According to Merriam-Webster, “prima donna” carries two definitions. Literally translating to “first lady” in Italian (the language in which the term first arose), the prima donna is primarily known as the woman who gets all the major roles in operas and sings more parts than anyone else on stage.
The usage of the term has grown greatly since its early days in Italy, and today it is utilised in pop culture and creative arenas like film, music and performing arts.
Nowadays however, a “prima donna” more often than not takes on its second meaning: “a vain or undisciplined person who finds it difficult to work under direction or as part of a team”.
Zamzuriah Zahari acknowledges both these meanings.
At the age of 33, Zam (as she is known to most) has built a name for herself like no other among her peers. Her extensive research into traditional dance form tari inai has made her an important figure and a pioneer among youths in the field.
In 2006, she received a National Arts Awards; in 2012, she played the lead role in mak yong performance Usikan Rebab by director Norzizi Zulkifli; and in 2014 and 2015 shined in Khazanah Nasional Berhad‘s Malam Terang Bulan.
She began her education in the arts at the National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage (ASWARA) in 2004 with a Diploma in Dance (“I thought I could use the challenge!”) and received tutelage from Joseph Gonzales.
Ten years later, Zam is sitting outside the ASWARA black box as Joseph goes through tech rehearsals for his latest production Becoming King: Pakyung Revisited. Zam plays a pivotal role in the contemporary mak yong production, and Joseph is now her colleague at the academy’s Faculty of Dance.
“A prima donna has to be perfect, but not just in the arts — she’s a supreme woman; a diva; a prima donna to her husband, children, family and society. When people look at her, they see no flaws,” explained Zam.
“In modern speech however, a diva and a prima donna are considered negative things; they’re terms synonymous with pride and arrogance. I choose to ward these off.”
We’ve come to ASWARA to meet Zam and chat about Jalan Primadona, a new production at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC) which has the honour of being written, directed and performed by Zam herself.
It’s arresting key artwork showcases Zam in an elaborate headpiece, smirking at viewers while bathed in blood red light — we couldn’t shake off the imagery since stumbling into it weeks ago.
According to promotional material, the one-woman monodrama and musical revolves around a prima donna who feels the industry she has devoted herself to no longer appreciates her. She reminisces of career highs in artforms like mak yong and tari inai, but also remembers how much her passion cost her in terms of her relationships and spirituality.
“Around sixty percent of the show is based on real life experiences — the additional forty serves to complete the story and explore further the challenges faced by women in the arts,” she continues, “I’m basically telling people that I’m not a prima donna even if I’ve been deemed one before.”
She means this both ways too. Zam is too humble to admit that she has what it takes to be a prima donna, and despite the burning fire behind her eyes, was courteous enough to indulge us in a meeting during rehearsal break for Becoming King.
Throughout our time at ASWARA, Zam was cheery and buzzing with energy, showing exceptional grace and patience in explaining Jalan Primadona on top of indulging us in personal stories related to her time in the arts thus far. Here is what we learned about the biggest project she’s helmed to date.
Can you tell us a little about the concept behind Jalan Primadona?
My target was to have this as my final performance on stage as I would like to focus more on education.
The prima donna’s path is not mine to tread; in Jalan Primadona, audiences see the challenges I have to face, from dealing with various people to first learning about mak yong, and what it means to be “modern” or “contemporary”. I simply wanted to show everything I can share with others onstage.
My initial wish was to stop pursuing the arts after Jalan Primadona, but this is a matter between God and I; maybe it’s simply not time for me to leave yet. Besides, if fate is in the hands of Allah then there must be a reason I’m married to a fellow artist.
Could you give us a hint of who to expect on stage in a monodrama like this one?
You will still see other people on stage, but nobody else has any dialogue. Except towards the ending, when my five year-old son comes on stage to chase the audience out because his mother doesn’t want to dance for them anymore.
Since he was little, this boy would leave his food aside for wayang kulit. There’s even a documentary about him called Daddy, Aki Nak Jadi Tok Dalang which contains a real-life argument between me and him over me not letting him be a tok dalang.
