Kuwait’s first soprano brings Puccini to the Gulf

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Kuwaiti opera singer Amani Hajji practices at the Higher Institute for Musical Arts in Kuwait City. Giacomo Puccini, she believes, is also the most relatable to Kuwaiti music lovers’ ear, with his emotive, late Romantic style. (AFP)
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Kuwaiti opera singer Amani Hajji practices at the Higher Institute for Musical Arts in Kuwait City. Giacomo Puccini, she believes, is also the most relatable to Kuwaiti music lovers’ ear, with his emotive, late Romantic style. (AFP)
Updated 09 May 2018
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Kuwait’s first soprano brings Puccini to the Gulf

  • When she first enrolled in Kuwait’s National Conservatory in 1985, her parents banned her from singing anywhere outside the walls of the school
  • Kuwait’s conservatory is highly popular in the Gulf and for years has drawn students from neighboring countries

KUWAIT CITY: Amani Hajji is nothing if not stubborn: for 20 years, she has refused to give up on her dream of making opera mainstream in her native Kuwait.
A soprano by training, and with her trademark bob haircut, Hajji is Kuwait’s first opera singer with a small but dedicated local following.
The 51-year-old’s journey has not been easy. When she first enrolled in Kuwait’s National Conservatory in 1985, her parents banned her from singing anywhere outside the walls of the school.
Fifteen years later, Hajji appeared onstage at the Cairo opera house. The audience settled in for an interlude of oriental folklore. Instead, they were treated to Giacomo Puccini’s repertoire.
Hajji has since been invited back five times to perform works by the Italian composer, still her favorite, to Arab audiences in Italian or German.
Puccini, she believes, is also the most relatable to Kuwaiti music lovers’ ear, with his emotive, late Romantic style.
Kuwait opened its first opera house in 2016 — but Hajji was not invited to appear onstage.
That’s when she found out about her own dedicated fan base who — to her surprise — had been following her career for years.
“The Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli opened the venue, and a lot of Kuwaitis were outraged by my absence,” Hajji said.
“That’s how I discovered that I had an audience who knew who I was and who loved me.”
Hajji was first introduced to opera as a teenager, when she saw a television special that caught her eye.
“I loved music in general, and in my first year in high school I saw an interview with Ahmed Al-Baqer, who founded Kuwait’s conservatory,” she said.
“I decided to register for lessons. I started to train and then discovered opera, thanks to an Egyptian teacher here in Kuwait.”
She has since represented her country in music festivals in Bahrain, Italy, Ukraine, Turkey, Morocco and elsewhere.
Shortly after her initial snub by Kuwait’s opera house, she made it on stage in her native country performing with the Bucharest Philharmonic Orchestra.
Hajji credits her oriental roots with helping Kuwaiti audiences relate to the classical works of Puccini and others.
“Even if they don’t understand the language, the audience appreciates the music, the way it is sung,” she said.
“I have my own style. It’s sentimental. It’s a contrast to the Western way of interpretation.”
Now an instructor herself at Kuwait’s national conservatory, she is starting to sense a budding interest in opera at home.
Most of them, however, are men — and Hajji still has her eye on finding a female star pupil.
“There is so much raw talent that we’re working to train musically,” Hajji said.
“But I’ve always dreamt of singing a duet with another female Kuwaiti opera singer.”
Kuwait’s conservatory is highly popular in the Gulf and for years has drawn students from neighboring countries — some of whom have had to stand up to their families to follow their passion.
Opera houses have also begun to pop up across the region, with Dubai and Oman each home to a venue.
But there is still cultural pushback against the genre, some say.
Ahmed Kandari, an opera teacher at Kuwait’s conservatory, had to face his family’s disapproval over his choice to study opera.
Today, he is fighting to introduce music into Kuwait’s educational system.
“High school education is marked by the total lack of a music curriculum,” he said.
“We have to start introducing it earlier, and growing our education, to help teach the public appreciation of different musical styles and genres.”
The work of Hajji, and Kandari, has inspired youth beyond Kuwait.
Ahmed Saleh Al-Jazali, from Oman, is enrolled in the opera program at Kuwait’s conservatory. With the support of his family, he says his goal is to become his country’s first opera singer.
“I’m working on it — I’m going to sing in German and Italian,” he said.


Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

Jana Ghalayini’s work at Art Dubai invited visitors to draw on their responses.
Updated 25 May 2019
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Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

  • Female-led art collective wants society to rethink the way women of color are perceived
  • Banat Collective publishes artworks in print and online and hosts events to encourage debate

DUBAI: Sara bin Safwan founded the Banat Collective in 2016 to connect with other like-minded people, championing
their art through the group’s website, banatcollective.com.
The group aims to help society to rethink the way women of color are perceived by showcasing contemporary art, poetry and other writings. The collective publishes artistic works in print and online and hosts events aimed at spreading awareness and encouraging debate.
“A lot of the artists are young and emerging and never had the chance to be either exhibited or publicized, so we interview them to offer a critical, insightful look at their work,” said Safwan, 25.


Now an assistant curator at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Safwan graduated from London’s world-famous Central Saint Martins college in 2015 with a degree in culture, criticism and curation.
It was while studying in Britain that she developed a keen interest in post-colonial theory; the Banat Collective focuses on themes relating to both womanhood and intersectionality, which is an analytic framework to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those most marginalized in society.
“The mission is not only to connect artists but open up discussions about Arab womanhood in the region, because there’s not necessarily any other place to do so. We do that through art, poetry and other writings,” Safwan said.
“I use the word ‘womanhood’ to make it a more accessible term because if I use ‘feminism,’ it’s a very politically charged word that has almost been tainted by Western ideologies. And those Western ideologies don’t necessarily fit within our context as Middle Easterners.”
“In the Middle of it All” is the collective’s debut publication. Released in 2018, the book is a 31-artist collaboration of visual art, writing and poetry. Our book is a means to help us stand out — it’s thoughtfully curated and tackles a specific issue, which is ‘coming of age’,” she says.
“It’s a notion that’s taboo in the Arab world and either unheard of or misunderstood. It was a chance for female artists to tell their own story.
“Throughout the book, we go through many topics such as puberty, identity, sexual harassment and abuse, sisterhood, motherhood, beauty standards and all these other societal expectations.”
The collective held its first exhibition as part of March’s Art Dubai fair, showcasing a short film, “Ivory Stitches & Saviors” by member Sarah Alagroobi, which she describes as an “unflinching glimpse into identity, colonialism and whitewashing.”
Says Safwan: “It’s a tribute to all women of color who have been marginalized and, all too often, erased.”
Another work by Palestinian-Canadian artist Jana Ghalayini is comprised of a 26-meter-long piece of chiffon on which visitors can draw with chalk pastels in response to questions posed by the artist including “How does your environment affect your identity?”
Safwan adds: “The themes we explored were vulnerability and community — it was a way to introduce ourselves in person because previously we only had an online presence.”
Born and raised in the UAE to Honduran and Emirati parents, Safwan is now working with Alagroobi and Ghalayini to brainstorm ideas for future projects that include a podcast series on the notion of shame. The collective is self-funded and run by volunteers.
“I hope there will be more opportunities to showcase our work and collaborate with others. This year, we will be publishing more content,” Safwan said.

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of The Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.