Dubai's Expo 2020 opera is a sweeping drama of humanity's struggle to survive

A talented cast of 150 performers will present the two-hour stage production of 'Al Wasl' in Arabic and English

Al Ain, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: N/A: Shams dips his hands into the falaj at Al Ain Oasis. Tuesday, December 17th, 2019. Al Ain Oasis, Al Ain. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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The first Emirati opera will tell the story of humanity's survival and of its capacity to destroy its habitat in a lavish production to premiere at Expo 2020.

The two-hour stage performance will feature 150 performers and musicians singing in English and Arabic.

Aidan Lang, general director of the Welsh National Opera, is working with Emirati composer Mohammed Fairouz and librettist Maha Gargash to deliver Al Wasl next October.

"I can't think of many works that span such a panoramic structure. It's a bold vision with a big theme that has something to offer people at every single level," Mr Lang told The National.

At the heart is an important message as the opera takes us to where we are today and to a global crisis in the future

The opera’s title means ‘connection’ in Arabic and references the historic name for Dubai as a crossroads of global trade. Four performances are currently planned.

Mr Lang was in Dubai this week to listen to the first reading by Mr Fairouz.

They were joined by a select group of audience members, as a mammoth task begins to pull together a performance that stretches from the Iron Age to the 22nd century.

“It’s about one of the most pressing themes facing humanity – our survival, climate change with a very neat parallel of Saruq Al Hadid and why it disappeared," Mr Lang said.

Saruq Al Hadid is an archaeological site 60 kilometres south of Dubai. It was an early desert settlement that thrived from the Bronze Age until the early Islamic period and was rediscovered in 2002.

What remains a mystery is how it traded as a metal hub despite being more than 40km from the waters of the Gulf – crucial for smelting and trading – its distance from the precious cooper-ore mountains of Oman and, crucially, what happened to its inhabitants.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid visits the excavations site at Saruq Al Hadid in 2016. Mystery surrounds how the settlement thrived and what led to its demise. Wam
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid visits the excavations site at Saruq Al Hadid in 2016. Mystery surrounds how the settlement thrived and what led to its demise. Wam

"At its heart is an important message as the opera takes us to where we are today and to a global crisis in the future in 2153," Mr Lang said.

“The beauty is it deals with big themes without lecturing, and the music has the ability to speak universally.”

Performing to a score composed by Mr Fairouz and lyrics by Ms Gargash is nearly 150 global artists and musicians who will bring thousands of years of Emirati heritage to life.

The workshop on Monday at the Dubai Opera set the tone for Mr Lang to absorb the scale of the work.

“This is when it leaps from a printed page into life and we get a sense of the piece as a whole,” he said.

“The beauty of a new work is this period of discovery. For the first time we see the flow of the piece, the dramatic pulse, how long are each of the scenes; this is what we need to know as a presenting company.”

Before taking up his current role in Wales this year, returning to the company that started his career in the mid-1980s, Mr Lang spent five years in Seattle. He is credited as the driving force who threw open the doors to younger audiences.

On his watch, visitor numbers grew from 67,000 to 85,000, with millennial audiences quadrupling during his Seattle tenure, according to media reports.

He said the key were education and engagement programmes. Expo officials have planned outreach initiatives with music masterclasses, courses in costume design and theatrical make-up to encourage interest.

Mr Lang has a message for people who stay away because opera is a difficult art form in a language they don’t understand.

The Dubai performance will include ‘surtitles’ or simultaneous translations projected on to a screen above the stage. This has been the practice for more than a decade as opera companies across the world attempt to attract people reluctant to listen to performances in Italian, French or German.

In the new UAE opera, the Arabic first act will include English translations and Arabic surtitles for the next two acts sung in English.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Ramola Talwar: Adian Lang, general director of the Welsh National Opera. He is working with Emirati writers and composers to produce the first UAE opera planned by the Expo. Monday, December 16th, 2019. Downtown, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Aidan Lang, pictured in Dubai this week, is working with Emirati composer Mohammed Fairouz and librettist Maha Gargash. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“It’s just like subtitles below the screen in a foreign language film. Simultaneous translations are important because it takes away a barrier,” he said.

This will be the first time his team from the Welsh National Opera will perform in Arabic, but that does not faze Mr Lang.

Apart from singing in German, Italian and French, artists from the company are accustomed to picking up the lyrics in languages they do not speak, including Czech and Russian, in several performances overseas.

A few acting roles will be cast in the UAE with selections made by the Dubai Opera and the Expo.

The next phase will soon begin with singers memorising the lyrics, using audio files to perfect the Arabic intonation to be checked by coaches for accuracy and clarity.

Dubai, April, 16, 2019: (L) Emirati composer Mohammed Fairouz and (R) Emirati librettist Maha Gargash gestures during the media conference at the Dubai Opera in Dubai. Satish Kumar/ For the National / Story by Anna Zacharias
Composer Mohammed Fairouz and librettist Maha Gargash pictured at Dubai Opera in April. Satish Kumar for The National

The orchestra will read through the music in July and full rehearsals with the scenery will take place in studios in Cardiff in August, after which the scenery will be shipped to Dubai.

“It’s a continuous process of creation,” Mr Lang said.

“Our aim is to be absolutely perfect in Cardiff with the singers and orchestra, and then pick it up here.”

As preparatory work gets under way, Mr Lang is excited about the ground-breaking new venture.

“If we can get people curious enough to say they will give it a go, that is the first step,” he said.

“In Seattle, we got new people in because we didn’t only send messages to people we knew would come anyway, but to people who had never been to an opera before.”