The soprano Monica Yunus gives opera to the people, one small batch of notes at a time, Youssef Rakha writes.
"I speak Russian," says the soprano Monica Yunus, a petite, feline presence in surprisingly casual attire (when you think famous opera singer, you think complex hairstyles and elaborate gowns; you think stilted, stylised airs; it rarely occurs to you that an opera singer might be a spontaneous person who actually relaxes from time to time). She reclines in an arm chair in her room at the Abu Dhabi Intercontinental, where her suitcases are packed, ready for departure. With the curtains drawn, everything is bathed in light.
In less than an hour Yunus will set off to Al Ain to give a concert with the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra, an performance for collectors attending Abu Dhabi's Artparis exhibition. From there she will head to America for a new run at the Metropolitan Opera, where she took her first opera course at age 11, long before she studied at Juliard. In her hotel room, she seems relaxed about the six arias she will perform tonight. She will not, however, tell me her age, which leads me to speculate that she is older than she appears, which is very young (internet snooping suggests she was born in 1979).
Though born in Chittagong, Bangladesh, Yunus grew up in New Jersey - this much is clear from her voice. She was born in Bangladesh because she is the daughter of Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist of Nobel-stamped micro-loan fame. But her parents separated when she was four months old, and she was raised by her Russian mother. So, when I ask if she speaks Bangla - I thought there was something third-world sympathetic about her approach to opera and its expanding place in global pop culture - this is how she responds: "I speak Russian."
Yunus regrets that she seldom has time to actually see the countries she visits. As of our conversation, her experience of the UAE has consisted of an eight-hour stopover in Dubai and two days split between the cities of Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. So while she thinks cultural exchange initiatives are wonderful - "not just importing," she is eager to stress, "but the import and export of culture" - there is little she can say about the Emirates beyond noting its evidently wide-ranging connection with "the universal language" that is music.
"Even just in my hotel room flipping through," she avers, "it's fun to listen to so many different kinds of music. Last night I saw the Bahrain music festival on television. Then you have the Middle Eastern singers that have been on. So in that respect it's nice to see that there are a lot of different things going on here at the same time." Yunus also codirects Sing for Hope, a programme through which 500 musicians from various backgrounds donate their time and talent to raise money for humanitarian causes. She works often with artists from Lebanon, where she helped bring Placido Domingo for a co-performance, and sees her job as among the most effective ways to bridge cultural gaps. When pressed, she concedes that there are various musical traditions, like opera, that constitute their own languages of a sort not immediately comprehensible to the untrained ear. But she insists she seldom notices a difference in the responses of her audiences around the world. "It doesn't matter where you are, you can still appreciate it. Whether or not you know anything about another kind of music, you can still 'understand'. But it's not my job to gauge what the response is going to be," she reminds me sternly, before her face quickly reconfigures itself into a charming smile. "My job is to go on stage and give. Opera is not so popular in the States either, PS. We have to work hard. As musicians we have to work hard to bring it to people."