When Shirin Asgari, Nasrin Asgari, and Nazanin Ezazi stepped onto the stage of “Supertalent” in 2012, about to give their debut performance of “Nella Fantasia,” they were ushered in to the sound of Adele’s “Skyfall.” The drama and energy of the song inspired them as they held hands and stepped up to the microphones. The words “we will stand tall and face it all together” stuck with them – and led them directly into the repertoire of James Bond film songs.
The popular appeal of the sexy secret agent and the dramatic, lyrical content of the songs composed for films throughout the years were a magic fit for this classical-crossover trio.
After their immediate and resounding success on Supertalent, the women were approached by Universal Music, whom they had been previously courting through their ex-manager with little success. A seemingly overnight Cinderella story.
But such a triumph was hard-earned.
Growing up in Tehran, the girls’ families listened to classical music in the home and encouraged them in their instrumental studies, but for religious reasons (by the law of the country) it was not possible for them to pursue their dreams of being professional singers. According to Nazanin, women were only allowed to sing in a choral setting, and even then there were few teachers of vocal music.
The girls grew up admiring singers such as Edita Gruberova and Yma Sumac, and Nazanin recalls feeling frustrated, as though she was singing “wrong,” with tension and pain in her throat, and yearned to learn the correct technique for singing classical music.
In a fairy-tale twist of fate, one of her school teachers overheard her hiding in a classroom and practicing singing by herself. The professor was stunned by her voice, and arranged an invitation for her to perform at the residence of the German ambassador to Iran.
Fast forward a few years later, and Nazanin was auditioning for a professor at a music conservatory in Germany. The professor failed her in the entrance exam, stating that Nazanin had not had enough previous vocal training. In spite of this blow to her aspirations, Nazanin then applied to school in Vienna, and was accepted. The same German professor who rejected her was to be a judge in the Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition, in which Nazanin was a winner. The professor was speechless — nearly moved to tears — when Nazanin introduced herself!
Sticklers and snobs of vocal purity may rest assured — the women of Sedonia have serious cred in the world of legitimate opera. After their studies in Vienna and Graz, each has been honored to perform leading roles and premieres at major opera houses in Europe, in addition to winning prestigious classical singing competitions. Some highlights are,
Shirin: The Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute” (“I can perform it already while sleeping.“) and world premieres of contemporary operas with Klangforum Wien. “[In] 2006 I received a scholarship from AIMS and qualified for a concert tour with the orchestra of St. Johns/Oxford) and the Holland Festival.”
Nasrin: “I already performed in Opera houses in Kiew and Tiflis and joined the Steirischer Herbst, a festival of contemporary music.” “While studying I joined the Arnold Schönberg Chor which gave me the possibility to work with famous conductors like Seiji Ozawa or Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I am grateful for that experience.”
Nazanin: A contracted soloist with the opera house in Gratz (a process she describes as very different from the American opera singer’s ability to freelance with whichever opera company they choose) gave her the chance to perform in Le Nozze de Figaro, The Magic Flute, L’elisir d’amore, and Falstaff, among others (including operetta and musicals). In addition to winning the Belvedere competition, she also found success in Operalia, and was even offered a two year young artist development contract by Placido Domingo himself. However, it conflicted with her contract with Graz Opera and she chose the path of stability in Europe.
Always, even as young girls, the members of Sedonia had their hearts set on modern, classical music. Shirin and Nasrin’s brother is a professional musician in Vancouver (CA) where he teaches violin, and their father is a violinist who has arranged many traditional Iranian tunes for the violin. Nazanin’s father played the piano and a traditional percussion instrument, and her mother was a very good dancer. Their love of the performing arts was “in their blood.”
Although they heard the native music of Iran in their homes, were exposed to traditional Persian music, and learned to play traditional instruments in school, all three agree that they had a passion for classical music early on. They do not play their instruments very much anymore, except to learn a song or to teach, but Nazanin shared that in the role she is currently playing at the National Theatre of Mannheim — Juliet in a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet — the directors incorporated her skill on the daf, a traditional Iranian percussion instrument, into her character on stage, as Juliet is portrayed as an “oriental girl,” and Romeo as a German boy. Nazanin also shares that learning the unique oriental scales and tunings of traditional Persian music has helped her become an excellent singer of baroque music.
A pressing question was how all three of them found their way into a popular music career (or even careers as operatic soloists) from a country so restrictive to women as Iran. The resounding answer from all three, when asked in turn to advise those who might be in a similar situation to themselves, was: “Leave the environment and follow your dreams” (Shirin)”And do not give up.” (Nasrin) Nazanin was practical in her response: “My advice would be that if you think you can live with it, and if you think that you can forget your dreams and live there, just do it.” However, she continued, with building passion, “But if you think that you really want to live your dreams, if you really want to reach your dreams and make them come true, then stand up… … if I could do this, you can do it too! Everything that exists in our world was one day just a thought. So, THINK about what you want. Because only like this will you reach it and bring it to reality. If you cannot reach your dreams in the country that you are [in], the only possibility is to find your way out. NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE IN THIS LIFE so dream your dreams and really believe, and know that if you want it, it will happen.”
When the group made the decision to appear on Supertalent, it was a “to be or not to be” (Nazanin) moment for them. They had not met with large success in their crossover career thus far, and were eager to put themselves into the public eye, to receive the honest opinion of a large audience and a panel of judges. While agreeing that they were very nervous, and stating that a live talent show may not be the best option for those who aren’t ready to hear an honest critique of their performance, Sedonia is grateful for their talent show experience in giving them exposure to an audience of millions and ultimately drawing the attention of their record label, Universal.
Universal. Yet another portentious twist of fate in their fairy tale, because the singers of Sedonia had already decided that they wanted their group name to include the word “universe.” The word represented their vision: presenting themselves “to the universe” as three Iranian women who… “couldn’t really dream of that — coming to the world with an international career.” (Nazanin) Upon realizing that the terms universe/universal were, pardon the pun, universal… the women decided to pay tribute to their heritage by using the Persian / Farsi words “se” (three) and “donia” (universe) to compose their name. Se-donia. Three universes.
For three such talented, determined women, it may seem as if the world truly is not enough. It may take three universes, or even more, to contain the stellar career of Sedonia.
If you could give a gift or a message to young people in your home country, what would it be?
Nasrin: Iran is a beautiful country, but if the soil does not let your talents flourish – there are always other places.
Shirin: And maybe in the future we will see flowers of all colors growing in Iran again.
Shirin, are you still an active painter?
Sure. I am regularly on exhibitions with my paintings and usually open my exhibitions with singing. For me Painting is like singing with colors.
What would you say has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome in pursuing your musical dreams?
Nasrin: The hardest thing is to leave your family and country where you were born.
Nazanin: If you are kept down as a woman your country that can be overcome, but personal crises [such as an illness in the family or splitting with a long-term partner] can be even harder to get over; but anyone can get over them and we can get stronger.
As residents of Vienna and Graz, what are some of your favorite memories of the towns? What were some of your favorite places to visit, and restaurants to eat at?
Nazanin: In Graz “Schlossberg” is a very, very nice place, every tourist should go and see it. The opera house in Graz is, even from the outside, more beautiful than opera house in Vienna. In Vienna, you really have to taste the sachertorte in the Hotel Sacher.
[I] love Austrian food; Hühnerstreifen — chicken slices baked with salad, with very special traditional oil Kürbiskernöl.
Nasrin: Well you know the sweet dishes are famous in Austria – visit the Cafe Central in Vienna
Shirin: Or [if you] need a Tafelspitz (beef) you should try Plachutta in Vienna, too.
Learn more at sedonia.at