Bringing Persia to the West: Keeping Culture Alive in Opera

Submitted by shawreb on
Saeideh Rajabzadeh, guest contributor

Large, beautiful mountains cradle the city of Kermanshah, Iran. The weather is moderate: warm days and cool nights make for pleasant weather year-round. Frequently sunny, occasionally rainy, and rarely snowy. In the countryside, you might hear shepherds singing. The province of Kermanshah has many historic sites. For example, the three rock reliefs carved in the face of large mountains with inscriptions and depictions of kings, hunting scenes, and divinity dating back to as early as 522 BCE. At the foot of one of these rock reliefs, Taq-e-Bostan (which translates to “the arch of the garden”) in the city of Kermanshah, locals often spend time with their families while enjoying a picnic at a park close by. I have fond memories of my family, aunts, uncles, and cousins gathering there on cool evenings, eating traditional foods and fresh fruits, chatting, and playing games. This is the setting into which I was born. Growing up, I learned children's songs and folksongs, but also had the privilege of making friends who taught me their traditional Kurdish group dances accompanied to upbeat lively music played by flutes (sorna) and drums (dohol). 

Growing up in Kermanshah, listening to Persian tunes and poetry was a constant activity in my house. My maternal grandparents and my mother were poets and avid poetry readers. Naturally, I developed a strong connection to Farsi, and Persian culture through the language, at a young age. Radio and satellite channels often play the many musical settings of famous epic poetry and other ancient poems regularly. The moan of a setar, the sigh of a kamancheh, and the chime of a santour still ring in my ears, though I’ve been away from home for over a decade. 

I began my musical training in Iran, mostly in piano and violin. But I also took lessons in setar and traditional music theory. When I began my solfège courses in Canada, semitones seemed large by comparison to the quarter tones, the smallest unit of Persian traditional music. After coming to Canada, I started my Western classical training in voice and have been active as a singer, music educator, choral director, musicologist, and community advocate.  

As a young Persian woman in the opera industry, I have often felt isolated. Due to the low number of Persian women in this field in Canada and the lack of representation, when I first started my training, I was unsure if there was space for me and my culture to be included. I was excited to bridge the gap between the Western operatic traditions that I was learning and the music of the East that I was familiar with, but my attempts were faced with confusion, hesitation, and sometimes outright rejection.  

Art has historically been a vehicle to challenge norms and allow artists to trod into unexplored territory. I believe the opera world can harness this strength and embrace new works even more. During my studies, we learned about brilliant composers who changed the trajectory of history through their music but never had a chance to study about brilliant BIPOC, women, and LGBTQ2SIA+ artists who equally, if not more, contributed to the development of compositional styles and historic events. 

In opera training, we also learned to sing in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian, just to name a few. As a language enthusiast, this is one of the most exciting aspects of opera for me, but I was surprised to see that a genre so open to showcasing different languages failed to accept or know how to include Farsi into its canon. I decided to go back to my roots and advocate for Persian music and musicians through my artistic platform. I started networking and actively seeking Persian composers, within Canada and abroad, finding their music, talking about their work, teaching their compositions, and performing their works. 

The Canadian Opera Company hosted the Asian Heritage Month Showcase Series in May 2022. I was privileged to perform “Eshghe Dast Nayaftani” at this event. The work, which translates to “Unattainable Love,” is a classically-written art song in Farsi composed by Afarin Mansouri. I spoke and sang in Farsi, a language not often heard on Canadian music stages. This opportunity allowed me to connect with Mansouri, to reconnect with the poetry of Hafez that I grew up studying, and to sing in my mother tongue while showcasing a Farsi art song to celebrate my cultural identity, both with the Persian-Canadian community and with new audiences in Toronto. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, I have focused on learning more about Persian women musicians. For example, Qamar-ol-Moluk Vaziri (1905-1959) is thought to have been the first Persian woman on stage who did not use a veil in her public performances, which resulted in her receiving warnings. She reached fame for her traditional singing. Some of my favourite recordings of her singing are easily accessible on YouTube.  

I recently came across Sima Bina’s book, Iranian Lullabies. Bina travelled to the most isolated places in Iran, interviewing mothers and grandmothers, inscribing the tunes, and writing down the lyrics. She learned the accent and manners of singing from communities who crafted these lullabies thousands of years ago. I have been learning the music using the scores and the CD that Bina provides. Although I am familiar with Persian folksongs and traditional singing, due to my Western vocal training, some of the vocal lines in these lullabies have the most fascinating embellishments, which are completely different from any Western system. Learning these lullabies was the highlight of this past year and provided a meaningful way for me to connect to my culture. This book includes songs from many different parts of Iran in different dialects, including one lullaby from the province of Kermanshah. 

While studying music in the voice program in Canada, I remember being encouraged to sing classically-written music in Farsi at some concerts. While an amazing opportunity, those songs were not accepted as jury or recital material. On top of that, the music was difficult to find, as search engines and databases often lack these works. In addition to that, there was general confusion surrounding the ways in which one could acquire Persian music or engage Persian composers. To help rectify this problem, and to encourage this body of work for leisure, stage, research, and educational work, I have appended a short list of Persian musicians at the end of this article. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Persian arts and culture, please visit the online exhibit that I curated with the assistance of the Equity & Inclusion team at Willow Youth Network Ottawa. The exhibit presents the customs surrounding Nowruz (Persian New Year), Charshanbeh Soori (the Fire Festival), Haft-seen, handicrafts, music, calligraphy, and Persian foods. The website also has a playlist for Nowruz, and anyone can get to know a few of the celebratory songs, new and old, sung during the Persian New Year. 

With the conversations of diversity and inclusion coming to the foreground in artistic communities, I am happy to see changes, not only in the accessibility of the material but also in a sense of communal outreach to minority groups in the spirit of learning and coming together. As I navigate my sense of self as a Persian-Canadian artist, I dream of a day where Farsi music is acceptable audition material in all institutions, where Persian artists are invited to join faculty, panel discussions, and large productions to collaborate; where Persian music and composers are easily searchable on databases, libraries, and catalogues; and where the ancient lullabies, verses, and beats from Iran may be heard halfway round the world. 


Traditional music 

  • Parisa 
  • Delkash 
  • Mohammad-Reza Shajarian 
  • Mojgan Shajarian 
  • Homayoun Shajarian 
  • Alireza Ghorbani 
  • Mahsa Vahdat 
  • Shahram Nazeri 

Pop music 

  • Hayedeh 
  • Mahasti 
  • Ramesh 
  • Googoosh 
  • Dariush Eghbali 
  • Vigen 
  • Farhad Mehrad 
  • Reza Sadeghi 
  • Aref 

Composers in Canada 

  • Afarin Mansouri 
  • Saman Shahi 
  • Maziar Heidari 
  • Keyan Emami 
  • Pouya Hamidi 
  • Parisa Sabet 
  • Kimia Koochakzadeh-yazdi 
  • Anoush Moazzeni 
  • Iman Habibi 
  • Danial Sheibani 
  • Showan Tavakol 
  • Homa Samiei  
  • Mehrdad Jafari Rad 

Saeideh Rajabzadeh is a classical singer (mezzo-soprano), musicologist, music director, music educator, and community builder with a focus on equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility to serve communities. To learn about her education, training, performance, community work, research, and creative projects, visit her website.

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