With the fall season at the Royal Opera House Muscat in full swing, Y sits down with its Director General Umberto Fanni to explore how Oman’s cultural epicentre is raising a curtain on the arts to new audiences.
Y: What’s on the roster for the new season and is there a direction you want the ROHM to head towards for 2018-2019?
UF: Season 2018-2019 at the Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM) promises to be one of its most exciting and wonderful. Signalling the high quality of all the programmes to come, the season opened with Plácido Domingo’s spectacular Gala Zarzuela, featuring beautifully sung theatrical vignettes and dramatic tango pieces performed against a backdrop of evocative sets.
And so, the new season got off to a spectacular start with the most famous living tenor in the world performing his favourite music. What will follow at ROHM is a diverse array of operas, ballets, recitals, symphonic concerts, shows, and some of the greatest names in Arab music. Season 2018-2019 encompasses 40 new programmes and a total of 69 performances.
With respect to important new directions, in the 2018-19 Season, The Royal Opera House Muscat is continuing along the transformational path, which is taking the institution firmly into the vital realm of in-house production, including co-productions with some of the world’s most prestigious opera companies.
ROHM’s first major in-house production premiered in January 2017 with Celebrating Oman, an amazing outdoor show that drew more than 8,000 people over three nights. This was followed by The Opera, an operatic work designed to take audiences – especially patrons just getting to know opera – through the history of opera, with timeless arias woven into the mythic story of Orfeo and Eurydice. The success of these beautiful, innovative works, along with impressive new co-productions, proved inspirational in accelerating ROHM’s vital developmental ventures; and, this year, we are presenting not just one, but three new co-productions with top opera companies from around the world.
I would like to draw the attention of Y readers especially to ROHM’s three new 2018-19 co-productions. In November we present Johann Strauss’ Eine Nacht in Venedig (A Night in Venice), a delightful romantic comedy of errors co-produced by ROHM with Opéra de Lyon and Oper Graz. February brings Verdi’s La Traviata, a collaborative production of LA Opera and ROHM staged by Marta Domingo, with Placido Domingo conducting and singing, on different nights. Reserved for the final opera of the Season is a ROHM World Premiere in a global co-production of Léo Delibes’ beautiful opera, Lakmé. An impressive array of prestigious companies from five continents are participating – LA Opera, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Fondazione Arena di Verona, Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova, Cairo Opera House, Astana Opera, National Center of Performing Arts of Beijing and Sydney Opera House.
With these three important global co-productions in 2018-2019 capping ROHM’s many successful international productions to date, the Royal Opera House Muscat is well on the way to becoming a producing as well as a receiving institution.
Y: Looking back at Season 2017-2018, were there any sell-out shows that surprised you? What are people interesting in seeing?
UF: I’m very pleased to report that in the previous 2017-2018 Season, the Royal Opera House Muscat achieved a record number of seat sales, with many sold-out performances and an average of more than ninety-three percent of seat capacity filled, a record achieved by few other top opera houses anywhere in the world.
ROHM’s highly diverse programming ensures that there is virtually something for everyone, as ROHM’s appeal extends to a broad spectrum of audiences. Arab shows top the list of ROHM’s most popular programmes and they are always sold out. In this regard, special mention goes to ROHM’s world premiere of The Ring Dove Story, an original Arab Ballet by Hirat Minas Keshishian; and to the Season’s grand finale, Antar and Abla, an Arab operatic drama presented by Opera Lebanon.
Next in popularity are operas, followed by ballets. Symphonic concerts and recitals are also very popular; and, this Season we have a particularly stellar line-up of famous stars that includes one of the world’s most celebrated conductors – Valery Gergiev, as well as one of today’s greatest tenors, Juan Diego Flórez and world-renowned soprano, Kristine Opolais. Muscat loves jazz, and Season 2019-2019 includes Chucho Valdés, the most influential figure in modern Afro-Cuban jazz with his fabulous Quintet, as well as Sarah Jane Morris who has been lauded as “one of the world’s great jazz-soul vocalists of the past 20 years”.
