Enas Massalha always knew she was going to sing for her supper. “I started singing when I was three,” says the 30something opera singer, “but it took a while until I realized I was really a professional.”
There will be ample evidence of just how far Massalha has developed her musical skills next Friday (at noon), when she performs a wide- ranging program at the Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. She will be accompanied by Yael Karret on piano.
Massalha, who hails from the Galilee village of Daburrya, followed the usual early musical path.
“They gave me all sorts of instruments at school, but I never really clicked with any of them, including the piano,” she recalls. But something changed when she was in her teens. “I think I was in 10th grade. I looked for something to play that I’d enjoy, and I also wanted to sing, so it had to be an instrument on which I could accompany my own singing. I really wanted to learn to play the harp. I remember going to the conservatory and asking for a harp.
They looked at me like I was a bit weird. They said they didn’t have a harp but I could do voice training.”
A bright light bulb instantly went on in Massalha’s head, and she duly began to develop her vocal prowess and made good progress until the program at the conservatory ended at the end of 11th grade. It was decision time, and luckily she got a pointer in the desired direction.
“I thought about what to do next with my music, “ she recounts.
“Someone at the conservatory suggested that I go to study musical diction at the [Rubin] academy [of Music and Dance] in Jerusalem. I, of course, had no idea what the academy was and what they did there.”
Massalha also got some much- needed parental support for her venture.
“I told my father that I wanted to go to Jerusalem to study voice, and he said he had no idea what that involved but said, ‘Let’s check it out.’ So we went to the academy to see what it was all about. I didn’t really realize it entailed a commitment, a life commitment,” she continues.
An audition was arranged at the academy, and Massalha produced stock material for the occasion.
“I sang things from the 24 Antique Songs repertoire for the audition,” she says. “I must have been okay because they accepted me as a student. The rest is history,” she adds with a laugh.
She embarked on a tough learning curve.
“I was one of the first Arabs to study voice there, and I felt, in a way, that I was a representative of the Arab community,” explains Massalha. “I didn’t experience any discrimination but it was all a bit strange for me. The first two years at the academy were tough. The cultural transition was too sharp for me – also socially – and I didn’t really have a good understanding of the studies and learning the singing techniques. Also, I was a long way from home. Don’t forget I was only 18 or 19. I was thrown in at the deep end, and it seems I knew how to swim.”
She also had to bridge a cultural mindset gap.
“Arabic music involves a lot of improvisation and gives you a lot of freedom, but classical music is very strict. Everything is regimented. It took me a long time to feel that I was a bona fide opera singer,” she admits.
Even when she was struggling to come to terms with being away from home and trying to find her way through the academic maze, Massalha says she never had second thoughts.
“I didn’t really have much time to think about that at all. I think it [opera singing] chose me as much as I chose it.”
She was certainly keen to explore new vistas.
“I have always been curious to explore new things, new worlds, new languages. And I think I was always different from the rest. I was never interested in biology lessons. I was always keen to get to know bigger worlds. I just went with the way I felt,” she says.
Massalha’s go-with-the-flow ethos soon paid dividends, and within a few years she landed a role in a concert with acclaimed Israeli conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim.
“That was scary,” says the soprano. “It was at Salzburg, and there were such famous singers in the lineup. But I managed.” Opera may have become Massalha’s principal vocal genre, but she spreads her talents across a very broad musical tapestry. Next week’s concert features songs in Hebrew and Arabic, in addition to several arias and numbers from a couple of musicals such as My Fair Lady and Kiss Me, Kate .] “I don’t care much about the genre,” declares Massalha. “As long as the music interests me and moves me, that’s what I love, and that’s what I aim to do in my work and also in my life.”