On Oct. 19, 2012, Lebanese soprano Tania Kassis  gave a concert in Paris’ prestigious L’Olympia concert hall. From this show was born “Tania Kassis Live at L’Olympia,” the soprano’s recently released CD-DVD set. The 17-track album and DVD tell the vocalist’s story and that of the engaging repertoire she performed in the French capital. The Lebanese soprano is probably best known among audiophiles for her Islamo-Christian “Ave Maria.” Kassis’ tune, which is included in the CD, blends her lyrical voice with those of Maen Zakaria and Mahmoud Massaad – singing the Muslim call to prayer.
The artist has said the piece was originally inspired on “the occasion of the designation of March 25 [Annunciation Day] as National Islamic-Christian Holiday  in Lebanon.”
It is a prominent part of Kassis’ profile that she wants to create a dialogue among cultures, and “Live at L’Olympia” reflects the vocalist’s attachment to both Lebanon and France, combining French-language songs, such as “J’ai Deux Amours” (I Have Two Loves) and Arabic numbers such as Laila Mourad’s “Albi Dalili.” The record also includes English, with an English Kassis rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theme from “The Phantom of the Opera.”
On several tracks, Kassis is accompanied by Franco-Lebanese vocalist Johny Maalouf, and the instrumental arrangements are performed with gusto by the French National Orchestra of String Musicians.
L’Olympia is one of France’s most outstanding musical venues, which has hosted such talents as Frank Sinatra, James Brown, The Rolling Stones and Bjork. With this performance it must be assumed that Kassis has, in a sense, arrived.
Arriving in Paris doesn’t preclude her being present elsewhere.
“Jerusalem, they left you lonely,” she croons in her politically engaged tune “Jerusalem.”
“So lonely, with no defense / What is happening to you, Jerusalem?”
As Kassis told The Daily Star in an interview given in May 2011, these lyrics betray her concern with “the Islamic, Judeo and Christian [conversation], stating the three religions should learn to cohabit.”
In addition to her career as a concert soloist, Kassis has been awarded the Lebanese Accomplishment Medal, and in Aug. 2011 was appointed honorary ambassador of the South-Korean Contingent of UNIFIL.
Along with British Ambassador Tom Fletcher, she also leads the initiative “One Lebanon – United for Tomorrow,” which is planning a Peace Day event (on Sept. 21) that aims to gather several Lebanese artists to increase awareness.
For those who missed Kassis’ Paris concert, the DVD will go far to fill the void. This concert video will give some sense of how popular Kassis’ music is on the continent.
The soprano’s originality lies in her skillful blending of popular European songs with a Middle Eastern sensibility. She has seen to it that “Padam Padam,” the much-loved hit by legendary French vocalist Edith Piaf, has been arranged for qanoun. The mingling of Eastern instrumentation with Western wind instruments and chorus renders this French classic somehow new.
One of the reasons Kassis has secured such prominence is that she has eschewed the commercial imperative in favor of an aesthetic that is politically engaged without being partisan. This has won her a growing audience without alienating her core fan base.
In the concert itself, the string orchestra and Arab vocalists formed a sort of musical cocoon about the soprano, ensuring that at various points, Kassis’ performance veered from opera-like, to pop and back to fusion.
When Kassis sang her “Ave Maria,” the audience came to its feet, demanding an encore. Based on the video, the soprano was clearly touched by the warm reception. She reciprocated with just the emotionally fraught encore they seem to have wanted.
“Tania Kassis Live at L’Olympia” is available at select music outlets, including Virgin Megastore.
By Chirine Lahoud