Interview with Afarin Mansouri

Afarin Mansouri, an acclaimed composer and opera artist, seamlessly blends her Iranian heritage with Western influences. She has received numerous accolades, including the Canada 150 Medal and the Kathleen McMorrow Music Award. Her compositions have been featured in prestigious publications like The Globe & Mail, BBC World, and Opera Canada. Afarin’s recent focus has been creating groundbreaking operas that bridge cultures using language, poetry, and traditional instruments. She founded the Cultureland Opera Collective, amplifying underrepresented voices in the arts.

Beyond her compositions, Afarin is an advocate for opera accessibility. She has given lectures in Farsi at the Canadian Opera Company and is a co-founder of the Iranian-Canadian Composers of Toronto (ICOT). Her musical talents include singing, with an upcoming vocal album, “Dancing With Love,” based on Eastern Mystic Masters’ poetry.
Afarin impact spans academia, too, with research on children’s opera and music education. Her multifaceted career epitomizes innovation, cross-cultural exchange, and a commitment to social equity.

Afarin Mansouri | Photo by Bo Huang

ZH: Afarin, can you share your earliest memory of music and how it affected you? What drew you to music initially, and who were your primary influences during your formative years?

My first encounter with music started as a child, through my parents’ huge, varied worldwide music collection. My parents have a collection of music, and even now, they are used to playing music all the time and listening to different genres and musical styles, from Persian traditional of Maestro Shajarian to Western Orchestral music of Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Spanish music, Asian Gamelan, Popular and folk music, operas, etc. In our home, music was never judged or selected, but it was experienced and appreciated. I remember being a toddler and crawling towards our big brown loudspeakers, trying to grab the sound from them. So, I believe that was the foundation for me to be open to hearing all sorts of music and sounds and be willing to delve into the world that makes those sounds and learn about them. My primary influencers were my open-minded parents.

I could not learn music in an academic institute when I lived in Iran, and I only received private musical lessons, mainly piano. I worked with Mrs. Susan Nariman, Mehrak Saffaieh, and Dr. Mostafa Pourtorab, and in my final years living in Iran, I worked with Mrs. Ophilia Partov. Although I could create melodies and songs in my head and improvise them on my piano or sing them without notating them, I regarded this as a hobby and did not take it seriously. I was not a professional musician when living in Iran, but whenever I attended a live musical performance, I couldn’t stop my tears, feeling a deep longing for something unknown. In 2003, after immigrating to Canada, I was able to pursue my passion for music and was accepted to study music, earning a Bachelor’s degree. As first-year music students, we could choose music conducting, performance, and composition courses.

I took many courses, including music composition. In this course, we had to compose and notate our music and have it performed by musicians. During this time, I rediscovered the joy of being a composer, notating all the sounds in my head. The first piece I scored was my lament for solo flute, Track 12, on my New vocal Album “Dancing with Love.” I had composed the melody of this music in my head while on the airplane leaving Iran for Canada. Later, I used this melody in my first opera, “Forbidden,” produced by the TAPESTRY OPERA- a forerunner in producing modern operas in Canada- in 2018. Music Composition felt like being at a safe home.

ZH: Opera is a particular and demanding art form. What sparked your interest in opera specifically, and can you tell us about the moment or experience that made you realize that you wanted to dedicate yourself to this genre?

It is a fact that opera is a storytelling medium. From the early moments of my career as a composer, I have been greatly inspired by stories when composing music. Even if the music I write is for a solo instrument or a large orchestra, I like to have an account to share with my audience. And that is why I became more interested in writing vocal music and operas.

My love for opera began around the age of 14. Although I had heard the sound of operatic voices on the recordings at my parents’ home since birth, my love for opera truly began when I watched the video of Carmen for the first time. Opera was banned after the Iranian Islamic revolution, and females were not allowed to perform on stage. Accessing video recordings during wartime was forbidden, but it brought me excitement and accomplishment. I remember how thrilling it was to listen to and watch an opera or a musical (especially The Sound of Music) and pretend to be one of the characters, dancing and singing along with the music throughout the house. Sometimes, these joyous moments were interrupted by sirens, warning us to leave the house and find shelter due to an impending air raid. We longed for a chance to survive. It’s all so surreal. Looking back, I realize these experiences only deepened my appreciation for opera. The first time I watched a live opera was when my aunt took me to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera at the San Francisco Opera House. It was a phenomenal experience. The stage design and the performances – I was 19 years old and had no idea what life had in store for my future!

