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

Find out more about Omar at

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.



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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. 

The Voyage Continues...

We're delighted to have been funded by Arts Council England and the Foyle Foundation for Ulla's Odyssey's UK Tour. The team will be collaborating with children's theatre company, Big Wheel to devise engaging workshops exploring Greek Myths and environmental issues to go alongside our Ulla's Odyssey performances on the road.

These workshops will enable young people to feel confident about opera, develop their music and drama skills and explore issues of human impact on the natural environment. Watch this space for regular blog updates on Ulla's new journey into the realms of Theatre In Education!

Next up…Partnership, puppetry and pollution!...stay *tuned*

Ulla’s Odyssey Workshop Training at Big Wheel

by Valetina Ceschi, Director

Friday 27 May

For the past week we’ve been training the musicians from our children’s opera Ulla’s Odyssey in workshops facilitated by Big Wheel (see information below). The first day of training started quite unconventionally. We were greeted by a mysterious man wearing a long grey trench coat and rimmed hat, with strong american accent; taking down notes about each of us, and asking us what books we had read recently. Suddenly a woman entered - a femme-fatale creature complete with feather boer - she and this Bogart-like character started enacting the opening scene of a book by Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep. At one point they both broke out of character and introduced the name of their workshop, The Great Big Book Project. There were some exercises while we learnt different aspects about books, from first impressions of book covers, to what genres there are and so on. All this was done through fun and interactive games. We were blown away by how engaging this was and disappointed when Roland and George brought the Big Book Project to an end. Now it was our turn to learn how to do something similar with Ulla's Odyssey.

We started with a feedback session where we all listed the elements that made their workshop so engaging. We said the element of surprise was really strong. By this we meant that, as the audience, we didn’t really have a choice but to go with it, it was very visual, there was loads of audience interaction which felt empowering and not intimidating. We also noticed how it relied on strong teamwork between the two facilitators. Roland and George had great chemistry, they were relaxed, and comfortable with each other. So these are - just some of - the skills and elements the Ulla company are going to learn for their very own workshops around the opera for children.

First off: how to work as a group. The singers are already very familiar with this as they have to work together as an ensemble in the show itself. One exercise required the two small groups to enact a ‘potted’ version of Ulla’s Odyssey - these were basically long-form improvisations so you had to be very open to things changing course, and to accept each other’s propositions. It was a lot of fun! Interesting aspects emerged from performing these, notably that less is more, props are useful and free you up, and teamwork is essential. Comedy also played a big part in these mini performances and we learned how to control this.

Later on, our group was invited to each share a skill that they use in Ulla's Odyssey that they could teach or demonstrate to the group. First up was Ruth our woodwind instrumentalist. Ruth, of course, plays many instruments in the show and would be able to bring them along with her to the workshops. However, once she'd demonstrated how she plays, the flute, for example, she wouldn’t realistically be able give her instruments to the audience to play. She therefore came up with a great idea! It was a hot day and everyone in the room had a plastic bottle of water. She used hers to show us how to produce a sound by blowing into the funnel of the water bottle. Everyone tried this on their own water bottle. This produced different sounds according to how much water was in each bottle. So there it was: a mini orchestra. A simple and effective way to show how our breath can produce sound through an object.


Oskar (Garibdis & Binnacle) and Pamela (Sylla & Binnacle) both talked about the skills they use either for their characters, or for the very physical style of the performance which often requires quick changes and the illusion of calm on the surface when everything is actually working really hard underneath. While Pamela talked about being perfectly still to create high status and power in her character of Sylla, Oskar demonstrated the challenge of singing after a frantic scene change by asking the audience to try running really fast on the spot then stopping to sing a single note all together. This exercise was very physical and being set a challenge made it fun.

Pamela and Oskar are also the main puppeteers of the cat Binnacle. They demonstrated how to invest ‘life’ into an inanimate object, but also how the mood and feel of a person, or animal can be mimicked in your own body. Physicality was also key in Flora’s (Goddess of the Sea) demonstration. She talked about when her character summons the four winds at the equator. Each wind has a different character. She and Sarah, who plays Ulla, show this by how each wind is gathered and then put in the sack that collects them all. Musically each wind has a different feel as well. So the audience has a go at physically depicting each wind, guided by Flora. The North Wind is cold and shivery, the South is like a warm hug, the wind from the West is tropical and groovy, and the East is very strong and powerful.

Finally Alex, our Musical Director on the show, showed us how he starts the opera. As a conductor he has to raise his hand to signal the upbeat and drop it to signal the down beat on which the first note of the opera falls. The speed of his dropping his hand depends on gravity (he demonstrated this by dropping a pen in his hand) and because you don’t need to be a trained musician to feel or comprehend gravity. We were all able to clap at the right time when he did it. (This was very impressive, even for a group of adults who work in the arts!) We all felt like we’d genuinely learnt something new, and yet it was so simple. It was empowering!


So by the end of the day the team realised that they already have a huge amount to offer, even without being fully trained in how to deliver these workshops yet. We definitely felt that each of us has so much we can contribute to a child’s first experience of opera, and to everyone's enjoyment of Ulla’s Odyssey.



Who is Big Wheel?

25 May 2016

Big Wheel started in 1984 as a group of students from Oxford University doing fairly serious fringe theatre, moving soon after into the realm of school workshops and TIE (Theatre In Education). The core team of four is based on Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell. The company regularly tours the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Austria and parts of Germany. Since 2002 Big Wheel has worked increasingly for the National Health Service and related organisations, providing staff training and tailor-made presentations at conferences.