Jordanian soprano Zeina Barhoum talks to The National about organising the inaugural Amman Opera Festival
How a Jordanian soprano brought Verdi’s La Traviata to Amman's Amphitheatre
The region achieves another cultural landmark this week with the launch of the inaugural edition of the Amman Opera Festival.
To be held until Saturday in the stunning Roman Amphitheatre in the Jordanian capital’s Downtown district, the three-day event, which launched on Wednesday, consists of two performances of Verdi’s La Traviata.
Leading the cast is Jordan’s very own soprano Zeina Barhoum, who takes on the role of star-crossed lover Violetta.
Breathing new life into one of the opera world’s most-performed characters is difficult enough, but Barhoum is taking it a step further by having set up the whole production and festival with an international cast of more than 150 performers from almost a dozen nations.
According to Barhoum, who admits her "head has been all over the place", the idea for the event came from her last performance at the venue in May last year, which she also organised herself.
“The thing is when I am in Jordan, I have to do things myself and get involved in the planning. And it was actually on that stage, in Amman, that I got the inspiration for this festival,” she says.
“I sang there and it was a programme of pieces ... and I shared the stage with five other singers. They were from Italy and the orchestra from Jordan. I remember the crowd enjoying it so much and we got good feedback – that gave me the idea that we should do something bigger.”
Aided by support from the event’s patron, Princess Muna Al-Hussein, Barhoum assembled a sprawling cast including the Sichuan Philharmonic Orchestra and Georgia’s Batumi Opera House Choir, in addition to performers from Italy’s La Scala and Jordanian musicians.
Barhoum says her career on the stage prepared her for the negotiations that took place behind the curtain.
“I do wear many hats when it comes to this festival, but doing it this was inevitable,” she says. “My career as an opera singer, where I'm traveling to different parts of the world and working with different musicians and conductors, allowed me to make connections with the relevant parties to pull something like this off.”
Barhoum views the event as historic and important for her homeland, and she hopes it provides a glimpse of what the art form can provide if adequately supported.
“Putting the festival together is to hopefully inspire others to build a permanent opera house in Jordan and the capital, Amman,” she says.
“There was actually discussion of an opera house being built, but somehow along the way, the process came to a complete halt. So hopefully this event can revive that initiative, because I do believe it is very important to have these cultural institutions here in Jordan.”
It’s a notion that fellow Jordanian creative Fadi Zaghmout supports wholeheartedly.
The Dubai-based author of the one of Jordan’s biggest-selling novels, 2015’s The Bride of Amman, says such cultural exposure is vital to maintaining Jordan as an open, tolerant country.
“These events are not just about entertainment,” he says. “Culture and all art is vital in creating tolerance and having a liberal type of society. As a Jordanian, I am happy these things are happening in my country and I hope it receives a lot of support.”
It is this overriding mission to inspire and develop society through the artists that strips away any sense of regional artistic rivalry.
Dubai Opera chief executive Jasper Hope, who during his vast career experienced his fair share of thrills and challenges in establishing cultural venues, extends his best wishes to Barhoum and her team.
He says the arrival of the Amman festival adds to the growing kinship shared by regional arts venues.
“I think everyone who works in the arts feels a strong connection with their peers and an even stronger one with those in close proximity,” he says.
“The wonderful opera houses in Dubai, Muscat and Kuwait are also highly individual, but with their much more extensive programmes over the course of whole seasons, they are able to offer audiences a range of permanent high-quality performances crossing genres.
"Together we most certainly share a kinship and a responsibility to bring the best possible quality events to the region.”
Barhoum describes the first Amman Opera Festival as the first step of a bigger journey. She envisions the event to run annually and grow organically.
Where the Abu Dhabi Festival – which ran its 14th edition in March – inspired a generation of Emiratis to get active in the arts, Barhoum hopes this Amman event can achieve something similar.
She says that for young Jordanians to see their fellow countryman leading such an international event can be a great motivator to dream bigger.
“I sure hope that would be the case,” she says. “If I can help in my way to allow people to achieve their goal, it would bring a lot of joy to my heart.
The festival kicks off the regional stage season, with an eclectic array of artists and productions performing at various venues, including the Dubai Opera and Royal Opera House Muscat. The former's programme begins on September 7 with The Marriage of Figaro – one of three Mozart operas performed that month, which also includes Così Fan Tutte (September 8 and 15) and Don Giovanni (September 9 and 16).
Other September highlights at the Dubai venue are South African dancer Johhny Clegg (September 20) and Filipina soprano Lea Salonga (September 22 and 23). The year will be rounded off with concerts by Welsh tenor Bryn Terfel on December 3 and legendary South African jazz man Hugh Masekela on December 11.
Meanwhile in Oman, the Royal Opera House will host vintage British crooner Cliff Richard on October 7, Emirati cross-over pop star and soprano Balqees on October 17 and a gala concert dedicated to late Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti on December 14.
The Amman Opera Festival concludes on Saturday. For more information, visit www.ammanoperafestival.com