'It makes me feel vulnerable': Hiba Al Kawas on performing online and how artists are healers in times of crisis

The Lebanese soprano and composer will give an online concert as part of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Ramadan series

Lebanese soprano and composer Hiba Al Kawas has had her work performed by the prestigious Bolshoi State Theatre Symphony Orchestra. ADMAF
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Hiba Al Kawas has stepped on to the stage of many of the world’s greatest opera houses, but nothing came close to the nerves of logging online.

In the wake of the pandemic, the acclaimed Lebanese soprano and composer decided to stream a series of intimate sets from her home in Lebanon, accompanied by her piano.

As the time approached for the online gigs, the seasoned performer admits to feeling the jitters.

"It is like entering the unknown," she tells The National. "In a normal performance, you are there with a team, costume and even the audience. You are all in this together. Now, I am doing it on my own. You are the technical crew, so to speak. Also, performing like that, all alone, with no audience in front of me, made me feel very vulnerable as an artist. I felt exposed."

Al Kawas soldiered on, nonetheless. After a few technical mishaps during the first round of shows, she found her groove and what began as an initially nerve-wracking experience became something almost transcendental.

“There was a real communal feeling and it felt like I was entering another reality. Because of the current situation and everyone being at home, there was a sense that I was communicating from heart to heart,” she says. “I realised that what I was doing, what all artists are doing, is something really important and powerful.”

It is more than entertainment

Hence, when the opportunity came to perform as part of Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation's (ADMAF) series of online performances, Al Kawas didn’t hesitate to sign up.

She will kick off the programme Tuesday, May 5, with the first of two shows (the second scheduled for Monday, May 11) with a solo set featuring a selection of arias and original compositions.

It is the latter material that is bound to be the most intriguing.

Across 25 years, Al Kawas, 47, has built a bold career as a singer and composer combining oriental Arabic sensibilities with neo-classical and contemporary music.

As a result, she has found an equal amount of success away from the stage, with nearly 50 of her compositions performed by acclaimed ensembles such as the prestigious Bolshoi State Theatre Symphony Orchestra, the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra and the Dnipropetrovsk Symphony Orchestra-Ukraine.

With such a dynamic resume, the coronavirus has perhaps more keenly affected Al Kawas’s career compared to her peers. In addition to a string of cancelled concerts across Europe, she reveals that that the pandemic halted her plans to put on a grand operatic event in Saudi Arabia, to be held later in the year.

She credits her degree in clinical psychology as being partly responsible for keeping her creative fires burning, despite the setbacks. Al Kawas states that when societies face deep traumas, it is the artist standing up to be counted.

“Because it is at this stage where what we do is not entertain, but to play a role in healing,” she says. “With our performances at home, we are trying to build some kind of community and use art as a form of connection. The important thing is that what is being performed is 'real art', and by that I mean something genuine that comes from the heart.”

Has the pandemic created a more open-minded music audience?

When it comes to viewers, they are also appear ready to receive that message.

An interesting aspect of the pandemic, Al Kawas muses, is that listeners seem to be no longer defined by particular music tastes.

With the rat race of everyday life currently on hold, Al Kawas suggests that people are now, more than ever, open to expanding their musical palette.

It is an insightful observation, considering the recent success of the One World Together at Home concert, which featured everyone from the UAE's Hussain Al Jassmi to Miley Cyrus.

That epic online affair laid true to Al Kawas's claim that, given the space and time, we are more musically curious than we think we are.

“Before, everyone was running around, and I include myself in that also,” she says. “Now that we are home, I feel that we have a real opportunity as listeners to connect deeper with ourselves. And with that happening, we are actually looking for music to help us get to that state as opposed to what genre we like. Because of that, we are open to listening to all kinds of music.”

And with the ADMAF Ramadan series of concerts boasting an eclectic array of artists from varied disciplines, Al Kawas is confident that it can pull in an equally diverse crowd of culture lovers and the curious.

To exemplify that open spirit, Al Kawas says she will premiere a song on May 5 that she recently recorded on her mobile phone. She plans to play it in its raw and unvarnished form before fleshing it out post festival with an international band of musicians online. The track will form the latest chapter of her trail-blazing career.

“I will present the song in the festival with a lot of improvisation and then build on it after Ramadan,” she says. “It will form the next project of mine, which is to create music without borders.”

Hiba Al Kawas performs Tuesday, May 5 and Monday, May 11 at 10pm on the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation Facebook page.