicly for the first time in the UAE at Burj Khalifa on the 39th UAE National Day, in the presence of HRH, the Prime Minister, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid Al-Maktoum. ?She performed with New York?s prestigious Carnegie Hall Ensemble in 2011, and with renowned French Pianist Hugues Leclere in October 2012 at the Sorbonne, leading to a documentary about her by French TV-France 24. ?In November 2012 she sang at the World Economic Forum Gala, and then at Opera Garnier in Paris (Opera Nationale de Paris) for the World Expo bid. ?In December 2012, on special request from HH Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, she performed for the Arab-Latin American Forum Gala (ARLA).
Sara is currently finishing her PhD at LSE, in History of women and politics in the Middle East, and learning additional ?languages. Whilst pursuing her academic studies abroad, she continues to work on her craft with leading musicians, conductors and directors.