x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Muscat's Arabian monument to a western art

Opera companies are struggling across the globe, but Muscat's new Royal Opera House intends to enrapture with passion, Puccini and Placido.

Opera companies are struggling across the globe, but Muscat's new Royal Opera House intends to enrapture with passion, Puccini and Placido.
Opera companies are struggling across the globe, but Muscat's new Royal Opera House intends to enrapture with passion, Puccini and Placido.

The days when Placido Domingo could sing the male lead to Puccini's Turandot are long gone, but as conductor for the inaugural performance at Oman's Royal Opera House (ROH) his presence brings a shimmer of prestige to the already lavish proceedings. And prestige, in large part, is what creating an opera house is all about; the prestige that comes from promoting the high culture and managing the high risk and high passion of opera.

When the ROH opens in Muscat's Al Qurum area next week the project initiated by Sultan Qaboos bin Said will be the first such house in the Gulf - the second in the Arab region after Cairo. A successful opening season will secure Muscat a place alongside cities such as Vienna, New York, Paris, London, Milan and Sydney, in one of the world's most elite circuits. This is the Formula One of the arts world, where great wealth conspires towards a moment of great spectacle and armies of talent are devoted to bolstering the careers and burnishing the fame of a feted few.

It puts exclusivity within touching distance, it boosts a city - even a country's - global profile and, it is always hoped, encourages tourists and investment to follow after so much high octane, high cost, activity. Last year the sultanate attracted more than 1.6 million tourists. New resorts and hotels are opening up and Muscat International and Salalah airports are being expanded, and it is against this backdrop of anticipated growth that the ROH stands casting Oman as a destination of culture.

Everything about the venture is ambitious. Every aspect of the ROH design - from the formal gardens and pools that surround it to the House's rows of sun-bleached stone arches and the long sweep of its driveway approach - is intended to quietly impress. Every star on the opening calendar of performances is of international stature: Domingo (who will sing later in the opening week), the American soprano Renee Fleming, the tenor Andrea Bocelli and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing with London's Philharmonic Orchestra.

The choice of Turandot as the opening performance seems in itself a statement of intent, wrapping up regional influences with the pomp and grandeur of Puccini's last work. The libretto is based on a story taken from the book of Arabic tales, One Thousand and One Days, the sister publication to One Thousand and One Nights, while the work is full of ceremony and drama. It calls for lavish sets, large choruses and includes one of the most famous arias of all time, Nessun dorma.

Staging such a production, paying for the performers, the set and costume designers, the lighting, the orchestra, the stars, the chorus - the weeks of board and lodging required during rehearsal - will have cost tens of thousands of rials. With ticket prices set at an extremely moderate 13 to 60 rials (Dh125 to Dh575) and a comparatively small house - 1,000 seats to Covent Garden's 2,500, or the 4,000 of New York's Metropolitan Opera House - there is no way that the ROH will go anywhere near recouping costs on ticket sales.

London's Royal Opera House makes back only 35 to 40 per cent of its outlay on ticket sales, despite the fact that the average ticket price works out to more than Dh1,000 with the top-price seats going for Dh1,180. These prices are already subsidised to a tune of between 20 and 30 per cent by Arts Council funds. Shop sales and donations are relied upon to make up the shortfall.

Patrons who thrill to the performances at Oman's ROH, and the musicians who grace its stage will, in the early days at least, do so on the largesse of the Sultan. But then, anything else would somehow be out of keeping with the nature of opera - its history, its purpose and its dangerous appeal.

As Daniel Snowman, author of The Gilded Stage: The Social History of Opera, explains: "Opera grew out of the courts of the late Renaissance. The Grand Dukes of Florence and Mantua, Louis XIV … they put their money into grand shows to be impressive, to show that they were men of culture, ruling countries of culture, and it worked.

"The Muscat house looks wonderful. I would adore to go there and I'm sure it will prove a draw. Creating an opera house has never been a simple prospect. It isn't about making money, it's about much more than that."

Truth be told, the sultanate's development is a bold one given the fact that, globally, many opera companies across Europe, America and Asia are in a state of near collapse and have been forced to cut budgets in a bid to survive. Opera stars of today cannot command fees remotely near those of the art's so-called golden age - the late 19th century.

Today the great voices might earn US$20,000 to $30,000 for their performances, but lesser stars earn nothing like that. More than 100 years ago prima-donnas such as Adelina Patti could command fees of $3,000 to $5,000 a night - vastly more in real terms and paid in gold. One story tells of how Patti's husband and business manager chiselled out a larger fee just moments before curtain up. Patti, a coloratura soprano in her youth, was standing in the wings, one shoe on her foot, poised to put on the other, when her husband informed the director of the theatre that Madame Patti would not put on the second shoe until he received another $200 in gold. Legend has it that the singer had trained her pet parrot to shriek "Cash! Cash!" whenever the famous opera promoter "Colonel" Mapleson entered a room.

One thing that has not diminished with the years, though, is the often excessively emotional audiences who can rival anything on stage in sheer vocal force. No divo or diva is too great to suffer the indignity of being booed by the loggionisti (the people sitting in the highest, least expensive seats) at Milan's La Scala. Both Salvatore Licitra and the conductor Riccardo Muti were booed there in 2000 when Licitra failed to hit a high C and the conductor responded to the audience's outcry by angrily telling them they were at an opera house, "not a circus". Elitist as opera may be - and it is a criticism often and justly levelled - it is never knowingly understated. When it comes to opera too much is only ever just barely enough.

Last month the ROH staged a "soft opening" with a performance of Rigoletto. An audience of specially invited guests became the first to marvel at the ornate woodwork and inlays in the Islamic-influenced architecture. They were the first to see the house up-lit against the night sky and to experience such state-of-the-art details as the touch screens fitted at the back of each wooden seat allowing audience members to choose the language in which they could view the subtitles of the performance.

In the brochures taken home that night a paragraph or two summed up the aspiration of the ROH and the truth at the heart of opera: "This is a place where time stands still. Where exceptional talent meets a world-class platform. Where the discerning appreciate genius." But most of all, it stated: "This is a place … where passion overrides logic."