I was bedazzled by a night at the Dubai Opera

Plácido Domingo takes to the stage at the first night of the Dubai Opera. Courtesy of Dubai Opera
Plácido Domingo takes to the stage at the first night of the Dubai Opera. Courtesy of Dubai Opera

I grew up listening to opera because my parents listened to it all the time. Naturally, I hated it. All that screeching and bellowing, the violins sawing away in the background – who could possibly enjoy all that noise? Amazing to think that I could have such strong opinions, given that my eight-track tape player featured a steady rotation of music that I’m now too embarrassed even to mention.

But as perhaps is the way with parents and children, now one of my chief pleasures is listening to opera – and going to the opera when I can. In New York, my husband and I inherited his mother’s season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera: good seats in the first balcony, just off centre. No matter how harried I’d been earlier in the day, there was something soothing about that magical moment when the chandeliers, which to me looked like rock crystal candies, dimmed and the audience grew still in anticipation.

I’m not the sort of opera fan who can rattle off the names of this or that performer from this or that production. Truth be told, I occasionally get my Rossini confused with my Verdi, but I love the music, which is why we found ourselves last week speeding towards the brand-new Dubai Opera to see The Barber of Seville.

Of course, getting to the opera house from Abu Dhabi means once again trying to teach the GPS that in Dubai you frequently go left to make a right turn, or you need to go up, U-turn and come back down, or that what Siri thinks is a cross street is in fact a four-lane bridge going over your current position. Once we’d negotiated that, however, we found ourselves at the Dubai Opera, which gleams like a bubble at the foot of the Burj Khalifa. The lobbies on every floor offer stunning views of the Burj and the fountains, and many operagoers took advantage of those views as backgrounds for that 21st-century art form known as the selfie.

I won’t try to explain the plot of the opera, in part because there are very few 19th-century opera plots that will bear sustained scrutiny. Opera plots, actually, sort of resemble Dubai traffic patterns: knots, loops, curlicues and unexpected resolutions. You may know The Barber, however, because it contains the aria sung by the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker: “Fi-ga-ro, Fi-ga-ro.”

The performances onstage, however, were matched – perhaps even exceeded – by the performances going on in the lobbies before the show and during intermission. Even in New York, in our not-so-expensive seats, we would see people in gowns and tuxedoes: there is something about opera that makes people want to dress to the nines. You can imagine, then, what happened when opera met the dress-to-the-elevens sensibility of Dubai. Diamonds! Gowns! Skitteringly high heels! Bejewelled abayas! Eyelashes out to here and hair piled up to there! The Kardashians would have felt right at home. Call me cynical, but I think it’s entirely possible that some people were there for the selfies, not the music.

Regardless, the theatre was packed; diamonds and iPhones gleamed as we waited for the performance to begin. People snapped photos of the auditorium, which evokes the history of the Arab peninsula – curved wooden stalls that echo the shape of dhows, and arabesque latticework on the walls. Looking around the auditorium, I had one of those moments that can only happen in a place like Abu Dhabi or Dubai: there we were, in a 21st-century auditorium whose architecture evokes the ancient world, listening to a 19th-century opera written and sung in Italian but set in Spain, with captioning in English and Arabic, for an audience who, if my eavesdropping in the lobby was accurate, spoke just about every language in the world.

It was, all in all, an amazing evening.

And the singing was pretty good too. My parents, and my mother-in-law, would have loved it.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi

Published: September 8, 2016 04:00 AM

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