x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Beirut Music Hall chief Michel Elefteriades sets his sights on Dubai

Inside Beirut's famed cabaret-style music hall theatre, which is opening a branch in Dubai next year.

The Music Hall in Beirut was founded by Michel Elefteriades in 2003 and provides a range of musical entertainment in a convivial, cabaret-style environment. Photos by Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images
The Music Hall in Beirut was founded by Michel Elefteriades in 2003 and provides a range of musical entertainment in a convivial, cabaret-style environment. Photos by Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images

Like any music institution, Beirut's Music Hall has a time-tested tradition that dedicated punters follow. After managing to slot their cars in the rainy car park outside the Starco Center in the heart of Beirut, the customers - a lively mix of the glitterati and the casual - enter the foyer and walk down the red carpet to the box office.

As on most Saturday nights, it's a sold-out event and an immaculately suited security guard ticks off names on lists before permitting entry.

Formerly a vintage cinema, the hall is draped in red and gold, giving it the classic feel of a 1930s European cabaret club. Below the stage, with its red velvet curtains, are dinner tables and red plush couches stretching back to a large bar taking over the venue's back wall.

Those who have not come to feast on the selection of French-infused Lebanese dishes mill around the bar, while those booked on the couches will have found their pre-ordered drinks and snacks awaiting them.

At the stroke of 10, the curtain opens to reveal the first of 15 musical performances for the evening.

The audience doesn't know her name, and that's part of the deal - the Music Hall does not play favourites. Not even a list of performance times is announced, to ensure the audience affords each performer due attention.

In her late 30s, the singer is wearing a black dress and launches into the Habanera from Bizet's French opera Carmen.

Only this time it sounds different; the six-piece in-house band - draped in black and gold - grants her a passionate rendition with a rock edge.

With the crowd stirred into applause at the pulsating crescendo, the band effortlessly makes a sudden transition into REM's classic Losing My Religion. The song's closing refrain ("That was just a dream, just a dream") has the crowd singing along, before they applaud the singer and the curtains close, ending her allotted 10-minute set.

Sitting in the auditorium in a quiet booth is the daunting, bearded figure of Michel Elefteriades.

The Music Hall's founder and successful Lebanese mogul personally picks the artists at his venue and arranges the music for their performances.

His assessment of the female singer - he refuses to divulge her name - confirms his reputation as "the Arabic Simon Cowell", a tag earned when he was a judge in the Arabic version of the UK reality television series The X Factor.

"When she first auditioned and I heard her voice, it was nothing really special ... I mean, she is not going to play at La Scala anytime soon," Elefteriades says. "But with this arrangement, she sounds very good. During the rehearsal I discovered that REM's Losing My Religion was on the same scale, so we tried to do it together. As you can see, it worked."

It is this kind of music and business adventurism that has catapulted Music Hall to success.

Since its opening in 2003, it has helped cement the Lebanese capital's reputation as the Middle East's entertainment hotspot. It has been visited by musicians such as Peter Gabriel and Sting, and the latter's daughter, Coco Sumner, even played an impromptu performance to stunned visitors last year.

After countless invitations to replicate the venue in South America and Turkey, Elefteriades has picked Dubai for his international venture.

Expected to open early next year as a specially fitted theatre in the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel, Music Hall Dubai will be open on Thursday and Friday nights (10pm to 3am), with at least 10 international artists performing all sorts of musical fusion, mixing jazz, rock, reggae, opera, metal and Palestinian folk.

The 1,000-seat venue will be slightly larger than Beirut's (800 seats), with two bars and a 70:30 ratio of couches and tables, and will also be available to rent out for corporate and private events.

Surprisingly, Elefteriades says Dubai's cosmopolitan nature is better for the Music Hall than Beirut.

"You know, sometimes I don't think that people here [in Beirut] get what I am trying to do," he admits.

"They come and they have a good time, but I don't think they understand the music and the ideas behind it because they are more interested in the entertainment than the music. I feel that here I am educating them. While in Dubai, because there are so many cultures, people will appreciate the music. That is a great thing."

While the acts have yet to be announced, a majority will come from Beirut and perform month-long Dubai residencies. Elefteriades promises that local musicians will always be welcome to audition.

If successful, they will have to accept Elefteriades's hands-on approach of rearranging - and in some cases, reinventing - their songs, to fit in with the Music Hall aesthetics.

"When you perform here, you are performing as part of Music Hall," he says. "I know what the audience likes so it has to be this way, but at the end the artist and the audience are always happy with the results."

sasaeed@thenational.ae

Music Hall Dubai is expected to open early next year at the Jumeirah Zabeel Saray Hotel, The Palm, Dubai. Line-ups will be announced soon. For details, visit www.elefteriades.com