ISSUE #1 THE IMAGINED, AUTUMN 2012
REVIEWS AND CRITIQUE
Royal Opera House of Muscat
Gazing at the soaring ceilings, embellished teak, and gold leaf accents, a first-time visitor to the new Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman might be forgiven for overlooking the foyer’s less conspicuous treasures.
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Gazing at the soaring ceilings, embellished teak, and gold leaf accents, a first-time visitor to the new Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM) in Oman might be forgiven for overlooking the foyer’s less conspicuous treasures. While the balustrades, colonnades, and glistening marble in the foyer dazzle the eye, there lies an unassuming exhibition of antique musical instruments tucked behind the central staircase. Among these are two ceramic horns in the shape of Chinese dragons, delicately painted in turquoise, gold, and sapphire, their necks sinuous and their faces fierce. But we are offered no hint of the paths that these instruments have traveled nor of the music might they produce in the hands of a maestro.

The dragons seem a fitting symbol for Oman’s lovely yet enigmatic Opera House. Since its inauguration in October 2011, ROHM has hosted a spectacular series of performances, featuring artists of global repute, such as Placido Domingo, Renée Fleming, Andrea Bocelli, Yo-Yo Ma, and renowned orchestral and ballet companies. By whichever measure one takes – the technological sophistication of its design and construction, the aesthetic standards of the building and of the performances it hosts, or the resources at its disposal for attracting creative talent – ROHM is an extraordinary edifice. It is a monumental, multi-million dollar testament to the Sultan of Oman’s passion for classical music and the performing arts. As Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, predicted in a recent blog post: “If managed properly, the Royal Opera House Muscat has the potential to change the way the arts are viewed and practiced in this nation and this region of the world.”

Yet Kaiser’s phrase hints at underlying and unresolved questions about ROHM: what constitutes “proper management” for such a unique structure? What is the purpose of the Royal Opera House, its function, and its essential identity as an institution? What place does it aspire to hold in Omani culture and society?

Oman and the Arab Gulf have rich traditions of song and instrumental music. Oman’s local music culture features instruments such as the mizmar, zamr, and qasabah (similar to an oboe, clarinet, and flute, respectively), in addition to the oud and a variety of drums. But these musical traditions have little if any relationship to opera, which, despite the genre’s populist roots, has long been the province primarily of the cultured, upper, and upwardly mobile middle classes in the United States and Europe.

So why build an opera house in Muscat?

The Royal Opera House has been hailed as a culminating triumph of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said’s reign, which marked its forty-second anniversary this summer. The congratulatory advertisements placed in the local papers by Omani corporations, featuring an image of the Sultan superimposed over a photo of the Opera House, attest to ROHM’s cachet as a symbol of Qaboos’s accomplishments.

The gleaming façade of the Opera House suggests the ideals of purity and transparency, the lack of corruption that Sultan Qaboos in his speeches urges public officials to uphold, while the building’s opulent interior bespeaks the Sultan’s oft-repeated aspirational vision of Oman’s citizens: “a model for others to follow … adopting every new enlightened idea, benefitting from sciences and new technology and at the same time always preserving … [their] traditions and authentic customs.”1

Though clearly indebted to the Sultan’s personal affinity for classical music, ROHM also fits neatly within a larger political agenda, which dictates portraying Omanis to the world as educated, open minded, sophisticated, and engaged in prestigious artistic and intellectual pursuits. The choice to construct an opera house, in particular, harmonizes well with the Sultan’s strategic positioning of his country as a quiet mediator between East and West.

The potential for cultural tourism no doubt also precipitated the Opera House’s construction. A gigantic expansion of Muscat’s international airport has already begun, intended to increase its capacity from 5.7 million passengers in 2010 to 12 million by 2014, with a staggering 48 million projected for later stages.2 An opera house that can attract the likes of Domingo and Bocelli could help to draw visitors to Oman, especially from the multitude of foreigners who live in or visit nearby Dubai. An Omani tourist visa is currently free to visitors of certain nationalities in conjunction with a visit to Dubai. Given this potential tourist influx, the selection of architectural firm Wimberley Allison Tong & Goo (WATG) for the building’s construction makes perfect sense: the firm markets its work as “destination design,” and its portfolio includes many of Oman and the Arab Gulf’s poshest resorts, including Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace, Dubai’s One&Only Royal Mirage, and Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa in Muscat.

