Jeremy Pound takes a peek at the stylish Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman
The Royal Opera House Muscat is a mightily impressive sight. Visit it during the daytime and you’ll be dazzled both literally and metaphorically by its immaculate white marble façade – round here, you can pretty much take sunshine as read. But lit up at night, it is, if anything, even more eye-catching. Make your way inside, admiring the luxurious main lobby as you go, and you’ll find yourself in a 1,100seat auditorium, clad in hand-carved wood. It is all really rather swish.
This, though, is not an old and venerable building that has been welcoming the great and good of the opera world since time immemorial – the country of Oman itself has, after all, existed in its current form for less than half a century. In fact, the Royal Opera House Muscat staged its first ever performance as recently as October 2011, when Plácido Domingo conducted a performance of Puccini’s Turandot. In the five years since then, the list of those who have graced its stage has a lustre to match the building itself – tenor Jonas Kaufmann and mezzo Joyce Didonato and orchestras including the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela are just some of those to have performed in concert, while visiting opera companies that have staged productions here include the Vienna State Opera and Bologna’s Teatro Comunale.
Recent years have seen classical music enterprises cropping up in increasing numbers in the Gulf region – not least major festivals in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and the foundation of the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra – but few come close to Muscat’s opera house as a symbol of serious intent. It was built by order of Oman’s absolute monarch, the music-loving Sultan Qaboos bin Said (see left), who evidently insisted no expense be spared in its construction. Omani architects Carillion Alawi – who also built the city’s magnificent Grand Mosque – were set to work on it while, for the best possible acoustics and backstage facilities, technological expertise was recruited from Covent Garden and beyond.
In 2014, Umberto Fanni, whose former stamping grounds include the famous Verona Arena, was appointed as director general, and has since worked on setting in place his vision for the future. ‘As a performing arts centre, we have so far invited companies and artists from abroad to perform here,’ he tells me. ‘That’s good, as it gives the Omani people the opportunity to see different musical cultures and traditions. However, we also need to develop as a production theatre. It will take some time, but we have already started working on our own in-house productions.’ One such production has been a highlight of the 2016-17 season – a spectacular show called Celebrating Oman:
The Great Journey, which brought musicians from across the globe together with local
‘We have already started work on our own productions’
performers, including school children and even three beasts from the Royal Camel Corp. Fanni, meanwhile, has opera co-productions with major overseas venues planned for future years.
Completely home-grown, in contrast, is the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra (ROSO). Founded in 1985, again under the guidance of the Sultan, ROSO recruited its initial membership from local young people who had no instrumental experience at all, but were then provided with intensive training before giving their first concert two years later. Thirty years on, the orchestra remains comprised entirely of local musicians – with the male players in black tie and the women in traditional Omani outfits of green, red and gold, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more eye-catching ensemble. Though ROSO is, by its own acknowledgement, still a work in progress, it has big ambitions and some significant supporters – Plácido Domingo for one, who, during my visit, has insisted that his gala recital alongside the soprano Ermonela Jaho should be followed by a chance to conduct the orchestra a couple of days later. ‘I really appreciate that money has been invested in developing local players,’ says pianist Beatrice Rana, who joins Domingo and ROSO for Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto on that second occasion. ‘It has created something very special.’
Integrating elements of western culture while insisting that Oman’s own distinct identity is kept intact is very much the Sultan’s mindset, as even the briefest visit to the capital city shows. In contrast to its skyscraper-loving neighbours in the Gulf, for instance, Oman has strict rules to ensure that all of the buildings here are kept under eight storeys high and built in a style sympathetic to Arabic tradition. And, while you will see the occasional suit or jeans, the traditional dishdasha gown still holds sway.
A long weekend in Muscat is not hard to fill. If only to have your mind boggled at what a Sultan with a large purse can do, a visit to the Grand Mosque is a must – you’ll be greeted with coffee and dates, and the magnificent carpet and chandelier are major attractions in their own rights. A more earthy, but no less colourful, attraction is the Fish Market in the port area, where red mullet, eels and perch lie side by side with huge tuna. Or those with a sense of adventure might want to take a drive and admire the spectacular scenery of the surrounding mountains and desert.
But whatever you do in this most alluring of cities, don’t forget your sunglasses.
Details of the 2017-18 Royal Opera House Muscat season have yet to be released. A full programme is set to be announced on 18 May.
musical muscat: Plácido Domingo conducts the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra; (far left) Ermonela Jaho sings at the Royal Opera House Muscat;
arch attraction: Muscat’s sights include the Grand Mosque and (left) the Fish Market; (opposite left) the opera house