Notes from up high: Feryal Qudourah, opera singer

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Opera singer Feryal Qudourah loves her profession for giving her the chance to learn languages and travel the world. This 24-year-old soprano, a native of Florida, has performed throughout the US, Europe, and parts of the Middle East. She currently attends Florida State University where she is studying for her master’s in vocal performance. She speaks about her musical inspirations, fighting media stereotypes and being one of the very few Arab Muslim women in this classic genre. As told to Jillian Pikora.

Feryal performs the role of Micaëla in the opera Carmen, for The Marionettes Chorale in Trinidad & Tobago. Photo: Triniview
Feryal performs the role of Micaëla in the opera Carmen, for The Marionettes Chorale in Trinidad & Tobago.
Photo: Triniview

The first thing that got me into singing was when my father would sing the adhan and have me recite after him, then learning to sing different Arabic module scales. When we moved to Trinidad & Tobago, where my mom is from, she enrolled me into voice lessons where I studied classic British folk songs and other music.

Some things I’ve had to rethink as I get older. I don’t feel comfortable with being physical with someone on stage for the purpose of acting, for the audience to understand the story you are trying to tell. With the talent that Allah has given me I think I can find a way not to have to do those things, and instead use my voice to tell the story.

Male singers have an easier time being famous because our expectations of female singers are much higher. Society is harder on women in general and not just in music. We want them to be nearly perfect in how they act, walk, move. I feel I have to work much harder to get across the same message as my male counterparts.

I’m a soprano, and in opera sopranos are a dime a dozen. You have to find your uniqueness and really do extreme acting to get the audience to love you. For men, it’s “Good, there is actually a man wanting to sing” but for girls and women, there are many girls who want to sing, so we have to think a bit more outside the box.

Photo by Jillian Pikora
Photo by Jillian Pikora

Opera is becoming like Hollywood, I think because it is becoming a dying genre. We already know two people are in love by the way they are looking at each other on the screen. It is stronger and more emotional than having to do all this physical stuff like hugging and kissing.

I love being a minority; it gives me the uniqueness I want. But many agents in the operatic world have stereotypes. They think that a Muslim girl probably won’t do certain staging and the next girl probably will do it. That’s why I am really focusing on my voice.

Once a professor told me I was screechy, I don’t sound that great, and I am a terrible actress. You have to have thick skin. You will meet people who will be very negative and only if you really, truly love this profession will you move forward.

I recently took an ethno-musicology class and loved it. It is all about learning to use music as a mode to convey messages culturally, religiously, politically and economically. I hope I can use my talent to help Muslims and others better understand the religion. I am also starting to compose lyrics and music on my own, so I can send different messages of Islam contrary to what an audience may see from the media.

Performing the title role of Lucy in Menotti’s opera The Telephone for Florida Opera Theatre. Photo: Patrons of Queens Hall
Performing the title role of Lucy in Menotti’s opera The Telephone for Florida Opera Theatre. Photo: Patrons of Queens Hall

Singing opera and singing for fun are very different. For instance, my students are typically studying or going into music therapy, and not performance. To become a singer and a performer in this field takes a lot of sacrifice. You do need to have that drive and that God-given talent because there are a lot of people out there that can sing. If you go into it as a profession it is a tough yet rewarding field. You have to be honest with yourself to know if you are talented enough to make it.

My mother is such an inspiration to me because she not only taught, but also made sure she taught life lessons. I love to teach my students. I teach these young ladies voice lessons and how to cope with negative things and life. I also need to help them with appearance, how they carry themselves and how they take care of themselves.

It is a great way to learn someone’s culture through their language. As a child I was always exposed to Arabic because my dad speaks it as his first language. I studied Indian classical music for a few years while in Trinidad and Tobago. Now in Western classical music it is mandatory to study German, Italian, French and English. The operatic scene is introducing a lot more Russian opera so we are expected to start learning Russian. Certain phrasing and dictation styles for each of these languages are absolutely different. For example, “I love your eyes” in spoken French is “J’aime tes yeux”, but it is sung as “J’aim-euh tes z-yeux”. Essentially, it is two different dialects within the same language.

Performing the role of Micaëla in Bizet’s opera Carmen. Photo: Triniview
Performing the role of Micaëla in Bizet’s opera Carmen.
Photo: Triniview

I respect any sort of music that intertwines two or more types of music. Oum Kalthoum and Fairouz are two singers my dad and I would listen to when I was a child. What I love about Fairouz is that she and the Rahbani brothers took the classical music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schuman and intertwined it with the Arabic module scale; she brought together these two beautiful forms of music. That’s why my favourite piece to perform is Quando Men Vo by Puccini from the opera Le Bohemian. Puccini is a beautiful composer and he added a lot of exoticism into his music, such as unique themes and Middle Eastern scales.

Two summers ago, I performed with the Tel Aviv Symphony Orchestra. That was an interesting experience. My dad is Palestinian, and the conductor is Jewish, so in front of everyone he announced, “We have a Palestinian soprano who will be singing O Mio Bambino Caro by Puccini, with me a Jewish conductor! Isn’t it beautiful how two countries, two cultures can be together with music? No war, no fighting, that is the power of music!”

Photo by Jillian Pikora
Photo by Jillian Pikora

 

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 Eid issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play

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