Sara Al Qaiwani, first Emirati opera singer at Gulf News studio. Image Credit: PANKAJ SHARMA/Gulf News

Starting off as a child performing at school plays and charity performances, Sara Al Qaiwani, the noted Emirati opera singer, is now performing in the UAE to audiences as large as 800 people.

Performing two arias at last week’s ‘Mostly Mozart’ event at the National Theatre Abu Dhabi, Al Qaiwani is set to take the stage at the ‘Debussy, Poet of the Avant-garde’ event at the Sorbonne University Auditorium in Abu Dhabi’s Reem Island on Tuesday.

After years of struggling to pursue her dream, the opera singer is now finally living the life she always wanted.

Born in Al Ain, Al Qaiwani lived in Dubai throughout her childhood, where she attended Latifa School for girls. She was first encouraged to pursue a singing career by the school’s music head, who was also a former opera singer.

“She heard me singing and told me that she would give me free music lessons and so it all started then,” Al Qaiwani told Gulf News in an exclusive interview.

Recalling her first memorable performance at the age of nine, as the good witch in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Al Qaiwani said: “I remember not being happy with my character and wanting to play the character of Dorothy, but then I told myself I am going to make this fun.”

After hearing herself sing in front of an audience for the first time, she was overwhelmed and knew she wanted to perform again.

Excited about her first music lesson, she was shown her first opera video by her music teacher. “I thought I was going to sing Disney songs and musical tunes, until she showed me my first classical video and I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to sing that,’” she said, laughing.

At the age of 15, she was encouraged to explore the world of classical music and her teacher introduced her to songs, composers, roles and types of classical opera music. Al Qaiwani  soon found her range.

“I always say this but it’s true, it’s more like your voice chooses the repertoire, not the other way around.”

Continuing to sing at school events, charities and private shows, Al Qaiwani was finally faced with a dead end after completing high school. “After finishing school, the question was whether to pursue music or not, and it was not,” she said, adding that her parents made it clear that singing was just a talent to be enjoyed as a hobby.

After accepting her fate, Al Qaiwani moved to the UK to study chemistry at Imperial College London, which happened to back on to the Royal College of Music. The confusion of adjusting to university life away from home forced her to forget about singing and music altogether.

But she couldn’t stay away for long and soon Al Qaiwani had her first audition. Only then did she realise that there was so much more to learn about becoming a classical performer.

“I liked singing, but I didn’t realise just how much body work and athletics are involved in performing this kind of music at an acceptable standard,” she said. She then continued to focus on her studies and didn’t practise singing at all.

After obtaining her bachelors degree, Al Qaiwani moved back to Dubai and started working for a bank. Two and a half years later, she was surprisingly reminded of just how much she enjoyed singing after bumping into a another student who had been taught by her old school music teacher. Seeing how much her friend had improved, she knew she wanted to get back into music.

“I had a thing in my stomach that told me I had to go and train properly and see what my voice could do.”

With a renewed desire to sing, Al Qaiwani retuned to the UK to do her masters in International Relations at the London School of Economics in 2006. She auditioned once again after being referred by the conductor Bruno Cinquegrani. Although it was hard to maintain regular continuous musical work while she was studying, she was slowly moving back into the music scene.

Currently, Al Qaiwani is in the UK doing her PHD at the London School of Economics, where she is also focusing on her singing. “Working on my PHD in my own time gives me more time to practise singing,” she said, adding that having funding has also changed the game.

With the size of her audiences growing by leaps and bounds, Al Qaiwani is now performing at several events in the UAE and working with multiple international conductors. Her pieces range from aria extractions from a full opera, to pieces known as ‘melodies’ or art songs.

“Depending on the energy on the night and what I am singing, I feel a whole load of different emotions every time,” she said, pointing out that she prefers to take on a role or a character when performing. “I like to get out of myself and into that role and just think of the words and poetry of what I am singing.”

As she steps into the classical music scene even deeper, her family has started to share her excitement. Since she has started singing professionally, working with people from the academy and the director from the Royal Opera House has transformed her hobby into a profession, making her parents more appreciative of her talent. “I would say they’ve become more excited for me,” Al Qaiwani said.

With hopes of one day singing at Vienna State Opera, the classical singer continues to live out her dream in her home country.

“As long as people are enjoying my performance as much I do, I don’t mind where I sing,” she said.