Mu­si­cal Des­ti­na­tions

Jeremy Pound takes a peek at the stylish Royal Opera House Mus­cat in Oman

BBC Music Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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