Perched on a stool in front of the mirror in the greenroom of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts auditorium on Friday night, opera singer Saira Peter was visibly excited before her performance.
Saira is Pakistan’s first opera singer, and brought the unique genre of Sufi opera to the capital for the second time. Joined by her music director Steven Smith and her family, Saira was all smiles. “I have performed in many places in the world but there is nothing like coming home. The love for my country and its people is the greatest motivation in anything I do,” she told Dawn.
Born in Karachi, Saira has lived in London for the last few years. She trained as an operatic singer under Paul Knight, who was a student of English composer Benjamin Britten, a legend in Western classical music. “I am proud to have trained under Paul Knight and think of him as my ustaad,” she said.
The unique genre of Sufi opera she performs is a true labour of love, bringing together her training in the western classical tradition of music and her love for Sufi poetry.
“Sufism is an important part of the Pakistani culture. Sufi poets such as Bulleh Shah and Shah Abdul Lateef Bhittai have woven beautiful messages of peace and love in their poetry and I wanted to bring this tradition to the West in their own musical language,” she said.
Saira is also the director of the Noor Jahan Centre in London, which has promoted Pakistani music and culture in London since 1998.
The performance began an hour late; with the management setting up floral arrangements as the hall slowly began to fill. However, the tardiness was soon forgotten with the first performance of the night by Balochi musican Qadim Hussain. The audience clapped along to the uplifting tunes of the beloved Balochi song 'Laila O Laila'.
Saira began her performance of the night with an English translation of Bhittai. The strength of her voice and her vocal range left many in the audience in awe. Her versatility as an artist and her multicultural roots were reflected in her comfort with the variety of genres she performed, ranging from Beethoven to Madam Noor Jahan.
After performing some songs from her latest album Resplendent, Saira sang Celine Dion’s 'The Heart Will Go On', a favourite among the audience.
Many members of the audience were pulled by their curiosity to hear an opera singer perform, due to the rarity of such performances. Audience member Vilima Judy Sahotra told Dawn she had brought her son to hear Saira’s performance because he is training as a gospel singer.
“Tonight’s performance was a treat for music lovers and an educational experience for those interested in Western classical music,” she said.
Saira was accompanied by a group of local musicians with whom she performed. Dholak player Jeevay Laal told Dawn he was honoured to perform with such a talented vocalist.
“Her form of music is truly unique, combining Western and Eastern traditions and instruments. Usually Sufi poetry is only accompanied by Eastern instruments and sang in the Eastern style, so adapting it to the operatic style is a true work of art,” he said.
Originally published in Dawn, April 15th, 2017