When you think of Oman, most traveller think of one type of must-see attraction: city’s impressive mosques. A European-style classical opera house probably isn ‘t even on most visitors’ radar. But it should be. Muscat’s Royal Opera House offers an experience that is as surprising as it is absolutely breathtaking.
Singing Aida in Arabia
If you’re surprised opera has found a home in Oman, you’re not alone. Ten years ago, opera was all but unknown in Arabia. There were no concert halls and no public performances of western music. That was before, however, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said translated his passion for classical music into the debut of the region’s first grand opera house in Muscat in 2011.
The palatial performance centre is now an anchor for the sophisticated neighbourhood (located just 1 km, or 1/2 mile, from the beachfront Intercontinental Muscat), offering a diverse array of classical international opera, orchestra, and ballet combined with Omani and Middle Eastern artists and other world music performers.
A grand palace of Opera
Built out of locally quarried limestone, the Royal Opera House was designed to look like a palace, with a grand stairway that leads to a majestic archway-ed entrance. During the day, the white stone shimmers in the sun and the palm-lined ornamental gardens create an impressive picture. At night, the limestone reflects light to make it appear like a glowing palace perched over the city. Once inside, the state-of-the-art performance space seats 1,100, and includes a seat-back system for automatic translations of the opera. Public areas boast intricate, coffered ceilings, inlaid tile and stone mosaic floors and gilded columns and red carpets.
When the Royal Opera House opened, it debuted with the musical equivalent of fireworks: Placido Domingo conducting Puccini’s passionate opera Turandot, with grand theatrical staging from Zeffirelli, to sold out audiences.
The current season continues to promote what the opera house calls “cultural tourism,” filling the air of the beautiful seaside city with Teatro Regio Torino performing Verdi’s Aida, an elaborately staged opera by Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, Swan Lake danced by the Ballet Theater Astana Opera and an homage to Luciano Pavarotti, just to name a few.
Arab and world music
It’s not all classical opera and ballet at the Royal Opera House; you’ll also find offerings such as “An Evening of Romantic Songs” with popular Omani performer Salah al Zadjali and Egyptian singer Medhat Saleh backed by a band of 30 musicians. Omani Women’s Day, which takes place every October, is another locally-focused event, with performances by the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra Ladies Chamber Ensemble, and the Yemeni singer Balqees. There’s also performances on the calendar from international artists, such as American singer Ann Hampton Callaway and Brazilian guitarist Gilberto Gil, plus free family-friendly offering.
Royal Opera House tours
Taking in a show isn’t the only way to experience Muscat’s opera house. Guided, daytime tours explore the building’s design elements, pointing out Islamic, Mughal, Oriental and European influences. Tours also delve into the amazing technology that transforms the stage with the touch of a switch, and also shows off their collection of rare instruments, including the largest mobile pipe organ in the Middle East.
Bonus tip: This cultural hot spot is attached to the Opera Galleria, an upscale shopping center that features 50 boutiques and dining spots. Don’t expect a cookie-cutter mall experience here. Opera Galleria reflects the spirit of Oman with art, gems, and perfume retailers, as well as international dining options.