It is a sensible decision on the part of the Omani government to diversify the economy by increasing tourism infrastructure, but it does put the Opera House in a potentially awkward position with regard to programming: is its primary intended audience tourist, expatriate, or Omani?

Educated in Britain, the Sultan professes openness toward participatory democracy, freedom of religious practice, and the integration of women in the Omani workplace, among other ideas that coexist uneasily with the traditional and more conservative Ibadhi underpinnings of Omani culture. The Opera House may in fact represent an attempt by the Sultan to shape Oman’s culture in the direction that he favors, despite a certain degree of opposition. For instance, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Hamad Al Khalili, the Grand Mufti of Oman, recently provoked a heated debate when consulted about the propriety of visiting ROHM. He opined that, given the edifice’s intended purpose to promote music and dance, it is not acceptable for a Muslim to visit or even to admire the architecture.3

Omanis are remarkably consistent in their enthusiasm for Sultan Qaboos and the benefits of his reign; only the rare voice raises suspicion that a decision by the Sultan might conflict with Islamic principles. But there are suggestions in the Omani blogosphere that other doubts exist about the Opera House as a positive influence on Omani society, including a quiet boycott of ROHM by some Omanis who feel that the undisclosed sums lavished upon the edifice could have been better spent elsewhere.4

Yet the Sultan is by no means alone in the Arab Gulf in his willingness to invest vast sums in creating infrastructure for the performing arts. In fact, the inauguration of the Royal Opera House in Muscat has taken place at a time of unprecedented proposed investment in performance spaces.

In 2007, Abu Dhabi announced the construction of a vast performing arts complex on Saadiyat Island, a collaborative effort between the Guggenheim Foundation and the Tourism Development and Investment Company of Abu Dhabi. The design, by Zaha Hadid Architects, encompasses five separate performance spaces, including an opera house, a concert hall, and a drama theatre.5

Bahrain has commenced construction of a National Theatre, which is to be inaugurated during Manama’s year-long celebrations as 2012 Capital of Arab Culture. The plans by AS Architecture Studio include a 1,000-seat auditorium, smaller 150-seat theatrical space, and exhibition area.6

Still another opera house, also designed by Zaha Hadid and with a seating capacity of 2,500, is the proposed centerpiece of the Lagoons development complex in Dubai. The blueprints for this arts complex also include a playhouse, gallery, academy of fine arts, and six-star hotel.7

Yet the economic crisis has forced a number of such development plans to be scaled back or placed, perhaps indefinitely, on hold. Doubts remain about the availability of adequate funding for the Abu Dhabi performing arts center, as well as for the Dubai Opera House.8 The blue-prints for these performance complexes may ultimately meet the same fate as the Baghdad Opera House, artfully designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for King Faisal II of Iraq but never brought to fruition due to the latter’s deposition in 1958.9

Qatar, too, has constructed a grandiose performance space in its National Convention Centre. In 2010 this Gulf nation completed the construction of an “opera house” and a drama theatre in its Katara Cultural Village complex, which served as venues for the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2011. Descriptions of the Katara Opera House tout its suitability for theatre, film, and performances by the Qatar Philharmonic, but to date no full-scale operas have been staged there.

Looking beyond the Arab Gulf to the larger Arab world, ROHM currently has a pair of regional rivals (with a third on its way: construction will supposedly begin in 2012 on the “King Abdullah II House of Art and Culture” in Amman, also designed by Zaha Hadid). The first is Cairo’s Egyptian Opera House, which was founded in 1869 by Khedive Ismail to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. The original Opera House in Cairo hosted the world premiere of Verdi’s Aida in 1871 and functioned for a full century before being destroyed in a fire in 1971. It re-opened its doors in its present incarnation in 1988 and has since been an integral part of Egypt’s National Culture Center.

