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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 April 2019

The House of Musical Arts: a snapshot of Muscat’s new cultural venue

From its pristine design to beautiful sound, the arts space in Muscat is a sight to behold and experience

Before the arrival of the Royal Opera House Muscat in 2011, opera and classical music were treated respectfully in the GCC, but mostly on an ad-hoc basis. With the ­exception of the six-month season of Abu Dhabi ­Classics and the annual, month-long, Abu Dhabi ­Festival (returning for its latest season in March), classical music in the Arabian Gulf was limited in terms of space and repertoire, which understandably tested the patience of aficionados.

The arrival of the opera house in Muscat, Oman, was a game changer: here was a beautifully designed and opulent venue tailor-made for fine musical arts, and the expansive programme meant the music here never died.

Now, after establishing itself on the world stage as a regional hub for classical music and opera, the Royal Opera House Muscat has ­unveiled its latest addition, the House of Musical Arts. This extension is part of the burgeoning opera district, which includes ­traditional arts and crafts stores and classy food and beverage options.

You may do a double-take when you first come across the House of Musical Arts: the new venue looks similar to the Royal Opera House Muscat and is located exactly on the other side of the road – it is connected through an overhead tunnel made of glass. The venue is built with beautiful white ­marble and boasts a subtle Islamic and Arabic ­character with its arched gates and windows, and the geometric patterns etched on walls and balconies.

The building’s lights are brilliant, with various colours evoking different moods throughout the evening. The purple hue – which we witnessed at sunset – gives the space a romantic vibe; while the subtle gold lights – which we saw later in the evening – give a sense of grandeur and royalty.

A string of Omani leaders, as well as cultural personalities – Dubai Opera chief executive Jasper Hope was milling about – were in attendance for opening night last week, which featured a concert of separate sets by the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra and the Czech ­National Symphony Orchestra.

We gathered in the pristine performance foyer, which holds the box office, the bar where food and drinks are served, and a string of couches to relax on during intermissions. The space is markedly different to the main opera house, which is more opulent with golden hues and plush red carpets, while the House of Musical Arts’s main thoroughfare makes use of natural light, with theatre doors and window screens made from finely carved wood.

The second deja vu moment arrived when entering the auditorium itself. With its 500-seat capacity, it resembles a small version of the main opera house stage (which sits up to 1,600). The red and brown colour scheme of the seats are familiar, as is the set-up of the viewing balconies. The differences are subtle: the wood used is considerably lighter, and, with its smaller stage, the House of Musical Arts is clearly a more accessible affair.

While the venue will be fully incorporated into the Royal Opera House Muscat’s concert calendar from September (no productions have been announced yet), the stage was tested by two orchestras at the opening event, and the crystal clear acoustics, and its smaller size, allowed for a visceral performance.

The stage particularly complemented the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra: they had a large chorus and strong percussion session, and their take on traditional folk songs, ­including the 1971 classic Ibn Oman by Ahmed Al Salhi was rhythmic and powerful.

The rapturous reception to the performance hints at a strong future for the House of Musical Arts. With the main opera house mostly focusing on large international and regional productions, the new sister venue could be the place to help both grow and witness Oman’s burgeoning theatre and music scene.

The district also has a new exhibition space, which flanks the main theatre. At present, there is a temporary exhibition there from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Opera: 400 Years of Passion, which is on until March 14. Plans are already under way for the venue to host its first permanent exhibition, which will explore various aspects of Omani culture, such as its various music traditions and instruments.

It all goes towards cementing charming Oman as a leading cultural hub in the region.

Updated: January 24, 2019 05:34 PM

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