The most amazing of ROHM’s spectacular shows this season is bound to be the breathtaking Opera on Ice. Performed right on stage in ROHM’s auditorium, the show combines the inspirational artistry of operatic singing with the virtuosic talent and grace of world-class ice skating.
Y: ROHM’s new Season 2018-2019 opener raised the curtain with the flamenco-driven ‘Gala Zarzuela’, with Plácido Domingo performing. What was it like working with him again and how was audience turnout/reception?
UF: I’ve known Plácido Domingo for many years and so we have the relaxed rapport and synergy that comes with familiarity and shared perspectives, including a passionate love of opera. Plácido is a consummate professional who is also a warm person, and unusually down-to earth, with a great sense of humanity on which he acts with heartwarming generosity. His infectious joyousness for life and art is evident in all he does. It is indeed a wonderfully inspiring privilege to be again working directly with this great man who has a unique place in the modern history of opera.
This season, Maestro Domingo comes to ROHM not just once, but twice, amounting to a total of four visits and ten performances at the Royal Opera House Muscat. Plácido Domingo’s first engagement with ROHM was for the Inauguration in October of 2011 when he declared Oman’s Royal Opera House to be “a cultural gem”. Plácido Domingo’s second visit to ROHM was to perform in a gala concert in January of 2017, at the end of which the audience would not stop clapping.
Plácido Domingo’s wonderful Gala Zarzuela was sold out well in advance of the Opening earlier this month. The audience was moved by the warm affection that Plácido radiates to the audience, just as much as they were by his marvellous voice and superb musicianship. It must be said that there is a magnificence in the figure that Plácido Domingo cuts on stage at 77 years of age, with his graceful carriage, an impressive cloud of white hair, his natural ease and incredible exuberance. It is not an exaggeration to say that the audience loved him to bits!
Y: Placido Domingo’s ‘Gala Zarzuela’ was specially fashioned for ROHM. Can you elaborate on that process of collaboration?
UF: Very soon after Plácido Domingo’s 2017 performance at ROHM, we began planning his next appearances. Plácido was very enthusiastic about returning again to ROHM, the institution that he fell in love with virtually at first sight seven years ago. Maestro Domingo and his team from LA Opera, including, among other outstanding professional experts, Plácido’s wife Marta Domingo, a renowned stage director; and Plácido’s son and publicist, Alvaro Domingo, pulled out all the stops to work with ROHM on a two truly great productions.
Plácido Domingo and his team were as keen to ensure respect for Oman’s local culture with respect to costume and comportment, as they were to create spectacular productions. For this Season’s grand seasonal opening, Plácido chose a form of Spanish theatre that is close to his heart, as he grew up working in his parents’ zarzuela company in Mexico. And he elevated the art of zarzuela by rendering it in gala form.
What better opera to choose for Maestro Domingo’s fourth appearance at ROHM, than the world’s favourite – Verdi’s La Traviata?!
Plácido Domingo, who is an expert conductor as well as a great singer, decided to perform in both roles in La Traviata on different nights. He will sing
the baritone role of Germont, father of La Traviata’s leading man, Alfredo. Marta Domingo further perfected her dazzling Art Deco interpretation of the staging for this treasured opera, on which she has worked for many years. The staff of LA Opera and ROHM are continuing to work closely together on various aspects of the production, including local staging and the complex logistics of delivery.
Y: How does ROHM seek to draw in new audiences for whom the experience of the performing arts and live stage performance is new?
UF: An important objective of the Royal Opera House Muscat is developing, nurturing and drawing in new audiences. Open houses, tours and exhibitions for the general public are a regular feature each season. ROHM’s Outreach and Education Department is active with both teachers and students in local government schools with the aim of introducing RHOM and the performing arts to students, imbuing them early on with a genuine interest in their Nation’s Royal Opera House. ROHM’s regular programming includes special productions for families and children. Among such programmes are interactive operas in which the children create their own props and participate from their seats, singing and directing the action.