The second, the Damascus Opera House, has a dual history much like that of Cairo’s. The original site of the Opera was a French colonial-era building, but it found a new home in Dar Al Assad for Culture and Arts, planned by Hafez Al Assad and inaugurated by his son Bashar in 2004. Dar Al Assad contains an Opera Theatre, a drama theatre, and a multipurpose auditorium. The opera houses in Cairo and Damascus possess storied pasts and strong reputations, and ROHM seems to have drawn inspiration from the successes of each – for example, inviting Reham Abdelhakim, an “official singer” from the Cairo Opera House, to perform on the ROHM stage, and including in its inaugural repertoire Turandot and Swan Lake, both staged in recent years in Damascus.

Though arguably indebted to their programming models, the Royal Opera House in Muscat clearly surpasses both of these institutions in terms of technological innovation. The acoustics of ROHM can be precisely adjusted for each performance, using sound-reflecting panels in the ceiling, reverberation chambers, and removable sound-absorbing panels along the walls. It is the first opera house to use the Mode 23 multimedia system, which allows each spectator to select a language in which to view the performance’s subtitles from a screen on the back of the seat in front of her. Most astonishing of all, however, is the ease with which the performance space can be completely reconfigured to suit various presentation styles.

Rather than having a dedicated concert hall with a separate space for operatic and theatre performances, ROHM adjusts a single area to provide the acoustics and stage space proper to each performance. Each component part of the theatre, from the proscenium to the ceiling, can be raised, lowered, or reconfigured as necessary to optimize acoustics; the concert stage area, including the organ, slides back twenty meters on railway tracks to create room for the expanded stage, wing, and backdrop space needed for theatrical performances. Even the angle of the boxes in the auditorium can be adjusted, to account for the widening or narrowing of the stage area.

Despite these elements of state-of-the-art technology, the overall effect of the theatre is antique elegance rather than obtrusive modernity. The plush seats are covered in velvet – gold violins on a red background – and the walls and ceilings in elaborately carved teak. Acoustic panels are hidden within carved wooden mashrabiya screens; those on the ceiling are painted to blend seamlessly with the rest of the décor. Even the libretto screens seem designed not to steal focus from the performance. The theatre is warm in color, lavish in materials, stately in proportions.

As an audience member for two very different types of performance, I was impressed by the crystalline balance of the acoustics, the intimacy and warmth of the theatre, and the aesthetic accomplishments of both productions. For the ballet Giselle, which played to a mixed audience of expatriates and Omanis, the stage was set in “theatre mode”: the orchestra from La Scala sat in the pit area below the stage as their music wafted into the audience. In contrast, the Umm Kulthum tribute concert was performed in “concert mode,” with a shallow stage that foregrounded the singer and orchestra. The audience was overwhelmingly Omani, and to their delight, contralto Reham Abdelhakim opened her performance by praising the splendor of the new Opera House and her joy at being invited to sing.

The Cairo Opera House’s Selim Sahab Arab Music Ensemble accompanied Abdelhakim. The first half of the performance, the songs “Enta Omri” (You Are My Life) and “Arooh Limeen?” (Who Can I Turn To?), received polite applause as the Cairene diva struggled to connect with her audience. Both she and the audience seemed re-energized, however, by the second half of the performance: “Sirat Al Houb” (Love Stories) and “Al Atlal” (Ruins) struck a chord with us all.

The exterior of the Opera House and the interior spaces that lead to the theatre complement the grandeur of the auditorium. Here, the main building materials are marble, travertine, and “Omani Desert Rose” limestone; timber accents – screens, handrails, ceiling panels – are painstakingly carved and hand-painted in a traditional technique known as zouaq. The official published description of the architecture of ROHM boasts, “Virtually all of the magnificent interior finishing of the Opera House – on walls, doors, windows, floors, and ceilings – has been produced in Oman.” (Given the cadres of migrant laborers in the country, we are left to imagine how much of it was actually produced by citizens.)

