ISLAMABAD: While opera was discovered in the 1600s by the Florentine Camerata in Italy, notably in cities like Venice, it was an evening dedicated to Sufi music during a Pakistani reality show that led Saira Peter, a British-Pakistani soprano, to the discovery of a genre of opera, “Sufi opera.”
The message of love, peace, and harmony in the writings of Sindhi Sufi mystic Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai fascinated Peter during her stint as a judge at the “Voice of Sindh” reality show in 2014, compelling her to sing his Sufi poetry in English.
In 2017, the British-Pakistani opera star, who can sing in 17 languages and has performed globally, released an album titled “Resplendent,” based on Bhittai’s poetry.
She now plans to establish Sufi opera as a mainstream genre.
“This Sufi opera is a fusion of both Western classical music and our Pakistani classical music... you can say that it’s like merging two worlds together,” Peter told Arab News in an interview this week.
Born in Karachi, Peter says she used to sing in church choirs and began her Western classical journey, learning from Paul Knight, a disciple of Benjamin Britten, in London in the early 2000s after her family moved there.
Peter’s father, Zafar Francis, pioneered the Noor Jehan Arts Center in London, opened by British superstar Sir Cliff Richard in 1998. Peter, who is the director of the performing arts center, teaches both Western and Pakistani classical music there.
In 2018, the British-Pakistani opera star was requested by the UK government to record the British national anthem in her voice.
“It was ‘God Save the Queen.’ After that, the British government asked me again to record ... ‘God Save the King,’” she said. “So, they use my recorded British national anthem for their ceremonies, like, you know, when they give citizenship.”
Peter is currently collaborating with London-based composer Knight to perform the Sufi Opera “Marvi’s Tears,” based on Bhittai’s folktale about Marvi, a village girl who resisted a powerful king’s overtures and chose to live among her own village folk.
She will play the lead role in the opera, expected to be staged in London early next year.
“We are working on it and it’s nearly ready to be performed in London arenas. We will have lots of opera singers from London,” Peter said.
“The first workshop is going to be in London in February ... so we will have live Pakistani musicians and live Western classical musicians, they will be performing together.”
“To me it’s really a great honor as a British-Pakistani to portray [a] Pakistani story with Western classical people,” she said. “And this story actually depicts the positive image of Pakistan.”