Darya Dadvar was born with a beautiful voice, and a love of poetry and music. The Paris-based vocalist and opera singer – whose name means ‘sea’ in Persian – has endless affection for her native Iran. Yet she left the land of Khayyam, Hafez, Ferdowsi, and Rumi nearly two decades ago for the land of Berlioz and Bizet – to study art, music, and vocals.
Her career has flourished ever since – with the artist continuously incorporating the sounds of her homeland in her songs. In 1999, she received the Golden Prize from the French National Conservatoire in Toulouse. The following year, she received her professional diploma in baroque singing. She was immediately admitted to the French “Theatre Royal” and given solo roles in two consecutive productions.
On November 26 and 27, Dara performed at the Kista Varldsmusik Festival in Stockholm. Earlier this year, she performed popular Persian tunes as well as Italian opera arias at the Eglise Sainte-Eustache in Paris. In a conversation with Kayhan London, Darya remembered the journey that took her from her family home in Iran to the world’s most illustrious performance halls.
Darya: It was a very difficult decision to leave Iran, as I was very attached to my roots. My mother made a video at the time where she interviewed a group of my friends. I occasionally watch the video. In it, every one of my friends says: Darya will come back to Iran and not stay abroad. I eagerly await the day when I can return. I will go back to Iran when I can pursue my career as freely as I am able to pursue it outside.
Arriving in Paris, I was struck by the many nationalities riding the subway alongside each other. Here were Chinese, Africans, Arabs, Iranians, and French people sitting next to one other. People were courteous, and they smiled at each other in a relaxed way. I quickly realized that Paris was a very cool place, and that I was happy to be there. It was a truly interesting environment for me.
I grew up in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, when Iraqi forces were bombarding our cities. A few nights after arriving in Paris, I realized, going to bed, that I was no longer anxious about the next day. Instead, I started worrying about things that I never even thought about in Iran.
I no longer needed to stress about being properly covered or about my behavior in public. Gradually, small acts of freedom that seemed perfectly banal started getting my attention. I was entranced by the wind blowing across my neck and through my hair. People dressed the way they pleased and no one took offense. There were no differences between men and women.
In Iran, I had given up going to the Caspian Sea. The beaches were dirty, the water was polluted, and women had to wade in the water with their clothes on. It was no wonder that, at the first opportunity, I ventured into the Mediterranean fully clothed – though it was a cool 14 degrees and no one was in the water – just to swim a little and feel the sea.
When I went back in the summer, I was staggered to see topless girls my own age on the beach, coming out of the water and rubbing lotion on their bodies. They would walk by the boys, and no one would even look at them. I was so unsettled that I stayed away from the beach for two years. I cried many times, and wondered why we Iranians were so hung up about exposing the tiniest bit of skin.
Still, my heart was elsewhere.
I come from a modern Iranian family. My mother was a singer and directed puppet shows. My father was a physician. I had initially moved abroad with the intention of studying medicine. He took me to medical conferences and showed me doctors’ practices, then told me that I was crazy not to pursue the arts.
One summer, there was a festival and a singing competition. My father signed me up. I will never forget the experience of singing Love Story in front of five thousand people. Until then, I had only sung for my extended family. To my great surprise, I won the competition.
In the next three to four years, I started making money from singing in other competitions. I used the money to travel to Paris. I would rent a room and spend my days visiting museums and enjoying the city. It was a revelation: that I could make money from the arts. I decided that I wanted to sing. Friends suggested that I apply for the Conservatoire.
At the time, Betty Mahmoudi’s book had come out, painting a picture of Iran as a backward country. I kept hearing awful things about my homeland. I played along, jokingly. I pointed out sarcastically that we had steering wheels on the back of our camels. It was tough to see a single book changing the world’s attitude towards Iranians.
Yet soon, I realized that the French intellectual classes had high regard for the arts and culture of Iran, and were interested to find out more.
In the arts, you quickly realize that if you stray far from your roots, you will soon be looking to go back to them.
I didn’t stay long in Paris. I headed south to Toulon and then to Toulouse. Toulouse is a city with a large student population. The atmosphere was very different from Paris. It was a difficult time for me; I asked myself a thousand questions.
In Iran, I was concerned about what to wear and how to get away with wearing tight clothes and attracting attention. Girls were worried about the way they looked behind the wheel, and where they would go. There was a desire to go to parties and have a boyfriend, drink, even do drugs. It was a life where you were imitating others and not necessarily being true to yourself. Prohibition makes you do things that might be interesting in themselves, but you lose sight of your own goals, get sidetracked by other goals, and ultimately waste time.
Where there is freedom, one’s objectives are quite clear, and one doesn’t brood over unimportant aims. In France, I became consumed by professional goals.
I started thinking that if I were to perform the best opera roles on the greatest stages of the world, where would my Iranian heritage fit in? I thought about what distinguished an average French girl from this person named Darya – who comes from a culture of poetry and music that might arguably be even richer than France’s. If I always sang Carmen or played the part of Susanna or Elvira, I wondered what it would say about me in the end.
Because I was homesick, whatever melody I sang, I always searched for a connection to Iran. For instance, when I listened to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” I tried to figure out how to make it sound Iranian. At the time, that was taboo, unlike today, when it has become acceptable and trendy. Whenever I added an Iranian touch in the music, it was disparaged.
As part of requirements for receiving the golden medal, we had to perform a foreign melody. I had been influenced by Maurice Ravel and Manuel de Falla, but I kept looking for Iranian melodies among the musical scores at the Conservatoire. We had several composers such as Mardourian or Khachatourian and others who had written melodies for Pari Zangeneh, Monir Vakili, and Minou Javan, who had performed them in the operatic style. I looked for those scores in libraries, but was unable to find anything. So I got permission to arrange a Persian melody myself and performed it accompanied by an instrument.
I was lucky to have a good voice. I realized that I could bring joy to people with a song or a drawing. I realized that when I sang, people forgot their worries and enjoyed the moment, just as I forgot my worries when I heard a good song.
The arts have a curious quality. They can bring people and cultures together and promote peace. It doesn’t matter that you are from the land described by Betty Mahmoudi or from a region mired in conflict and war. Art connects people of all races. We are all human beings; we are born, and then we die.
What’s important for me is to live comfortably in my own country, to be able to sing. Sometimes I say that one day we will be singing opera or some other tune on the moon, and in Iran they will still be busy discussing the impact of a woman’s voice.
Most of all, I want women to be able to exercise their basic rights as women, as mothers, as human beings.