Muscat Royal Opera House dazzles
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.”