In 2016, I was accepted as the only female composer for LIB LAB, an intensive opera workshop run by Tapestry Opera, a leader in new and innovative operas in Canada. Collaborating with four other librettists, we had to develop the story and compose four operas from scratch in just two weeks. The result of this workshop was the creation of four operas in which I believe I also played a small part in suggesting the subjects to the librettist:

“When All is Lost” (Librettist: Bobby Theodore) is a comic opera about an infertile couple.
“The Queen of Swords” (Librettist: Phoebe Tsang): a dramatic opera about a mystical man revealing Rumi’s poetry.
“Morning Prayers” (Librettist: Jessica Murphy Moo): A sad story of a Gay Iranian man who had to flee Iran and left his lover, who might be killed.
“Lullaby At The Shore” (Librettist: Marcia Johnson): An opera about the crisis of the Syrian Refugees and Alan Kurdi, the innocent child who was drawn.

I was incredibly fortunate and am immensely grateful that Tapestry Opera liked my works and selected them for their program called Tapestry Briefs. They showcased these works while staging them, which was a great opportunity. The success of these stage performances opened up the opportunity for me to collaborate with Tapestry Opera again in 2018. I had the chance to compose my first full opera, Forbidden, where I could experiment with combining Persian Traditional instruments with Western Opera. This combination has never been done before in Canada. Forbidden was received very well, and the BBC Farsi program (as well as BBC International), Tamasha, dedicated an episode to discuss the work. Donna Michelle St. Bernard created the English libretto for the opera.

After having the opportunity to truly delve into creating an opera (which requires the collaboration of many talented individuals), I made a personal vow to follow my passion and incorporate Middle Eastern elements in my opera compositions.

Since then, I have composed several other operas. One is Zuleykha, a Farsi opera for which I also wrote the libretto. It tells the story of Zuleykha’s journey after Joseph rejected her. Another opera I created is The Aitch ARR, my first digital opera in collaboration with Queens University. Donna Michelle St. Bernard beautifully wrote the libretto for this opera. Additionally, I composed Little Heart, my first audio children’s opera, which is available on platforms such as Amazon and YouTube. Lastly, there is THE REFUGEES, a contemporary opera that tackles the crisis refugees face in times of war and brings up the idea of where they can be called home.

I enjoy using opera and operatic programs as a means to share stories about my culture with the world, as well as to address social issues and raise awareness through the art of opera.

ZH: Your work beautifully marries your Iranian heritage with Western operatic form. How do you navigate the interplay between these distinct cultural soundscapes in your compositions, and what challenges, if any, have you encountered in this fusion?

Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment on my work! Secondly, I don’t know the definite answer. The approach I take can vary for each piece I create. It depends on the story being told. Initially, I select a few musical palettes, such as scales or the musical matrix I prefer working with if the piece is atonal. I begin constructing my musical motifs based on the story’s characters, major events, moods, or emotions. I typically use the piano to develop these motifs. As I progress through the storyline, I weave these motifs together, and through this process, the thematic structure of the composition is created almost magically. The creation process feels enchanting to me. I often feel transported to a world beyond time and space where ideas and inspiration come to me. For instance, suddenly, I may hear the sound of a specific instrument in my mind, urging me to use it in a particular section of the composition. At times, there may be a clash or competition between different sound timbres, and I have to make choices when we practice and rehearse the music in the real world.

 ZH: You’ve received numerous awards and recognition for your contributions to music and opera. Could you share a pivotal moment or project in your career that you’re particularly proud of?

I am never proud of myself! However, I stay grateful as much as I can. I am grateful for what life has provided me, and I strive to remain aware and seize the genuine opportunities life presents. There is nothing to be proud of. But, as I mentioned above, working with Tapestry Opera has changed my life as a composer willing to create new operas.

