50 living | middle eastern opera houses
WRITER: Irene McConnell
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Keeping Up with the Opera When Muscat’s Royal Opera House opened in October 2011, we predicted that it would have the potential to change the way the arts are viewed not only in Oman, but also region-wide. Fast-forward a few years and that prophecy is proving true as ever more opera houses emerge in the Arab world.
n October 2012, Guiseppe Verdi’s classic Aida became the first opera to be performed in Qatar, at the Katara Opera House where the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra runs a flourishing programme. And 2016 is set to see the opening of two more world-class opera houses, currently under construction in Kuwait and Dubai, signalling a new fascination with this classical art form spreading across the Gulf. So why is classical opera, with its roots in 16th century Italy, suddenly catching on in the 21st century Middle East? The answer appears to be that it’s part of a wider shift away from the prevalent mall culture, or what we would call fast food culture, towards a slower, more evolved Culture – with a capital C. Take Kuwait, where the Emir, Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, has put ambitious plans into place to construct a total of seven enormous cultural centres over the coming years. British architect Richard McDowell, whose firm, BDP Architects was appointed by the state to design the first of these centres, known as the Sabah Al Ahmad Cultural Centre, explains that the aim of the project is to change local attitudes towards how leisure time is spent. “Kuwait’s a very proud country but it doesn’t have a long history, it’s only 50 years old,” he notes. “[The government] was looking to enrich the lives and the experiences of the people and emphasise feelings of national pride. So the cultural centre we worked on isn’t just about performance, it has a children’s library and a museum of calligraphy; they’re looking to educate as well as entertain. The idea was that instead of going to a mall in the
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52 living | middle eastern opera houses
Previous spread: The Royal Opera House Muscat became the first in the world to be equipped with multimedia interactive display seatback systems. Above: According to its developer, Emaar Properties, the Dubai Opera House is set to be completed on time, in March of this year. Below: The 2,000-seat, multi-format performing arts venue will be centrepiece of Dubai’s ‘Opera District’, a new hub featuring hotels, a retail plaza, waterfront promenades and recreational spaces situated around design studios, art galleries and other cultural venues intended to create a “vibrant cultural scene”.
evening, you’d go to a cultural centre.” Plans for the site set to contain the new opera house, the Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre, began after those for the Sabah Al Ahmad Cultural Centre, but McDowell says it’s on target to be completed first. “The foot is very much on the gas to get the opera house finished, because one of the crown princes has an interest in opera,” he explains. “I think all eyes are on the opera house at the moment, because that is the jewel of the cultural centre that they’re starting off with, the first of the seven.” Designed by SSH Architects, the Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Bespoke
Cultural Centre is set to contain state-of-the-art theatres, concert halls, cinemas, conferences, exhibitions halls and a library, in addition to the opera house. Full details have yet to be released but we know that the facilities will be housed in four buildings situated within an expanse of parkland. The exterior contrasts decorative geometric patterns inspired by traditional Islamic architecture with a sleek, contemporary composition made up of titanium, while the interior will feature world-class facilities, including an opera house design that’s characterised by flowing, ergonomic lines and minimalist décor. Meanwhile in Dubai, a multi-billion dirham masterpiece designed by architecture giants Atkins is set to open in March this year, giving its name to the new Opera District (even though the district is set to feature a museum of modern art, galleries and design studios, as well as luxury hotels and residences, parks and a waterfront promenade). At the centre of it all sits Dubai Opera, whose swooping metal roof and slanting glass façade are reminiscent of the shape of a traditional Arabian dhow fishing boat. The bow of the building will contain the main stage, orchestra and 2,000-seat auditorium, as well as a sky garden and restaurant, while the hull features waiting areas for spectators, a taxi-drop off area and parking. What makes the venue truly unique however, is its versatility. The Dubai Opera is designed to switch between three modes – theatre, concert hall and “flat floor” form. In theatre mode, it
will be perfectly adapted to host operatic, theatrical and ballet performances, as well as lectures and conferences. It can be transformed into a concert hall by a series of towers erected on stage, which form an acoustic shell that surrounds the orchestra, while overhead reflectors further enhance the sound, making it ideal for concerts, comedy shows and children’s entertainment. In “flat floor” mode it can host seated banquets for up to 1000 guests, as well as weddings, trade shows, receptions and exhibitions. Dubai Opera was announced by Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum in March 2012 and the developer, Emaar began talks with prominent international performers and ensembles as early as 2013. The programming looks set to have an international bent, bringing world-famous talent to perform in Dubai but local artists will also participate, according to Emaar’s chairman Mohamed Alabbar. In early 2015 Jasper Hope, former chief operating officer of London’s Royal Albert Hall, was appointed as chief executive of the new opera house. Over in Doha, the Katara Opera House seems to have struck a balance between international and local talent. Since opening in 2010, the venue has served as the permanent home of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, which performs both Western and Arabic music. With a diverse make-up of international musicians, the orchestra has been led by prestigious conductor Dmitrij Kitajenko since September 2015. Back in Muscat, the trailblazing Royal Opera House is has
Top left: The Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre is being built at the former flag square opposite the church in Kuwait City and it’ll encompass four structures: an opera house, a music centre, a theatre and a library. All will feature titanium façade and interiors free from any structural pillars. Top right: The Opera House in Doha is located in Katara, a cultural village between West Bay and the Pearl, where you’ll also find an open amphitheater, a multi-purpose cinema, a mixed-use conference hall, a beach and a souk.
settled into its stride. Over the past few years, it has hosted operatic performances by stars including Placido Domingo, Andrea Bocelli and Renée Fleming, concerts by Yo Yo Ma and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and productions by the American Ballet Theatre, the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the Mariinsky Ballet. It also boasts the only orchestra in the Middle East comprising musicians who are entirely from this region. While the regional trend towards opera as an art form is still in its burgeoning stages, the early success of Muscat’s Royal Opera House and the Doha’s Katara Opera House bode well for the ambitious projects underway in Kuwait and Dubai. Perhaps the emphasis on opera as part of a drive towards cultural pursuits more generally comes down to its reputation as High Art, an acquired taste for those with a certain calibre of finesse and education. Whatever the basis of its appeal, opera may yet come to be synonymous with this region’s state-of-the-art venues – so, watch this space. Bespoke
In this issue Bespoke explores SSH’s Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre.