I want to show Pakistan's softer side to the world, says Sufi-opera singer Saira Peter
Opera music is synonymous with classical music in the East.
Although they sound different, they are both considered the highest of musical art forms in their respective cultures. Saira Peter seems to have mastered both the arts and proudly calls herself the founder of the genre she has labeled ‘Sufi-Opera.’
Saira Peter is a trained opera singer with deep interest in history, anthropology and Eastern classical music. What sets her apart is the manner in which she has amalgamated Sufi-classical music with opera. Icon sat down with the London-based diva on her recent visit to Karachi for the launch of her album, Resplendent, an operatic translation of the teachings of the Sufi Saint Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.
"I spent my childhood in churches singing choir music and listening to classical music. However, it was due to the legendary pianist Paul Knight, a disciple of Benjamin Britten, that I am here today. The legacy was passed on from there.”
On why she chose opera, Peter explains, “Classical music is the music of the minority. My vocal coach saw my ability to sing on different pitches and hence he encouraged me to improvise in this domain. Let me also reiterate that opera is a very technical form of music.”
<“During its Sufi day celebrations I performed at the Urs of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai at Bhit Shah. The custodian of the shrine Syed Waqar Hussain Shah asked me to spread Sufi kalam in western music through opera in order to introduce the teachings of Bhittai and it led to the birth of Sufi-opera.”
Regarding technicality of operatic music, Peter describes it as “complicated form” of music. “It requires a lot of practice,” she says. Since, I am a science student, it was easy for me to understand it because it tells you much about human physiology. In opera, you sing at a high pitch. I follow mezzo soprano and soprano,” adding that her opera inspirations are Handel and Puccini.
The idea of combining Sufism with opera came about by sheer coincidence. “I was judging a Pakistani show called Voice of Sindh,” Peter recalls. “During its Sufi day celebrations I performed at the Urs of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai at Bhit Shah. The custodian of the shrine Syed Waqar Hussain Shah asked me to spread Sufi kalam in western music through opera in order to introduce the teachings of Bhittai and it led to the birth of Sufi-opera.”
“Both genres are quite similar in the fact that they stress on social cohesion. In fact, the ‘squeeze’ of opera is peace and as I mentioned earlier, it is very technical. It requires excessive practice and temperament. Western opera has scales while Sufi-classical has raags.”
Considering it’s challenging for an artist like her to penetrate Pakistan’s music industry, Peter says, “Mine is a message of peace and serenity. My music is primarily meant for a western audience, to portray a positive image of Pakistan across the globe. I’m also thrilled at the response I have received from the Pakistani audience.”
Unsurprisingly, Saira Peter is an opera instructor. She is the director of the Noor Jehan Arts Centre in London, operational since 1998 when it was inaugurated by Sir Cliff Richards. So far Peter has performed before German, British and French audiences and plans to travel to the US soon.
Steven Smith, her fiancé, is also a classically trained musician and her music composer. “We share a similar vision to see how creativity and performing arts can bring about a difference. Our next project will be the teachings of Bulleh Shah,” he adds.
Peter also credits the musicians who accompanied her on her self-titled debut album. They include Taufiq Qureshi (percussionist/rhythm arranger for Bhool Bhulaiyaa), Shikhar Naad (djembe), Sabir Khan (son of Ustad Sultan Khan, sarangi), film composer Poorbiyan Chatterjee (sitar), Grammy nominee Ronu Majumdar (flute), Yogesh Samsi (tabla) and Mumbai Stomp (percussion group).
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, June 4th, 2017