A look at Muscat's new opera house

With its traditional design that also features architectural structures required for mounting full-scale productions, the future is promising for Muscat's opera house.

Free of the pressures on space that face theatres in crowded city centres across the West, the Royal Opera House in Muscat incorporates leisurely colonnades and courtyards where audiences can relax in comfortable grandeur.
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When Makhar Vaziev, the artistic director of Milan's Scala Ballet, first received an invitation for the company to perform at a new opera house in Muscat, he admits he drew a blank.

"Honestly, when we received the invitation from Oman, we weren't sure what to do because we really didn't know anything about the place. In my time with both the Scala and [St Petersburg's] Mariinsky ballet I have never been involved in a performance in the Gulf before. It's completely new for me."

Vaziev's confusion is perhaps understandable. Oman's brand-new Royal Opera House, which stages its first performance at a gala on Friday, is an extremely novel project in a region where both opera and ballet are otherwise thin on the ground.

Cairo and Damascus are the only cities in the region that have opera houses worth the name - even cosmopolitan Beirut's former house is now a Virgin Megastore. Against this backdrop, Oman's new state-of-the-art, 1,100-seater venue's arrival seems exotic.

And sure enough, it has been making a splash even before opening. With a series of star performers any more-established venue would envy, tickets have sold out for both the opera house's inaugural performances of Puccini's Turandot, as well as for its gala performances by the tenors Plácido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli.

And, according to Vaziar, the venue is already getting an excellent word-of-mouth reputation among performers.

"When we asked around before our engagement to perform Giselle, we heard such fantastic things about Oman, about the new opera house, its repertoire and the level of the performers there, that we became very enthusiastic indeed. It's our first time in Oman, but we really hope it isn't our last"

Aesthetically, the new opera house is a hit too. Marrying the classic hump-backed opera house silhouette (necessary to fit in drop-down scenery) with a fringe of fort-like towers and cool colonnades, it's an imposing but human structure that incorporates Omani architectural traditions elegantly. Inside, its auditorium benefits from a loose, adjustable shell so that the stage's proscenium arch can be expanded or reduced to fit a production's scale.

By world opera-house standards, ROH Muscat's vast-sounding capacity of 1,100 spectators is actually fairly small. Paris's Opera Garnier can house 2,200, while the New York Met seats a massive 3,800 people at full capacity.

Muscat's more modest proportions need not be a drawback, however. They mean that even people sitting in the cheaper seats will get a decent view - not the case in vast auditoriums such as the Moscow Bolshoi.

But while the ROH Muscat's opening buzz is good, building a full-time venue is still a bold move in a region where opera and ballet barely have a foothold. Does it face an uphill struggle with audiences once its novelty has dimmed? After all, opera's grand gestures, unamplified but booming voices and often maze-like plots are an acquired taste even for people in countries with a vibrant opera culture. Won't these conventions seem too alien in Oman? Myrna Bustani, the artistic director of Lebanon's classical Al Bustan Festival, rejects the idea that Middle Eastern audiences might find opera too challenging.

"While you need to become accustomed to opera, ours is a region where everybody sings and where people have a deep appreciation of beautiful singing," she said. "We also have some truly wonderful voices in the Middle East."

Likewise, Till Janczukowicz, the artistic director of the Abu Dhabi Classics, rejects too rigid a separation between western and Middle Eastern musical traditions.

"The classical music of Europe would not have existed in its present form without the influence of music from the Arab world in the eighth and ninth centuries. And as this classical culture moved on from Europe - to the New World and Asia - certain things were added from each region. The Middle East is now simply taking part in this ongoing process," he says, adding: "Opera's stories of love and tragedy talk to people here in a very direct way."

Despite these votes of confidence from other Middle Eastern musical figures, the ROH Muscat team certainly seems to be suffering from pre-opening nerves.

Repeated requests for an interview with the artistic director were rejected; ultimately an unnamed spokesman pointed out via email that the Gulf is not the only region where opera can be an acquired taste.

"Even in Europe, as opera was introduced, it required a period of acclimation as audiences grew accustomed to the form, its conventions, its rituals and personas."

Furthermore, it went on, Muscat's citizens were neither all opera novices, nor were they being expected to sit through anything particularly taxing (say, all four days of Wagner's Ring cycle) in the city's first opera season.

"Muscat is an international city and many residents have already experienced opera," wrote the spokesman. "The ROHM has chosen this inaugural season's productions - Puccini's Turandot and Bizet's Carmen - as they are beloved mainstays of the worldwide canon."

Muscat's first season has certainly been carefully chosen, with a big name-packed schedule that mixes art forms from across the world and spans both high and popular culture. Alongside peaks from western art such as the Mariinsky Ballet performing Swan Lake and the American cellist Yo Yo Ma playing Dvor¿ák with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the programme also explores beyond the European tradition.

Among non-western performers, it includes the Universal Ballet of Korea and the Egyptian singer Riham Abdul Hakim performing the music of Oum Kalthoum. And while star billing goes to Domingo and Renee Fleming (arguably America's finest soprano) for gala concerts, it is not limited to a strict operatic or classical repertoire, introducing the veteran jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the operatic pop star Bocelli to Oman.

Opera-wise, Muscat's first offerings, Turandot and Carmen, may be popular choices, but they are also, thematically speaking, strong meat.

Even when safely distanced through period costume, the murder, theft and allusions to adultery in these works help explain why the term "operatic" is used to describe any drama full of passionate, unfettered emotion.

Crucially, these are not travelling productions but shows specially adapted and sometimes created for Muscat's stage.

Due on December 17, the opera house's Carmen will be directed by the Oscar-winning designer Gianni Quaranta.

Even the season's opener, the veteran director Franco Zeffirelli's hugely popular New York Met staging of Turandot, comes with new Muscat-only costumes, sets and cast.

Whether these high-calibre productions win audiences over, of course, remains to be seen - but for now at least, other than when it comes to talking about it, the Royal Opera House Muscat has not put a foot wrong.