Muscat Royal Opera House dazzles

Friday 15/01/2016
The lavish interior of the Royal Opera House in Muscat.

Muscat - Set in beautifully manicured gardens in the Omani capi­tal’s posh seaside area of Shati al-Qurm, the Royal Opera House Muscat is a grand celebration of international culture and a high point of enter­tainment life in the Gulf region.
The opera house has won interna­tional acclaim by hosting an impres­sive array of international talents since its opening in October 2011. Performers have included Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and Italy’s Andrea Bocelli, American soprano Renee Fleming and 15-time Gram­my Award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Built by the architects who de­signed Muscat’s Grand Mosque, the opera house is reminiscent of the great music halls of Europe. Its dazzling white marble exterior and magnificent interior of carved wooden panelling and arabesque designs is a triumph of contempo­rary Islamic architecture. The opu­lence is paralleled with technologi­cal innovations in stage-setting and acoustics, making Muscat’s opera house a state-of-the-art theatre.
“It is unique in the whole region and the only opera house in the Arab [Gulf] countries. Its architec­ture is a mixture of Omani, Moroc­can, Mongol and modern styles,” explains Nasser al-Taee, adviser to the opera’s board of directors for education and outreach.
“It is mainly a place for (cultural) education and we give a special at­tention to children and students. We host many arts exhibitions and workshops to educate young Oma­nis.”
He said the ceiling was carved from teak imported from India, the marble came from Italy and the lights arrived from Austria. Yet the opera house is more than just a lav­ish building.
“We have a unique technology (by which) spectators can read the opera on individual touchscreens in front of each seat with the option to choose between different languag­es,” Taee said.
Although a gigantic organ weigh­ing “50 tons with 4,500 pipes” as is the centrepiece, the opera house’s most impressive feature is the abil­ity to transform from a theatre with arched ceiling, curtained stage and orchestra pit, into a shoebox-shaped music hall with a flat ceil­ing, appropriate for rock concerts.
“The Muscat Royal Opera House is built with the latest technology and can host operas as well as con­certs, with the transformation of the platform at the touch of a but­ton,” Taee explained.
This versatility has enabled the venue to host a range of events: from jazz concerts and African brass bands to Shakespeare produc­tions and ballets, he added.
A music lover, Omani Sultan Qa­boos bin Said Al Said is the mas­termind behind the opera house, which has 200 employees, 60% of whom are Omanis.
The season starts in September and ends in May, offering more than 100 performances a year. There’s a strict dress code: Jeans, for in­stance, are not permitted.
Lead stage technician Herberto Steele, who worked for more than 25 years at the opera house in his native Verona, Italy, said he marvels at the equipment available in Mus­cat.
“I was astonished with the ar­chitecture and the top-of-the-art equipment,” Steele said. “I never saw in any other opera house in the world (such) a system like the one we have here for the concerts… The massive shell made from wood that moves on rails from upstage to down stage and that matches per­fectly the apron of the scene takes half an hour to be set.”
Steele manages a 15-person team of expatriate technicians and 20 Omani trainees who set up scenes and manage changes during perfor­mances.
“The setup of a big show, like the opera Turandot for instance, takes almost one week followed by another ten days for rehearsal. The stage technical team can reach 40 people in total for this kind of show,” he added.
Since acoustics is a key to the success of any music theatre, the task of setting up the sound sys­tem was assigned to world-renown professionals in the business, Taee pointed out. “The Germans were designated for that field, bring­ing in some of the best acoustics equipment in the world, while the English were the ones who built the stage,” he said.
Muscat Royal Opera House perfor­mances have been drawing foreign and Arab audiences from around the region, Taee said. “Though no official statistics exist, at least 6% come from the Gulf region and a few are fans of famous artists who follow their idol wherever they are,” he said.
Built on a plot of 80,000 sq. me­tres, with room for 1,100 spectators, the opera house is used extensively to educate Omani children about art and music.
“We have school children visit­ing us every Monday to learn about opera,” Taee said. “During the sea­son 2014-15, the place hosted 2,400 pupils aged 10-12 years from public and private schools who participat­ed in The Magic Flute by Mozart, an interactive opera specially designed for children.”
Steele says working at the Muscat Royal Opera House is fulfilling: “I am very happy where I am now and I don’t want to put a deadline for my career in Muscat.
“Since childhood I’ve been listen­ing to classical music. I was amazed with the quality of the productions and the acoustics. Anywhere you are in the building the sound is sim­ply fantastic.”