Sumayya Ali probably surprises everyone but herself. The burgeoning African-American opera singer has performed on the television show American Idol, Zulu-danced with Step Afrika in Vietnam and most recently acted in the hit play Ragtime.
And she did it all while wearing a hijab.
“I guess I could have looked more like everyone else and not worn a scarf,” Ali spoke of her experience on the 2007 season of American Idol.
Described by opera critics as having a “heart-wrenchingly beautiful voice,” the multiple-award-winning singer must strike a balance between her religion, talent and dreams. Like all Americans of faith, the Muslim-American singer uses the empowerment that freedom of religion gives her to construct her life the way she wants it to be, and to use her art to say what she wants to say.
“As a Muslim-American artist, I have a desire to provide a clean alternative for all Americans in comparison with some of the more negative mainstream music as well as dispel popular misconceptions about Muslims,” she said.
Ali’s adherence to her values presents a paradox for many people in her industry.
“I think what makes me special is what some people want to take away,” Ali said of staying true to her beliefs while performing. “But what they don’t know is that this is what makes me special.”
Born to second-generation African-American Muslim parents, Ali knew early on she was talented. When she was 9 years old, a violin performance at her school inspired Ali to ask her parents for lessons. Her mother and late father, who Ali said had “everything” to do with her success, gladly arranged for the violin training that began her musical journey.
One of the most formative moments of Ali’s career happened in secondary school. After spending years practicing the violin several hours daily, Ali enrolled in Washington’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. On the way to making the violin her career, a life-altering event took place at the school: Ali jokingly mocked some of her peers.
“I was making fun of the vocalists because they were making this funny sound that I never had heard,” Ali said of fellow students practicing opera.
Rather than be angry over the incident, Ali’s resonant voice stunned Duke Ellington voice teacher Samuel L.E. Bonds. Within moments, Bonds was working with her in the school studio, and Ali took a major step toward an opera career. But it was seeing Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen in March 1995 that really sealed the deal for her.
“I was in tears, I was amazed,” Ali said. “I thought that, hands down, this is what I can do.”
With this experience an opera singer was born.
But Ali discovered that growing up an opera singer who adheres to Islamic guidelines presents challenges. While en route to earning a master’s degree in vocal performance from the New England Conservatory of Music, Ali recalled, a professor required her to play a scene in which she would be kissed. Ali could not play the scene correctly due to her values and therefore took a position in the chorus. Although the event devastated her, Ali used her inner strength to carry on.
“Most people would just say, ‘I quit’ and go onto something else,” Ali said. “But something in my soul tells me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
And she has been doing it well. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition for the Boston District, Ali has sung the title role in Susannah by Carlisle Floyd, Pamina in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Mother in Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti.
Opera also fits with Ali’s desire to wear a hijab. Unlike other performing arts that may require women to be scantily clad, opera usually asks performers to wear period costumes.
“That is why I was so excited when I found opera,” Ali said. “You usually have a big, long, poufy dress on and a big wig” to cover her hair.
Ali believes a spiritual connection to the music as a Muslim distinguishes her from other opera singers. For Ali, the voice is a direct reflection of the human soul.
In preparing for a performance, Ali does more than exercise her voice. If the song is in another language, she translates it and recites it as poetry. Once comfortable with it verbally, she studies its musical dimensions.
“A lot of my work is analytical before I even sing a note,” she said.
Fine-tuning her natural vocal skills came with years of practice and study. Ali said that while many talented musicians attend music conservatories after secondary school, she chose a liberal arts education. A graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, she said her undergraduate education helped shaped her self-image.
“Spelman developed me into the woman I am today,” Ali said of the historically African-American women’s college. “It provided me with the tools to reexamine the world and history from an African-centered female perspective.”
Ali’s junior year abroad in Italy was a highlight of her liberal arts education. In Milan, she learned fluent Italian and received training from prestigious opera teachers Patrizia Zanardi and Giovanna Canetti.
Ali currently works with one of the United States’ premier voice teachers, Patricia McCaffrey.
“Every lesson with her is an amazing, physically draining, spiritual journey,” she said.
Combing her talent and education, Ali is boosting her well-rounded career. Along with her opera credits, Ali’s recent success in the 2009 Broadway revival of Ragtime has led to other opportunities. This March, Ali will perform alongside award-winning actress Tyne Daly in the play Master Class at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Ali’s artistic journey is set to further continue this summer in Los Angeles. Working with Muslim-artist label Remarkable Current, Ali will perform on a fusion CD that combines hip-hop and opera.
“I will finish my CD this summer with them, some like-minded, progressive, forward thinking Muslims — God willing,” she said.
As if all she is doing is not enough, Ali’s long-term goals are also ambitious. Already a teacher of music, dance and stepping classes to more than 1,000 students in Washington public schools, Ali is eyeing education to focus her future passions. Influenced by a lifetime of excellent teachers, Ali dreams of founding a music school for young children.
“Working with children purifies the heart and brings people closer to Allah,” she said.