How Saudi Arabia's big and bold grand opera Zarqa Al Yamama echoes today's concerns

Production inspired by an ancient Arabian folk tale features English opera star Sarah Connolly, Italian tenor Serena Farnocchia and Saudi soprano Sawsan Al Bahiti

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Saudi Arabia ushered itself into the opera world with the premiere of the lush production, Zarqa Al Yamama.

Performed yesterday at the redeveloped Sheikh Fahad Cultural Centre in Riyadh, it is touted as the first grand opera – a format defined by its serious plot and continuous music – staged in the kingdom.

The occasion was recognised by Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah, who called the production “a celebration of Saudi intangible cultural heritage” in the programming notes.

Developed by Saudi Arabia’s Theatre and Performing Arts Commission, the work features an international cast led by English opera star Sarah Connolly, Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia and Saudi singer Sawsan Al Bahiti.

Written by Saudi Arabian playwright Saleh Zamanan, the nearly two-and-a-half-hour production is performed entirely in Arabic and is based on a pre-Islamic Arabian story about a woman blessed with foresight who unsuccessfully warns her tribe of imminent danger.

In a previous interview with The National, Connolly said the international cast members took intensive Arabic classes to nail their vocals. The Riyadh season ends on May 4, with plans to tour the production regionally and internationally.

When that transpires, new audiences will have a lot to take in as Zarqa Al Yamama is an ambitious and, ultimately, affecting work echoing some of today’s concerns.

Set in the deserts of ancient Arabia, the story looks at how two powerful Arabian tribes, motivated by pride and grievance, ignore the advice of the title character to ultimately annihilate each other in battle.

As well as critiquing some of the sexism contributing to their demise, the work provides a timely reminder on the catastrophic consequences of ignoring sage advice in times of conflict.

Speaking to The National after the premiere, Al Bahiti, whose role as the bridesmaid serves as bearing witness to the ensuing war, says Zarqa Al Yamama is an apt choice as the kingdom’s first international opera production.

“It is an important story because of what Zarqa represents,” she says. “Here is a strong woman with powerful capabilities and has the foresight of being wise to warrant a leadership position. I do genuinely feel that this is what we are striving to do here in Saudi Arabia when it comes to the support of women, not only in the arts but across all sectors of society. I feel like I am a beneficiary of this already.”

Reportedly hailed as Saudi Arabia's first professional opera singer, it seems like Al Bahiti's moves have all been leading up to this moment.

With no opera conservatories available in the kingdom, she took private courses as a soloist before opening one of the kingdom’s first singing schools, The Soulful Voice Institute, in Riyadh in 2018. A year later she made her debut performance at the Sheikh Fahad Cultural Centre, accompanying the orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala Academy.

“I honestly believe in the power of manifestation and having a visual is always the first step in bringing something to life,” she says. “Then again, it's not only one person's job but that of a whole tribe. I feel that here in Saudi Arabia right now, the collective society decided that we want to go for this and the government has laid the foundation for us to achieve something so grand in such a quick time.”

Daniele Finzi Pasca says the time it took to execute the production is a testament to the drive of the Saudi talent and production crew. With the opera marking the first event held at the Sheikh Fahad Cultural Centre since closing for renovations in 2020, the veteran Swiss stage director and choreographer says some of the creative and technical rehearsals took place during the late hours of Ramadan.

“Everybody was working in unison. You had the people working to finish this amazing facility and we had the creative talent and crew also pushing to make this show the best it can be,” he says.

“This is special for me because I never felt this experience before of being part of something bigger, like some form of cultural revolution. And I see this in the eyes of the Saudi actors who were so incredible and full of enthusiasm. You can tell it was something very important for them.”

That hands-on approach extended to the Saudi singers acting as dialogue coaches for their international peers.

“I am one of four Arab speakers in the cast, so it felt personal for me to help all the international singers achieve the most correct Arabic when performing,” Al Bahiti says.

“While there are some general challenges with certain letters and pronunciation, I think our production proves how the Arabic language is rich enough to adapt to opera.”

Zamanan says it took him nearly two years to complete the libretto for Zarqa Al Yamama.

“The plan was always for this to be an international production that can tour in regions like Europe,” he says. “So, I spent a lot of time focused on editing some the longer text and making the story more direct and clear.”

Zarqa Al Yamana can resonate with international audiences, Zamanam notes, because it embodies the tragic and historical story elements long associated with grand operas.

“The heritage of the Arabian Peninsula is a gold mine that hasn't been explored yet in opera and it can be a platform to discuss important subjects,” he says.

“With Zarqa Al Yamama, we look at how hatred and pride can break people apart, how constant injustice can be brutalising to the human spirit and how its consequences can be so severe. We are talking about a really sad story but whose wisdom is needed now much more than ever.”

Zarqa Al Yamama runs until May 4 at the King Fahad Cultural Centre. The show starts at 8.30pm. Tickets are 100 Saudi riyals ($26) from

Updated: April 26, 2024, 6:04 PM