In another scene which depicts the moment I met my husband [Kamarul Baisah Hussin], you’ll see me doing silat too. I didn’t want it to be just me on the stage; Geng Wak Long, a group of modern and traditional musicians made up of family members on my husband’s side — from my brother-in-law to his uncles — are also providing live music.
We see that right under the title [pointing towards the flyer] you’ve stated “Mak Yong, Mek Mulung, Mak Yong Riau, Tari Inai, Silat, Saba”.
At first, I put something along the lines of “my life’s course through the arts”. But then I thought, who am I and why should everyone want to know my story? So I changed the concept to reflect on the variety you’ll see in the show. I’ll let people come and choose if they want to watch it to know more about myself, or a woman’s journey through art.
I also apply the use of traditional artforms in the show — it’s important that people to know about mak yong, but also mak yong riau and mek mulung.
But why do you feel the need for people to know about these less-popular styles?
Sometimes people forget that there are many other traditional artforms out there. For example, why do we talk about the Kelantan ban but choose to do nothing about all the other traditional forms that still exist?
There are people working hard to raise the profile of local artforms but we don’t know, because we’re busy arguing among ourselves over who’s right or wrong.
There are people out and about internationally doing seminars on mak yong, but we’re outside smoking cigarettes because we don’t understand English. All the while, orang lain jaja ilmu kita sampai ke luar negara.
You’ll also see some of the sadness I felt learning from greats but listening to them dismiss the works of their peers instead of working with one another.
Are there any other issues you will be putting forward in Jalan Primadonna?
I also bring up the tudung. Sometime ago, I went with Sisters In Islam to Indonesia to do some studies on the matter, then did a talk with Kakiseni.
I believe it’s a matter of knowing how to cope with and understand the difference between culture and religion, on being able to remove the tudung but still hold onto your beliefs and God. A woman removes her tudung — doesn’t mean she doesn’t pray or abide by the laws of Islam. My choice to wear the tudung is between me and God, and nobody has the right to judge.
In Jalan Primadona, I play an ustazah but also play myself when I’m telling my ustazah, aku bukak tudung kerana rezekiku, kerjayaku. I want people to know that all sorts of human beings make a living in the arts, whether good or bad by nature.
At times I too have been careless — to be young but completely aware in the arts is not easy.
We caught a glimpse of rehearsals the other day and noticed that Dato’ Faridah Merican was also in the room; how is it like having her watch you, and how deeply is she involved in the performance?
Collaborating with Faridah was lovely; I was very touched. She was the one who invited me to perform at KLPAC a while ago but I thought she was merely joking.
We met again after in Australia while I was working on a mak yong performance over there. She even told my husband, make sure your wife calls me once she reaches Kuala Lumpur.
Months pass, I became pregnant, gave birth, and felt like doing something strong. Soon after, Faridah invited us to watch a staging of Uda dan Dara and the very next day, we had a meeting. One piece of paper was all we used to talk about the show and we agreed that it will be based on the story of a woman traversing the arts.
Faridah instantly suggested doing it in Stage 1, and my jaw dropped — that’s a bit of a big stage.
Eventually, I was considering directors for the project and thought of Nam Ron as I was keen on working with new people, but Faridah recommended that I try directing it.
She also offered her cooperation and feedback, so we got to direct the piece together and it was a great experience.
Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?
I want those who know me to come and watch it, because after this, I’m going to want to rest! With Jalan Primadona, I want to thank all my teachers and those who believed in me like Faridah Merican and Saidah Rastam. I also want to give something special to my husband, and leave memories for my children and coming generations.
But at the same time, I want them to understand that if I do quit performing, here are my reasons.
The Actor’s Studio Seni Teater Rakyat presents Jalan Primadona, which opens tonight on Pentas 1, KLPAC and runs until December 20. Tickets can be obtained via Ticketpro and the KLPAC box office for RM66 (adults, buy 1 free 1), RM44 (TAS card members, senior citizens and the disabled, buy 1 free 1) and RM 22 (students). All tickets for tonight, December 16, can be obtained for a flat rate of RM22.
This article is based on a Bahasa Melayu interview with Zamzuriah Zahari conducted and translated into English by the author — some lines are left untranslated for effect. Featured image by HY Wong. To get more in-depth information on Jalan Primadona, make sure to also check out this excellent piece from the Malaysian Reserve.