It will be a night when the East and West playfully meet, as acclaimed Arab soprano Zeina Barhoum takes to the Dubai stage on January 18.
At just 27 years old, Barhoum has already trained and performed with some of the world's most renowned opera singers, including Emmy award-winning Italian soprano Renata Scotto, tutors Alberta Valentini and Walter Alberti and Jordanian jazz musician and pianist Omar Faqir.
Ahead of her debut performance, titled Passions of East and West, at the Dubai Community Theatre and Performing Arts Centre at Mall of the Emirates, Barhoum said the audience should expect an "exciting evening with music bridging the East and West".
"I strongly feel an artist should have a message to share and voice their beliefs through their talent," said Barhoum, who is Palestinian. "First and foremost for me, that message is peace. Each individual has an identity to showcase and that is why I integrate Arabic and classical in my performances. I would love to make a difference in the Middle East."
Proceeds from the show, a production of Dubai Friends of Bethlehem University, will go to support the university's scholarship and academic programmes. Dubai Friends, made up of female volunteers, had previously raised money for the school's library and faculty training.
"We enjoy the music and we do what we can to support the university. So far, we have organised three concerts, including a ballet. This will be the fourth. It's not a lot of money, but we enjoy helping in what ways we can," said Salwa Khoury, a member of Dubai Friends, as well as of the university's International Board of Regents. "We look forward to Zeina's performance and hope people come and support."
Barhoum will be accompanied by violinist and conductor Mohamad Hamami and his oriental ensemble Takht Sharqi.
The performance includes a mixture of Arabic and classical songs, as well as pieces from musicals such as The Wizard of Oz and operas Gianni Schicci and The Barber of Seville.
"I will also be singing familiar songs for Palestine such as Sanarga Youman (We Will Return One Day), which was originally performed by Lebanese singer Fairuz," said Barhoum. "It's challenging sometimes to switch between Arabic and classical, but feedback has been positive. People find it intriguing."
As a former American University of Sharjah student, Barhoum is no stranger to the UAE and often splits her time between visiting friends here and her current home in Jordan.
"I'd like to see the UAE's performing arts and music scene flourish. It would be great if more theatres and opera houses would open, which would prove promising for the whole region," she said. "We need a hub for those who studied abroad because they need a place to come back to - the right venue, the right management and understanding."
Barhoum herself is an example of one who gained experience abroad and returned to the Middle East. In 2010, she received a scholarship supported by the Peace and Prosperity Trust (an organisation promoting harmony between western communities and the Middle East) and A M Qattan Foundation (a UK charity organisation promoting education and culture) to train in London with a former Royal Opera House coach.
Barhoum's potential in singing was discovered back in 1997, when as a student, her voice was noticed by a music teacher. She eventually joined the school choir.
"I remember my teacher saying they could sculpt my voice, that I could be a good opera singer. They advised my parents to enrol me in training. So about a year later, I took my first lesson to train my vocal chords," said Barhoum. "I loved musicals such as The Sound of Music and even took part in a school production of Grease and others."
She would later take part in various concerts in Jordan and while at university in Sharjah.
"During my first year at university, I studied with a vocal teacher but also kept going back to Amman because there aren't many options in the UAE. I wanted to continue my training," said Barhoum. "It was a challenging time because I had to shape my performance character and if I stopped training, my career would have been halted."
Luckily for her, the hard work paid off. In 2007, Barhoum collaborated with jazz musician Omar Faqir during three concerts in Jordan and the UAE. The following year, she co-organised a charity concert combining opera and jazz.
"It means a lot to me to perform for a good cause. I've been accepting many charity concerts, especially over the past year. Last November, I was in London for a medical charity and met many Palestinians and we discussed ways to raise money. I also hope to visit Palestine one day," she said.
In 2009, Barhoum participated at the Dubai International Peace Music Festival as its sole vocalist. That same year, she organised a concert titled Jordan and Italy Come Together with an Exclusive Evening of Classic Charm, in collaboration with the Italian embassy.
It was in Italy where Barhoum had chosen to perfect her voice, while attending a course at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecillia in Rome.
"I was advised by one of the greatest singers, Renata Scotto, to continue training with Signora Alberta Valentini and Signor Walter Alberti, widely known as two of the best tutors. The experience was unforgettable because it was the beginning of my training for singing bel canto [19th century Italian opera]. I wanted to learn it the right way, so I had to start in Italy," she said.
In early 2011, Barhoum was also invited to perform in Lebanon, alongside award-winning French-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna, whom she describes as her "biggest idol" in music.
"I would love to perform with him again. It would be such a privilege."
- For more information on Zeina Barhoum's concert, visit www.ductac.org
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