British-Lebanese actor Nadim Naaman on why the Arab world can inspire the next big musical

The 'Phantom of the Opera' star says Arabic literature is full of great stories that can be told on stage

Nadim Naaman set to play titular role in Phantom of the Opera at Dubai Opera. Photo: Giulia Marangoni
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Performing in London’s West End can be a stage actor’s dream, but it is in venues off-the-beaten track where they can truly appreciate the universal power of the art form.

It’s what British-Lebanese actor Nadim Naaman relished when playing the title role in Broadway Entertainment Group's production of Phantom of the Opera.

The version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster musical begins its latest run at Dubai Opera next Thursday after a successful season in Riyadh last year.

“I have toured the Middle East in other shows and myself and the cast were always touched by how warm and genuine the audiences are,” Naaman tells The National.

“In Saudi Arabia for instance, some were not familiar with how Phantom of the Opera is structured and in turn became unsure whether to laugh, clap or cheer at some points.

“But I found that when the show ends and the lights come up when we take our bow, it is that response from the crowd that makes us all feel we are helping create a new theatre scene in the region.”

It is that hope that motivates Naaman to follow in the footsteps of acclaimed British actors Michael Crawford and Anthony Warlow in donning The Phantom’s black cloak and white mask for Riyadh and Dubai.

Based on the 1907 classic novel Le Fantome de L'Opera by Gaston Leroux, the story revolves around a French theatre company struggling under the weight of its Phantom; a musical prodigy who lives beneath the theatre. Mesmerised by the house's new vocal talent, Christine, he mentors her to become a star soprano. The resulting success, however, sends the Phantom into a jealous frenzy, and murder and mayhem ensue.

It's that brew of heady melodrama and melodies that helped propel the Phantom of the Opera to international success. It’s only a matter of time, Naaman notes, before an official Arabic version is launched in the region.

“And really why not? It has already been translated into 40 languages and a couple of months ago a new permanent production was launched in [South] Korea,” he says.

“With more people – including young actors, musicians and directors – living or moving to places like UAE and Saudi Arabia there will be a demand and desire to showcase their talents in their home cities.”

Telling our own stories

Born in London to a Lebanese father and a British mother, Naaman dipped his toes into musical theatre as part of the school choir.

“My teacher said I was really good and I should give it a go professionally. My father was supportive but said I should still go to university just in case,” Naaman recalls.

“So I did that and while I studied I would train in theatre in London and get that career going.”

After making his London West End debut in 2006 with The Sound of Music, Naaman landed roles in staples Chess and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street before his association with The Phantom of the Opera in 2014, in which he plays various roles.

Between gigs, Naaman also worked on his own passion project, a musical adaptation of acclaimed Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran's 1912 novel Broken Wings.

Unlike Gibran's most famous work The Prophet, this was the first stage adaptation of Broken Wings and received satisfactory reviews upon its London debut in 2018.

Naaman described bringing the show to Lebanon’s Beiteddine Festival in 2019 and Dubai Opera a year later as career highlights.

With Lloyd Webber seeking inspiration from French literature for Phantom of the Opera, Naaman says there is no reason why Arabic culture couldn't inspire the next internationally successful production.

Indeed, initiatives are already under way with Saudi Arabia’s Theatre and Performing Arts Commission launching its first grand opera Zarqa Al Yamama in Riyadh in April, with a plot inspired by a pre-Islamic Arabian story.

“We are still scratching the surface when it comes to stories from the Arab world that we can bring onstage,” Naaman says.

“And that is the coolest thing about the legacy of Arabic storytelling and literature because it is so vast, diverse and has so much history.

“Musicals are so accessible that it can be a perfect stage to bring our stories to the world.”

Phantom of the Opera will come to Dubai Opera from February 22 to March 10. Tickets start from Dh275;

Updated: February 16, 2024, 7:17 PM