Why are the Arabs building opera houses?

Why are the Arabs building opera houses?


norman lebrecht

June 16, 2016

Elisabeth Braw asks some pertinent questions in The Economist:

Does Oman need one? And what about Dubai, traditionally an Arab trading town? Performing opera in countries that are not part of the Western cultural history may be cultural imperialism initiated by the countries’ rulers rather than an enlightened offering to their residents. And in the case of Dubai, the opera house may further accelerate the emirate’s shift from commercial centre to expat hub: foreigners already make up 80% of the population.


Read on here.


  • Mark Henriksen says:

    I find this entire question and line of thinking preposterous because it has been answered over and over in cities all over the world. Not only for classical music but other types of music as well.

  • Rationalist says:

    Why shouldn’t they? I doubt any significant number of people ever decided to move somewhere to “exert their cultural hegemony” because that place had recently acquired an opera house. If there’s a demand for opera in Dubai, they should have an opera house.

  • HN says:

    I completely agree with Henriksen. The line of argument makes no sense – why shouldn’t Arab countries be encouraged if they want to play Western music or opera even if it’s not part of their cultural history. Arab countries have a rich musical history that has influence all over the world. By that token, we shouldn’t be playing latin american/asian/african music in the UK. In fact is opera really a part of British ‘cultural’.. I mean, it originated in Italy?! Also if the country is made up of a large proportion of expats surely that is more reason for this.

  • Brian B says:

    ” Performing opera in countries that are not part of the Western cultural history may be cultural imperialism”

    So, Mr, Lebrecht, you don’t believe that great art is a cultural heritage belonging to the entire world and all peoples? Why does Slipped Disc even exist?

  • KAA says:

    Classical western music is beloved by everyone regardless of religion or race. Is that actually a bad thing? There are symphony orchestras even in Baghdad which has been functional for over 50 years. Today, if you look at the composition of any orchestra in East or West, the most striking thing esepcially for younger players is that they are mostly Asians. It seems that NL picked the arabs out of the article when the article also talks about the many opera houses in China. I guess, like the problems identified yesterday in his report on the Palestinian Youth Orchestra, he is not only an Israeli apologist but also an anti-arab.

    • Neil van der Linden says:

      To KAA: And now, while in a previous blog Norman suggested I have an anti-israel and pro-Palestinian bias, I would like to say that often Norman just as well shows genuine interest in what is going on in Cairo, or, just outside the Arab world, Teheran, so let us say he is rather sceptic, and likes to provoke. In the case of his remark about PLO propaganda in a press release on that Palestinian orchestra coming the UK in a rather negative way, and here indeed condescending, but yet not necessarily hostile.
      All that being said it is certainly true that Dubai nor Shanghai or Singapore for a while will be like La Monnaie/De Munt, Brussels. But many opera houses in the West are not like that too and many audiences in the West don’t want their opera house to be like La Monnaie/De Munt.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    Not a very well informed article. The galleries mentioned are not the most typical Dubai galleries. Dubai does not want to forge a reputation in the arts ‘now’, it has been doing that – successfully – since it began to do so twenty years ago. And if Dubai has 80% expats, what is wrong with catering to them too? Even if a relatively small part of that 80% will be interested, or able to afford. And Muscat’s Opera House is quite successful. And if opera is such a Western style, what about opera houses in China, Hong Kong and Japan? Moreover the Dubai Opera will be a concert hall too. And ‘the Arab countries’ sounds quite condescending. Cairo had an opera house long before Amsterdam had one.

    • Eric B says:

      “Cairo had an opera house long before Amsterdam had one.”

      But the Cairo Opera House is THE perfect example of “cultural imperialism initiated by the countries’ rulers rather than an enlightened offering to their residents.” Who do you think went and attended the 1ere of Aïda, the local “arabs” or the “western intelligentsia” ?

      • Neil van der Linden says:

        The Khedives starting with Mohammed Ali had the idea to push Egypt up to line of modernity of Europe. His opera house was not for foreigners, except during the opening event, on the occasion of the opening of the Suez Canal, but for the enlightened or enlightenable Egyptians. Apart from some British military, who had notorious little affection for that Germano-Italian thing called opera, there were hardly foreigners in Cairo, except some diplomats. Moreover how many Western capitals did not build an opera house for the prestige, partly?

        • EricB says:

          “Moreover how many Western capitals did not build an opera house for the prestige, partly?”

          Well, yeah, of course prestige was always a part of the motivation. But still within an already existing cultural tradition.
          Today the Cairo opera is still there, but an almost empty shell.
          Same with the Mumbai opera, which has even been closed for decades now.

          “The Khedives starting with Mohammed Ali had the idea to push Egypt up to line of modernity of Europe.”
          Yes, and now it’s pretty much the same with the Chinese or the Dubai operas, initiated by the local politicians to push their countries “up to line” with what’s considered by them not so much as “modernity”, but as a reference of “cultural excellence” (pretty much the same reason why Abu Dhabi wanted its very own Louvre Museum !)

