From La Scala to Ramallah

Israeli-born Arab opera singer Enas Massalha could still be appearing at international opera houses, but chose instead to perform for her own community.

If there’s a work that crosses all boundaries of taste, that can speak to everyone, from fans of schmaltz to sworn classicists, it is Gabriel Fauré's "Requiem," based on the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. To perform it this Saturday and Sunday night, the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble and the Collegium Singers Choir have invited two solo singers: baritone Oded Reich and soprano Enas Massalha, who has returned to the Israeli stage.

Why “returned?” Because Massalha had left for what looked like a promising international career in German opera houses. But in the end she gave it up to return home.

“I had a taste of international opera, but then I started to ask myself if that’s really what I was looking for,” she says. “In the end, I found what I wanted: In my society, in my language, in the link between my world and the world of the classics.”

For several years, Massalha has given several series of concerts in the Israeli Arab community.

“I couldn’t handle feeling foreign anymore,” she says of her years in Europe. “I was a strange bird – an outsider here, before I left, and then an outsider to the world. I’m from the east, and I felt my eastern voice had to be heard in a different way. Then one day I decided to do an operatic concert for the Arab community – I said to myself I’d try it, and was ready for anything, even to be booed.”

It turned out there was a life-changing surprise in store.

A musical family

Massalha was born in 1979, in Daburriya in the Galilee. “I come from a family that’s open to everything,” she says. “My parents came from families that had nothing, that could barely give their children food and clothing, which is why they wanted to invest in us, to give us what they never had. And there was always music in the family. All my brothers play instruments, and at family gatherings we always play and sing. My father is an amazing tenor, and I have an aunt who sings like Asmahan. So for me it’s more than just notes and melodic lines – singing is the story of my life, its fragrance, what united our family.

“I started to study singing at age 17 at the [Jezreel Valley Arts Center] and a year later the center director, Uri Ben David, told me to take the entrance exams for the [Rubin] Academy [in Jerusalem]. I took the test and was accepted. It was a shock, primarily a shock to my hearing. I didn’t know harmony or solfeggio. In my culture, to sing all you had to do was open your mouth and the sound came out. But here, there was work on the stomach, diaphragm, upper palate, and vocal chords. It amazed me and sounded very noisy.

“But when the shock wore off, I realized that this was a wonderful incubator. The academy, like every framework in my life, started a bit too early for me. The academy was too early, the Aviv Competitions were too early, the opera was too early – I wanted to yell, ‘enough, let me grow up.’”

The dizzying pace of her musical life continued unabated. She won scholarships from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, and entered the Aviv Competitions for singers and won. During the competitions she was noticed by the Israeli Opera, which invited her to be part of its Opera Studio, a program for young singers, where she stayed for two years.

Barenboim in Ramallah

One of her performances in Ramallah was attended by Daniel Barenboim.

“He came over to me and asked me what I was doing the next day. I answered that he should tell me himself. So he said, come to the Philharmonic and sing for me and Zubin (Mehta). I could barely find accompaniment because none of the pianists would agree to come on one day’s notice to play for Barenboim and Mehta, but I came.

“It was during the 75th anniversary celebrations of the (Israeli) Philharmonic, with a television broadcast, and at the end of the concert, when all of the musicians were still on stage, Barenboim called me over and said, ‘Come, sing.’ I wanted the ground to swallow me up. But I said to myself, ‘Enas, there are moments that don’t recur. Decide. I said, ok, this is life and death – and I sang Liu’s 'Aria from Turandot,' which is actually an aria of suicide.

“Mehta came over to me and asked me, ‘Sing again, I’ll conduct for you.’ And when the aria was over, he asked, ‘What are you doing in April?’ At which point Barenboim jumped up and said, ‘she’s busy!’ And that’s how I found out that I’d gotten a scholarship to the Staatsoper, the Berlin State Opera."

In Berlin, Massalha had no choice but to just dive in. She was given a major part, that of Papagena in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and she gave performance after performance, with three different singers opposite her in the role of Papageno – world class baritones including Rene Pape and Roman Trekel.

