I’ve met a number of female opera singers in the past. ‘Handle with care’ should be tattooed on their foreheads. Divas to perfection. Most of the men were little better. How refreshing it was then to spend some time with Kuwait’s only professional opera singer - Amani Al -Hajji. The perfect antidote to the stereotypically highly-strung hens I have come across before.
Incredibly easy-going and on the face of it unassuming in regard to her prodigious talent, I soon discover that Amani is a little different and utterly endearing in many ways.
Her earliest source of musical inspiration was, perhaps surprisingly, ballad and country singers Donny and Marie Osmond.
“I really liked their songs, and when I started to sing people told me that I sounded just like them”, she smiles. Amani’s talent was quickly realized, and it became clear that there might be more to her than renditions of ‘Paper Roses’ and ‘I’m Leaving It All Up To You’.
A propitious and timely move to Kuwait’s Higher Music Institute saw her abilities stretched and channeled towards a more formal style of performance.
“In Kuwait,” Amani says, “we don’t have many public activities involving music, but I told my family that I loved music and singing, and that I even at my young age, I was around 14, I felt that music would be my future”.
“To sing on stage - this was my dream”.
There could have been more attainable dreams for a 14 year old girl to have in Kuwait at that time, even today. Singing is not universally accepted as a career path, and there are some who would deem it particularly unsuitable for a lady.
Amani was not going to be dissuaded, and whilst she was aware that the odds of success may have been stacked against her - she was prepared to fight them and to fulfill her dream.
At the Institute, throughout her high school years, Amani studied music. It was only on arriving at college level that she began specializing in voice training.
Amani’s first public performance was at the age of 18 at the Institute. Marie Osmond having been declared inappropriate, she sang an aria by Giuseppe Verdi. “Opera is still my passion. My favourite of all is to sing from Puccini’s Madam Butterfly”.
Graduating at the age of 20 was easy. And the learning still continues. “I practice for five hours a day, every day”, she says.
This level of commitment is essential to keeping Amani’s voice is fine tone.
Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti. “This was another of my dreams, to sing a duet with Pavarotti.
Operatic vocal recitals in Kuwait are restricted somewhat by the country’s conspicuous lack of an opera house and a dearth of other suitable venues in which to perform. She has however, notably, performed at the Dar Al Athar Al Islamiyyah - certainly Kuwait’s finest auditorium, as well as supported ‘I Love Lebanon’ concerts, the most recent of which was held at the Arraya Ballroom.
“My first public performance outside the Institute was in the Hashemi Ballroom at the Radisson-SAS”. Although regularly used by the Kuwait Chamber Philharmonia for their regular classical music concert, it is a difficult venue for vocal recitals. However, Amani recalls with some satisfaction the outcome of the evening.
Amani is passionate in her desire to share her ‘gift’ (as she is happy to refer to it) with as wide an audience as possible. In 2007 she performed at the launch party for Kuwait’s Zain telecommunications company. Through no fault of Zain, she found herself reduced to performing to an audience who clearly had other items on their agenda other than listening to an aria.
“As I sang, not only did people continue to eat, but they continued to talk and walk around the room. This made the evening a very unpleasant experience for me”, she laments, and reasonably so. This is not the protestation of a diva, but instead a cry from an artist who simply wants to have the opportunity to show what she can do and to be appreciated for it.
However, this is Kuwait. We have not yet reached the point where a general audience actually knows how to behave when presented with such a voice, let alone how to appreciate it.
Whilst her occasions performing at the Dar Al Athar have been altogether different and ultimately positive, she reserves her great praise, not surprisingly, for the Cairo Opera House.
Amani first sang in the Opera House in 2000, and following that was invited to perform there over a five-year period.
Her sights are now firmly set on Europe. Having missed out on the opportunity to sing with either of her favourite singers - Maria Callas and Luciano Pavarotti - still the grand opera houses of Europe await. The Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in London; Teatro alla Scala, Milan; Novaya Opera Theatre in Moscow. “Why not?” she says. Why not indeed.
To hear Amani perform today is to hear a singer clearly at the height of her mastery of the voice.
What a waste of talent it would be to see Amani’s passionate dream to perform on such stages live on unfulfilled. And what a message to the rest of the world this would be, what an ambassador for Kuwait Amani Al-Hajji could become.
“I am very proud to be known as Kuwait’s only professional opera singer”, she says. The Arab world is well-known for its female singers, but to have one performing in the opera houses of Europe rather than the clubs of Beirut would be a wonderful achievement.
At this level of performance the criteria to sing becomes ever more complicated. Aside from her voice, Amani will now need to be advised professionally, and on a more solid business footing, and yes, supported financially.
Who, amongst Kuwait’s business community will take up this challenge? Who amongst this community sees themselves as a true patron of the arts? For sure there are a good number currently supporting visual and performance arts internationally. Without such support there is a very real risk that her extraordinary talent alone will not be enough.
It would be a tragedy were Amani not to realize her dream. Not just for her, but for the international audiences who may never experience the pleasure of hearing her voice.
Shame on Kuwait if this country fails to rise to the challenge.
First Published in Men's Passion Issue #09 Dec.Jan.08