Kennedy Center helps Oman get its opera house ready for opening night


Exterior shot of the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman. (YAQOUB AL RIYAMI)

When the Royal Opera House Muscat opened Oct. 12 with a lavish production of Puccini’s “Turandot,” Sultan Qaboos bin Said was there to witness his massive new contribution to the country’s arts revitalization.

Also in the audience was Michael M. Kaiser, the president of the Kennedy Center, who was instrumental in getting the Opera House in shape for the opening.

“The building is a beautiful and stirring accomplishment for the region, and it is wonderful that such a lavish building could be built in the current age,” Kaiser said afterward.

Oman’s spectacular new opera house is a distinct reflection of Arab architecture, with exterior arched windows and entranceway, and it covers 269,097 square feet. (The Kennedy Center is 1.1 million square feet.) Built in marble and wood, the interior of the opera house is a lavish setting with wood decorated in gold and handmade ornaments. Each red seat has a touch screen so the patron can choose a language in which to see surtitles. With a seating capacity of 850 to 1,050 people, Oman can now attract international stars such as Placido Domingo, who conducted “Turandot” on opening night, as well as Renee Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma, and the NSO’s Christoph Eschenbach.

A few days before the official opening, Kaiser talked about how the Kennedy Center’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management helped Oman.

A view of the entrance arch at the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman. (M. Al Zubair)

“The challenge was introducing a large art institution into a country that had few facilities,” Kaiser said. “They had few plans for training to run an opera house.”

While Oman is a rich country with many traditional dance and music groups and a number of museums, it has never had an arts facility on the scale of the opera house. Thus it has never had the need for the kind of expertise required in running one, from selling tickets and promoting performances to building an experienced staff.

The relationship between Oman and the Kennedy Center began in the winter of 2009, when the Kennedy Center organized “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World,” partnering with 22 nations, including Oman. Three years later, the sultan had built the Royal Opera House Muscat, but there was no firm plan for day-to-day operations.

In August, with the Oman facility scheduled to open in two months, Rawya Al Busaidi, the country’s Minister of Higher Education and chairman of the opera house’s board renewed her contact with Kaiser. The need was urgent — the on-site CEO had quit. “We had to write to him to ask him to manage the opera house until we found a permanent executive director,” said Al Busaidi, who was introduced to the center’s work by the Arabesque festival and the Oman ambassador. “We sought assistance at this point in time from someone who is successful.”

With that short time frame, Brett Egan, the director of the DeVos program, went to Muscat to build the staff and departments an arts institution needs. He plans to stay until December, working on a strategic plan and the second part of the first season. “I have never been shipped off to run an organization for four months. It is not a departure at all from our mission, but it is a departure from what we have done so far,” Egan said.

There were hurdles, he said: “You are starting something from scratch in a region that has not had reasonable parallels. We are here to establish policy, put in place systems, work with sensitivity to the reality of local customs and work with the board and staff.”

The center is now working on both the long-term strategic plan and shorter-term challenges — the basics, Egan said, such as who gets complimentary tickets, how to use social media, and what Omani audiences need to know about opera etiquette.

Michael Kaiser and Brett Egan (Director of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Center) inside the Royal Opera House Muscat. (Ahmed Altoqi)

“We are working with the public to understand whether it is appropriate to whistle, is it appropriate to talk during the performances,” he said.

The consultant fee, which Kaiser would not disclose, will help replace a fraction of the more than $10 million cut in federal funding from the Education Department and the National Capital Arts and Cultural Account.

Kaiser and Al Busaidi have the same goal: to build the next generation of homegrown art leaders and to incorporate arts education for all Omanis.

“Obviously the artistic director right now has to be an expat. We want Omanis to learn more and to be exposed. We want to identify suitable candidates and have them go through the necessary training,”Al Busaidi said.

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