“I arrived in Berlin alone, I found my own apartment, furnished it myself and went to rehearsal the next day,” Massalha recalls. “This was also a shock, a culture shock – the society, the language, the music, the largest opera stage in the world. And I understood that here everything has to go like clockwork. There’s no time to indulge yourself, to think or to be afraid. For two years I didn’t even have time for my own feelings – not to feel, to think or to cry.

“It was an experience that polished me, that put a mirror up to my face and forced me to know myself and know that I can withstand the greatest difficulties,” she said. “And as final chord, I got to sing in La Scala in Milan. That was my 30th birthday present, to sing on the stage that every singer in the world dreams of, and to understand its beauty, its magic and the power of that status. And then to say to myself, I respect all this, but is my heart here, or elsewhere? Do I really want to be Papagena?

“And then my passivity ended. I started to ask myself what I really wanted. I started to pray that I would not be accepted for parts in the German opera, because I wanted the freedom to say what I had to say.

Then came her first concert in Haifa – a gala evening of opera for an Arab audience. She was full of trepidation about how she would be received.

“Four hundred people came and filled the hall,” Massalha recalls. “I never imagined such readiness. The audience was more ready than I was, and I got angry at myself for doubting them. I spoke in Arabic and sang in the operas’ original languages and cried with excitement. I simply discovered a whole world. The responses were, ‘Where have you been till now?’ And then I understood: Good. This is home. I can come back.”

Integrating east and west

Her current show, a concert called “Song and Prayer,” was formulated with her friend Iman Bassiouny along with Yael Keret, a Jewish actress and pianist. It was put together after Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, which for her was a turning point.

“The program is about life and death, with a combination of east and west,” Massalha says. “The instruments have a western tone and the harmony is western – but the songs and the arias are in nine languages, including Arabic.

“I start with ‘Kaddish’ by [Maurice] Ravel – yes, it’s a Jewish prayer albeit in Aramaic and not Hebrew, but so what? I also sing about Mary and Jesus and I’m not Christian. The ‘Kaddish’ is the most direct cry to God out of pain, a naked cry, and I don’t care if anyone sees something wrong with [my singing it]. Mahmoud Darwish wrote in his poem ‘I Don’t Know the Stranger’: When you see a funeral you bow your head in silence in the face of death; the identity of the deceased isn’t important.”

There is a mix of arias in Italian, Russian and Czech, and poems in Swedish and Arabic. “It’s a mix in which one can’t feel one's a stranger,” says Massalha. “There’s also a religious mix, because we have these concerts in churches: Three Muslim women and a Jewish woman in a church. But the results show an enormous thirst. I started the concert tour in mixed (Arab-Jewish) cities: Nazareth, Jaffa, Acre, Haifa. And then we went back to the same places for a second and third time. I understood that I have a lot to give and to receive that isn’t available elsewhere. That I can quench this thirst.

“I couldn’t remain an instrument in the opera house,” she continues. “The European operatic musical ear is not me. To be an opera singer inspires respect and is very demanding, but if you only do that, something’s missing. The intimacy, the proximity to the audience, the engagement. To see who is sitting in front of you and not just a darkened hall.

“The concerts here, to my community, reminded me why I love to sing: If I’m already singing, let me also change something.”

Massalha has also begun to teach. “Without education there is no future and music is a real basis for education,” she says. “I give singing and voice lessons in the Arab community and I already have 35 students. I’ve gone back to teaching at the studio on Kibbutz Mizra, and to teach opera to Arab girls is like a dream. After all, I didn’t have anyone to explain things to me. I was thrown right into the water.

“I dream, bless and love in Arabic – how can I not sing in it?” Massalha continues, and discusses her next project: An evening of Darwish’s texts, accompanied by musician and composer Noam Sivan, set to his music.

“We have to shake off these stereotypes and labels people stick on us, ranging from ‘primitive’ to ‘terrorist,’ she says. “That’s why the next stage will be the world hearing Mahmoud Darwish through my voice, in Arabic, set to music by a Jewish composer.

“Sometimes I just want to give up. I say to myself, 'what are you fighting for, do you think you’re going to change the world?' And then I recover and I say, ‘Yes, I think I can change something.’”

Enas Massalha sings solo with the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble and the Collegium Singers Choir Saturday at 9 P.M. in Kfar Shmaryahu and Sunday at 8:30 at the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv. Also singing solo in "Requiem" is  baritone Oded Reich.

Nir Kafri