Plácido Domingo sang at the Royal
Opera House Muscat, which opened in Oman’s capital in 2011, the Spanish
tenor was heard across the Gulf. Not literally; Domingo is good, but not that
good. However, his performance – part of the opera house’s impressive opening
season – pricked the ears and inspired the imaginations of leaders across the
region, who are now racing to build similar venues in their own nations.
schedules are yet to be confirmed, but Dubai, Kuwait
and Baghdad have all announced plans to build their
own opera houses, while Doha
is already home to a well-established performing arts centre called Katara Village, which opened in
this scramble to construct opera houses in the Gulf is more than just a trend. It
represents a cultural shift in these conservative Islamic nations, where
indulging in the pleasure of music has traditionally been regarded as haram (sinful). In fact before the opera house even opened, in
2010 the Grand Mufti of Oman, Sheik Ahmed bin Hamad al-Khalili, issued a fatwa
against the venue, deeming it “unacceptable” for Muslims to visit.
critics questioned whether the building’s undisclosed cost could have been put
to better use at a time when the global financial crisis was biting and the
Arab Spring was gathering momentum. “The situation in Oman was tense,” explained Susan Al
Shahri, a columnist for Muscat
Daily. “Most of the demands during the Arab Spring involved better
economic conditions – so the Royal Opera House Muscat seemed like a pure
indulgence at the time.”
mastermind behind the Royal Opera House, the Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al
Said, is renowned for his liberal policies. Since overthrowing his father in a
1970 coup, he repealed strict censorship laws and granted women the right to
vote (although in an absolute monarchy like Oman, this right carries little
influence). By appointing Christina Scheppelmann as
the opera house’s director general, the sultan has championed the advancement of
women in a region where gender inequality is rife.
aside, the opera house is a crowning glory for the music-loving sultan –
perhaps even his masterpiece. Set in verdant, manicured gardens – a manmade
oasis in a desert city – the venue is not only a grandiose celebration of
international culture, but a triumph of contemporary Islamic architecture.
up outside the building on a recent visit, I was blinded by the dazzling white
marble façade as it reflected the sun’s rays. I reached for my shades, but even
through the darkened lenses my senses were stunned – not by the glare, but the
sheer stature of the building. The marble archways alone soared some 9m high.
walked through them and into the opera house, where tour guide Iman Said Al
Harthi explained more about the architecture. “The ceiling is carved from
Burmese teak, the marble comes from Italy and the lights are from Austria,” she
said. These materials are a celebration of Muscat’s rich maritime history and
represent the natural resources that were discovered by early Omani seafarers,
who were traversing oceans from as far back as the third millennium BC.
the opera house is more than just lavish embellishments; it has hosted an
impressive array of talent, including lauded Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli,
American soprano Renée Fleming and 15-time Grammy-award-winning cellist Yo-Yo
key to attracting such talent, commentators said, lies in the auditorium’s acoustics.
“The Royal Opera House Muscat is the finest music venue I have been in,” said Al
Shahri, who, like the sultan, developed a keen interest in music while studying
in Britain. “I have been in the London
Coliseum, the Royal
Albert Hall and many others. There’s no comparison.”
reminiscent of the great opera houses of Europe, with carved wooden panelling
and ornate stuccos, the Royal Opera House Muscat also features technological
innovations that make this one of the most state-of-the-art theatres in the
are located on the back of every seat so patrons can read translated subtitles
of each performance. More impressive, though, is the ability to transform the
auditorium from a proscenium style theatre, characterised by its arched
ceiling, curtained stage and orchestra pit, into a symphonic concert hall – a
shoebox shaped music hall with a flat ceiling – at the touch of a button.
versatility has enabled the venue to host anything from jazz concerts and
African brass bands to Shakespeare productions and ballets – art forms that
have found a new fan base in the Gulf, said Nasser Al-Taee, an advisor to the opera
house’s board of directors. “Our tickets are sold out months in advance, which
is not part of our culture because we Omanis like to be more spontaneous,” he said.
“The trend is catching on – other countries in the Gulf are interested in
having similar organisations – and that’s a good thing for the region.”
theatre’s success is also beneficial for international visitors, who can watch
world-class performances in a world-class venue for less than they would pay in
the theatres back home; tickets for shows start from as little as one rial and
opera tickets can be purchased for half what you would pay in more established
venues. When it comes to the performing arts, the stage is set for great things
in the Gulf.