Even as Sara al Qaiwani's opera career blossomed, she fought to convince her parents that this was her true path.
Emirati soprano found her opera-tunity
Sara Al Qaiwani took a deep breath and stepped on stage. With several dignitaries looking on and accompanied by instrumentalists from prestigious New York music institutes, including the Juilliard School, al Qaiwani had no room for failure.
But there was even greater reason for her to succeed in the spectacular Zaha Hadid Pavilion in Emirates Palace. In the audience, for the first time since she had left school, were the parents she had battled with to be allowed to pursue her passion for singing.
As she sang the first strains of Schubert's Shepherd on the Rock, the soprano - thought to be the only Emirati opera singer - felt her soul-searching had ended.
"That was the moment my father started coming around," she recalls of the Abu Dhabi Festival gala performance earlier this year. "They were both really impressed and my mother became quite teary."
But it was a long, hard road to convince her Emirati father, Jassim, a retired civil servant, and her Iranian mother, Elahé Sattari, that singing was a worthy career. "My father felt it was not a respectable way to earn a living," says Al Qaiwani, 30. "People here listened to [the late Egyptian singer] Umm Kulthum and knew about her musical ability, but she was a rare thing in the Arab musical psyche."
Al Qaiwani studied at Latifa School for Girls in Dubai, which encourages pupils to learn an instrument. She took up the piano at the age of seven, followed by the violin four years later. But it was her voice that teachers spotted as unique. When she was 14 and playing Glinda the Good Witch in a school production of The Wizard of Oz, the head of the music department, Janet Hassouneh, a former opera singer, took her aside.
"She said she had first noticed me when I was nine and wanted to work with me as my voice was developing quickly in terms of tone, colour and flexibility," says Al Qaiwani. "I did not listen to opera. I had all the stereotypes in my head of large ladies singing."
With weekly coaching sessions with Hassouneh, she was soon managing complicated arias. By the time she was 18, she had earned an advanced performance diploma. But when the exam adjudicator asked if she had considered a future as an opera singer, she had to say no.
"I asked my father: 'What if I want to become a singer?' and he said if I wanted to do that, I would have to fund it myself."
Instead, Al Qaiwaini received a scholarship from the Ministry of Education and studied for a chemistry degree at Imperial College in London. She disliked it intensely and says: "After four years, I came back hoping to forget about music. I was so unhappy, I had a mini-breakdown at 22."
She found her creativity further sapped with a job as a corporate relations manager for HSBC Bank. After 18 months, she returned to England to study at the London School of Economics for a master's in the history of international relations. She graduated with a distinction in 2006, and embarked on a doctorate in the history of women and politics in the Middle East. She discovered not only a world of advanced academia she loved but also the chance to resume her singing. Al Qaiwani signed up for an evening class and voice coaching sessions every fortnight.
Roles as Despina in Così Fan Tutte, Zerlina in Don Giovanni and Pamina in The Magic Flute, all by Mozart, soon followed in the college's productions. She also played Nanetta in Verdi's Falstaff, Musetta in Puccini's La Bohème and Sophie in Massenet's Werther, which led to a job offer from a professional opera company in the north of England. She felt compelled to turn it down, but was already beginning to think of performing as a career.
Recognition in her homeland finally came when she performed at the Burj Khalifa on National Day last year before a crowd of 4,000. They erupted in applause after her rendition of Puccini's O Mio Babbino Caro.
"I will finish my PhD this year and then I am open to whatever comes my way," she says. "I want to give something back, whether by inspiring schoolchildren or building an operatic college. This nation supported my education and I will never forget that."
Sara Al Qaiwani sings at www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/music/emirati-opera-singer