ZH: “Queen of Carthage” and “The Refugees” are two of your notable operatic works. Can you delve into the themes and inspirations behind these pieces and what you hope to convey through them?

Queen of Carthage” is an interdisciplinary operatic production that reimagines the story of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and her legacy as a political leader, empire builder, and woman of color. The original opera, “Dido and Aeneas,” composed by Henry Purcell, an English Baroque composer, portrays Dido’s love for the Trojan hero Aeneas and her despair when he abandons her. However, in “Queen of Carthage,” we rediscover and reimagine Dido as a formidable female leader, highlighting her impact on Western civilizations and history. This production aims to remind Western society of Carthage, a pre-Roman empire led by a woman of color. The performance encourages the audience to consider how our historical narrative might differ if it started with a kingdom founded by a woman like Dido.

I had the incredible opportunity to compose music for this exciting project, incorporating Rumi’s poetry, translated into English, for the text. In this adaptation, Dido embraces Rumi’s poetry, choosing to project love onto all creation instead of ending her life. The mystical Eastern poetry often symbolizes a land or empire as the soul, reminding us to become rulers of our inner selves and not to let worldly attachments blind us. “Queen of Carthage” embodies this concept, allowing Dido to navigate her journey uniquely and empoweringly.

The opera was co-produced by Early Music Vancouver and re: Naissance Opera and co-presented with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs. It premiered in July 2023 and is available for online viewing from November 16th, 2023, to January 5th, 2024.

In 2020, I collaborated with Dr. Jennifer Wise, a renowned Canadian writer, on her new libretto titled “The Refugees.” This opera, a passion project rather than a commissioned work, took almost two years to refine through online meetings. We aimed to create a libretto that complemented and enhanced the musical elements of the opera. “The Refugees” is based on Aeschylus’ “Hiketides” (c. 460 BCE), addressing the rights of refugees, the duties of democratic states, and the complexities of international humanitarianism. The story revolves around women fleeing violence in their homeland, seeking asylum in a democracy. This narrative challenges the concept of identity and the notion of home as a haven.

During the composition process for “The Refugees,” global events like the Ukrainian war, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the Women, Life, Freedom movement influenced my work. I incorporated these events’ musical idioms, Persian and Arabic instruments, and traditional Middle Eastern musical idioms.

After several grant rejections, we finally received funding from the Canada Arts Council. In April 2023, we worked with Liza Balkan, one of Canada’s prominent opera directors, and a team of musicians and singers through the Cultureland Opera Collective. We managed to workshop and record half of the opera. We are now seeking opera patrons and organizations to produce and stage “The Refugees,” aiming to raise awareness about the current global crisis.

ZH: In works like “The Refugees” and “Forbidden,” you engage with potent social and political themes. How do you approach the integration of these narratives into your operas, and how do you feel your identity and experiences inform these stories?

My background is Iranian, and I have personally experienced revolution, war, and immigration. Witnessing these events has made me keenly aware of the injustices in today’s world. Art has the power to reflect an artist’s personal experiences, and through my work, I aim to bring these untold stories to life. Each of us carries unique experiences that can be told as great stories. I am particularly interested in incorporating these stories into my artistic endeavors.

For example, in “The Refugees,” I deeply understand the uncertainty, fear, anxiousness, and hopefulness these women go through, and I can translate these emotions into musical sounds. In the opera “Forbidden,” I could relate my personal experience from childhood and teenage life when many things were forbidden for us. I compare these experiences when developing the opera libretto, which looks at many other cultures. These personal experiences affect how I compose my music, as I can transform the emotions attached to all these experiences into sound.

ZH: Your opera “Zuleykha” is noted for its infusion of Eastern mysticism and symbolism. How do you feel these elements resonate with contemporary audiences?

The first scene of the opera “Zuleykha” was successfully presented in two festivals. During the pandemic, we released it as an opera film online for the Watershed Music Festival in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. This digital presentation was well-received by the audience.

