How refreshing to have an opera house upstage its own productions. And how exciting to have an opera house that rivals the world’s grandest 19th-century houses yet is nestled in a well-kept secret of tourism that less than 50 years ago had just six miles of paved roads.
The Royal Opera House Muscat, an architectural triumph in Oman’s capital city—which is tucked between the Gulf of Oman and the Al Hajar Mountains, which features centuries-old terraced agriculture and off-the-grid hiking—is what you’d imagine an Aladdin-esque opera house to be if the art form had been part of the Arab world, say, 150 years ago. Its white stone towers and arabesque arches are stacked on layers that evoke a grand Middle Eastern medieval citadel crossed with a Byzantine McMansion—a modern-day La Scala or Palais Garnier with pure, in-your-face opera-house attitude.
And its 2019–20 season is a testament to its growing influence in the opera world, as well as to Oman’s quiet emergence as an accepting and safe tourist haven in the Gulf region. (The oil-rich country, on the lower right of the Arabian Peninsula, is known for its embrace of Western culture.) The opera season opens September 11 with three performances of Carmen, starring three major players in the opera world—Elena Maximova, José Cura, and Anita Hartig—and continues through April. The opera house reflects the country’s focus on high-end tourism—not the party atmosphere and sprawling resorts that have turned neighboring Dubai and Abu Dhabi into the Cancuns of the Middle East.
For example, it’s nice to have a dress code for those of us traumatized by jeans and white sneakers at opera houses in America and Europe. (This isn’t a bowling alley, people!) Women must wear long-sleeved dresses that go below the knees or traditional burkas. Jackets and long sleeves are required for men choosing Western garb and, for locals, the traditional dishdasha (a long-sleeved robe, often in perfectly ironed white with lavish colorful embroidery around the neck and sleeves) and a massar, the colorful embroidered cloth headdress succinctly tied into a turban.
It’s nice to have a dress code for those of us traumatized by jeans and sneakers at opera houses in America and Europe.
The lobby is filled with marble from Iran and Italy, teak from Myanmar, and crystal chandeliers from Austria. Every detail is impressive, from the polished handles on the bathroom doors to the sculpted wood on each of the 1,100 seats in the auditorium, to a three-story lobby with a grand staircase that seems to cry out for ball gowns and spats. Intermission in particular feels like a mash-up of East and West: perfectly coiffed beards and dazzling bejeweled burkas are sprinkled among the traditional suited and gowned opera-goers from nearby five-star resorts. This all evokes what opera houses in the West must have felt like more than a century ago, with well-heeled visitors discovering an evolving art form and showing off their fancy-schmancy attire and newfound wealth.
Completed in 2011 and designed by the architecture firm of Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo, the Royal Opera House Muscat is the personal vision of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Oman’s 78-year-old supreme leader. The sultan ousted his father in a friendly coup in 1970 to modernize the country, which centuries ago stretched as far south as Zanzibar and as far east as Iran and Pakistan. Educated in England and a devotee of the arts, Qaboos reigns over a country known for openness, which many historians trace to its embrace of Ibadi Islam, often seen as an unusually tolerant form of Islam. That tolerance is reflected in the fact that Oman has remained neutral for decades in its volatile Gulf neighborhood.
You’ll see female supervisors at the airport, scant bathing suits at the many resorts, and even an eclectic lineup in the opera house’s repertory, including jazz concerts, Arabic popular music, ballet and modern dance, Latin American folk music, and a Bollywood-style musical in October that will no doubt lure Oman’s vast Indian population. It has co-commissioned productions with several other opera houses, including a Lakmé that premiered here last spring and will travel to opera houses on five other continents.
Top Hats to Massars
The Royal Opera House Muscat’s presence in the Middle East seems much like that of any opera house in Europe during the late 19th century, when cities tried to outdo one another with ever more lavish houses. This spilled over in the Arab world only with the Italian-style Cairo Opera House, which was built in 1869 to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. (It was destroyed by fire in 1971, and a more Arabian house—it resembles the Muscat house, in fact—was built in 1988.) Other cities in the Gulf region have followed Oman’s lead, with opera houses now in Dubai, Kuwait, and, as reported last year, one planned for Jidda, Saudi Arabia. And the Muscat opera house evokes in sheer grandeur the infamously doomed Frank Lloyd Wright opera house that was planned for Baghdad in the 1950s but scrapped after the 1958 coup.
In an era when opera houses are still considered snob temples or tired old buildings that lure only the old and tired, the Royal Opera House Muscat is an invigorating return to a time when an opera house was the grand centerpiece of a country ushering in the modern world and embracing new entertainment. The top hats and bustles have been replaced by massars and burkas, and they’ll all be upstaging Carmen and her saucy compatriots this month. The glad rags and the posing offstage will almost surely be as dramatic and sexy as they will be onstage.
David Belcher is a writer and editor based in Hong Kong