School students are occasionally invited to special matinées for productions that are relevant to them. Some musicians who perform at ROHM voluntarily give workshops for music students in the schools, including most famously in the past, the world-famous cellist, YoYo Ma and the celebrated violinist, Joshua Bell. Omani children are encouraged to perform as extras in operas so that they can become familiar with opera from the inside – and quite possibly discover their talent.
Community engagement is vital to the success and on-going relevance of the Royal Opera House Muscat. Especially successful has been ROHM’s free-of-charge Lunch Music series held in the Opera Galleria. Members of the general public are invited to drop by and enjoy recitals by wonderful singers and musicians who perform at ROHM. Held in cooperation with Opera Galleria cafés and restaurants offering reduced prices to those who wish to combine music with lunch, the Lunch Series has been so popular with the public that it has been extended to a Dinner Music series.
Employing user-friendly mobile phone technology and mainstream social media, spanning Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, ROHM has become popular with younger generations, attracting many thousands of followers.
ROHM courts tourists and International visitors through alliances with Muscat’s five-star hotels and by participating in Oman’s tourism initiatives abroad. ROHM has an impressive track record with marketing strategies that successfully appeal to both local and international patrons. Twenty-three percent of ROHM patrons came from eight-two different nations, with the highest proportions among the twenty-three percent coming from five countries – the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, The United States of America and Switzerland, in that order.
Y: With Oman’s National Day just a couple short months away, what ROHM initiatives are being planned to mark the occasion?
UF: Every night during Oman’s National Day celebrations, the Royal Opera House will be magnificently illuminated in the colours of the Omani flag in brilliant red, green and white.
Early in November, to mark the start of the National Day period, the bands of His Majesty’s armed forces will march in tattoo formation in magnificent dress uniform while playing martial music in ROHM’s heart-stopping military music concert. Signalling Oman’s global outlook, military bands from Poland and China will also perform for ROHM’s annual celebration of the Nation’s greatness. ROHM’s annual November tribute to the Sultanate and its beloved Leader, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said, is ROHM’s most popular event.
Y: In ROHM’s upcoming autumn roster will there be any more celebrity appearances coming up?
UF: In addition to Placido Domingo, the 2018 portion of the new Season features one of the very best conductors in the world, Valery Gergiev who will also participate in a ROHM Coffee and Date session, giving ticket-holders for Gergiev’s concerts a chance to meet this giant of the music world and interact with him informally. Maestro Gergiev will conduct the Orchestra of the renowned Mariinsky Theatre in Alexander Borodin’s epic opera, Prince Igor, as well as in a concert featuring Stravinsky’s famous orchestral work, Firebird and Prokofiev’s glorious Cantata, Alexander Nevsky.
The incredibly charismatic Arab singer Wael Kfoury will perform in ROHM’s annual Omani Women’s Day Celebration as well as in a solo concert. World-famous Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez will sing with the brightly rising Egyptian star, Fatma Said. Juan Diego and Fatma will participate together in a ROHM Coffee and Dates session. Known as the Caesar of Arab Song, the widely adored star, Kadim AlSahir, will sing some of his most popular romantic songs.
Y: How does ROHM seek to foster and provide a platform for Omani artistic talent?
UF: In addition to encouraging Omanis to appear as extras in operas, working with Omani school children and involving them in a variety of Education and Outreach initiatives such as workshops and interactive operas, ROHM employs a very high percentage of Omani Nationals.
ROHM offers promising young Omani staff skill-development training, both in-house and abroad, as technicians, staging artists or crew, costume specialists, and performing arts managers or administrators. All of ROHM’s Front of House staff are Omanis who naturally become imbued with the excitement and ethos of the performing arts. Their loyalty and enthusiasm infect others in their social circles, and naturally, some staff members and those they influence eventually seek careers in the performing arts.
For more information on the ROHM, and to book your tickets, visit www.rohmuscat.org.om.