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Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle East

“You can’t assume that because you’re building something, people will come, ” says Jasper Hope, Chief Executive of the Dubai Opera. He is the man tasked with turning a state-of-the art venue into the performing arts hub of the Middle East.

In a region not previously associated with theatre, ballet or opera, Hope’s biggest hurdle has been overcoming people’s preconceptions.

That he has succeeded is clear from the stellar line-up confirmed for the venue’s inaugural season. This begins this autumn and includes Placido Domingo, the world-famous musical Les Misérables, The Russian State Ballet and Orchestra of Siberia, Vienna Concert Verein, the final world tour of José Carreras plus Hussain Al Jassmi, Sara Baras and Anoushka Shankar, and many others.

An Incredible Opportunity

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle EastJasper Hope spoke to Blooloop about the role he describes as ‘an incredible opportunity’ and the building that has made it possible.

Before his appointment, Hope was Chief Operations Officer at the Royal Albert Hall in London for seven years, arguably one of the most famous performing arts venues in the world.

“If I’d said I was going to Sydney Opera House people might have said, ‘Ah, well – of course.’ When they heard that the place I was going to was Dubai, they were, in many cases, flabbergasted, ” he says.

“I think a lot of that relates to how people have often looked at Dubai specifically and the Middle East more generally, and it portrays a kind of lack of understanding of exactly what is here or how life really is.”

Dubai Opera, a Centre of Excellence

The idea for the Dubai Opera began some ten years ago when it was decided that the city should have a centre of excellence for the presentation of culture and entertainment.

“And then the world’s financial troubles intervened, ” says Hope, “and the performing arts centre project was shelved, along with a lot of other things in Dubai at that time.”

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle EastThat was in 2007/8.

When the financial climate improved, the project was revived.

“Obviously, I’m an art and culture lover – but even to me, it’s sort of understandable that Dubai didn’t have something like Dubai Opera sooner. Fifteen years ago – ten years ago, even – very much of what you can currently see didn’t exist. It was just empty – literally the desert.

“And in that ten or fifteen year period, so much has happened, and so much infrastructure has had to happen that whilst the position and importance of culture to society was always there, there have been other things to do – a transport system, schools, healthcare.

“The will was always there, and the desire of the people who lived here was always there – it was a question of when, which design, which location and so on.”

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle East

The Architecture References the Culture of the Emirati People

As is often the case with new buildings in Dubai, the process took the form of a competition. A number of top architects and firms were asked to submit ideas and designs. The winning firm was Atkins, and the individual architect was the Dane, Janus Rostock. He had lived in Dubai for a number of years and thus had experience of working in that part of the world.

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle EastHis concept referenced the history and heritage of the Emirati people and their link to the sea.

“Dubai, geographically, has always been important because of its location. Well before it became the Dubai we know today, it had a trading, pearl diving and fishing industry that was linked to the gulf and the creek that comes inland, ” explains Hope.

“The vessels that were used came in all shapes and sizes. But essentially they revolved around the Arabian dhow. It is that shape, signifying the Emirati link to its own heritage, that gives the Dubai Opera building its form today.

“From the outside,   it looks like a large glass outer-hulled dhow. It looks as if it is sailing towards the waters of the Dubai fountains and the lake that surround them. When people come in, that maritime connection continues inside the building as well.

“For example, there are navigation lines criss-crossing the marble floor of the public foyer, like the ones on old maps and charts.”

In the ‘hull’, the illusion is maintained. Rostock used wood in the auditorium, the material traditionally used for making dhows. A striking feature in the main public foyer is a crystal chandelier with droplets that resemble air bubbles rising through water.

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle East

A State-Of-The-Art Auditorium

While the outer building references Dubai’s past, the auditorium itself is very much about the future.

“At the end of the day the really important bit is the box within. This is the theatre, the auditorium. That is not old and traditional at all. it is brand new and modern and very high-tech. I suspect my peers around the world will be extremely envious of the facilities that this building has and what we’re able to do as a result, ” says Hope.

A key feature is the building’s ability to transform itself to suit different purposes. A theatre, concert hall or a ‘flat floor’ space for special events or banquets.

The theatre can accommodate up to 2040 guests. It is ideal for opera, ballet, musicals, large-scale drama productions, and conferences or lectures.

A series of towers on the stage create an acoustic ‘shell’ that surrounds the orchestra. Reflectors overhead further enhance the hall’s acoustic properties.

The Dubai Opera complex also houses a rehearsal room, a further performance space and a rooftop restaurant.

There is no doubt about the quality of Dubai Opera’s world-class facilities. But, says Hope, “you can’t assume that because you’re building something, people will come.”

An Incredible Opportunity

His task was to convince artists that a region not previously on the international performing arts calendar would have an audience eager to embrace them.

Hope, whose CV includes 18 months as Director of Live Events at AEG and 13 years at IMG, seized the opportunity with both hands.

During his time at AEG he was one of the team that created Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. He also worked on numerous shows, festivals and music festivals.

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle East

(Above: Ice Rink at London’s Natural History Museum. Kind courtesy Natural History Museum.)

Hope was General Manager for the Arts and Entertainments Division of IMG. As such, he was responsible for a variety of shows, tours, festivals and projects. These included the Natural History Museum’s ice rink and the Hampton Court Palace Festival.

Putting on Events, Selling Tickets

“… as well as  a whole host of other things – festivals in Sweden and Germany – all over. It was fun – a wonderful time to be there; a wonderful opportunity to be involved in so many different kinds of entertainment. At the core, it was putting on events and selling tickets. And everything that goes with that. But the variety both in terms of country and type of audience and location nationally within the UK and internationally was amazing. So too was the level of the artists. It was also great to have the the opportunity to work with so many different types of sponsors with any one project. There were so many different types of stakeholder, depending on the client it was amazing. I look back on it all extremely fondly.

