Meet Mohammed Khayran Al Zahrani, Saudi Arabia's first male opera singer

Countertenor rose to stardom by moving to Italy but now performs in his homeland to rapturous receptions

Mohammed Khayran Al Zahrani. Photo: Abu Dhabi Festival
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Saudi Arabia's first opera singer has been breaking stereotypes and pushing boundaries, much like the changing landscape of his home country in the past few years.

Mohammed Khayran Al Zahrani's passion for singing was born long before the changes started in the kingdom. His dream was once discouraged and disapproved of but he believed in his talent and continued to nurture it.

“It didn't matter to me what people thought, I did what I believed in,” he told The National.

Looking back, he says it's different now.

“People are opening up. When I started, I was bullied, and didn't have many options in my country to pursue my passion,” he said.

The self-taught opera singer, 25, said his dream of becoming an opera singer was inspired by watching videos while he was in school.

“I used to sing everywhere, in the shower, in the emergency staircase, at university, everywhere. It gave me the power of freedom and expression.”

Mr Al Zahrani recalls family pressures to opt for a “proper” career instead of pursuing music and opera singing, so he studied pharmacy. But he knew his passion was not merely a hobby — it was an ambition he felt he could not abandon. So at the age of 23, he took up the challenge and went to Italy to break the barriers of language, culture and carve out a whole new world for himself.

“I'd heard Italian opera singers and I wanted to go and learn myself,” he said.

When he arrived, Mr Al Zahrani found that understanding and speaking the language was a requisite to join music school in Italy. “I went on to study Italian for three months,” he recalled.

Mohammed Khayran Al Zahrani. Photo: Mohammed Khayran Al Zahrani

But what changed the course of his life was an evening he says he'll never forget.

While waiting for a train, Mr Al Zahrani saw a street musician performing.

“He was playing the piano and it was like a reflex, I just joined him. We performed together and a crowd suddenly gathered around us and started cheering. I remember this lady came up to me and asked for my details,” he said.

The woman, who turned out to be from Coro Polifonico Musica Creator choir later contacted Mr Al Zahrani and asked if he'd like to participate in another live performance.

“I said 'yes' and went to audition. Not only did I get a part, I got the lead!”

He became the first Saudi opera singer to join the Coro Polifonico Musica Creator choir in Rome, and take the lead in Ethereal which was streamed online on the festival's digital platforms. He also performed at a concert at Vatican City which was attended by Pope Francis.

He says being the only Saudi Arabian male opera male singer and performing in a church never seemed like a hurdle.

As an artist, he took up the challenge to change the cultural narrative and found solace in his art.

Mr Al Zahrani eventually came back to perform in the kingdom with the launch of Vision 2030, a project through which public events and entertainment are now the norm in Saudi Arabia.

“I have performed in Jeddah and Riyadh and the reactions are always amazing,” he said. “They're always surprised to hear me sing. It is new to them also because I have the range and because in opera we can do both — sing in a male and female voice.”

In April 2021, Mr Al Zahrani performed Aala Wa Amjadu — composed by Dr Hiba Al-Kawas — at the 18th Abu Dhabi Festival.

“A countertenor voice is a rare one that can reach very high pitches just like a canary,” Ms Al Kawas said. “However, some countertenors, like Mohammed, have a bass vocal ability allowing them to reach low pitches as well.”

Mr Al Zahrani, who usually sings in Italian, said it was “the first time I performed opera in Arabic".

In December, Mr Al Zahrani performed a rendition of Hallelujah “as a solo” at Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio di Loyola in Rome. “It was amazing. I have a lot more coming up and will reveal details soon.”

Updated: March 04, 2022, 6:00 PM
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