Talking with singers: Soraya Mafi

Talking with singers: Soraya Mafi

Jenna Simeonov

This year’s London Handel Festival takes on the theme of “Handel’s Divas”, paying tribute to the muse-like women who performed - and made famous - Handel’s music. On the event line-up is Mr Handel’s Scholars (28 March), a concert named for the composer’s star performers; it features four alumni of the Festival’s Handel Singing Competition, including soprano Soraya Mafi.

We spoke with Mafi about singing Handel in London, working smarter (not harder), and the value of FaceTime.

Why do you sing professionally?

I sing simply because I love telling stories and making music. I sing professionally as I’ve been granted opportunities to work on my craft and develop it into a career. I’ll keep doing it as long as people will hire me! I love the whole process - from research to rehearsal, collaboration and performance. Additionally, I truly enjoy exploring the ability of my voice and the continuing development of my vocal technique.

I can’t imagine doing anything else. I had a number of part-time jobs in retail and restaurants when I was younger and I always found some way of singing on the job. For instance, I spent one Christmas walking around the shop floor with a speaker on wheels singing along to Christmas backing tracks for the customers!

I am grateful that I now have a job that is my absolute passion and allows me to explore human emotions and relationships.

Handel’s works are an integral thread in the creative fabric of this great city.

How do you stay healthy and sane while traveling for work?

Firstly, I try to be kind to myself. For me, this means taking opportunities to rest. I used to believe that I had to be working every second of everyday in order to be my best. I soon realised that this is not the case. When in performance, a singer has to be immensely present both physically and mentally: this requires a certain energy and awareness, which is hard to sustain without proper rest. I now try to incorporate yoga and meditation into my daily routine so I can protect both my body and mind. This helps when travelling and combatting jet-lag/poor sleep on planes/trains, etc.

My relationships with family and friends are hugely important to me. It’s difficult being away from home so often, so I’m extremely grateful for FaceTime. I don’t know how people survived this job before it was invented! I always make time to call my partner, family and friends and have a good laugh! When I’m feeling the pressure of a looming performance, nothing makes me feel better a than a good chinwag and a dose of perspective.

In terms of staying healthy, I am mindful of drinking plenty of water and eating well. If I feel the slightest start of a cold coming on, it’s the whole kitchen sink to the rescue, and plenty of sleep!

What do you find uniquely challenging, and uniquely rewarding about singing baroque music?

I am currently performing in a Legrenzi opera: it’s the earliest period I’ve ever performed. The biggest challenge has been incorporating the use of “senza vibrato” into my singing without constraining the voice and still using my breath and support properly.

I wish I had known how useful it would be to learn Italian, French and German more solidly.

A general challenge of baroque music is how to keep the text fresh, as it can repeat so frequently. Ensuring that every repetition has a meaning and clear intention is hugely important, in my opinion. That being said, the repetition of text and musical motifs (and whole sections in da capo arias) allows for a performer to stamp the aria with their own creativity. I love this about Baroque music - finding colours/ornaments/approaches that suit your incarnation of this character, and truly creating something unique to you as a performer is very rewarding.

What special significance is there about paying homage to Handel’s music in London?

I often take for granted how lucky we are to have access to such wonderful music and music-makers in London. The rich history of classical music in London has enabled musicians to take advantage of world-class composers, conductors, teachers and venues. Handel’s works are an integral thread in the creative fabric of this great city, and to celebrate his music in his church is both surreal and hugely inspiring!

What do you know now about the singing career that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

I wish I had known how useful it would be to learn Italian, French and German more solidly. It’s something I’m working on now - not just to benefit my singing in these languages, but to be able to communicate more easily with colleagues…and shop assistants.

Mr Handel’s Scholars takes place on 28 March at St George’s, Hanover Square as part of the London Handel Festival. For details and ticket information, click here.

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