x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Oman's new opera house fuels debate over threatened local arts

Some fear the theatre will overshadow traditional music by focusing on western artists, but others say it will bridge a cultural gap between East and West.

The Royal Opera House is being built on an eight-hectare site in Muscat.
The Royal Opera House is being built on an eight-hectare site in Muscat.

MUSCAT // Promoters of the new Royal Opera House in Muscat, scheduled to open next year, say that it will bridge Omani and European culture as well as boost tourism by attracting visitors for big-name acts.

But Omani musicians are ambivalent about the project, and question whether its focus on western performers will overshadow promises by opera house officials to promote traditional local music. Abdulrahman al Dhahab, 78, a retired folk dancer based in Bani Bu Ali, in the eastern region of Oman, said: "Our own folk music and dancing traditions are dying and this expensive structure is going to promote somebody else's musical traditions. Aren't we importing right in our front yard foreign influence and watching our own culture going out of the window?"

But the opera house director, Hamed Abdallah al Ghazali, disagreed, saying that the facility will promote local talent and revive interest in local folk music. "The opera house will be happy to host local musicians and dancers. At the same time, it will also serve as a pedestal to harmonise the local musical culture and that of the West, never conflicting with our own rich musical traditions," Mr Ghazali said.

But young local musicians struggling to preserve traditional Omani culture see the opera house as an opportunity to advance their musical ambitions. "At the moment, we perform only in weddings and rare corporate or official occasions and this is not enough to make a living out of music. With the opera house, we can perform regularly and have paying audience which will also give us the opportunity to revive the traditions of our forefathers," Ahmed al Araimi, 28, a folk musician from Sur, in the eastern region, said.

Mr al Araimi leads a troupe of 14 young men and women dancers and musicians, who want to carry on the traditions in the coastal town of Sur, which was a vital part of the ancient trade route to east Africa. "It will be nice to quit my job and become a full-time performer," said Aisha Rajab, 29, a member of Mr al Araimi's group who works as a hotel receptionist. "But the question is whether the opera house will do it for us or not. We will wait and see."

The Royal Court, the government office in charge of the project, is building the opera house in an affluent area of Muscat, just a kilometre away from a popular beach, restaurants, roadside cafes and two five-star hotels. The government has not revealed the cost of the project. The Royal Opera House is likely to open its doors at the end of this year on a trial basis to test the acoustics prior to the official opening next year, Mr al Ghazali said.

When finished, he added, it would be the first dedicated building for musical performances in the country and the government plans to attract major international performers to Oman. "The plan is for the opera house to put Oman in the world map of music - give us international recognition by bringing top performers here. It will be a major tourist puller once we start hosting the biggest musical names in the world."

The opera house has already aroused the interest of some of the biggest opera and musical centres in the world, according to Mr al Ghazali. "We have inquiries from all over the world from musical establishments who want to be part of it in one capacity or another. It is an exciting time for us since we seem to generate an international interest," Mr al Ghazali said. The opera house, which is coming up on an eight-hectare site, has been designed by the renowned architecture firm WATG. It will have a 1,100-seat concert hall for musical performances as well as a reduced seating capacity of 400 for dramatic and operatic productions.

The building is also designed to promote local heritage. It will feature an on-site cultural souq with museums, retail and coffee shops, and a village square. Some European expatriates living in the Sultanate, although surprised by the construction of the opera house, are looking forward to its opening. "I had to say 'wow' when I first knew about it. An opera house in the middle of a desert? I am excited and so are many of my expatriate friends. I hope they bring in the London Symphony Orchestra," Helen Blunden, 36, a British resident in Muscat, said.