The beauty of the structure is undeniable, and the emphasis on traditional techniques and locally sourced materials seems to further a sense of Omani pride, of national self-confidence. But does the Opera House place Omanis in the position of spectators and guardians of a quintessentially foreign cultural achievement? Or does it allow them to assume the role of connoisseurs, or better yet creators and contributors to hybrid culture? Omani artistry is on vibrant display in ROHM’s exterior spaces, but what has taken place on the stage, at least in the inaugural season, is overwhelmingly foreign.

This is not necessarily a criticism, considering that the first half of the season brought some of the world’s best known performing artists to Oman: Domingo conducted the Arena di Verona orchestra for a performance of Puccini’s Turandot and later provided his own concert, “Placido Domingo Sings to Oman.” Fleming and Bocelli each sang to sold-out crowds, and the world’s most illustrious orchestras and ballet companies were invited to choose a performance that would best exhibit their talents.10 The repertoire for the first half of the inaugural season incorporated a number of classics of Western performing arts, including Carmen and Swan Lake. There were Middle and Far Eastern elements as well: a South Korean ballet, a performance by Lebanese soprano Magida Al Roumi, and the concert in tribute to the legendary Umm Kulthum. But though the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra accompanied Domingo during his concert, no Omani performers figured prominently in the first half of the inaugural season.

The calendar for the second half of the season (January through March 2012) highlights one partially Omani performance: “Exhilarating Rhythms: Classical Drumming from Oman and Japan,” featuring traditional Omani musicians and their Japanese counterparts – one listing out of a total of twenty-six. The other performances span the globe, from Macedonia to Argentina, from Inner Mongolia to South Africa, with heavy emphasis on Russia and Eastern Europe as well as Egypt.

The most intriguing performance on the 2012 calendar is the Cairo Opera House production of Praxa, or the Women’s Parliament, an Arabic musical adaptation of Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. In the classic Greek comedy, the eponymous female protagonist convinces the women of Greece to refuse to have sex with their husbands until the latter agree to end the Peloponnesian War. (One wonders whether the Grand Mufti will venture to comment on the propriety of attending that production.)

But when might we see more Omanis on the ROHM stage? ROHM seems strangely disconnected from the vision of the Royal Symphony Orchestra, founded by Sultan Qaboos in 1985, which prides itself in having all Omani performers and hires expats only occasionally, in teaching rather than performance capacities. ROHM also differs in this regard from its rivals in Cairo and Damascus, which tout the promotion and training of Egyptian and Syrian artists, respectively, as a central part of their mission. Witness, for instance, the July 2011 production of an Arabic version of Oliver! At the Damascus Opera House, which recruited Syrian orphans as cast members, or the resources dedicated to the “Syrian Musicians and Singers” recording series.11

Rather, ROHM collaborates closely with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC; the current CEO of the Opera House, Brett Egan, is also director of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at Kennedy. Egan notes that ROHM has no formal training programs. While there will be master classes, the imperative of the Opera House, as Egan states, “is to present, but not necessarily to train, artists.” He praises ROHM’s potential to act as a “gateway to the world, bringing world traditions to participate in the life of the opera house.”12

But if ROHM brings the world to Oman, who brings Omanis to the world? A more recent announcement from the ROHM Board promises a five-year training program for Omani artists, though the details have not yet been released.13 These divergent stances regarding ROHM’s role in cultivating Omani performers suggest that debate about these goals continues at the highest levels of ROHM administration.

Mr. Egan’s title is “Interim CEO”; he is slated to return to the Kennedy Center, though the institutional partnership will remain in place. One important question for the ROHM in the near to intermediate future, therefore, is whether it will be able to attract highly competent permanent administrators and a sufficient number of professionally trained personnel. The inaugural season has not been without glitches: ROHM experienced a surprising degree of administrative turnover in 2011, including the departure of the previous CEO in August, leading to Mr. Egan’s hire, and the more recent of ROHM General Director Iman Al Hindawi. Many of the current staff members are young and endearingly enthusiastic but occasionally seem overwhelmed by their responsibilities; the ROHM website has also encountered numerous technical difficulties, which have resulted in inconsistent availability of WebPages and have curtailed online ticket sales.

