'I am just me'

Berlin-based opera singer Enas Massalha would rather be regarded for her music than her Israeli-Arab identity.

Enas Massalha 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Enas Massalha 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Even in a genre-straddling global village in which cultural and artistic domains are mixed and brewed with nary a batted eyelid, the juxtaposing of opera music and Arabic ethnicity seems fanciful in the extreme. Then again, anyone who questions that seemingly improbable marriage probably hasn't caught a listen of 29-year-old soprano Enas Massalha, who recently performed in Bethlehem and at the Jerusalem Theater on consecutive evenings, together with the Baroque Orchestra from Naples in a program entitled The Concert for Life and Peace. Now a consummate professional, Massalha remains completely unfazed by reference to her cultural baggage and her unlikely career choice. "Yes, of course people - and especially the media - make a lot out of the fact that I am an Arab who sings opera," she said shortly after the Jerusalem Theater concert, which was produced by the Museum of Italian Jewish Art. "It is a bit tiresome, but I'm not as sensitive to it now as I once was. "Now I feel sorry for people who relate to me, first and foremost, as an Arab, and only then as a singer. I work hard at my job and I am confident in my abilities." That is hardly the stuff of bravado. Massalha has been a valued member of the Staats Opera in Berlin for the past two years, so valued, in fact, that her planned vacation following her concerts here was cut short by an SOS call from Berlin. "I was really looking forward to having a break and spending time with my family in the Galilee, but I have to go back," she said regretfully. "One of the other singers is indisposed and they need me to fill in." Massalha has evidently come a long way since taking her first tentative steps in classical singing at the Ulpana Lemusica in the Jezreel Valley, before auditioning and being accepted to the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem. "My parents listened to all kinds of music. There was Arabic music on the radio and I played the piano and also listened to Mozart and Bach. I also liked Tzippi Shavit and Hoppa Hey, so I think I got a well rounded musical grounding in my formative years." At the Rubin Academy, Massalha started imbibing the heady vibes of opera music. "It was a gradual process," she recalls. "I actually feel that opera music chose me, rather than the other way round." Her relevant language skills also came to her more by serendipity than by design. "When I moved to Jerusalem, as an Arab it was hard for me to find rented accommodations. In the end, I moved into a room at an Italian nunnery opposite the president's residence. There was a nun there called Rosalie who said that if I wanted to sing opera, I had to learn Italian. She only spoke to me in Italian, and I learned it pretty quickly." For Massalha, living in Berlin not only allows her to further her career, it also helps her steer clear of political minefields. "In Germany, people see me first as a singer," she says. "That's what I always wanted. I don't want to represent anyone, any nation or culture. I am just me." She also makes use of her craft to bridge cultural gaps. "I have done lots of stuff with Jewish and Arab children. Education starts when you're little. If we can get rid of the arrogance and ignorance, and breed openness at an early age, we can prevent a lot of the bad stuff and problems later on. Music is truly a common language, but we also need to understand each other's cultural nuances." Meanwhile, Massalha was grabbing a few hours' respite from her hectic work schedule before packing and heading back to Germany. Besides not being happy about having to leave her family, she was not looking forward to the start of the trip. "When I go through Ben-Gurion Airport, it takes me hours to get through the security checks. I feel more Israeli than Palestinian, but I am not always allowed to be an Israeli. I may be freer in Berlin, but this is my home."