People who inspire us: Omar Shahryar

Over the coming weeks, we're going to be profiling some people working in opera today. Follow our blog to hear more from people making a difference in opera, and people who inspire us.

Profile: Omar Shahryar

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Omar Shahryar started his career as a freelance stage director, assisting at Royal Opera, ENO and Birmingham Opera (among many others) for several years, branching out into choral directing for Singingworks and EastEnd Notes (the multi-faith men's choir he founded for Spitalfields Festival) before returning to his roots as a composer of opera and musicals. A specialist in works that engage communities, his recent commissions include the 'Bately Does Opera' project for Opera North and the multi-ensemble piece 'O to make the most jubilant song' for amateur musicians and professional soloists from the Britten Sinfonia. He is now to be found at the University of York reading a PhD in the Composition of Opera for Young People for which he will be composing 3 new chamber operas between now and 2018. 

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Saudi Arabia to Scottish and Bangladeshi parents, moving to a suburban Hertfordshire town when I was 7.

What is your earliest musical memory?

I clearly remember being fascinated by the effect of pushing buttons on things when I was about 2 - I quickly became obsessed with the piano belonging to my parents' friends.

You compose, conduct, direct and so much more. How do you define yourself?

Composition and song-writing got me into this mess – I mean, career! Composition feeds the practice of my directing and workshop leading. So really, I'm a composer who wears other hats.

Who inspires you? (in life, in art, in music)

When I was a teenager, I would say, “If Gandhi can do it, so can I!” For the last few years Daisaku Ikeda, the President of the SGI Buddhist organisation, has taught me everything I always wanted to know, including how to do what Gandhi did. Lately, I have been inspired by Muhammad Ali, when he said, “my only weakness is that I don't realise how great I really am” - a very Buddhist concept about praising the phenomenal potential of our lives.

How was EastEnd Notes born?

Being a Buddhist with Bangladeshi ethnicity, I was deeply disturbed by the violence that was occuring on the border of Muslim Bangladesh and Buddhist Myanmar (Burma). I felt I needed to do something that could show the world that men of all religions (who frequently get a bad press) really can work together in harmony. A community choir seemed the perfect idea to forge bonds, have fun and create something wonderful together.

What/ who challenges you?

I have battled with one particularly challenging person for a very long time. He has been horrendous to me, using any excuse to criticise me publicly, badmouth me to others, put obstacles in my way, sabotage my projects and basically try to destroy anything I do: the worst bully I've ever known. Of course, this bully is myself. This is where the advice of Daisaku Ikeda has helped, in order to overcome my own negativity and realise my full potential no matter what the circumstances. Only I can hold myself back, and lately I've been doing my best to be my own best friend and believe in my capability.

What can opera do for young people? And what can young people do for opera?

Opera is a social activity because it brings people together. It takes so many different people with a huge diversity of interests, skills, backgrounds, and ideas, and it puts them all in a room with hundreds if not thousands of other people, where they try to create something new and inspiring. Young people love socialising, and given the right way to access this opportunity, they can contribute to making it even more amazing, profound, beautiful, funny, exciting and relevant. It's a win-win situation.

Find out more about Omar at omarshahryar.info

Find out more about Omar at omarshahryar.info

Talk to us about diversity in opera. And be honest.

It needs improving. Everyone in the opera industry and in the audiences have to be much more courageous than they have been so far. Diversity in opera isn't just a token gesture – it is a sign of our essential progress. If opera audiences and the industry are diverse, then it shows that we are actually growing and progressing, developing something new, with new people, in new places, moving forward. If audiences and the industry continue to stay the same, then they will become stunted, like a 20 year-old who is determined to remain in Year 6. I know leaving year 6 for secondary school is scary, but we have to do it. Making new friends is hard, but we definitely can do it. For our own benefit, we must.

What will opera of the future sound like?

The future sound of opera that I'm most interested in is that which will use rhythm, particularly dance styles, electronic music, house, techno and other contemporary popular styles, and will occur in different places. I also hope that we'll hear more words generally, with better librettos and better compositional skills of setting text for voices.

What are you listening to at the moment?

Thanks to Brexit, Beethoven's 9th Symphony on loop.