Q & A: Soprano Sawsan Al-Bahiti On Her Journey to Becoming the First Saudi Opera SingerBy Chris Ruel
In 2016, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman announced Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, an initiative to diversify the economy of the Kingdom and implement across-the-board reforms, including creating pathways and supporting those seeking a career in the arts. For the first time, the government put its weight behind bringing the arts to the Saudi public, and as part of Vision 2030, a General Authority for Entertainment was established by royal decree.
Movie theaters opened, international stars from across the musical spectrum were invited to perform, and the construction of an opera house undertaken. King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s primary goal in establishing Vision 2030 is to ensure Saudi Arabia is “an exemplary and leading nation in all aspects.”
Saudi Soprano Sawsan Al-Bahiti grew up in a culture in which the public performance of music, including that of classical and opera, was forbidden. While she could listen to and play along with her favorite bands at home, that was where it was to remain. Though she loved music, there was no career path in the arts, so she studied advertising and mass communication at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates because it allowed her to express her creative side. While there, she enrolled in a choir elective and was told by the instructor that she had the vocal chops to take on opera.
OperaWire recently spoke with Al-Bahiti about her journey to become Saudi Arabia’s first opera singer.
OperaWire: How did you come to love music?
Sawsan Al-Bahiti: When I was 6 years old, I saw my sister and my cousins playing guitar. I decided I wanted to learn the instrument and I taught myself. I was playing mainly rock and some pop songs and singing along. Believe it or not, I still have that guitar. I was singing songs that had high octave voices, for example, like Dido or the Cranberries, so it sort of primed my voice to sing in the high range. I never thought of making music a professional career because it was not an option where I lived. It was always portrayed as something that people outside of the Arab world did. Inside, it wasn’t accepted, and especially for a woman. Being a professional musician was always portrayed as a job that a person would have to struggle in to make a living. So, it wasn’t really on my mind.
OW: Did you study music in the formal sense?
SAB: I was studying at the American University of Sharjah in the UAE. I had to pick a program and I wanted something close to creativity, something artistic. But nothing really grabbed my attention except Advertising and Mass Communication in the College of Arts and Sciences; it had bits of creativity. I took an elective course in singing, and it was then that I discovered my ability to sing opera. My professor at that time was Professor John Perkins, an American professor. In the auditions, he told me that I could be a soloist, and I had no idea what he meant at that point. I asked if I passed the audition, and he was like, yes, you should train to become an opera singer and that was the first time I thought or considered developing an operatic voice. I started to train because it was really interesting and intriguing that someone professional heard my voice and told me I had such a capability. So, I thought, I’m going to give it a try.
OW: What happened next?
SAB: I started training with Dr. Emily Good-Perkins, his [John Perkins] wife. For about two-and-a-half years, I was training and performing every four months. I fell in love with it the first time I got on stage and performed. I felt like I was taken to a different world. I mean, I could never express myself so genuinely as I do when I sing opera. And when that happened the first time, I knew there was something big behind this.
I had never imagined or thought about the fact that I’m the first Saudi person, let alone a woman to perform or take up such an art. By the time I graduated in 2011, I went back to Saudi Arabia and of course, things sort of came to a stop because, at that time, singing was rejected and it was not something to be done officially or publicly. I couldn’t even train because there were no voice teachers here—not for any kind of singing, let alone opera.
OW: So, how did you train?
SAB: I just continued using the recordings that I had from the voice lessons from the previous years while I started working in my field of study, which was marketing and advertising. For about seven years, I was working in that field and I was exercising my voice about least once a week, but of course, it was really challenging because I wasn’t working towards a performance or something to keep me motivated and maintain my skill.
Fast forward to 2018, I was really frustrated. My career in advertising was going downwards, and it was just getting worse in terms of job role and income. I was not happy; I was not passionate about what I was doing. I decided I had to make a change. At that time, I hadn’t realized that it had been a year since the launch of Vision 2030 and the General Authority for Entertainment. I thought, okay, so this is the time I could really take up my career as a musician. I didn’t want to choose this career just for the sake of popularity or becoming a celebrity. I felt like there was a bigger purpose behind it.
OW: What did you believe to be that bigger purpose and how did you pursue it?
SAB: I decided to become a vocal coach because there aren’t really any certified voice trainers here in the country. I didn’t have any source of development in my country, or in countries nearby, where I could continue to develop myself. There were no places to even attend operas and performances that could give me a role model, let alone opportunities to perform.
Since the government launched Vision 2030, I felt that I needed to have a hand in that initiative and support it since I love to teach, and I love singing opera. I got certified from the New York Vocal Coaching Center; it took me about four months. I studied over Skype while at the same time searching for voice teachers who could do a great job training me as an opera singer. I went through several until I found a really great voice teacher and an opera singer in Germany. I’ve been training with her ever since. It’s been two years now, I think, and I’ve been training with her for a minimum three times a week to develop my voice.
