Opera has persisted across centuries and continents as one of the most enduring art forms of all time. Team Y heads to the Royal Opera House Muscat to explore its journey to the Sultanate.
Cutting through the sound-booth silence in this velvety hall where time stands still, the strains of a lilting libretto ring through our ears.
To an observer, we’re a group of people pacing in thoughtful circumnavigation; headphones on as though at a silent disco.
But really, we’re chasing the vibrato of an aria back through time to the cobbles of Venice’s Piazza San Marco, examining playbills from the height of London’s operatic renaissance, and admiring the sheet music, opera glasses, and imperial robes worn by the art-form’s elite aficionados of the day.
We’re in the heart of the Royal Opera House Muscat’s ‘Opera – 400 Years of Passion’ exhibition but we we’re also world’s away.
Opened on January 17, 2019, the exhibit is a uniquely interactive collaborative opus in partnership with London’s iconic Victoria & Albert Museum. The Muscat display marks the collection’s first stop on its tour outside the UK.
The story told through its six rooms takes visitors on a musical journey dating back 400 years to the early 17th century and opera’s Venetian roots, through to its spread to London, Vienna, Milan, Paris, and finally Muscat – where the Royal Opera House Muscat opened in 2011 under the patronage of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said.
With more than 200 objects amassed from across Europe, ‘400 Years of Passion’ heralds the story of opera through a comprehensive array of artefacts and memorabilia that runs the gamut from costumes and marble busts to oil paintings and glass and chinaware.
We sat down with Umberto Fanni, Director General of the Royal Opera House Muscat to learn more about the exhibition and why fostering renewed appreciation for the art-form among younger generations of audiences is on his radar.
Y: Tell us about the conceptualisation of the ‘400 Years of Passion’ exhibition and the role of the Victoria & Albert Museum.
UF: Opera combines music, drama, design, and the voice into one spectacular art form. It captures all the passion and emotion of being human.
This ground-breaking exhibition conceived and organised by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (V&A) tells the story of opera through six premières in six great international cities across four centuries. It reveals how operas are inextricably entwined with the social, historical, and cultural landscape of the cities in which they are created.
The exhibition opened to critical acclaim at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in September 2017 and is now going on tour with Muscat as the first destination outside London.
The Royal Opera House Muscat worked with the V&A closely to customise the content of the exhibition to specifically appeal to audiences in Oman and to highlight the role of ROHM in the continuing spread of this very special art form.
The arrival of ‘Opera – 400 Years of Passion’ was timed to coincide with the grand opening of ROHM’s new House of Musical Arts. And so, with this exhibition in Oman, one of the world’s best-loved art forms is given the honour it deserves after touching many millions of hearts over the past 400 years.
Y: Walk us through the journey visitors will experience as they go through the exhibition.
UF: As I remarked in a speech introducing the exhibition, “If you are not already passionate about opera, you will be by the time you finish touring the exhibition!”
It’s a richly immersive and theatrical experience that fills the senses. We can guarantee you’ll have never seen anything like it before.
As the tour begins, you are given Sennheiser headphones playing atmospheric music that take you straight into the world of opera. In each room, the music in your ears changes automatically and the dark walls wrap you in the intimacy of the exhibits as if you are on stage with the opera stars.
Phrases boldly written in white with an upward slant on the black walls casually evoke the sentiments of a famous opera at its premiere in six cities: Venice, London, Vienna, Milan, Paris, and Muscat. The life and times of these six cities are staged, each in a room of its own, with cultural artefacts from the era.
The artefacts on display range from costumes and accessories to set designs and engravings, historical photographs, sheet music, marble busts, and other objects from the collections of the V&A, and other European lenders, as well as from ROHM. The texts appearing with the artefacts in each room are rich in information and cultural significance.
Of particular historical interest are exhibits such as the original evening bodice worn in the mid-19th century by Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. Visitors will also be delighted to find an original Venetian harpsichord, one of the oldest still in existence and made in the year 1531, nearly 500 years ago.
The tour culminates in the present era in Muscat with displays representing Puccini’s ‘Turandot’, ROHM’s grand inaugural opera which premiered in October 2011.
It is not only the exhibition which will be of great interest to visitors, but also the building in which it is held – and that is the brand-new Royal Opera: House of Musical Arts.
All who come will be thrilled to walk from the Opera Galleria to the House of Musical Arts (ROHMA) through the fabulous cocoon-like pedestrian bridge that spans Al Kharjiyah Street and experience some of ROHMA’s wonderful spaces such as the Performance Foyer and its sparkling new marble Maidan elegantly framed by a colonnade.
Y: What are some of the most notable items and artefacts ROHM has amassed for the display?
UF: Among the most stunning pieces in the Muscat room are three of the costumes designed by Franco Zeffirelli for the staging of ROHM’s inaugural opera, ‘Turandot’ in 2011.
Y: In what ways is the ‘400 Years of Passion’ exhibition designed to bring the operatic art form to a wider audience in the Sultanate – and a younger
UF: This exhibition is one of the many ways in which the Royal Opera House succeeds in building the diverse audience base, which is a hallmark of the institution. Even in its first weeks, we are seeing predominately local audiences attending the exhibition.
ROHM’s various Education and Outreach programmes, such as the lunch time music series in the Opera Galleria and the ‘Coffee and Dates’ series featuring outstanding personalities, have become increasingly popular with people of all ages.
At the same time there are many programmes for children and young adults, such as workshops in the schools led by famous musicians. Students are invited to special matinées and to participate directly in interactive operas designed especially for them, as well as to appear as extras in some of ROHM’s large-scale operatic productions.
The Royal Opera House Muscat takes pride in presenting a diverse range of productions which draw patrons, both local and international, of various nationalities representing many different cultures and social backgrounds.
ROHM audiences are remarkably balanced and are typically composed of people of different ages, including young people, equally spanning both genders.
With a filled seat capacity of about 93% or more, which is unusually high in today’s world of opera, ROHM has wide appeal and it is now considered one of the top ten opera houses in the world. That this appeal includes a good proportion of young people is documented by the ever-growing tens of thousands of followers that the Royal Opera House Muscat attracts on social media, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Y: Through its work, and exhibitions such as ‘400 Years’, how does the Royal Opera House Muscat strive to foster a greater cultural understanding of the importance of the arts within Omani society?
UF: While initiatives such as some of those I mentioned earlier, as well as the special ‘400 Year of Passion’ exhibition, offer engaging and educational insights into the performing arts. Programmes such as the annual Military Music Concert, which attracts huge audiences and creates tremendous enthusiasm, serves to bring the Royal Opera House ‘home to the people’ in celebration of their own culture. This ‘spills’ over to a wider interest in the arts in general.
The advent of ROHM’s community-oriented House of Musical Arts represents a great leap forward in bringing the arts to the people and vice versa.
And, importantly, the House of Musical Arts will encourage communication and interaction in which, on a personal level, people share their interests and learn from each other – another incredible achievement for building cultural bridges between Oman and the world.