Saira Peter-Pakistan’s first Opera singer! This week, we sat down with finest and Pakistan’s first one of the kind-Saira Peter to know more about her and how she is making us proud in and out of Pakistan!
Please tell us about yourself.
My family is originally from Karachi. I did an MSC in Physical Chemistry with Distinction, and an MA History at Queen Mary University of London. From childhood I was a member of youth choirs, which gave me an interest in music. In our family education, the discovery of talents, music and philanthropy are all important.
Where did the idea that you wanted to be an opera singer begin? Were you inspired by someone?
I have a naturally inquisitive mind and grew up with a desire to learn both Western and Pakistani classical singing, driven by that and a conviction from my father that if somebody else can do something, so can you. My family and especially my father’s support and encouragement were great inspirations. Also, Opera requires huge banks of breath to sustain high notes; my academic hat enabled me to discover the science behind mymusic and vocals.
Later, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I always wanted to do something new that makes a difference in the world. I discovered that I have a wide enough vocal range for western classical and was seeking a way to take our sufi values on the global scene.
My second Masters, history of Islam and the West, really helped me understand how people of different faith communities have lived together peacefully. Studying the history of the Iberian Peninsula, Mamluk era and Mughal Empire gave me some great examples.
I decided to learn operatic voice, and Pakistani classical is icing on the cake! Many professionals have pointed out that singing equally well in both Western and Eastern vocal styles is a rare ability, for which I am grateful.
Opera requires a discipline that not every medium does. How do you cope with the difference?
Well, every walk of life requires discipline for success! My family drilled into me that there are no shortcuts in life. I experienced this firsthand when I did my BSc Chemistry (Hons), MSc Chemistry and MA History at Queen Mary University of London. So by the time I started studying operatic voice, I just had to apply the same principles that had served me so well in academia.
When you realized you have the pipes to sing professionally, what brings you to opera instead of musical theatre or pop music?
When I first realised I have ‘pipes’ that can cover 4.5 octaves (54 semitones, equivalent to 1.5 harmoniums ), I thought I should learn classical singing. Since Opera is the ancestor of the modern West End / Broadway musical and Pop, it allows me to sing in basically any genre,be it thumri,ghazal,sufi, film, West End musical, etc. This training also taught me to sing in German, Italian, French etc. Those same principles prepared me to sing in seventeen different languages so far, with more on the way. When I composed my Farsi ghazal album of Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum’s poetry last year, I spent weeks studying Iranian Farsi diction with a friend from Tehran. Likewise, I am currently creating an Arabic album, so my Arabic-speaking friend ruthlessly corrects my pronunciation, and I’m listening to many different maqam (Arabic classical musical scales) and taking note of the legacies of greats like Oum Kalthoum, Fairouz, and Asmahan.
After my MA History I had new hope for bringing more peace and harmony into the world. I had a new idea, that Pakistan’s tolerant sufi values and stories could be expressed in western classical music. Opera seemed a perfect vehicle, it gives you an hour or more to tell your story and in a way that delivers huge emotional impact. It is considered one of the highest art forms in the west. It’s also always a pleasant surprise for westerners to discover a British-Pakistani woman who can sing opera! British Government offices in East Sussex UK asked me to record the British National Anthem in operatic style for use in their official ceremonies.
With all of your experience, do you still get nervous before a performance?
Of course! I always get nervous, but there are good nerves and bad nerves. ‘Good nerves’ come from wanting to give your audience the best. ‘Bad nerves’ come from focusing on yourself instead. But I question the professionalism of any artist who claims to never get nervous.
In your opinion, is this genre of music famous in Pakistan too? What response do you get from Pakistanis?
Yes, it’s growing. I officially launched it around five years ago at a concert in a prestigious Karachi venue attended by entertainment and sports celebrities, followed by a press conference. The news about a Pakistani bringing operatic singing to Pakistan went around the world. Nowadays, wherever I go audiences ask me to sing opera, they even start shouting “High notes! High notes!” in the middle of my performance. In November 2019 I was privileged to perform one of my sufi opera songs for President and Mrs. Arif Alvi and a private audience of international guests at President House, Islamabad. I had recently taken part in the two-week Islamabad Arts Fest (IAF19), and I sang the aria ‘Casta Diva’ for their closing ceremony, where I was also awarded Best Performance of the festival.
As a young opera singer, how do you view opera and where would you like to see the art form heading?
Sufi opera is an exciting experiment – setting an English translation of sufi poet Shah Latif’s stirring tale of Umar Marvi to a fusion of Western classical music and Pakistani sufi sounds and rhythms – a completely new genre to put Pakistani culture on the world stage. Sufi opera is a vision and a journey; there has already been a lot of interest from Pakistani, Middle Eastern, North African, European and US media.’
What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career you now know?
I didn’t realise the extent that entertainment, and especially music, is a kind of no-go area for women in Pakistan, until one lady journalist asked me if I would open a women-only arts academy. I discovered many young ladies are looking for a safe space to develop their talents, and want to learn from a woman coach. The character of women in music seems to be called into question, they are still struggling to find a space free from male dominance and receive very little encouragement from the music industry. Had I understood the situation better I would have been more prepared for this culture shock.
What advice would you like to give to young opera singers who want to make name in the industry?
Work hard. Never quit.
Whether you want to make it in classical singing or anywhere, you have to put in the time and effort. I don’t want to scare anyone, but learning to sing from the diaphragm can take anywhere from two to ten years, depending on body type and practice.
And never give up. You may start practicing only 10-15 minutes daily but eventually could end up doing eight hours daily. I can assure you your hard work will pay off.
Pakistan cricket legend, the ‘Asian Bradman’ Zaheer Abbas told me that he used to rise before the crack of dawn and practice for hours on end. Through his hard work he even introduced a new style of batting called ‘backfoot cover drive’.
Imran Khan (Prime Minister) world class fast bowler of his time, introduced his own famously brutal bowling style known as the ‘Imran Khan yorker’, scaring every batsman of his day. How much hard work must have gone into creating that incredible skill?
Your pet peeve?
Two things I can’t stand: Lying and pride.
A habit you wish to change?
Pointing anyone I meet toward higher education – sometimes at the cost of my wallet!
Your idea of comfort is?
My charity work
What are some of your hobbies?
Gardening. Hospitality. Reading academic literature. Meeting people in need.
Describe 2020 in one word.
What fascinates you about your line of work?
The great freedom of developing a completely new genre of music: Sufi Opera.
Three things on your bucket list for next year?
Taking my Sufi Opera to its final stage of pre-launch preparation Furthering my academic research Recording for an international music studio.