In July 2022, the Toronto Summer Music Festival, in collaboration with the Loose Tea Theatre, showcased the First Act at the University of Toronto’s Walter Hall. The event was tremendously successful, with over 200 attendees filling the hall. Despite the opera being sung in Farsi, we provided English subtitles to ensure the audience could fully comprehend and connect with the performance. The feedback received was overwhelmingly positive.

In the future, I am optimistic about staging the complete opera in Toronto through Cultureland. However, the high cost of production and securing funding remain significant challenges, not just for me but for many musicians in similar positions. Nonetheless, I am determined to overcome these hurdles and continue bringing “Zuleykha” to life on stage by making valuable partnerships with prominent opera organizations.

ZH: The pandemic has forced many artists to adapt their work to digital formats. How has this transition affected your creative and production processes, and what learnings have you gleaned from producing digital and audio operas?

During the pandemic, I worked harder and put in more effort than ever. During this time, I released my first Children’s Audio Opera titled “Little Heart,” now available on platforms like Amazon, YouTube, and Spotify. Interestingly, the day after we released the CD, the pandemic lockdown went into effect. Despite the challenging circumstances, I am grateful for the opportunity to have created this musical experience for children.

The lockdown and pandemic did not significantly affect my work as a composer, as the composition and creation process is inherently isolated. I received more commissions during this time and had more opportunities to work on projects I had always wanted to explore. One of the highlights was collaborating with Loose Tea Theatre and Director Alaina Viau to create an opera film for the Kingston Watershed Festival. Additionally, I composed my first digital online opera, “The AITCG ARR,” with a libretto by Donna-Michelle St Bernard, for the Dan School of Drama and Music at Queen’s University. I also had the chance to complete the music arrangement for the album “Dancing with Love,” compose an intro called “Mithra” for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s 100th Anniversary, write music for “The Queen of Cartage,” a duo for Sonority Sisters, progress on the first stage of “The Refugees” opera, and work on my opera “Hypatia.” Furthermore, I wrote a choral piece for Ensemble Vocal Arts-Québec. Overall, the lockdown and pandemic gave me a focused time for creativity and productivity in my work as a composer.

ZH:  Founding the Cultureland Opera Collective is a significant step in amplifying underrepresented voices in the arts. Please tell us more about the mission and impact of this organization.

Cultureland Opera Collective is dedicated to making new opera accessible, fostering cultural awareness and closeness, and emphasizing equity-deserving Middle Eastern culture and communities. Our values revolve around equity and inclusivity, creativity, collaboration, innovation, and building community and cultural identity. We believe in using opera as an educational and healing tool to cultivate empathy.

We have been fortunate to work with esteemed advisors and collaborate with organizations such as the Iranian Female Composers Association (IFCA). Our upcoming event, “Echoes of Bi-sotoon,” is an operatic production that brings together a diverse creative team with backgrounds related to Middle Eastern culture. This production aims to incorporate the music of 5 to 10 new composers and take the audience on a unique operatic journey by sharing tales and inviting them to support preserving ancient historical sites as a collective effort.

I’m particularly excited because this will be the first time stepping into a directing role for an operatic production while also creating a platform for a new generation of composers following a similar path. Giving back and making a meaningful impact in life is incredibly fulfilling.

ZH: Your research delves into opera’s impact on children’s intellectual skills. Could you share some key findings from your work, and how might these insights be applied in educational settings or policy?

When I decided to compose my first children’s opera, I embarked on a search to learn more about children’s opera in general. I listened to and studied the works of other composers in this field. However, I quickly realized that while many talented artists and organizations are involved in creating children’s operas and numerous fantastic works available, there is a lack of accessible resources and references to support the production of operas designed explicitly for children. The information is often scattered and not readily available in one comprehensive source.

I created this resource and returned to continue my studies as a PhD candidate. My thesis has two parts: The first part involves collecting information about the history of children’s opera, and the second part entails proposing a step-by-step guide for educators who want to build an opera from scratch with amateur participants, especially children and youth.

In my thesis, I demonstrate how opera, through its history, has served as a kinesthetic pedagogical tool for children, assisting them in discovering their unique creative selves and artistic personalities. I believe that opera can entertain and educate younger generations, whether as active participants or audience members. It has the potential to present new ideas, showcase aspects of diverse cultures, support intellectual advancement, and foster both educational and artistic creativity.