          • Neil van der Linden says:

            Thanks. Surely that is definitely one side of the coin. And that is why I said that the new houses probably for a while will not be the next La Monnaie, or maybe never.
            Unless some of the artistic tendencies (and they are much more prominent and prolific than the also in this regard uninformed author mentions, referring to two relatively irrelevant gallery instead of one of the twenty that are relevant, and omitting Art Dubai as well) come together and meet at the opera house, making it something different from just a performance hall.

  • Milka says:

    It is not so much that one has an opera house ,it is the “why” that tells a story ,and
    if the truth be told it has little to do with music .

  • Listener says:

    If foreigners make up 80% of the population in Dubai, then very soon even more Europeans will be seeking there a refuge from arabs. Some of those people may have demand for an opera house.

  • Vlad says:

    Building an opera house- good. Why is this even a question?

    If, however, it does come down to imperialism, then maybe operas should be done in Arabic, about the history and culture of Arab countries.

  • Sue says:

    There are huge European’ numbers living and working in most of these places and it seems reasonable that they would want to have their culture with them. Same with Dubai, which is possibly the most multicultural city in the middle east. We shall see, as time passes, how well these edifices and cultural changes are received by the less tolerant in those parts of the world.

    Watch this space.

  • Nick says:

    What a stupid and often misleading article! I cannot speak with experience of the Gulf nations. But the article also raises questions regarding China. “China, another nation not traditionally known for Wagner and Rossini, is in the midst of an opera-house construction boom . . . But does China, with its own rich cultural history, need opera houses performing a Western repertoire?”

    What an utterly fatuous comment! Why not add in other Asian countries which have been building opera houses like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore? Two years ago Beijing held a Spring Opera Festival in which no less than ten different operas were presented with the theme, “Western opera is spreading while Chinese opera is blossoming.” I have attended various opera performances in the city, all packed mostly with enthusiastic young Chinese – not expats. So, they are relatively new to the operatic art form! What difference does it make, I wonder, if the performances are in Beijing, Jakarta, Nagoya or the Shetland Isles? The important point surely is new audiences are being created.

    And the writer has made further incorrect assumptions without any research into the history of opera in China. Shanghai was an important western musical centre from the mid-1800s onwards. By 1915, Shanghai audiences were able to attend 31 performances of 18 different operas, including Aida (which had earlier received its Asian premiere in Macau!), Otello, Tosca, Boheme and Butterfly. The following year the repertoire included Boris Godounov; The Pearl Fishers, Onegin and Romeo et Juliette. Local Chinese had started attending (albeit the more important members of the community) such that by 1925, the Shen Pao Chinese daily was reporting on opera performances and carrying articles like “Western Opera: Its Forms and Manners.”

    • EricB says:

      “The important point surely is new audiences are being created.”

      That’s not the point of the article.
      As you said, in China (for example) new audiences have been created, and we hope the same can be said in the future about the Dubai Opera. But honestly, I don’t think it’s (was) the main purpose of the political deciders of this “marketing operation”.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    In addition to what I wrote yesterday I should add that although the Cairo Opera House in its first emanation, the Khedivial Opera House, dates from 1869 (remember the story about the conception of Aida commissioned for the opening of the Suez canal, but Verdi was was not ready in time, so in the Khedivial Opera House opened instead with Verdi’s Rigoletto), apart from leading to Aida has never contributed much to the development of opera as we know it. It performs the hightlighs of Western opera repertoire and incidentally a homegrown opera, like the charming opera Miramar after Naguib Mahfouz’ story.. Outside this the podium was used by some of the great Egyptian native style singers and the current building is also use by the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. The Muscat opera has not yet commissioned any production of its own, not even an original staging of an existing opera. It is also a concert hall, including a hall for popular singers. The Dubai house will be the same, although, interestingly, the UAE has some composers of its own, of whom Mohammed Fairouz, living in NYC, will see an opera staged the coming seasons by the Dutch National Opera, so who knows to what this could lead in the future. The house will also be a venue for popular concerts, but perhaps not outright popular mainstream pop, but rather quality Western, Arab and especially also Indian and Pakistani music (think of the large highly educated Subcontinent communities working over there) that do not require halls of over 2000 people (because then there are other venues). But if it can connect to the burgeoning visual arts scene, and if that can become less commercial, new works might emanate. If the UAE can survive the whimsies of the oil market and in the end the last drop. Dubai already hardly has any oil and survives, but the rest of the region will partly come to a standstill if it does not follow Dubai’s example of diversifying the economy, and that then still might affect Dubai. The region can bring together great creative minds, if we include Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, and who knows in the future Israel.

  • Dave T says:

    Morocco recently opened a grand theater in Marrakech and is constructing fabulous ones in Rabat (Hadid) and Casablanca (Portzamparc). Just when these two will be completed in not entirely clear– the latter is further along. Though all are capable of staging opera it is not entirely clear either as to whether they will (or do).

  • Sam says:

    I sang in Oman a few years ago, and had this very conversation with the Minister for Education himself. The shelf life of the oil reserves is key to the answer. They know that oil will not sustain their economies indefinitely – in the case of Oman the reserves are quite small, estimated at twenty more years of supply. So they are diversifying, and including the arts at the center of the diversification plan in order to attract western investment. Many westerners enjoy the region for the short term, but homesickness sets in when they come to terms with the lack of cultural connection to their homeland. The opera houses and concert halls provide the missing link.

