Syria’s Soprano (profile of Syrian singer Dima Orsho)

Singer Dima Orsho fuses western and eastern traditions, making a name for herself both at home and abroad.   

Dima Orsho / photo by Kais Zakaria

 Dressed in jeans and a light blouse with her hair casually tied back, Dima Orsho looks nothing like the stereotype of an opera singer. The easygoing and youthful appearance that she and the other members of the Hewar ensemble radiate captivated their Syrian audience as they swung to the group’s eclectic music when they performed in Syria at a jazz concert in 2008.

Orsho, who performs both solo and with the band Hewar, has a musical style that reflects her multicultural background. She and Hewar blend Oriental sounds with elements of jazz, scat, opera and classical music, woven with non-verbal vocalisations by Orsho.  She uses her voice as a third instrument to accompany her Syrian colleagues, Kinan Azmeh on clarinet and Essam Rafea on oud.

“Hewar [Arabic for dialogue] is based on the principle of musical dialogue where we can say what we can’t express in words,” Orsho said.

A cultural blend

The lyrical soprano in her thirties said she refuses to be relegated to one genre.

“Just because I’m an opera singer, it does not mean that I should not sing oriental,” Orsho said in a phone conversation with Syria Today from the Chicago home where she currently lives with her husband and child. “I like to try different things and that is exactly what we try to do with Hewar. We enjoy experimenting and working together and I think that the positive energy created by that joy is always radiated to our audience.”

The search for something different drove Orsho to travel to the US in 2005 for graduate studies in opera performance at the Boston Conservatory.

Orsho had previously studied opera performance and clarinet at the Damascus High Institute of Music and attended singing classes in Maastricht Conservatory in the Netherlands. However, she found the courses too specific. 

“Opera performance studies in the US are more comprehensive,” she said. “I didn’t only want to learn how to sing but also how to stand on stage, how to act and how to direct a musical.”

Dima Orsho and Kinan Azmeh at the Library of Congress 2010

Stiff competition

Orsho, however, said her time in the US was not always easy.

“Studying abroad was one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced. It was a tough time for me since I had to catch up with a more complicated and intensive curriculum,” Orsho said. 

The competitive atmosphere in the US also makes it more difficult for musicians to distinguish themselves, she added.

“Each year thousands of musicians graduate from conservatories and music schools all around the US while in Syria only a handful of musicians graduate annually, which makes opportunities in the US very competitive, especially for non-Americans in general and Arabs in particular.”

Still, Orsho succeeded in making an international name for herself as a Syrian singer. She has performed in professional productions at the Boston Conservatory and at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

In 2008, Orsho released her first solo album, Arabic Lieder, in which she sings to compositions by renowned Syrian pianist Gaswan Zerikly and incorporates lyrics from distinguished Arabic poems from Mahmoud Darwish and others. 

Music compositions

Although Orsho is primarily known as a singer, she says the idea of becoming one did not cross her mind until her second year as a clarinet player at the High Institute of Music.

“My teacher Victor Babenko advised me to switch from clarinet to singing. He believed in my vocal and musical abilities.”

Since she was a teen, Orsho wanted to study composition. However, back in 1993 when she started her studies at Damascus High Institute of Music, there were only three curriculums: clarinet, piano and singing.

“I didn’t have many options back then. I wish I had then the opportunities I have now in the US. It’s too late now to start all over again and study composing” Orsho said.

Nevertheless, Orsho occasionally composes her own music for films and theatre performances. Some of her most famous compositions include the soundtrack for the 2005 film Under the Ceiling by Syrian director Nidal al-Dibs and Darkest Times, a mimic theatre performance directed by Syrian dancer and choreographer Noura Murad. She is currently composing the music to which the Syrian dance group Leish Troup will perform in December.

Meanwhile, she is busy recording Hewar’s third album, which will be released in Germany and Damascus by the end of the year. Twenty-four hours each day does not give her enough time to accomplish all the musical feats she would like to achieve, she said: I wish I had more time, there are so many things I’d love to do.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.