Oman's Royal Opera House in Muscat was packed to its gilded rafters on Friday night for its inaugural performance. Women - mostly European - in floor-sweeping evening gowns and fur stoles, accompanied by gentlemen in sharp tuxedos, and a healthy contingent from the UAE, all took to their plush red seats.
Salma Al Riyami, a doctor from Abu Dhabi, says the world-class cultural calendar offered by Muscat will encourage her to make the trip from her home in the capital more often.
"It's amazing the Gulf now has something like this with international productions, performers and really great names," she said.
In the coming months the imposing marble, gypsum and wood-carved venue will host the Italian operatic star Andrea Bocelli and the celebrated American soprano Renée Fleming. Friday's performance of Puccini's final masterpiece Turandot featured the chorus and orchestra of the Fondazione Arena di Verona, Italy, conducted by the Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo.
Xiu Wei Sun took the title role as the fatally beautiful Princess Turandot who, despite having sworn never to be possessed by a man, eventually succumbs to the persistent and charismatic Calaf, played by Mario Malagnini.
Slightly eclipsing the renowned cast and unforgettable score was master cinematographer Franco Zeffirelli's set design and creative direction. Best known for his 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, which saw him nominated for an Academy award, Zeffirelli has been directing and producing operas since the 1950s, having worked with many of the greats, including Maria Callas in La Traviata.
More than 1,000 costumes and elaborate sets were prepared for the three acts of the Muscat production, which premiered at Milan's Teatro alla Scala in 1926.
"Oman has gone big right from day one," said Geoffrey Wheel, technical director of the opera house. "Normally, a large touring opera would come with, on average, about 10 to 12 sea containers - Turandot had 22! Carmen, which is coming later this season, has even bigger sets, with real horses on stage, too."
One of the evening's most memorable moments came in scene two, where the set drew gasps from the audience who then burst into spontaneous applause as the curtain lifted on a three-tiered Chinese imperial palace courtyard with a waterway staircase. Recessed deep and high at the back of the enormous stage was a gleaming pagoda beneath which sat the emperor on his throne, flanked by countless courtiers holding satin lanterns and banners heavily decorated in gold brocade.
With Turandot running for just two nights and Oman now in permanent possession of Zeffirelli's titanic backdrops, it was vital to ensure they be preserved well, said Wheel.
"We're building new storage facilities in Ghala about 15 minutes from the opera house with stores for about 70-80 sea containers and also workshops for carpentry, metal, painting, costumes wigs and make-up - basically complete production facilities."
Despite the weighty responsibility for all visual aspects of production, Wheel was not intimidated by the size and scale of Zeffirelli's vision for Turandot, thanks to the new venue's remarkable versatility.
"There's nothing comparable in the world," he said. "It stands alone because it's a theatre, an opera house and, if need be, a cinema in one - there aren't many of those around. We've got some of the best lighting systems in the world and in terms of staging and acoustics it does everything incredibly well, making it easily as good as Sydney Opera House or London's Covent Garden."
The 25,000-square-metre site has the capacity for around 850 people within its main auditorium, which can - by hydraulics that move the proscenium and VIP boxes - seat more than 1,050 for concerts such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra's visit with cellist Yo-Yo Ma in early November.
Hinting as to what might be pencilled in for next season, a backstage tour of the premises revealed the theatre's pièce de résistance.
"It's a magnificent pipe organ designed by Philip Klais of Bonn, Germany," said Wheel. "It is made entirely of wood and ornately hand-decorated with gold leaf. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said is very fond of pipe music and it could work for the beginning of Tosca, but it will most probably be used for a future organ concert or recital."
With its lush, manicured gardens, rooftop performance area, black-box studio and "Maidan" palazzo-type entrance, well-suited for winter al fresco events, the Royal Opera House Muscat has undeniably put Oman on the world cultural stage.
Wheel is keen its productions be accessible to all, with language, in particular, proving no barrier.
"On the back of every seat there's a touch-screen allowing you to pick the language you want to understand the performance in - if you're watching an opera, for example, where the classic language might be Italian," he said.
Next month the Egyptian legend Umm Kulthum will be honoured when the acclaimed diva Reham Abdul Hakim pays tribute to her in concert.
In the wake of Hakim's appearance and Magida El Roumi's performance next month, more Arabic events are scheduled alongside global ballet and opera productions in 2012.