What is Sufi Opera?

World's First Sufi Opera singer

Sufi OperaTM is a new genre of music. It combines elements of both eastern and western classical traditions in one work. Until Saira Peter entered the music scene, it was thought that these two styles of singing were mutually exclusive. They use different forms of vocalisation, each requiring specific techniques that were thought to exclude the human capacity to acquire the other.

Saira has the unique ability to move effortlessly between western and eastern classical voice. The former is based on discreet step-like movements of semitones and the latter on micro tones characterised by sliding notes. Unusually for a western vocalist, she can ‘stand on’ (emphasise) consonants with great clarity and strength. This is demonstrated through sounds such as ’N’, which normally produce a closed sound avoided by western vocalists. She has also introduced interesting and challenging sounds from her Eastern palette into a Western repertoire.

At the same time, Saira is capable of interjecting more open vowel sounds when singing eastern classical music, something very unusual. She is gifted with a double toolkit of technical skills of contrasting colour: two types of vibrato, two types of trills, and so on. Drawing from this, she performs musical gymnastics, moving smoothly from Pakistani raag style to western classical mode in a single breath. She has created a signature sound appreciated by music lovers from both sides of the globe-Sufi Opera!

In a world where traditions meet, fuse, transform one another, this is more of a coming together than a taking over. Saira’s music itself, not just the words, becomes a means of expressing spiritual values in dramatic form, exploring moral dilemmas, emotional encounters of ‘the other’ and values of good and evil through the transformative relationships found in the midst of difference.

In the West, opera as an art form probably originated with medieval mystery plays. These dramatic presentations popularised the stories of Adam and Eve and the drama of Job/Ayub as found in sacred texts. The works explored tensions between married couples, the emotional impact of suffering, the birth of the Messiah and the problem of evil. These early musical dramas attempted to take an audience into a spiritual world, transcending the grind of daily existence. However, as the Enlightenment took hold of European thought, opera adopted a more secular journey. It became a predominately Italian means of exploring emotion through mythological symbolism, it became divorced from earlier liturgical or spiritual roots.

In the East, music within sufi movements was not always a common occurrence. The art form has often been suppressed. The Naqshbandi sufi movement, which arose in the 12th century, especially emphasised silence as a pathway toward individualised mystical experience. They opposed music as a form of devotion to the Almighty, spreading enduring negative attitudes to spiritual music throughout North Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The Pakistani sufi saint, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689/1690 – 21 December 1752), a contemporary of Bach (1685 – 28 July 1750), was, however, both a poet and a songwriter. His sufi compositions quickly spread throughout his native region of Sindh in spite of encountering opposition from established sufi centres. He would not relinquish his belief in the importance of music in the world of spirituality. He pioneered a new pathway for mankind to express eternity in their hearts. Not only did he oppose the practice of ‘nothingness’, but he articulated his sufism through a collection of poems, each picking up the theme of the place of women in Sindhi society. His writings introduced seven heroines to his followers. His was a moral sufi pursuit of the Creator promoting peace with man as well as the Divine, it included forging reconciliation, caring for the poor and promoting gender equality.

It is only through the unique legacy of this sufi leader that the genre of Sufi OperaTM is possible. Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’ sufism demonstrates common ground with streams of spirituality in the West. He insisted his devotees sing to the Almighty. They studied his stories that embodied his belief in the supremacy of Divine Love and Peace. Today, at his shrine in Bhit Shah, devotees continue to follow his command to offer worship through song 24/7 throughout the entire year.

Saira Peter, also born in Sindh, draws from his legacy. In her journey from Karachi to London, through her disciplines in two classical styles of voice, she has created Sufi-OperaTM, a new form of operatic drama promoting peace and equality in our conflicted world.

Saira’s first Sufi-OperaTM work, Marvi’s Tears is built on the story of Marvi, one of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s heroines. This ground breaking Sufi OperaTM is a collaborative effort, being developed under the direction of Jonny Danciger (MA Composition, Oxford). Jonny is a stage director, designer and composer from London. As an Opera Director, he has worked with the Royal Opera House, British Youth Opera and provided opera design for Tokyo Metropolitan Opera, Oxford Playhouse and many others.

Left to right, Saira’s creative team: Jonny Danciger MA; Paul Knight; Zafar Francis MA; Stephen Smith MA

The work has been written by British-Pakistani librettist Zafar Francis (MA London). The composer is Paul Knight (Royal College of Music, London), a composer and classical pianist from London. He has regularly composed for the Oxford Shakespeare Company, Bedouin Shakespeare Company/Globe Theatre (Rome), and is the Composer of upcoming Sufi Opera ‘Marvi’s Sorrows’. The artistic team also includes Stephen Smith MA, ethnomusicologist and musician, specialising in the musical heritage of the Indus Valley. Get your first taste of Sufi OperaTM below:-