TEHRAN – A group of female musicians that is only allowed to perform for women audiences is endeavoring to preserve opera in Iran, as the art form faces stringent restrictions imposed by the country’s hardline regime.
Women have been forbidden from singing or dancing in front of men ever since the 1979 Islamic Revolution brought strict moral codes that set rigorous limitations on what was deemed acceptable art and curtailed the rights of women.
Despite these hardships, many women artists bravely decided to stay in Iran and train new generations in classical music and ballet, two fields that are rejected by the theocracy as a malignant Western influence.
“After these social changes, the discipline of singing – especially the classical variety – was starting to disappear, but through our hard work we were able to rekindle the light of a candle that was being extinguished,” soprano Shahla Milani told EFE.
Milani, who works as a voice teacher at both a music school and a university in Tehran, felt compelled to start a chorus group named Avaze Melal (“Chorus of Nations”) after authorities lifted the total ban on women performing music professionally about two decades ago and reluctantly allowed performances only by women, for women.
“Our biggest achievement has been making people familiar with the words ‘opera’ and ‘ballet,’” Milani said. “None of our efforts in these 20 years have been in vain.”
While conceding that the decision to stay in Iran constituted a sacrifice, as working in Europe – like many of her colleagues did – would have been easier, Milani said she felt it was her responsibility to “educate Iranian singers and, at the same time, educate the public.”
A little over two years ago, the accomplished soprano decided to go beyond just vocal music: partnering up with choreographer Hayedeh Kishipour, who leads her own dance troupe, the two women staged a production of the comic-romantic operetta “Arshin Mal Alan” by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajbeyov.
The widely-acclaimed production – a novelty within Iran’s distinct art scene – was followed by George Bizet’s famed opera “Carmen,” which was performed for a second time on March 8 of this year, coinciding with International Women’s Day.
That day, the sumptuous Vahdat music hall in the heart of the Iranian capital was filled to the brim with women who were able to enjoy the opera, although they were prevented from taking any pictures or videos. Their phones were confiscated at the entrance, as the requirement that they be seen only by other women necessitated some extra precautions.
No images may be taken of the artists singing, dancing or wearing the elaborate costumes that an opera demands.
In fact, all performers appeared on the promotional handbill wearing a compulsory hijab, although on stage, their hair is uncovered and their arms are bare.
One of the most obvious problems the group faces is that an overwhelming majority operas are written with both female and male parts, which means that casting can often be a bit of a headache.
For one of the male roles in “Carmen,” for example, they opted for a mezzo-soprano (a female voice type with a lower range), as they were barred from using a tenor or baritone. Dancers have to deal with a similar difficulty.
“We have many limitations because men can’t see us dance, so we’re forced to use women for male roles and their movements and character are hard for ballerinas to execute,” explained Kishipour, who apart from being the choreographer also acts as stage director.
She also lamented the fact that they were unable to adequately decorate the stage due to the lack of budget.
The group is allowed to perform in just two music halls in Tehran and only during the graveyard 2 pm time slot.
“We need to set everything up very quickly, because we’re all women and aren’t allowed to coincide with men, and we also don’t have the right to advertise,” Kishipour said.
She told of the time that a waltz she choreographed for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” was censored because the ballerinas were spinning on the stage.
Although they struggle to cover the costs of the productions, “we endure all these problems just to keep this culture alive and out of love for the profession,” Kishipour added.
Milani, on the other hand, said that the limitations helped feed their imagination.
While she acknowledged there were times when dejection kicked in, Milani stressed that they always choose to keep on working, as demonstrated by a busy schedule full of upcoming new projects.