Oman's music-loving sultan makes vision reality

Oman's music-loving Sultan Qaboos is building an Italian-style opera house, a temple dedicated to classical music that will be unique in the Arabian Peninsula.

"It is a truly 16th-century Italian opera," Iman Hindawi, general director of the Royal Opera House in Muscat, told AFP in an interview on the sidelines of celebrations marking the sultan's 40-year reign.

Sitting in one of the offices on the construction site, Hindawi, a Jordanian who studied art direction in the United States, promised that the official opening in October 2011 would be a "world-class music event."

She declined to disclose any details about the first season's line-up, but said that the shows for the "pre-launch season," which includes music, dance and theatre performances and will last until December 21, will be held in various venues throughout the capital.

Outside her office is a hive of activity as workers strive to complete the impressive building made of pale pink stone hewn from a local quarry.

The initial concept for the project was drawn up by the Britain-based Theatre Projects Consultants, and the architectural firm chosen to turn the sultan's vision into reality was Wimberly Allison Tong and Goo.

The brief may have been for an Italian opera house, but the building itself will not look at all out of place.

Despite its massive size, the new construction will still sit in harmony among its surroundings which include many other official buildings, among them the foreign ministry.

"Everybody thought that the opening would be held on the occasion of the 40-year reign of the sultan, but the fact is that construction is proceeding in an appropriate pace and it will be ready by October 2011," Hindawi said.

The project began in 2001 when the sultan ordered the building of an opera house worthy of the name at a time when classical music concerts were being held in various venues in Muscat, including in the Al Bustan Palace Hotel.

Currently the only other opera house in the Arab world is thousands of kilometres (miles) away in the Egyptian capital, Cairo. It was established in 1988.

Some 1,500 people are currently working on the Muscat opera house site, project director Hamid al-Ghazali told reporters last month, adding that there are also more than 40 subcontractors involved.

"Coordinating them all to work together isn't easy," Hamid said.

Journalists have been allowed to take a look at the opera house from the outside, but so far the building's interior has remained a closely guarded secret.

Hindawi did show AFP some sketches and artistic impressions of the inside of the opera house that suggest a design ornamented with shades of red and gold, colours which together reflect royalty.

However, the unveiling of the project in its entirety will be reserved for the sultan himself.

"This is the best-kept secret in Muscat," said an associate of Hindawi of the interior, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Also secret is the cost of the project, which has never been disclosed.

All that is known is that a royal box reserved for the sultan and his guests will offer the best view of the action.

There will be a 32-metre (105-foot) high fly tower for the technical crew for scenery changes and a modular auditorium that can accommodate an audience of 1,100 people in concert mode and 850 for theatrical performances.

Sultan Qaboos, who is passionate about music, also ordered the creation 20 years ago of a classical music orchestra. Hindawi said this now includes a group of elite Omani musicians who participate in concerts around the world.

And several months ago, the sultanate's public radio channel launched "Oman Classic", a radio station dedicated to the genre that is becoming increasingly popular in Oman, and an orchestra formed of a group of young talented Omanis.

When complete, the Royal Opera House Muscat complex will occupy an area of 80,000 square metres (860,800 square feet), half of which will consist of landscaped gardens.

The complex will also include a mini-theatre, restaurants and luxury stores.