In the past five years the art of opera has taken the Middle East by storm. Selections takes a look at the history and upcoming programmes of the Royal Opera House Muscat, the Katara Opera House and the new Dubai Opera

The Middle East, famous for its rich tradition of music and dance, is not immediately associated with Western-style opera. In the past few years, however, this has begun to change. Five years ago, the Royal Opera House Muscat, in Oman, opened its doors, and in August this year the stunningly designed Dubai Opera began its inaugural season. In Qatar, the Katara Opera House is the only venue of its kind in the country and is home to the renowned Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. The Royal Opera House (ROH) Muscat is located in the Shati Al-Qurm district. It was built on the orders of Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said, who is a fan of classical music and the arts. The design of the opera house reflects both contemporary Omani architecture and an Italianate influence that is very much in the tradition of opera houses the world over. Before it opened, Iman Al Hindawi, the then director general of ROH Muscat, described it as a “stunning venue that will pay tribute to diverse artistic and cultural expressions from around the world.”

The opera house is part of a complex designed to “enrich lives through diverse artistic, cultural and educational programmes.” Facilities include a concert theatre, auditorium and an arts centre for musical and theatrical productions. The opera house auditorium can accommodate an audience of 1100 and has embraced the latest in technology with a multimedia interactive display seatback system. It was officially opened on October 12, 2011, with a production of the opera Turandot, conducted by Spanish opera star Plácido Domingo. Artists performing at the venue have included soprano Renée Fleming, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Mariinsky Ballet and Majida El Roumi. The 2016-17 season began with performances of the opera Roméo et Juliette, by Charles Gounod, which ran from September 29 to October 1. It was one of many events around the world to mark the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Another notable event was the appearance of Palestinian singer and Arab Idol winner Mohammed Assaf with MESTO, the renowned Multi-Ethnic Star Orchestra, which combines ethnic music genres with those of Western classical traditions. The Times of Oman described the show on October 8 as having “great flair and energy.” Upcoming events include the ballet Anna Karenina (December 15), Placido Domingo in Concert (January 11) and the opera Eugene Onegin (January 19 and 21), which lead off a huge variety of other events throughout the year.

While Muscat’s ROH is largely traditional in design, the same cannot be said for the sweeping, dhow-shaped building of Dubai Opera in Downtown Dubai – often billed as “the most prestigious square kilometre in the world.” The building’s shape is a tribute to Dubai’s maritime history and is the work of architect Janus Rostock. The design allows transformation from a theatre into a concert hall, or into a flat-floored space for events and wedding parties. This flexibility enables Dubai Opera to host a wide variety of performances and events, including theatre, opera, ballet and orchestra performances, concerts, family shows, comedy shows, conferences and art exhibitions. In theatre mode the auditorium seats up to 2000 people. When transformed into a concert hall, an acoustic shell around the orchestra provides excellent sound quality. With autumn 2016 as Dubai Opera’s opening season, chief executive officer Jasper Hope – who was previously at the helm of London’s Royal Albert Hall – expressed his feelings to Selections about the months and years ahead. “The biggest challenge is the most exciting element of the whole thing,” he said. “Nobody has done this before, in Dubai or even in the U.A.E. This is a very important step for a city, for an Emirate, for a country, to take – to have its first opera house. That is amazingly exhilarating and challenging. It’s Dubai’s Opera and that’s a very important thing to remember. I consider us to be part of a community. We are a resource for everybody and I want everybody to feel a part of Dubai Opera.” Hope decided to make the ballets Giselle and Coppélia amongst the first performances in the new building and they were staged over the weekend of September 16 this year.

“Dance,” he explained, “is an essential component of everything about Dubai Opera. In this part of the world, in the U.A.E., there isn’t so much of a history of opera performance, but dance (without the input of language) and music have played a big part for a very long time. And it is sometimes easier for an audience who doesn’t have the experience of opera to get into classical performance through dance. And that’s a great thing we are able to offer.” This season’s productions include the popular musical Les Misérables, which is coming to Dubai for the first time from November 10 to December 2; The Nutcracker On Ice from December 6 to 10, and, in 2017, the musicals Cats and West Side Story and The BBC Proms.

The Katara Opera House in Doha is a blend of modern Western architecture and traditional Islamic design and has a seating capacity of 550. It is part of the Katara Cultural Village, a project opened in 2010, comprising theatres, concert halls and exhibition galleries. While the arts complex of which it is part hosts varied events, the opera house itself is chiefly the home of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, which performs and promotes Western and Oriental music in order to inspire people within the Arab world “to create and enjoy music.” The Qatar Philharmonic stages around 40 different programmes each year at the opera house, which opened in December 2010 with the world premiere of Marcel Khalifé’s Rababa Concerto. Past touring performances include the 2014 BBC Proms at The Royal Albert Hall in London, the Kennedy Center in Washington, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the Konzerthaus in Vienna for the 50th anniversary of OPEC and the Syrian Opera House in Damascus. The orchestra has also performed for the United Nations General Assembly and at the opening of the Katara Cultural Village Amphitheatre, with music by Vangelis and the voices of Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna. In October 2012, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Aida was staged in the amphitheatre, the first opera to be performed in Qatar.

Upcoming events at Katara Opera House include: Family Concert: Carnival of the Animals on November 4, Music of Germany and Qatar on February 1 and 2 and Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony on February 11.

By Anastasia Nysten

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Performing Arts Issue #39, pages 54-58.