MUSCAT, the Sultanate of Oman -- The new Royal Opera House of Oman, just opened to great fanfare -- in an Arab country where Western music was historically anathema -- would seem to most observers to have a meaning all its own. It stands grandly for the arts and introduces them to all comers.
But this amazing opera house, the first among the Gulf states and only the third in the entire Arab world after the declining and nearly forgotten ones of Cairo and Damascus, has immeasurable other purposes that could, with any luck at all, enliven this rich and potentially happy region in the future. Classic music-lover Sultan Qaboos, the far-seeing monarch of Oman, is determined to encourage a place where Omani children learn the arts of the world even as they learn to respect and create their own Omani opera, ballet and theater.
Many of us attending the opening of the opera house saw it as place where East will meet West -- but not in the usual superficial meaning of that phrase. Because of the sultan's love for Western classical music and his dedication to developing his own country, he intends to use the house, according to the vision statement, "to serve as a center of excellence, to enrich lives through culture and to promote timeless values."
As the great opera singer Placido Domingo, who had conducted Puccini's "Turandot" on opening night, put it the day after the opening in talking with a group of visitors: "We are all very grateful to Sultan Qaboos for making this possible. It is a very important step for the world and a tremendous honor for us."
The ineffable Italian stage designer Franco Zeffirelli and others involved in the opera house's design and construction briefed us visitors on the various functions it would fulfill.
The roof can be used for small performances, as can the garden. The sultan has his own entry hall and, of course, half-hidden box. They expect to have meetings before the operas to brief people on their history; they await schoolchildren with joy; and they can foresee Oman becoming the center not only of both Arab and foreign arts but of small industries where Omani artisans, who did all the gorgeous artwork for this house, would create stage sets for other operas. Those involved in the planning and design look forward to the day when the Omanis will operate the house themselves and create the productions staged there.
As one foreigner said wryly to me after the opening night's triumph, "Now the Arab Emirates and Qatar and all the Gulf states will just HAVE to have their own opera houses." As a matter of fact, most of them already have "festivals" that incorporate parts of all of the arts.
Without question, the Gulf states are rolling in oil money, and so filled with a liberated generation full of ideas gathered from across the world, that it will not be long before they, too, must have their own opera houses!
The Muscat opera house has become also a kind of center for the industries that attend the birth of the arts. In effect, it will play an economic role, too, in training Omani artists and moving them into healthy competition with the rest of the world.
"This is just the start of the journey," the minister of higher education commented to us.
But one thing the Omani experiment/experience is NOT is an example of multiculturalism as it has been practiced in the West. Multiculturalism has meant freezing everyone in the ethnic, nationalist and religious form given to them at birth. It is development at its worst -- in fact, it is anti-development. In the end, it most often assures conflict.
What Oman is suggesting is that one vision of the arts meet another vision, that they learn from that meeting and that they integrate it into new forms or not. Contrary to multiculturalism, this form of cultural meeting will be open and challenging and creative. It assumes that human beings can understand others' souls, often through the arts, and learn and create from such encounters.
And that, if I'm not wrong, is exactly what the sultan's open and waiting Royal Opera House is all about. One can scarcely wait for the next act.