People who inspire us: Omar Shahryar, Composer

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.

 

DirectorUpClose

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Director, Valentina Ceschi
OperaUpClose directing credits: Ulla's Odyssey (Kings Place), Dido & Aeneas (King's Head Theatre), Elixir of Love (King's Head Theatre), Manifest Destiny (King's Head Theatre), Associate Director La Bohème (Cock Tavern Theatre, Soho Theatre, King's Head Theatre).

How did you get into opera?
I stumbled into it a bit. After graduating from the Jaques Lecoq School, in Paris, I set up a company with Thomas Eccleshare with whom I co-wrote directed and performed all the shows. As our work developed we became more and more inspired by European auteur- directors and performance artists. We were at a festival in Italy at the same time as Emma Dante. I was a huge fan of her work and found out that she was directing Carmen at la Scala and did everything in my power to get in and work as her rehearsal assistant there. Growing up I was taken to many (and I mean very many!) musicals and being half Italian opera has always been in my blood. But it was only when I was in Milan, spending my days listening and watching the singers, studying their faces and bodies, their emotions, their processes in the rehearsal room where you are really close, that I truly fell in love. 

The production was considered controversial and caused a bit of a stir on opening night. It was exciting to be a part of this, and I realised how opera - especially at an institution such as la Scala - could be shaken up a bit, and that stories needed to be told by fresher, younger voices. 


What is your favourite part of the job?
The moment when something shifts and suddenly you see something in the story or the piece that excites you that you'd not noticed before, and together with your MD or the cast you all get goose bumps, it's like having a vision and you think "ah, yes, that's why we have to tell this story now! And it all makes sense! " 

I also love working with young people, they don't have any baggage from training, they inspire me and they make me laugh. I would love to work more with young people. 

 Valentina working on  Ulla's Odyssey  with musical director Alex Beetschen and puppeteer Matt Hutchinson

Valentina working on Ulla's Odyssey with musical director Alex Beetschen and puppeteer Matt Hutchinson


What's your least favourite part of the job?
I don't know. Often once the show is up and running you feel left out. The cast, MD, musicians and stage manager still get to hang out every night and do the show, but you're no longer essential, no longer in the gang. It feels quite lonely then.

What's the best thing you've seen on stage (theatre or opera) in 2015 and why? 
I just saw some Kabuki whilst on holiday in Japan and puppet artist Basil Twists's Dogugaeishi at the Mime Festival in London, both Japanese art forms, both breath-taking. I also love the new programme at the Almeida. 

What are your dreams for the future/ what's next?
Making design-led opera. I don't know how yet, but I'm working on it.

Tell us a bit about Ulla's Odyssey?
It is a charming action packed adventure for anyone of any age who has ever felt determined to prove themselves against the odds and who will brave huge waves, winds and sea monsters in order to achieve their dream. 

Your strangest / funniest experience whilst working on a production? 
Once I was touring a show with my company Dancing Brick and we were on stage up in Stockton, halfway through our show when we suddenly realised we had skipped ahead 3 or four scenes without even noticing! The scenes all took place in real time, so it was easy to feel our way back and we were so tuned to each other we recovered without the audience noticing! The show however was packed full of subtle but complex sound design and lighting cues so when I happened to glance up at the tech box I could see our stage manager pulling her hair out and mouthing all sorts of obscenities! The fact that the audience were none the wiser makes me worry about the structural integrity of the piece. 

What do you think is an essential quality in the work you direct? 
I'm a stickler for visual clarity and I strive for efficient storytelling. If what I'm seeing - whether it's slapstick or a romantic scene - doesn't tell as much if not more of a story than what I'm hearing then it's not working for me. 

OperaUpClose answer Graham Vick's call

At OperaUpClose we were delighted to hear Graham Vick's recent challenge to opera companies to reach new audiences with the productions on the stage, rather than relying on outreach departments to do so. He made this challenge in his keynote speech in May at the 2016 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards, a full transcript of which can be read here.

Our experience producing new versions of classic ‘big beast’ operas in venues, which haven’t been able to programme opera in the past, backs up what Graham says – audiences do not need to be ‘educated’ in opera in order to be moved by it. However, to give a new audience the chance to enjoy opera, venues need to be able to risk programming it, and opera companies need to be able to offer tickets at genuinely affordable prices.

We would also highlight the importance of giving a platform to new operas, including new works for young people. We were delighted that the winner of our biannual opera writing competition, Flourish, last year was an opera for young people called Ulla's Odyssey. It's currently touring and reaching new audiences of children and their parents, but our concern is that without public funding for new productions, opera companies will cater to one (small, wealthy and homogenous) audience with their work on stage, and only reach another more diverse audience through outreach projects. 

However effective and inspiring the work of outreach departments, unless opera companies can make their ‘main stage’ work accessible to everyone we will be hard-pushed to justify our public subsidy.

Signed by the OperaUpClose board of trustees