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RIYADH: Saudi soprano Reemaz Oqbi recently enthralled an international audience with her voice as the Saudi National Orchestra and Choir took the world-renowned Metropolitan Opera House in New York City by storm.

After vocal rehearsals, calming exercises, and sips of hot tea, there was nothing but serenity as the ensemble cued the beginning of a historical moment.

Oqbi told Arab News: “It was definitely one of the highlights of my career … it was amazing to go back to the US and have something to show from my own country and present on such a massive, prestigious stage like we did.”

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The Saudi National Orchestra and Choir performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

Oqbi has been no stranger to the stage since the age of seven. Primed with years of experience as a singer, she has learned to express herself and use classical music as a tool to create a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the world.

“I’m incredibly honored to have stood on the stage, to have shared it with my colleagues. Everybody had this feeling of euphoria when we finished the concert. Like, ‘Oh my god, we just did something amazing.’ At the end of the day, it is for the sake of our country that we’re always trying to present ourselves, our home, in the best way possible, the best picture possible, authentically,” she said.

The performance, which took place in September, went viral in the Kingdom and abroad, marking a pivotal moment in Saudi cultural development and exchange.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Reemaz Oqbi’s performance with the Saudi National Orchestra and Choir in New York City this year marked a pivotal moment in Saudi cultural development and exchange.

• The soprano vocalist and instrumentalist is one of the few Saudis to have studied opera.

• Oqbi incorporates classic Arab sounds into the Western genre to create unique innovations rather than emulating traditional compositions.

• She also hopes to help develop more female talent in the region.

The soprano vocalist and instrumentalist is one of the few Saudis to have studied opera. Originally from Madinah, Oqbi lived the majority of her life in California and attended a performing arts academy.

She began singing in the school choir and playing the flute in third grade and has not stopped since. After dabbling in various genres, Oqbi found that classical music was where she could express herself best.

“When I was around 16 or 17, I was like ‘I have the ability, I have the voice for classical singing,’ so I would rather just grow that instead of doing what’s trendy or what’s popular,” she noted.

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Primed with years of experience as a singer, Reemaz Oqbi has learned to express herself and use classical music as a tool to create a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the world, says Music Commission

Due to a lack of music programs in the Kingdom, she went on to pursue international relations with a minor in music at the American University in Sharjah. She then accepted a position with the all-women’s ensemble Firdaus Orchestra, an initiative by Dubai Expo, for two years before deciding to return home.

“It’s one thing to extend your knowledge and experience elsewhere and it’s another to do those same things within the community you’re looking to serve and expand with,” Oqbi explained.

I’m now able to genuinely do what I love, do it well, have the opportunities to do them, and also see it in the next generations after me … What we’re building now is not for us.

Reemaz Oqbi, Saudi opera singer

Classical music, a genre originating in Europe, has grown to cultivate an air of prestige, often with elitist stigma originating from Eurocentric beliefs. However, Oqbi believes that the genre deserves a place in Arab societies as well, and it has slowly become her driving mission at large.

She said: “I don’t want the outside world to ever look at us, at the Saudi community, and say, ‘Oh no, they don’t understand that’ or ‘They don’t get it, that’s European, it’s too sophisticated for them.’ We know that the vast majority of Saudi audiences at these types of concerts (don’t have) much of a background in classical music — and I want that to change.”

Inspired by Arab singers like the iconic Syrian-Egyptian singer Asmahan, Oqbi incorporates classic Arab sounds into the Western genre to create unique innovations rather than emulating traditional compositions.

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Reemaz Oqbi, Saudi opera singer

In one of her recent private shows, she performed “Habanera” from the opera “Carmen” by French composer Georges Bizet. While she sang the first half in French, she then pivoted from the song’s minor key to maqam hijaz, one of the main systems of traditional Arabic. “It’s so fluid. It doesn’t have to be so rigid,” she said.

I’m now able to genuinely do what I love, do it well, have the opportunities to do them, and also see it in the next generations after me … What we’re building now is not for us.

Reemaz Oqbi, Saudi opera singer

The music scene in Saudi at large was subdued for decades and only now is gaining momentum due to the Saudi Ministry of Culture and its Music Commission’s efforts to legitimize it as a viable industry.

Oqbi said that returning to Riyadh was “the best decision I’ve made in a while.” She is a manager and musician at the Saudi National Orchestra and Choir. As she spoke about the growing music scene in the region and its forecasted bright future, excitement cradled her voice.

“I’m now able to genuinely do what I love, do it well, have the opportunities to do them, and also see it in the next generations after me … What we’re building now is not for us,” Oqbi said.

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The Saudi Music Commission hosted the International Opera Festival earlier this year in Riyadh.

“How many talents have we lost over the generations? I’m not willing to let there be another talent that is lost. As long as there is opportunity, there will be art,” she added.

She flashed back to the age of seven, recalling how easy it was for her to enroll in a music class and begin her journey. She hopes that will become the case for every individual with a dream.

Oqbi prefaced her bold achievements by noting that they would not be possible without the support of her parents: “I was never made to feel by my parents that I was anything less than worthy of the things that I was learning because I’m a girl.”

With the abundance of creative opportunities in the region, Oqbi next plans to develop and record music that bridges the gap between Arabic tunes and opera catered specifically to Saudi Arabia. She also hopes to help develop more female talent in the region.

 

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