Dallas — I recently returned from an overseas business trip, which included visiting my friend and colleague Christina Scheppelmann in Oman—home to one of the world’s most beautiful opera houses. Christina is the Director General of the Royal Opera House Muscat, a role she assumed in 2012. While I was there, I also had the chance to see TDO’s Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume, conduct a splendid concert featuring Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina. More about that later.
The Royal Opera House Muscat opened in 2011, and is the vision of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said. The initial planning began in 2001, a contract was awarded in 2004, and construction work began three years later. The Grand Opening was celebrated in September 2011 with a performance of Puccini’s Turandot conducted by Plácido Domingo. The formal inauguration by His Majesty took place on October 12, 2011.
As a city, Muscat has been an important port on the Arabian Sea for two thousand years, and Ptolemy’s Map of Arabia from the first century refers to the current location of Muscat as Cryptus Portus (“the hidden port”). Like many port cities, Muscat has not only encouraged trade and commerce, but also the continued and varied interchange of different cultures, civilizations and ideas – in this case, for at least the past twenty centuries. The Sultan’s “Royal Address” regarding the opera house speaks eloquently to this point: he notes that “In all of our international endeavors, we enact Oman’s wider mission in playing a constructive role in the dialogue between civilizations, enriching cultural exchange and fostering ties of friendship that will endure.” He concludes by saying, “We have no doubt that the Royal Opera House Muscat will contribute to the expansion of world heritage in its noble ideals of peace, harmony, and understanding among all people, as they share meaningful and deeply held cultural legacies through the performing arts.”
By any measure, the Royal Opera House and its associated gardens, as well as the adjacent Opera Galleria for those who love to shop, are truly stunning. The architecture is inspired by Omani hill forts, especially in its use of crenellations, but realized on a much grander scale. The exterior facades are in white marble and travertine, which is particularly impressive when floodlit at night.
The interior incorporates many traditional Islamic elements, all hand-finished to an extraordinary level of detail: sequenced Islamic arches; wooden mashrabiya balcony screens; zouaq hand-painted decorations on wooden surfaces (including the magnificent ceiling); chemsiana plasterwork, which involves carving openings in plaster to let light through; and exquisite hand-woven Iranian carpets in the reception rooms. The majority of this work was completed by Omani craftsmen.
As a performance venue, the Royal Opera House is unique. It has two primary configurations: opera house or concert hall. A giant wooden concert shell on stage, weighing 730 tons, moves back and forth on railroad tracks to permit crews to make the switch between these two modes. This shell also includes a magnificent pipe organ with four manuals, 70 stops and 4,542 pipes, which shifts as an integrated and integral part of the acoustic shell back and forth during the changeover. Depending on the configuration, the hall seats between 850 and 1,100 people, and the acoustics are excellent. As one might expect, the backstage area includes a fully motorized fly tower and state-of-the-art stage facilities. The interior of the performance chamber is ornate and elegant, and the Grand Staircase in the lobby provides a dramatic welcome to visitors. A seatback supertitle system provides translations into Arabic and English.
Since taking up her post, the Director General has worked to program a wide range of Western classical arts—opera, symphony, ballet and jazz—as well as important and popular artists from the Far East and throughout the Islamic world and beyond. For example, in the month of March, the program includes the Ivory Coast singer Dobet Ghanoré; the “Ambassador of Kahliji song,” Abdullah al Ruwaishid; Chinese acrobats; and Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi presented by the opera company Arena di Verona. The audience is a diverse blend of local Omanis, Western expatriates, and tourists from all over the Middle East and beyond. (Muscat and its beaches are a popular draw.) Western classical performances, including entire symphony orchestras, are flown in regularly to perform.
The concert I attended reflected, in miniature, the Sultan’s remarkable vision for the Royal Opera House. It featured a French-born conductor (Maestro Villaume), a Russian soloist (Olga Borodina), and an Eastern European orchestra (the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra visiting from Bratislava). The program included French and Russian excerpts from a range of opera and symphonic works. Ms. Borodina’s interpretation of the “The Field of the Dead” from Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky Suite, was haunting and moving. Her flawless technique and rich tone were showcased beautifully in Konchakovna’s Cavatina from Borodin’s Prince Igor. She sang both of the arias from Saint-Saën’s Samson and Delilah to great effect (one in the main program, the other as an encore). In the spirit of cultural interchange, Ms. Borodina’s final number was Gershwin’s “Summertime”!
Under the direction of Maestro Villaume, the orchestra sounded exquisite, and partnered flexibly and sensitively with the soloist. To further reinforce the message of “East meets West” the program book was printed in both English and Arabic. Readers of English are accustomed to reading from left to right, so the English language version of the cover was on the left side. Readers of Arabic, of course, are accustomed to the reverse, so the Arabic-language version of the cover was on the right. The centerfold promoted future programming with the English text located on the left and Arabic text on the right—a further elegant example of cultural interchange.
In conclusion, the Sultan’s vision for the Royal Opera House as a center for cultural interchange and collaboration is rapidly becoming a reality. Muscat is not exactly next door to Dallas (it takes about 24 hours to get there), but the Opera House is so stunning, and the Sultan’s vision so compelling, I encourage all lovers of the arts to consider making a pilgrimage. I’m already planning to make a return visit with my family when I can!
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below is a list of previous columns:
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2013 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"
- February 2013 "Opera and Popular Culture"
- March 2013 "A Dangerous Experiment"
- April 2013 "The Case of the Jealous Mezzo"
- May 2013 "Winning the Red Queen's Race"
- June 2013 "Managing the Opera Company of the Future"
- July 2013 "Raked Over the Coals"
- August 2013 "Hogarth in Reverse"
- September 2013 "No Genuflecting Required"
- October 2013 "2B or Not 2B"
- November 2013 "Calling All Geeks"
- December 2013 "Stravinsky's Last Word"
- January 2014 "Opera Without Borders"
- February 2014 "To Be or Not To Be"
- March 2014 "A Mirror of His Time"