ZH: Your orchestral prelude, “Mithra,” has become an anthem for women’s movements, especially in the Middle East. How does it feel to see your art inspiring activism, and how did you approach composing a piece with such profound societal resonance?

I was approached by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) to compose an intro for their 100th anniversary and celebration of diversity in music. As a composer representing diversity, both in terms of my Iranian background and as a female, I felt a solid responsibility to represent many women from Middle Eastern cultures, especially Iran, in my music.

The first step was choosing my musical palette. I was inspired by “Char-Gah,” one of the oldest Persian modes, believing it could capture the essence of Persian and other Middle Eastern music, transporting the audience’s imagination. I decided to share the story of Mithra, a revered figure in Persian mythology symbolizing love, affection, and the triumph of light over darkness. This story, paralleling Mithraism and Christianity, represented the struggle between human understanding and ignorance or the conflict between soul and ego.

During the performance of Mithra in September 2023, an exciting parallel unfolded with the early stages of the Women, Life, Freedom movement. I felt compelled to inform Maestro Gustavo Gimeno, the TSO musicians, and the staff about the developments, highlighting the connection between Mithra’s themes and the struggles of Middle Eastern women. During the performance, the TSO’s acknowledgment of the Women, Life, Freedom movement added a profound dimension to Mithra.

I appreciate the TSO and Maestro Gimeno’s genuine support of diversity and inclusivity. They began the program by discussing the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, dedicating the performance to the women of Iran and the region. After the performance, Maestro Gimeno invited me on stage, symbolizing solidarity and respect towards Iranian women and the movement. This moment was not just about me but about raising awareness within the Western musical society and encouraging solidarity with those fighting for freedom.

Mithra was an enchanting experience from start to finish, and it is now part of the TSO’s Educational programming, performed for children and youth to foster a deeper understanding of Eastern culture.

ZH: Can you give us a glimpse into your upcoming album, “Dancing With Love”? What inspired the selection of poetry, and what do you hope listeners will feel when they experience this blend of music and mystic poetry?

This album, “Dancing with Love,” comes momentous amidst a world torn apart by injustice and war. It embodies the countless hours of hard work, dedication, and unwavering passion for music that went into its creation. In the face of such challenges, we can only hope that the power of love will bring us closer together and pave the way for humanity’s peaceful existence.

Throughout my musical journey, I have composed over 30 vocal pieces, many of which still need to be published or performed. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with incredibly talented artists and opera singers who have brought these compositions to life. However, there has always been a lingering question within my Iranian community: “Why don’t you sing your music?” I realized that Farsi, the language of my roots, holds a deep passion and poetic quality best conveyed through a native Farsi speaker’s voice, allowing the audience to connect with the music naturally.

For a long time, I hesitated to sing my music due to fear of judgment, social disapproval, and the severe consequences I might face in Iran. However, in 2015, I explored Iranian poetry, spirituality, Sufism, human psychology, and religions to understand the essence of true love. This led me to record an album focused on love, featuring the works of lesser-known female Persian poets like Rabe Balkhi and Malik Jan Namati.

“Dancing with Love” portrays 12 shades of love, including earthy love, unattainable love, love for existence, love for a spiritual master, love for the homeland, and more. The album includes duets for tenor and mezzo, a rarity in the Persian musical repertoire, with Milad Bagheri as my guest vocalist. He performs two solo pieces and two duets on the album.

Before starting this album, I was curious to learn more about what love truly means. Now, all I know is that perhaps only silence and serving others with pure intention can help us feel the vastness of love in our hearts.

Dancing With Love Musicians: Afarin Mansouri (Lead Vocal), Milad Bagheri (Guest Vocal), Cheryl Duvall (Piano), Thin Edge New Music Collective (Ensemble), Padideh Ahrarnejad (Tar), Ali Masoudi (Percussions). Pouya Hamidi ( Sound Engineer),
Riparian Media (Publicist)

Listen to Dancing With Love at:

In collaboration with ZH media

Interview by Ali Shahrokhi

Cover photo by Bo Huang