“I don’t think without that breadth of experience you could come to a place like Dubai. It is so cosmopolitan and dynamic. It is different, in so many ways, from London and other places where I have worked. You have to have at least an appreciation of a great many different cultures if you’re going to hope to succeed here.”

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle East

(Above: Sara Baras. Image kind courtesy Santana de Yepes)

While some might be daunted by the task of opening the first building performing arts venue of its kind, not only in Dubai, but in the whole of the United Arab Emirates, Hope describes it as a challenge, a massive responsibility and a privilege.

“What an incredible opportunity. I don’t say that it’s not hard work, but it’s brilliant. I wake up every morning and it is something, honestly, to look forward to every morning.”

Overcoming Preconceptions and Misconceptions

Communicating that excitement to potential staff as well as the artists, orchestras, opera companies and ensembles he wanted to perform, either during the inaugural season or in the years ahead, was not all plain-sailing and a tribute to Hope’s persuasive powers and tenacity.

“…because people look at it and say, I don’t want to go to Dubai: there’s nothing there. And it’s true. There hasn’t been very much reason to come here, in the past. Because there hasn’t been a building to take them.

“But, ” he says, “overcoming people’s preconceptions or misconceptions has been the biggest challenge. There really has had to be a process of explanation that we have gone through, in many cases.”

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle East

(Above: Plácido Domingo kind courtesy Ruben Mart°n © Sony Music Entertainment)

It has been worth it, judging by the list of confirmed performers and productions.

Plácido Domingo Heads A Stellar Line-Up

The inaugural season this autumn at Dubai Opera opens with a concert by the legendary Plácido Domingo (above). This concert will be followed by Fondazione Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi, Trieste performing the historic opera, The Pearl Fishers, as a tribute to Dubai’s rich heritage.

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle EastOther highlights include Les Misérables, Spain’s foremost Flamenco superstar, Sara Baras, Bejart Ballet Lausanne and The Imperial Ice Star performing The Nutcracker on Ice. The season continues with a host of world-class performers, companies and acts too numerous to list, including notable performances of The Barber of Seville and  Opera without Words, as well as Coppelia and Giselle performed by the Russian State Ballet and Orchestra of Siberia.

“And that’s just the start, ” says Hope.

Multi-function, Multi-Purpose

“We’ve made a number of announcements.  49 so far,  between the end of August and the end of the year. But there are at least another 25 to come. We’ll be announcing these in the next month or so. And then, obviously, because of the way the entertainment calendars work, I’m investigating and booking artists, projects, tours of all genres, many that we haven’t been able to include in the first three months, into 2017.

“The idea is to make this truly multi-function and multi-purpose and multi-genre.”

As far as the future is concerned, Hope is committed to remaining flexible.

“I’m not wedded to anything: I’m perfectly prepared to adapt organically. The proof of the pudding comes when we actually open the door to the Dubai Opera, invite people in to enjoy whichever performance it is – and to compare us to other cities where they have been to the theatre or a concert or an opera.

“Dubai Opera has to prove its worth. Depending on the reaction – which I hope will be very positive but I need to prove it – that will dictate the pace and some of the direction of where we go from here.”

Art Dubai – A Flourishing Visual Arts Scene

He sees the sudden flourishing of the visual arts in Dubai as a sign that doors and minds are opening to cultural offerings.

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle East

(Above: Visitors at Art Dubai Contemporary, 2016, The Studio)

“Five or six or seven years ago there were hardly any galleries here. There were hardly any visual artists working in any form. Look at the situation now. Look at Art Dubai and at the number of independent galleries. At the number of independent artists that have chosen to base themselves and their work here. You see a really vibrant and flourishing visual arts scene.

“Alongside that is a similar movement for design and fashion, and we, as the performance element, are kind of the third wave.”

A Sense of Aspiration

“If I take the other two as a guide, I can well see that in five or ten years we are no longer going to be the only building that does this. We are no longer going to be the exclusive provider of this kind of entertainment.

“I very much hope that we won’t. I very much hope that by existing and by doing the kinds of things that we’re starting out with, we will inspire, we will give a sense of aspiration to people in Dubai and within the region.”

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle East

“If someone has talent, in a performance sense, they won’t have to go too far away to have it recognised. They can find an audience and a world-class venue to perform in on the doorstep. And I really think that will start to generate a kind of movement. Also that there will be more and more people looking to perform, more and more creative ways of performance happening, and it will be as a result of the investment that has been made in this one cultural venture.”

Dubai Opera – A Cultural Hub

“I see Dubai Opera as a hub. We are the first, and as the first, there is a responsibility. This is to look to do more than just put on shows and sell tickets. We have to have this wider responsibility and appeal. I think we will work very hard to fulfil that. As a result, I really hope we will have a lot more music in the city and a lot more performance in the city. I hope too there will be a lot more interest in those sorts of things, in Dubai and throughout the UAE.

“We will always insist on a certain quality level of show and of artist. But we really do want to appeal to everybody.

“There are 200 odd nationalities in Dubai and they are very well represented. We want people genuinely to be able to look at the calendar every month and say: ‘Ooh, there is something for me.”

Dubai Opera: A Cultural Hub for the Middle East

Few, if any, of Hope’s former colleagues can still doubt the wisdom of his decision.

“Entertainment in various forms is the only career path I’ve ever taken, ” he says.

“I always knew this was going to be an absolutely amazing thing for me to do. Literally to shape the way that people look at the performing arts for the first time in a new city.

“This is something I will never get the chance to do again.”

Uncredited images kind courtesy of Dubai Opera

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