Held on Friday at Doha’s Lusail Stadium, the event featured the debut of a spirited original musical called The Lost Chapter of Kelileh and Demneh. The half-hour production featured actors portraying 24 animals native to Asia and the Middle East, some of which no longer exist.
There was the extinct Asiatic lion, last seen in Iraq's lower Tigris region over a century ago, as well the river dolphin of South Asia (often found in India), the oryx from Qatar and the Indonesian Sumatran tiger.
The stars of the show, however, were two jackals from another time.
First appearing in the ancient Indian text Panchatantra, a collection of fables dating back to 200BC, Kelileh and Demneh are adventurous siblings whose interactions with their environment provide lessons on the importance of tolerance, ethics and wisdom.
On a Doha stage ornately decorated with forests and deserts, the duo guide a traveller on a journey into a mythical universe where he learns about the “the goal of being whole”.
This is not the end of the line for the production. Katara Studios, the production company behind the opening ceremony, aims to transform the mini spectacle into a fully-fledged Arabic musical that is expected to tour the country, the Gulf and perhaps the world.
“We have already secured funding for the development of the project and we have promoters in place who want to take it on board,” Katara Studios executive producer Hussein Fakhri tells The National.
“The plan is to launch it to the world with the opening ceremony and straight after we will develop the full live experience and basically make it like a musical on steroids.
“We hope to have it ready to premiere in Q1 of 2025 in Doha and then tour the GCC in places like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”
While the production will be a family-friendly affair, the company's director of film Luca Bercovici reveals a darker and more visceral take on Kelileh and Demneh for a planned television series.
“The stage show is the starting point and after that we are heading straight into developing a television series which will be wider in scope,” he says.
“There will be more animals, with their own tribes and there will be battles.”
With Katara Studios already producing the post-apocalyptic series Medinah and The Pact, Bercovici says bringing Kelileh and Demneh to the small screen is a more natural fit for the company.
“If you look at the Asian Cup opening ceremony, we did it with a more cinematic eye, which is rather unusual for a football tournament,” he says.
“But the characters we created for the ceremony were done specifically with the tournament in mind.”
The Doha event was four months in the making and featured a local and international crew from music composers and dance choreographers to film and television stage designers.
Costumes were co-designed by Diana Cilliers who worked on Sci-fi thriller District 9 and American period drama The Salvation. Singers enlisted to record and perform include popular Qatari folk singer Fahad Al Hajjaji, in the role of Demnah, and Lebanese singer and musicologist Abeer Nehme as the desert flower Thanon.
Dressed in a flowing purple and gold gown, Nehme describes the musical format as different to the orchestral concerts she and her peers are used to.
“It has its own challenges and you are singing from a different perspective,” she tells The National.
“But it is also an amazing and important experience because you are working with so many different people who have their own ideas, there is all this technology and a musical message that appeals to everyone.”
Fusing the global outlook of an international sporting tournament with the regional sensibilities of the host region was left to the show’s Egyptian composer Ehab Abdel Wahed – who also created the tournament's official theme song Hadaf.
“Just like a football always circulating around the pitch during a big match, I wanted to keep the energy coursing throughout all the music,” he says.
“With that being the guiding principle, it was all about adding the different flavours of the Arab world, whether it’s from the Gulf percussion or the rich Arab flavours of the Levant. The music shows what the Arab world is today, which is proud and modern.”
Abdel Wahed hopes the ceremony can help resuscitate the current stagnant state of the Arabic musical.
“Look, it’s an expensive endeavour for promoters because unlike a standard stage play, there is a bigger cast, multiple sets, costumes and an orchestra performing,” he says.
“But what I won’t accept is this notion that I hear, at times, about musicals being something foreign to the region.”
The golden age of Arabic cinema – as far back as seventy years ago – was full of musicals.
“Hopefully, what we are trying to do here in Doha is remind people that this art form is also part of our heritage.”
Expect the full production of The Lost Chapter of Kelileh and Demneh to take its cues from Arabic folklore and storytelling traditions, Fakhri says.
“I feel this is what people want now,” he says.
“I have seen this remarkable shift now in the region in this big desire for Arabic content, Arabic characters and Arabic brands. We just want to tell great Arabic stories because there is so much to share.”