MUSCAT, The Sultanate of Oman -- It was the week that Egypt fell into the most violent stage of its revolution. Libyan rebels had just about won against the devils of Moammar Gadhafi, and bodies were piling up in Yemen. It was at this precise point that the small Sultanate of Oman decided to launch its new Royal Opera House, 10 years in the making.
An opera house in the midst of revolution? Led by a traditional sultan who has managed, through intelligent planning and knowledge of his people, to make his country a development model for the entire world? Well, no one has ever accused the handsome, thoughtful Sultan Qaboos of being average.
But the profound respect in which most of his ideas -- and the constructions that embody those cosmopolitan, yet still Omani, ideas -- are held was never so intense as the night of Oct. 12. That was the night the opera house opened, and Oman proceeded ever more dramatically to become a mysteriously progressive place in the Middle East, where ideas of East and West meet.
I, like most of the smitten people there that night, will always remember.
Guests invited from all over the world were taken from their hotels in a motorcade at 6 p.m. As we approached the opera house, person after person began to gasp with awe. Many of them were heads of famous festivals or operas, such as the Salzburg Festival, or Covent Garden, or the Kennedy Center, which oversaw the management of this event.
Beautifully lit up against a dramatic, deep blue sky, the building stood out like a beam of light in darkening Muscat. The opera house was large and imposing -- not so imaginative as the gorgeous mosque the sultan wisely built first, 10 to 15 years ago, but just as lovely. It took me a while to realize that the monarch had judiciously included the Cordoba doorways, the rounded silo-like "corners" of the country's dozens of castles, and those castles' steplike architecture.
"It seems that the sultan has designed a new type of architecture," David T. Staples of Theatre Projects Consultants of London, who had worked 10 years on the design, told me at one point. And, indeed, he had. To greatly oversimplify, the architecture was an amalgam of Oman's ancient castles and the West's technology, and it will welcome such amalgams in music, as well.
The "ohmigods" and the intakes of breath grew louder and more amazed as the evening progressed. Entering the roughly 1,000-seat opera house, people found rooms in white, with white Omani handwork covering the walls and ceiling. When they moved into the opera house itself, everything was a deep brown that shown almost as gold; wood inlaid with shell, all done by Omani artists, covered every inch of the walls and ceiling.
The house is unique in the world, said acclaimed singer and conductor Placido Domingo and director and stage designer Franco Zeffirelli, at a comprehensive press conference the next day. Both had played central parts for months in this construction and in the initial opera production, Giacomo Puccini's masterpiece, "Turandot." Only this house can switch from opera theater to concert hall through its own stage technology.
Jeffrey Wheel, formerly of Covent Garden and technical director here, told us how, to become a concert hall, the top balconies of the opera house move out, the back screen moves around, and everything seems to swerve and gnash away for some 40 minutes, until a massive organ (which the sultan himself plays) appears. There were moments I thought of flight.
At a quarter to 8 on opening night, 20-some Omani officers in glorious forest green, gold and red uniforms, took their places in the top booths and began trumpeting the sultan into his box. The applause was overwhelming for the monarch, who has brought his people up from poverty in only 41 years. After the national anthem, the opera began, broken by two intermissions and the serving of snacks and Omani coffee on His Majesty's gold services.
This new Omani-created "Turandot" was, by all accounts a triumph. Poor Placido Domingo, one of the most famous singers in the world, got notice in the next day's major Omani newspaper as Puccini, the opera's composer. Domingo was amused, since Puccini died in 1924. His hair is white, but he is still alive!
We all somehow knew that the world of art would not be the same again. This is the first opera house in the Persian Gulf; the only one with its kind of technical capacity in the world; one where virtually any Omani can afford a ticket (prices are deliberately kept very low); and the house that will, in this first winter season, also present everything from the American Ballet Theatre, Renee Fleming and Wynton Marsalis, to a recital by acclaimed Arab diva Riham Abdul Hakim, and many, many more.(READ TO GG)
Domingo and Zeffirelli stressed that the idea, originally that of the sultan, was not only to bring the best music of the world to Oman, but also to "show the new culture we are heading toward, from the great collections of Islam and the world cultures."
This opera house will particularly reach out toward children and encourage in them a love of music of their own and other lands. It will encourage related businesses to grow out around it, such as the complicated construction of sets. Indeed, there is such an air of excitement around this opera house that one can forget for a moment the region's wars and conflicts and realize how much beauty mankind harbors -- and, too often, hides within itself.