Requiem for Rafik Hariri

Lebanese soprano, Hiba Kawas, is the only opera singer to come out of the Arab world. She talks to Massoud A. Derhally about her childhood talent, her big break and her recent requiem to Rafik Hariri.

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By  Massoud A. Derhally Published  May 1, 2005

Requiem for Rafik Hariri|~|SUPREME-SOPRANO-200.jpg|~|SUPREME SOPRANO: A moving moment in song. |~|IT WAS AT the age of two-and-a half that Hiba Kawas’ musical awakening happened. Her mother who had a piano at home was in the kitchen when all of a sudden she heard jingle bells being played. She dropped everything and rushed to discover Hiba was reaching over the chair and playing with two fingers. Years later, as the region’s only Opera singer, Kawas has become a symbol of unprecedented talent to emerge from the Arab world. She has collaborated with the Cracow chamber Orchestra, which played her composition Aspiration No.1, influenced the youth of the Arab world as a professor of Opera Chant and Composition, and plans to launch a new CD in November. Kawas has now, more than ever, made her mark. The young 32-year-old Lebanese soprano very much expounds the radiance of the famous Italian opera singer Maria Callas. After completing her studies in Italy in opera singing with the famous Tenor, Carlo Bergonzi and in composition with Maestro Franco Donatoni, Kawas completed her first album with the backing of the Hariri family. She has performed in Lebanon, Syria, the UAE, Cairo, Tunis, London, Paris, Italy, Germany, Poland and Amsterdam with numerous concert performances elsewhere. But it has been a long journey. By the age of four Kawas, who eventually bloomed into a radiant opera singer, took private lessons and subsequently started to compose her own music. “I remember the condition I was in when I used to sit for hours at the piano using every inch of it, as if I was exploring every note,” says Kawas. When her mother who closely observed her throughout her cognitive years asked what she was doing, Kawas would answer she was “inventing music, new sounds”. “In those times I remember there was a connection between what I was inventing and myself,” says Kawas smiling. Music was not something she preordained to get into, at least that’s not how things appeared to Kawas while she was growing up. At the age of five she would tell whomever she spoke about her fixation with wanting to invent a cure for cancer and stop everyone from dying. “I used to say it with conviction,” says Kawas with a chuckle. “Music wasn’t a hobby; it was part of my life, part of my energy, and part of my system. I never thought I would specialise in it — somewhat like eating and drinking. It was as if I had already taken a decision early on but was not conscious of it and became conscious of it when I grew up,” she adds. At six Kawas started moved from reading music notes to actually writing them and consequently held her first concert at school in the southern city of Sidon, where she’s from. By the age of eight, Kawas had composed her own songs and at 12 formed a band and started to hold concerts. The crowd was receptive. The largest theatre in Sidon at the time had capacity to seat 600 and it was always a full house, according to Kawas. In her primary years the singer used to compose music, experiment with poetry and sing in Arabic. Much of what went on in those formative years has carried through into adulthood. “I still have the same style I had when I was young. It doesn’t resemble anyone. It has my own imprint on it, its different,” says Kawas. “I had a sense of duality,” says Kawas about her childhood days. “I’d listen to music and feel the atmosphere it created, it was very deep, it drew you in.” The Arab artists that had a profound influence on her include legendary Syrian singer Asmahan and the famous Lebanese singer Wadi el Safi. From the classical front, Kawas was drawn to Beethoven and Tchaivosky. “I said to myself, wow this is great and Arabic music is very emotional and asked myself why not put both together? So merging both became an obsession.” Though she resembles the famous Italian opera singer Maria Callas a little, Kawas did not know of her as a child. But there is a story here nonetheless that involves Callas. “When I started to speak in early childhood and people asked me my name I used to say Hiba Kalas,” says Kawas. Frustrated with the many years of her daughter’s mispronunciation of her name, Kawas’s mother bought her the Italian opera singer’s music. “I also listened to Cavalier and I got hypnotised and started imitating what I listened to. It happened to be that my voice was in the range and I’m soprano [material]. I started attacking the same notes and this is how developed my obsession,” Kawas explains. As attending university came closer to reality, Kawas considered a move to London. But in 1985 life took a prophetic turn when at a UNESCO event Kawas won the first prize for her performance. She was subsequently offered a scholarship to complete her studies in Europe, but did so only after deliberating whether she would add value to the music landscape. “I realized then,” says Kawas, “this is my journey.” And her journey would eventually take her to from her home country of Lebanon to see various parts of the Arab world, Europe and former Eastern Bloc countries. In all, Kawas recorded 21 works of her own composition with the Dnepropetrovsk Symphony Orchestra-Ukraine under the direction of Viascheslav Blenov. As Kawas immersed herself in her musical career she developed a desire to form an Arab opera; music that would “bind Arab and Eastern music in structure, material and soul”. But not everyone identified with what Kawas yearned for. “I used to face problems; the media started asking questions as to what an Arab opera is, that it was never around before, how I intended to go about this and whether it was part of our culture and heritage or not,” says a frustrated Kawas. “Then there were fanatics who would say we want to stay with traditional and folk music. We’ve started to emerge out of this now. Unfortunately these people who used to say these things considered themselves the cultured people in Lebanon.” But the 32-year-old singer proved the critics wrong. Kawas has composed for symphony orchestra, chamber orchestra, and string Orchestra, various ensembles, piano pieces and songs. In her compositions she gave a role to the traditional Arabic instruments to play as part of the symphony orchestra, illuminating the fusion of classical and neo-classical forms with contemporary music. “When I write for a symphony orchestra there are technicalities in the composition and this isn’t something that is Western, this is science; how you write, how the structure is, knowing the instruments and knowing how to write,” explains Kawas. As to her critics, Kawas’s initial reaction was to delve into history where she discovered that what many consider today as Arabic music actually isn't. “We don’t know the real music. When you speak about Arab heritage, for sure it’s not [there in] the last 100 years, but [there is] a degeneration of heritage on all levels where you had individuals that excel outside their countries. The peak of Arab heritage was at the peak of the Abbasid era,” says Kawas. “Music is a science. The nature of the music at the time was that ... an orchestra at the Abbasid era included 600 musicians and performers. A symphony orchestra comprises 90 to 100 musicians. The first question that came to my mind was what kind of composition requires such a number of musicians? Clearly there was orchestration [back then]. The science of opera is not exclusive to anyone,” adds Kawas. It was precisely Kawas’s passion that caught the eye of Bahia Hariri and former premier Rafik Hariri, who was killed on February 14 by a massive car bomb. Kawas was performing at the presidential palace and met Bahia and it was, thereafter, that a friendship ensued, as did the support from the Hariri Foundation and the rest of the Hariri family whom Kawas is close to. Several concerts were under the former premier’s patronage. The Hariri Foundation sponsored Kawas’s first album and the family provided important moral support to the gifted opera singer, and still do. It was no surprise, then, that Hariri’s death galvanised Kawas to dedicate a requiem in his memory. “It was an immediate and responsive aria to Hariri’s death,” says Kawas solemnly, adding: “Hariri will be missed by Lebanon. But on a personal level I have lost him, my personal relations that tie me to him and his family make things on a personal level very tough. What makes me calm is that I don’t feel he has died. The idea that he isn’t here anymore hasn’t registered entirely. His energy was great. He was a great man.” “He was a missionary man,” she says. and even his death was another mission. Its as if all the energy that was within him dispersed itself when he died and was scattered all over the Lebanese people. So the difference between this requiem and others is that requiems are done at death; but here death means life and not the end.” ||**||

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