“Singing opera makes me feel like a king on the stage,” the Saudi countertenor Mohammed Khayran Al Zahrani tells me during his photoshoot. Indeed, he truly embodies the essence of a king in his own castle. At first glance, you see what appears to be an Italian opera singer from the 16th century in his full sartorial–and vocal–splendour, then you recognise the passionate and modern Saudi heart he carries inside, as the notes of his voice take the studio by storm. Let me introduce you to our cover star with a triple-first: Saudi Arabia’s first male opera singer, the first Saudi opera singer to perform internationally in Rome and Vatican City and the first Saudi to sing opera in Arabic.
“Singing opera conjures in me a sense of liberation, of spreading my wings and flying away from this world; it gives me freedom and a lot of power through the different notes I perform as I can reach the highest, the lowest and the largest of course,” Khayran explains to me, revealing what opera means to him and how it defines him as the shoot goes on. An extraordinary passion was ignited in the heart of a boy somewhere in a remote village in Saudi Arabia, which later led him to an extraordinary fate.
In his early years, Khayran always felt different and had great aspirations, he tells me: “When I was young, my life was full of ambition and imagination, I always dreamt of singing on a stage in front of an audience because I was a very shy person then, I wanted my voice to reach out to the world in a beautiful way.” Then he recalls, smiling, “One day I saw a TV commercial about chocolates with an opera song playing in the background and I fell in love with that song, so I kept singing it day after day on the school playground, at home and even on the stairs, so that people could fall in love with the idea of me singing opera. After that, I decided to pursue my dream as a professional artist.” Khayran didn’t think twice and took the leap of faith when he travelled to Italy to embark on an unknown journey to follow his dreams. “You can’t reach your dreams or your goals without a leap of faith. You will face a lot of obstacles and a lot of disappointments in your career but with a leap of faith and that belief in yourself, your dreams and your potential, you will do it.”
Khayran did believe in himself and his dreams, and went on to become the first Saudi opera singer to join the Coro Polifonico Musica Creator choir in Rome, taking the lead role in Ethereal, which was streamed online on the festival’s digital platforms. It would also become one of the most ethereal moments of his life. He expresses: “When I think about the word ‘ethereal’, I remember each moment of my voice reaching out to the audience, its vibration touching every soul in front of me.” Besides that international achievement, he also performed at a concert in Vatican City, where Pope Francis was in attendance.
As an artist who managed to overcome all of the hurdles obstructing his way, he took up the challenge of changing the cultural narrative in his own country. “I always knew that I could conquer any challenge in my career,” he states. Khayran, who stayed true to his dreams, is one of those talented and eager souls who are the bearers of the wind of change in the kingdom. He relates to the new courageous Saudi spirit as he reveals: “I think the Saudi spirit now is not only one of strength but also intelligence, because Saudis understand that if they keep the idea of success in their mind, they will achieve it.”
Motivated by his appreciation for his country, he eventually came back to perform in his homeland with the launch of Vision 2030, a project through which public events and entertainment are now the norm in Saudi Arabia. “I yearn to be an opera singer who sings in Arabic, not only to hold onto the roots of my country and my family, but also the roots of my culture and language respectively, my aim is to introduce opera in the Arabic language for the first time and to share Arabic music and culture with the world.”
Khayran feels a responsibility to contribute to the blossoming opera scene in the kingdom in his own way. He also believes that Saudi is making significant efforts to enhance the position of music and to encourage emerging talents in the field. Khayran, who performed Aala Wa Amjadu at the eighteenth Abu Dhabi Festival and a rendition of Hallelujah, “as a solo,” at Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Rome, believes that “Singing in Arabic is more difficult because of the pronunciation of Arabic letters. Of course, it was quite a challenge for me. I personally enjoy singing opera in Arabic, it is something beautiful to hear; an entirely new form of opera that I am debuting.”
Thinking of all the young talent in his homeland who are struggling to find their way, Khayran affectionately tells me: “I was one of them, I started with nothing, now look at me, I’m touring the world with my voice.” The young singer continues with a message for them: “Always surround yourself with positive people and cut out those who spread negativity and judge you because they are like cancer, if you don’t remove it will spread into your life and your dreams causing them to die.” Then he concludes, “Believe in yourself, listen to your heart and don’t hesitate. If you hesitate, you will go one step back. If there is a moment when you are not strong enough to make a decision that your life and dreams depend on, you will regret for the rest of your life that you didn’t have the courage to make that choice.”