Monday, September 5, 2016

A Night at Dubai Opera

Being a cantankerous, easily irritated sort, one of the things that really gets on my t**s is people who have never set foot in, let alone lived in Dubai, telling me that it has "no culture", "no soul", and nothing but sand and skyscrapers.

While it is the case that sand, yep, we have that in spades, sandy beach, sandy desert, sand invading our homes, gardens and roads during sand storms, sandy sandy sand. And yes, skyscrapers, there are a lot of those, some of them beautiful, some of them groundbreaking, in more ways than one, and some of them neither of those things.

This is a newsflash to those of you who have leveled the "no culture" claim, the sand has been here a long, long time, the skyscrapers less so, Western ideas of what constitutes "culture" an even shorter time, but, the powers that be have been seeking to rectify that "no culture" image of recent. The latest example of which, the Dubai Opera, I will come to shortly, but I just want to embark on a small rant as to why the lack of culture accusation really does do my head in.

Believe me, during the years I have lived here, I have from time to time felt frustrated by the fact that I can't just go to one of choice of hundreds of theatres, as I would in London, rely on a  thriving classical music scene to go and see concerts whenever I want or see some of the world's truly great works of art for free whenever I feel like hopping on the Tube into town. You don't need to tell me that those things have not been readily available here. I am aware of it, I am the one that lives here and experiences the lack of them every time the weekend arrives, particularly during the hot months, and I am not quite sure what to do with my free time. But, and this really is the key here, I would point out all those things are "culture" from a very Western perspective.

People lived and survived in this harsh, coastal corner of the Gulf for a very, very long time, though, without those things. They fished, kept camels, farmed dates and dived for pearls, and managed with no air conditioning in a climate that regularly tops 50C. And the descendants of those people are immensely proud of that extraordinary ability to survive in an arid climate, and you can learn about it at Dubai Museum and other places around the Emirate. Once you have spent a few summers here, even with the luxuries of air conditioned buildings and cars, you start to appreciate just how very strong that will to survive was.

That tradition that I am talking about, that will to survive, making the most of the natural resources - it has not necessarily been recorded on paper. Pre-oil there was not much interest or investment in this part of the world, and quite literally not much around to protect those who lived here from the raging sun, so, I suspect not recording their culture that much was down to the fact that they were too busy staying alive, to worry about what generations to come would think of the way they lived.

There is a tradition of storytelling, music and dance here that has been passed down the generations, which can be seen in this video and others on Youtube. It's culture, people, but not as we in the West think of it. There are not orchestral scores with 50 odd different instruments playing different parts, or giant canvases of skillfully rendered oil paintings or sculptures, but Emirati culture exists in all art forms. You only have to visit the historic district of Bastikiya to appreciate that.

So, having got the "no culture" accusation out of the way, can we agree that if you say it to me again, I will simply call you a post-colonial plonker and give you a shove? OK, good.

So, to Dubai Opera. Dubai Opera, along with the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman, Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, is one of a number of examples of Gulf investment in "Western" art forms. Pre economic crisis, the opera house was to be located on an island of Dubai Creek, but last week, it opened its doors in the newly minted "Opera District" in Downtown, just across the Dubai Fountain pond from The Dubai Mall.

As with many large scale projects in Dubai, it had that "miraculous" feel about it. Would it, or wouldn't it be finished in time? An ambitious deadline was set and the programme organised long before the building looked close to completion. Some friends of ours, who live next door and have some expertise on the matter, looked a bit concerned when we told them we had tickets for the third night. "You'll be lucky," were their precise words I think.

But yet, come Friday night, we left Desert Baby in their tender care, changed into some of our "posh" clothes (the ones not covered in yogurt and baby spit) and tripped next door for some culture.

I am willing to admit that I am going soft in my old age, but walking into the opera house for the first time, I felt emotional. Yes, it was obvious that a water feature snaking around the edge of the building had not been finished, and, yes, there was a little scaffolding still clinging to one side of the building that we were turned back from by a security guard, but it was finished, near as damnit.

"All the terrible things going on in the world," I mumbled to Him Indoors, "and they have managed to do this. It's marvellous."

I am no architectural expert, but it is a lovely building, inspired by a traditional Arabian dhow boat at the exterior, with a feeling of clean lines, modernism, light and space at the interior. It is a huge, positive gesture, a shrine to an elite art form, yes, but what is opera for other than to explore our capacity for love, joy and grief?

The foyer was packed with people of all ages, demographics, nationalities, excited about the performance of Rossini's The Barber of Seville that was to come, the house was full, and apart from what appeared to be a rather enthusiastic member of the catering team getting a bit over-exuberant while bashing an ice tray so the sound carried through to the auditorium, it all went without a hitch.

The Fondazione Teatro Lirico Guiseppe Verdi, Trieste, acquitted themselves well in what must have been a nerve wracking experience, being among the first to perform in a brand new venue. Beforehand, I had visions of the balcony on which leading lady Rosina appears collapsing, or clouds of construction dust invading the auditorium, but there was not a bit of it. There was widespread appreciation of a hugely popular opera, particularly Figaro's Aria, which was accomplished by Massimo Cavalletti with wit and charm.

For me, Rocio Ignacio as Rosina was the highlight. You can keep Katherine Jenkins, frankly. Give me an old fashioned highly trained soprano who can manage the vocal gymnastics of a difficult part while still filling an auditorium without the need for a microphone any day of the week.
Yes, I may have had a teeny, tiny snooze half way through the second half, but the finish time was 11pm and I have a 19 month old. I'm normally fast asleep by then. Don't judge me, or indeed the performance by that fact.

So, what's coming up at the opera? Well, if you look at the website, you will see that there is a fair amount of populist type fare, things like musicals, ice skating and magic shows coming up, as well as opera, ballet and classical music. It remains to be seen whether the opera house will pay its way as a venue for those elite "Western" art forms that we bemoan the lack of, but I think from what I saw on Wednesday night, many are willing it to succeed.

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