First, it was Harrods and then Manchester City football club – now the Gulf is buying culture. Last week, the Royal Opera House (ROH) made its debut in the Gulf, in the culturally thirsty region of the UAE. I decided to pack my bags and head off to the Arab premiere of Beloved Friend at the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi, as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival.
Despite the Louvre and Guggenheim projects in the region that will transform Abu Dhabi into a cultural hub, opera is hard to come by in the UAE, which is still far better known for oil than it is for Mozart. Last month, Dubai announced plans for an opera house near Burj Khalifa, the tallest tower in the world. Otherwise, the nearest venue is the Royal Opera House Muscat, in Oman, which opened in October.
Tonight, I'm seated on the stage in a comfy chair for the production, along with an audience of 150 wealthy expats and a few sheikhs. You can hear a pin drop as the small orchestra, a few opera singers, actors and dancers arrive. Inspired by the letters of Russian composer Tchaikovsky to his muse Nadezhda von Meck, whom he never met, the fiery love story, written by Ronald Harwood, was last staged in 2011, at Buckingham Palace in a private performance for Prince Charles.
Not strictly an opera, this dramatised recital in words, music and dance, stars Simon Russell Beale as Tchaikovsky and Harriet Walter as his muse. The highlight is a ballet duet performed by the Royal Ballet's Roberta Marquez and Valeri Hristov who almost brush the audience in the front row.
The ROH shipped out 11 of their production team, including three people from the wig, make-up and costume department.
This is not just about giving a headline performance but also to share their experience and build audiences in the Gulf. The festival's founder and artistic director Mrs Hoda Ibrahim Al Khamis Kanoo, who founded the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation in 1996, is passionate about nurturing Emirati talent and supporting the cultural renaissance that is storming the region.
Tony Hall, the chief executive of the ROH, says: "This is a story in which opera plays a part – it's giving a showcase of opera. I think that's what you've got to do to get people engaged in opera. It's a difficult art form – to my mind, it's the most passionate of art forms, but you've got to lead people into that carefully and slowly. I think this will excite people about Tchaikovsky. And maybe they will think of trying another opera."