These problems can be resolved. But the more formidable difficulty lies in the vision for ROHM as it relates to Oman itself. Is this a world-class Omani performing arts center, or is it simply a world-class performing arts center in Oman? For the moment, ROHM seems to have left that enigma to the side, focusing instead on ensuring a slate of eminent performers and a high and consistent level of artistic finesse in its performances. Yet like the ceramic dragon trumpets in their display case, the question remains at the very heart of the building – coiled in pregnant silence amid the magnificent decor.

1 Sultan Qaboos bin Said, “Speech of His Majesty at the Opening of the 5th Term of the Council of Oman, 3lst October 2011,” Ministry of Information, Oman, accessed November 17, 2011, http://www.omanet.om/english/hmsq/hmsq11.asp.

2 See Oman Airports Management Company, “New Muscat International Airport Facts,” accessed January 30, 2012, http://www.omanairports.com/seeb_newterminal.asp.

3 Dhofari Gucci, “Oman’s Grand Mufti Condemns Opera House,” Mideastposts.com: the voices of the Middle East, December 7, 2011, http://mideastposts.com/2011/12/07/omans-grand-mufti-condemn s-royal-opera-house.

4 See Dhofari Gucci’s blogpost cited above and the subsequent comments. Dhofari Gucci, “Oman’s Grand Mufti Condemns Opera House,” Mideastposts.com: the voices of the Middle East, December 7, 2011, http://mideastposts.com/2011/12/07/omans-grand-mufti-condemn s-royal-opera-house.

5 Archinomy, “Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre by Zaha Hadid,” accessed December 4, 2011, http://www.archinomy.com/case-studies/295/abu-dhabi-performing-arts-centre-by-zaha-hadid.

6 Architecture Studio, “National Theatre of Bahrain,” accessed December 4, 2011, http://www.architecture-studio.fr/ en/projects/bhr1/national_theatre_of_bahrain.html.

7 “Dubai Opera House by Zaha Hadid,” June 6, 2008, http://www.designboom.com/weblog/cat/9/view/3045/dubai-opera-house-by-zaha-hadid.html.

8 Christopher Sell, “Zaha’s Dubai Opera House set to be cancelled,” Architects’ Journal, April 23, 2009, http://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/daily-news/-zahas-dubai-opera-house-set-to-be-cancelled/5200881.article.

9 See Joseph M. Siry, “Wright's Baghdad Opera House and Gammage Auditorium: In Search of Regional Modernity,” The Art Bulletin 87, no. 2 (June 2005): 265-311, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25067172.

10 See Emma Williams’s interview with Makhar Vaziev, director of the Teatro alla Scala ballet company, in “Tragic Romance Comes to Oman,” theweek, November 16, 2011, http://www.theweek.co.om/disCon.aspx?Cval=5781.

11 See Nadia Muhanna, “Damascus Opera House on [sic] Limelight,” Daily Press News, http://www.dp-news.com/en/detail.aspx?articleid=83883; Damascus Opera House, “Releases,” accessed January 4, 2012, http://www.damascusopera.com/en/releases-en.

12 Brett Egan, telephone interview with the author, November 24, 2011.

13 Sunil Vaiyda, “Royal Opera House Lowers Ticket Prices,” Gulf News, December 27, 2011. http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/oman/royal-opera-house-lowers-ticket-prices-1.957636.

ABOUT AUTHOR
Katherine Hennessey holds a PhD in English, with a concentration in Irish theatre, from the University of Notre Dame in the United States and has lived in Sanaa, Yemen since 2009.
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Royal Opera House of Muscat. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Opera House.
Royal Opera House of Muscat. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Opera House.
Royal Opera House of Muscat. Photograph courtesy of the Royal Opera House.
  
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