  • EricB says:

    I’d like to share my (little) experience as one of the few people who “instructed” the staff of the then-future Beijin Opera : some of the staff of the Paris and Lyon operas gave “classes” to the future staff of the Beijing Opera, like a year before it even opened. On this occasion, it clearly appeared that the people involved had no clue WHATSOEVER of what they were involved with, what they were going to put and perform in this great new building, and that the whole affair was just a marketing tool to make China look as “advanced” culturally as the western world. They had no clue of the financial implications, of the logistical organization of such an operation, nor of the artistic requirements… In their candor, they thought that they just needed to have a few “coaching sessions” from western specialists to be able to run such a complex operation from scratch.
    I’m afraid it’s probably a bit similar to the Dubai opera, though it appears (from what I learned through my Linkdin contacts) that, at least, they hired western professionals to organize the whole thing, recognizing their own incompetence in the matter. But yeah, I think the whole operation has a lot more to do with a marketing image for the western world than with their interest in music and more generally the opera form or the artistic expressions from the West.

    • Nick says:

      I could not agree less! I was also involved with getting the staff for the Shanghai Grand Theatre up to speed and it was no easy task. But once the theatre was open, it all quickly came together with an excellent General Manager and Head of Planning. I have since visited the Beijing complex and met some of their staff. I am not sure how many were there during your ‘coaching’ sessions, but the Centre works extremely well with a variety of top international quality western arts filling both main venues. Have you been there recently? It is, I believe, patronizing to suggest that all the major new concert halls and opera houses in China are pure vanity projects. Just look at the programmes for each. Or ask some of the thousands of western artists, opera companies and orchestras who have actually performed in those complexes what their views are.

      • EricB says:

        “but the Centre works extremely well with a variety of top international quality western arts filling both main venues”

        But no one disputes that fact, and I don’t see how your comment invalidates what I wrote from my own experience. The fact that 15 years later, they found a perfectly efficient way to run these houses and invite top international artists to produce a great and varied season, doesn’t speak at all about the state of mind they were in when the political authorities decided on these projects 20 years ago.
        Of course, especially in China, the states of mind are now changing as there is a good number of excellent artists, singers and instrumentalists, who come out of chinese music schools and conservatories with an excellent understanding and mastering of a repertoire which they totally ignored only 30 years ago. These new booming theaters now provide venues for these artists, showcasing local talents to the world. But it was certainly not the case (especially as far as opera is concerned) just 20 years ago.

        • Nick says:

          Sorry for slightly misinterpreting your original post. The point that attracted me to write was the suggestion that no-one really wanted these large new houses and that they were in fact vanity projects. Indeed, in your words, “the whole affair was just a marketing tool to make China look as ‘advanced’ culturally as the western world.”

          The fact they were very quickly extremely successful surely proves they were not vanity projects at all. I had the pleasure of knowing several of those on the Planning Board, including its Chairman, the distinguished musician and former head of the Beijing Conservatory, Professor Wu Zhu Qiang. Many had lobbied the government to set aside funds for a National Arts Centre and were passionately involved in making it happen.

          I think Ericb made the mistake of failing to realise that, as a result of the disastrous years of the Cultural Revolution whose effects only really ended around 1980, China had lost not merely most of its performing venues but also its arts administrators. When he was visiting Beijing, there were very few experienced administrators apart from in Shanghai. How could these young people have much clue about running anything as complex as an opera house and concert hall complex when they had no relevant expertise and little knowledge of the operatic art form? The Shanghai Conservatory now has an extremely fine arts administration programme, but it had only recently come into existence when the Beijing complex opened. Clearly the overseas experts had not been properly briefed.

          What the Beijing complex did do when they realised they did not have the necessary expertise locally was to take Qian Shi Jin, who had made such a huge success of the Shanghai Grand Theatre in a very short space of time, and put him in charge of organising the Beijing complex.

          • EricB says:

            “Many had lobbied the government to set aside funds for a National Arts Centre and were passionately involved in making it happen.”

            See, this is EXACTLY what led me to believe that they put the carts before the horses (or “la charrue avant les boeufs”), when I realized that (at least the people I was instructing — and this was in Lyon, not in Beijing — I, unfortunately never visited China…) they had found the money to build this great venue, but had not thought one second that they’d needed money to fund what they were going to put in it. They looked absolutely startled when I explained to them that the tickets sales income barely accounted for between 10 and 35% of the costs of any cultural activity of this type, and that the artistic activity of such a center would have to be financed by public subsidies. I had to explain to them the financial difference between a profit-oriented show-business (as in Broadway), and a cultural center such as the one they had intended to build.
            And all this has little to do with the “consequences of the Cultural Revolution”, it has all to do with total lack of experience in the matter, just because of the lack of tradition of Western-style opera.
            Of course, now, I expect that things are running smoothly because the Chinese learn VERY quickly and because they learned to accept the help of trained and qualified professionals.