There’s no doubt Royal Opera House Muscat likes to do things in style. Its inaugural opera in October 2011 was Puccini’s Turandot, performed by the Fondazione Arena di Verona in a specially commissioned production designed by Franco Zeffirrelli. The conductor was Plácido Domingo. The Artistic Director of the Fondazione at the times was Umberto Fanni, who had also headed Trieste’s Teatro Giuseppe Verdi and the Teatro Lirico of Cagliari. Three years after the inauguration, Mr Fanni was offered the post of Artistic Director of the ROHM and is now also the Director General of what he proudly calls “the most exciting new opera house in the world”.

Plácido Domingo conducting the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra © Royal Opera House Muscat
Plácido Domingo conducting the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra
© Royal Opera House Muscat

Domingo has returned several times and attests to the quality of the venue. “The Royal Opera House in Muscat is a marvellous gem with the proven capacity to mount the biggest operatic production anyone has ever seen, as well as to present the highest level of classical music.”

There is no resident opera company, but each season sees a number of visiting companies such as Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Opéra de Lyon, Opera di Firenze and the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liège bringing productions to Muscat. Usually, six operas are presented each season and Mr Fanni relishes the range of works offered to the Omani public. “I am also proud of our success in presenting lesser-known works, especially operas that are nevertheless real treasures to be discovered by the general public. Bizet is famous for Carmen, but another jewel unknown to many is Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de perles, which will be performed in May this season. We are expecting the production (by the Opéra Royal de Wallonie, Liege) to be equally, if not more, well-received since it takes place in ancient Ceylon, a familiar place in Oman’s fabled seafaring history, and presently home to many thousands of local residents.”

Fanni is adamant that there is a big following for opera in Oman, both from the locals and from overseas visitors. “Most of our operas are sold out in advance to diverse audiences, including tourists, who often come specifically to take in a performance and then go on tour in Oman.”

The Royal Opera House Muscat © Royal Opera House Muscat
The Royal Opera House Muscat
© Royal Opera House Muscat

The operatic programme is bolstered by concerts by opera’s glitterati – stars such as Domingo and Anna Netrebko, who has just performed there. “The atmosphere is always electric,” he enthuses. This season Domingo earned at least four standing ovations. “Placido seemed to love the audience as much as they adored him.”

Dance is also performed. This season brings two very different ballet companies appearing this season: the Eifman Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. “Eifman’s Anna Karenina was a huge hit and we expect Giselle by American Ballet Theatre to be even more so. ROHM audiences enjoy ballet as much as they do opera – and all ballet performances, usually three including a matinée, are sold out well in advance. Naturally, primacy is given to opera, but we normally have at least two ballets per season, as well as contemporary dance, along with musicals and shows that involve song and dance.”

Ticket sales are consistently high, regularly selling 95% capacity in the 1,100 seat house. Mr Fanni explains that the range of what is on offer attracts a “wide and cosmopolitan” audience. “Over the past half-decade there has been a trend for increasing numbers of Omanis and Arabs to attend Western programs and for Non-Arabs to attend Arab programmes. In addition, the ROHM is popular with people of all ages, including families with children. Affordable ticket prices, open houses, tours and outreach programs ensure that the Royal Opera House has not developed as an elite institution, but serves the public at large.”

The auditorium of the Royal Opera House Muscat © Royal Opera House Muscat
The auditorium of the Royal Opera House Muscat
© Royal Opera House Muscat
Fanni’s proudest achievement has been increasing the number of Omanis in all aspects of the opera house’s life. “All front-of-house staff are Omani, as are many of our administrative and management staff, as well as technicians. We recruit extras from the local community for operatic productions and we invite local school children to free matinees and also involve them in interactive productions such as The Magic Flute for Children.”

“A highly significant milestone in the history of the Royal Opera House Muscat was the premiere this season of Celebrating Oman, our first in-house production, which included Omani talent as well as scores of local schoolchildren and was a huge success, with more than 8,000 people attending over the course of three nights.”

The aim of the ROHM is to promote the performing arts in all the main genres with local audiences, but Muscat is increasingly a destination for international patrons and the house’s promotional efforts now reach to media outlets in Europe. “While it is not a central aim to attract tourists, as the reputation of the Royal Opera House Muscat for quality and excellence spread, attracting tourists has been a natural outcome and one that we now actively pursue.”

Umberto Fanni © Royal Opera House Muscat
Umberto Fanni
© Royal Opera House Muscat
Is it Mr Fanni’s aim to be able to compete with big international opera houses? “Our aim is not to compete, but to join the ranks of the world’s best opera houses, thus adding to the world’s treasured cultural heritage in the performing arts with respect to both diversity and excellence. Our primary goal is to serve the people of Oman, literally bringing world culture to their doorstep. As the Royal Opera House Muscat was the first opera house in the Gulf area, a regional clientele developed right from the start in 2011.

Dubai, which is only an hour by air away, has recently opened an opera house, but is not seen by ROHM as a competitor. This is only in part because of different programming philosophies. The overriding reason is that both institutions are serving a region that has lacked such facilities; and, consequently, there is tremendous unfilled capacity, as well as an unrealised need for the enhanced cultural richness, global perspective and inspiration brought by the world’s performing arts – that all may share."

 

Article sponsored by Royal Opera House Muscat.