On a High Note: Meet the World's First Sufi Opera Singer
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s delivering messages of peace through opera.
By Sophia Akram
Saira Peter’s kitchen is a pretty good representation of her as a professional singer and as a person. Nestled in the basement of her East London residence, her carefully positioned keyboard keeps her ready for long hours of practice, tuition with her students and also for collaboration with two doting men in her life, her father and her husband. From here, she explains while samosas and tea are cooking on the stove, springs the distinct style of Sufi opera that has caught fire in Pakistan.
Throughout the decades, music in Pakistan has courted controversy and broken barriers — from bhangra, born from the Punjabi folk music of the 1940s around the nation’s inception, to poetic ghazal music to disco. With the rise of conservative Islam in the 1970s and ’80s, however, music developed a tension with the government and saw heavy censorship under the regime of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Still, some Pakistani pop music has crossed borders — “Disco Deewane,” by Nazia Hassan, charted around the world in 1981; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan collaborated with Peter Gabriel, of Genesis fame. And with a long tradition of the mystical strain of Islam known as Sufism, its spiritual Qawwali poetry remains timeless.
And yet when Peter, 35, first launched herself as a singer of Western classical music in Pakistan, she had to mentally prepare herself: “If people start throwing tomatoes, I’m ready.” That was in 2016, after she appeared as a judge on two seasons of Voice of Sindh, a reality TV show, so people knew she could sing Pakistani classical music. But her inaugural performance at the Pearl Continental in Karachi with a star-studded guest list, which launched her professional singing career, introduced a Pakistani audience to Western opera.
Still, performing while female is relatively taboo in modern Pakistan.
She sang arias from Mozart, Puccini, Handel and Strauss and came away surprised by the reaction, with people telling her the music touched their hearts and seemed very spiritual, despite being in European languages. Then the nation’s media became hooked and everyone wanted to hear more music from Peter. Permanently based in London, she goes back to Pakistan every two to three months, and each visit is packed with TV appearances and performances. She has performed at iconic venues, including the Governor House in Karachi and Alhamra Art Center in Lahore, which has a 1,000-seat capacity. She drew a crowd of 5,000 at the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.
Peter’s love for the craft began when she was growing up in the southern coastal city of Karachi. A part of the country’s Christian minority community, she spent her days singing in the church choir without envisaging it as a full-time career. She went on to study sciences at university and then did a master’s program at Queen Mary University of London in 2008 in Islamic history and the West, nurturing an interest in Sufi poetry. Deeply reflective, she often thought about turmoil in the world, she says, and how music could be a bridge between people. So she started seeing a vocal coach and decided to professionalize her talents.
What surprises people most about Peter, says husband Stephen Smith, himself an expert on the anthropology of music, is her ability to move between genres. “People don’t usually sing both,” he says, referring to the different technical skills needed to sing Western opera and Pakistani classical.
Peter explains that Pakistani classical music has lots of portamentos — a pitch that slides from one note to another — and once you start getting into that style, it’s difficult to switch to Western classical. “You have to hit the proper frequency of the note,” she says. “You can’t just slide into it. That’s prohibited in Western classical.”
Paul Knight, Peter’s vocal coach who also performs himself, says they’ve worked on everything from Pakistani classical to the French chanson and German lieder. Western music, Knight says, has developed Peter’s strength and stamina, and musical theater is now developing her into an actress. Asked to pinpoint what it is about Peter’s style that appeals to Pakistanis, he says, “They love the fact that she sings high and has a deep range, which is unusual.” They’ve added cadenzas and other operatic twists to traditional Pakistani songs, giving them an atypical fusion sound.
Then there’s her signature material, as Knight and the Pakistani press describe her as the world’s first Sufi opera singer. Merging both Eastern and Western genres another way, Saira adds portamento to her Western classical style too, to give the music a bit of a Pakistani vibe. When she sings Sufi poetry in Western classical style, the pace is slower to make clear the message of peace within the song. Her natural Pakistani tone adds a twist to the song but Qawwalis tend to be rhythmically fast, so the high operatic tones take things to a whole new level.
Peter is making sure her style won’t be unique for long. After one fan persistently asked Peter to teach her opera for a year, she relented, and now the Saira Arts Academy, which launched in Karachi in 2010, has around 20 female students in opera and other classical styles, as well as students in London, where Peter is the director of NJ Arts London. Still, a female performing is relatively taboo in modern Pakistan — even if things have loosened since Al-Haq’s day. “Overcoming men’s attitudes has been a definite challenge,” Smith says.
Peter doesn’t seem phased. Whenever musicians collaborate with her, she confidently assumes her leadership, something many senior male artists are not accustomed to, she says. It seems she has no time to ponder the negative. Acknowledging that she comes from Pakistan’s Christian minority, she brushes off questions about discrimination, saying she’s only ever felt love from the country’s media. In person, she’s friendly and accommodating, making sure I don’t leave without taking something from the spread she has laid out on the table.
Peter is currently in the throes of developing a full-scale Sufi opera with other creative practitioners including Stephen and Saira’s father, Zafar Francis, who is working on the text. And then? Knight believes it’s “inevitable” that his pupil will sing in Pakistani films — bringing her unique voice to its widest audience yet.
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- Sophia Akram, OZY Author Contact Sophia Akram