OW: What were some of the challenges you overcame to become the first Saudi opera singer?
SAB: So, the first challenge mainly was the culture not accepting a woman singer. Whether it’s something as classy or let’s say royal as opera or not, it wasn’t going to be accepted. And on the other hand, of course, my family was really concerned that I would go in public and I would be harmed because people would reject me and say things about me. Music was really something not to be discussed or accepted.
I remember there was a Saudi singer, a female pop singer, and she was sort of barred from entering the country. I’m not sure about the facts. But she got into a lot of trouble because she pursued a career as a singer. I didn’t feel like I wanted to go against what was publicly accepted. When Vision 2030 and the General Authority for Entertainment happened, that was when the government said okay, guys, we want to really change and we want to bring up the artists in the country; we want to support them. We saw concerts happening here in Saudi Arabia, something that never occurred before. It was the first time for us and it was surreal to see such events.
There was also the launch of several programs supporting local artists and talent competitions. Later on, there was an announcement about the opera house they’re building and a music academy. All of these things really gave me a full and clear message to move forward—that this is the time for me to be the first person doing something in opera. I felt like it was a great opportunity to pioneer in the field since the Saudi public is very exposed to all genres of music except classical music and opera.
I’ve seen how classical music and opera have a great effect on a person’s state of mind; it’s very calming and has positive effects. I’m very sure the public here is going to enjoy it in the same way.
OW: Are you seeing a hunger within the Arab world for opera and classical music?
SAB: I feel like there is a hunger for it, but because it’s not in a language that the public understands they feel sort of disconnected. It’s not even in English, and English is the closest language they would understand, but it’s either French, Italian or German. I think the people are enjoying it, but that disconnect is not encouraging for them. This is why I am developing classical music in the Arabic language.
OW: Tell me more about the music you’re creating?
SAB: I’m currently working with a composer to develop my own classical music and trying to put my own twist on it. I want to keep a bit of both worlds; I want to keep the essence of opera and classical music, but maybe introduce some different instruments. Of course, I’ll be singing in Arabic. That by itself is already making sort of a fusion. I’m really trying to keep a fine balance between staying true to the sense of opera while adding a new touch.
OW: You sang in Riyadh with the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Pietro Mianiti. How did that opportunity present itself?
SAB: I had appeared a week before on a TV interview for a big local TV station here when I saw him [Mianiti] during the interview. A few days later, I received a call from the Ministry of Culture with the minister requesting that I come and sing. I was only able to do the opening act and sing the national anthem in an operatic way. That was my debut. I would have loved to perform more with them.
OW: You became involved with Opera for Peace. What can you tell me about your role?
SAB: They’re an organization promoting young opera singers around the world and they’re trying to give them the best opportunities to grow and develop themselves in their careers. They have chosen me as their ambassador in Saudi Arabia. I think it’s a great initiative.
OW: You also started your own organization, Soulful Voice.
SAB: The mission of Soulful Voice is to raise the standards for singers here in Saudi Arabia and support them by helping them become better artists and better singers. I see very popular singers who, from what I’ve heard and what I learned about vocal coaching, could do a way better job. Many of them don’t have vocal training, and for me, it’s really a shame, because they don’t set a good standard for upcoming artists. They think that it’s fine to just have a pretty voice and to go ahead and sing.
But what we see in the Western world are incredible voices and incredible art. Where we’re at doesn’t really compare. So, the mission is to set a higher standard for the music industry here, and for singers specifically.
OW: What are your short-term and long-term goals when it comes to bringing opera to the Saudi public?
SAB: I want to set the professional standards for classical music, whether for singers or instrumentalists because there’s little opportunity to get a professional education here. The government just launched a cultural scholarship for Saudis to go abroad to take a degree—either bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D.—in any arts and culture programs in which music is included. But not a lot of people can travel even if it’s a scholarship. They have families here that they can’t leave. So, I want to bring some of that to them with workshops and masterclasses from professionals abroad.
Regarding the long term, I want to be able to represent this art form in front of the Saudi public. I also want people outside of Saudi Arabia, in the Western world, to see what we can do here and to add to the field of opera.
OW: Five years from now, where would you like to be in your career?
SAB: Well, I would be really happy if the opera house is open by then, and I would love to be part of it in any way. If not the opera house, then I would love to have my Soulful Voice Institute become one of the major centers of support for artists and musicians and have it become a great platform for them to shine. For me as an artist, I would love to launch a lot of my own music and perform on international stages, as well as collaborate with international artists.
OW: What are some parting thoughts you’d like readers to know?
SAB: I always like to share the idea that when you have something you’re passionate about, a talent or anything, and you want to make it your life purpose, you have to have a goal behind it, something valuable, such as inspiring or helping others—something that will really affect the people around you. I feel like in order to succeed in doing what you love, you need to have a motivation and purpose behind it.