The Times’s Michael Binyon discusses the legacy of Sultan Qaboos Bin Said and his work to broaden Oman’s cultural horizons
The death of Sultan Qaboos bin Saidof Oman robs his country of a man who for almost 50 years steered a once neglected backwater of Arabia into a modern, stable and prosperous Middle Eastern nation. The peaceful succession of his cousin, Haitham bin Tariq, is a tribute to the stability, democratic institutions and good government that Qaboos bequeathed Oman. But it will take some time for Omanis to overcome their grief at the death of a genuinely popular ruler, a man who did much to forge good relations with all his neighbours and who was a personal friend of Britain and of Queen Elizabeth.
Of his many legacies, one in particular will endure as a testimony to the huge cultural influence Qaboos had on his countrymen. Among the modern office blocks and tree-lined avenues of Muscat, Oman’s capital, one elegant white building stands out: an opera house, one of the first and finest in the Middle East. Western music has already established a beachhead in the sultanate. Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky pour from a classical radio station all day. Omani violinists, cellists and flautists accompany singers and soloists from the Arab world and beyond. Children are taken on school visits to the opera house to marvel dutifully at the marble floors, mahogany inlay and backstage technical equipment.
Qaboos made no secret of his love of classical music. He wanted to hear it played in his country – not only by visiting orchestras, lured by high fees, but by Omanis confident enough to perform at a professional level. It meant starting from scratch. Scouts were sent to schools around the country. Any boy or girl showing musical talent was offered the chance of tuition by instrument teachers brought over from Britain. Classes were held in the royal palace. Slowly, note by note, a symphony orchestra was created.
At first, they performed only at private royal functions. But Qaboos had wider ambitions. He commissioned an opera house. Muscat residents were, to say the least, sceptical. Was this just a vanity project? Having built it, at stupendous but unpublished cost, the challenge was to make it commercially viable. No one wanted status symbol culture, the pattern of some neighbouring countries importing galleries and museums wholesale from the West.
But the examples from the region are hardly encouraging. The Khedive of Egyptbuilt a fine wooden opera house in Cairo in 1869, famously used for the premiere of Aida. It burnt down in 1971. The modern replacement, opened in 1988 and built with funds donated byJapan, is a fine new arts complex, including seven theatres and a main hall that can seat some 1,200 people. But today it is all but ignored by most Egyptians. Kuwaitand Dubai built opera houses after Oman, with Dubai lavishing huge sums on a 2,000-seat arts centre designed by Janus Rostock, a Danish architect. The opera was formally opened in 2016 with a performance by Placido Domingo, and Dubai hired Jaspar Hope, former chief operating officer of the Albert Hall, to run the complex. Despite lavish productions, it may struggle to bring in locals or break even – and relies mainly on Western expatriates to fulfil the oil-rich emirate’s ambition to rely more on overtures than oil. The aim, however, is to lure in Arab audiences with performances and stagings that have particular appeal to Arabic culture and taste.
In Muscat, enthusiasm among Omanis for classical music has grown, though slowly. Opera was the easiest draw. Combining singing, dancing and theatre, it has echoes of Arab culture. Ballet also is popular. By contrast, symphonic music is problematic: too abstract for many and with little visual spectacle – though the lushness of Russian music is fairly popular.
Attendance has been bolstered by the large western expatriate community, many of whom fly in from Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Saudi Arabiafor a performance. The yearly schedules also include the famous names of Arabic pop and folk music, boosting the footfall. Kazim al-Sahir, whose performances anywhere are sell-outs, can fill the house within hours of bookings opening. This season also boasts costly names from the classical world: Carmen, performed by the Buenos Aires opera last month, the Bolshoi, Puccini’s La Boheme, Georgian ballet and the London Symphony Orchestra, which in February brings two evenings of Tchaikovsky and Russian classics. As a result, the Muscat opera boasted an 84 per cent occupancy rate last season.
Dr Nasser al-Taee, the opera’s Omani director of education and outreach and a former professor of musicology at the University of Tennessee, sees no reason why classical music should not become embedded, just as it has in Japan and South Korea. “Musical education and receptivity are gradually developing,” he said. “Of course, most Omanis probably only know the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth or the tune from the Ninth. But rhythm is a strong element of our musical culture.”
Oman has also long been influenced by links with India, now enhanced by the large Indian expatriate population. Last month the opera put on The Great Moghul– a showy Indian musical that drew huge audiences. It will later stage Japanese percussion and drumming, Tai Chi dance and The Nutcracker from Chinaand Omani folk music. The Oman symphony orchestra has a full schedule – and training has begun to create a second Muscat Philharmonic Orchestra.
From the start, the opera insisted on the professionalism of performances. They begin on time – to the consternation of those who arrived up to an hour late during the first few seasons. Buying tickets in advance and observing a dress code are also new to local customs. Nor may the audiences chat, eat, take pictures or socialise as they expect to do in restaurants and local musical evenings.
In many countries boasting an opera house or concert hall is a symbol of development, prosperity and cultural prowess. This is increasingly true not only of the Middle East but also in the Far East. China has built dozens of strikingly modern opera houses and concert venues in the past two decades, hiring some of the world’s most daring and original architects. At least a dozen venues boast extraordinary swirling and sometimes bizarre designs that have captured the visual imagination – if not the tastes of the local population. The opera house in Guanzhou, one of the most lavish, was recently listed by an American newspaper as “one of the top 10 opera houses of the world.”
New opera houses have also been erected recently in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Mongolia, Vietnam, Singaporeand Kazakhstan. The opera house in the new capital Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) has been promoted as the third largest in the world and boasts a 1.6 tonne chandelier.
Omanis are determined to make their own pioneering work a yardstick by which to show their educational, cultural and international development. They have long been seafarers, establishing a colony in Zanzibar or trading with the East. Now they are trying to position their country as a cultural crossroads. And opera is broadening the horizons.