“We were a bit like start-up,” Jasper Hope says early into our conversion in one of Dubai Opera's opulent majlis rooms.
Although we’re sitting in possibly the most unlikely start-up setting ever, he has a valid point. Despite the seemingly instant high-profile status that the venue attained, the chief executive of Dubai’s newest cultural icon reminds us that its reputation had to be built from scratch once the doors of the opera house opened in August last year.
So even though it is owned by Emaar, built at a reported cost of $330m, and built in the heart of Downtown Dubai under the towering Burj Khalifa, all this counted for little if the performances inside the glass-walled venue didn’t match its incredulous surroundings. “We didn't exist a year and a half ago,” Hope says, further explaining his start-up reference. “We had to create a market for the entertainment that we’re bringing in, for the experience of coming to Dubai Opera.”
As chief operating officer at London’s world famous Royal Albert Hall for seven years, Hope had all the experience, knowledge and contacts required to give Dubai Opera the best chance of succeeding. Most importantly, plans were laid out carefully and well ahead of time. “Most of the things that we’ve done in the first year were booked by the time we opened and if they weren't, they were certainly well advanced in the planning stages,” he recalls.
Starting with Plácido Domingo (“the King of Opera”) in front of an audience that included Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum [Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai], was a pretty good way to set the tone, and over 200 shows later, Hope says the reaction was “overwhelmingly strong and positive,” and momentum hasn’t let-up once since then.
The multi-format 2,000-seat performing arts theatre has been used for a variety of concerts, entertainment, and sports events, even hosting an Iftar during Ramadan. The most successful shows, in terms of their runs, have been the musicals. Les Misérables ran for three weeks when it opened in November last year, as did Mary Poppins in May this year.
“Nobody has ever done a three-week run in Dubai,” Hope says proudly, “and the shows that had previously been to other venues in Dubai had generally been a cut-down version. We weren’t getting the full West End or Broadway productions.”
Hope says that, by contrast, Dubai was treated to the “Rolls-Royce” version of Les Misérables. “We got the absolute best version of that show, specifically put together to be part of that first season [at Dubai Opera]. And we did it to show audiences what to expect. We’re not going to take the cheap, cut down versions. That’s not what Dubai Opera is here to do.”
Just as crucial following the opening shows was that the venue was successful, show after show, month after month. “The best bit about the last year is that we haven’t lost it,” says Hope. “It could have been for just been for that first night or that first week, maybe even the first few weeks and then we could have seen a drop off as the months progressed.”
To keep up that interest in year two and beyond, he says the formula is simple: “Content is king”. To that end, 2018 will see more of the same in terms of types of shows, but with a few additions. “I think we already have a pretty good handle on what will become the regular elements or our programme. I have a very good understanding in my head but it’s got to be backed up by the practice of data. I’ve got to actually see a couple of cycles to decide whether we should we be doing three musical titles a year or four, or two opera productions rather than three.”
In an interview with Arabian Business last year, Nick Allott, managing director of the world’s most successful theatrical production company, Cameron Mackintosh Ltd – which brought Cats and Les Misérables to Dubai – revealed that Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Phantom of the Opera was definitely “on the cards for Dubai”. Hope confirms it is “absolutely” in consideration for a future run in Dubai, along with the critically acclaimed Hamilton, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and currently running on Broadway. “I can’t tell you today that Phantom is coming in January, but there some very strong musical theatre titles under consideration. Included in there are Phantom and Hamilton, which I was in New York to see and is as good as the hype suggests – it really is amazing,” he says.
Hamilton opens in December in London, after which he says Cameron Mackintosh will start to work on a brand new touring production of the show.
“I don’t know which order they’ll do different international markets in, but my estimation is that it will be ready by the beginning of 2019, which in our terms is pretty close given that I know most of what’s happening next year already.
I would be very hopeful that we’d be pretty early in the list,” says Hope.
Other well-known titles like Lion King and Wicked (suggested by this writer) are also definitely in the running to come to Dubai in the next year or so, which he says is down to the success of the Dubai Opera’s first year. “They (production companies) understand what we deliver. They understand that there is a very strong supporting audience,” he says, referring to the 60 or so performances of three titles that pretty much sold out each time. “And when you are able to demonstrate such positivity in a brand-new market, the people who own those rights, the original producers and the creative teams, are immediately interested because it opens up a new world of possibilities for them.”
For this reason, Hope sees Dubai Opera as a year-round venue – contrary to most performance venues in the city. “I know there are fewer residents in the summertime, but there aren’t ‘no residents’, and there might be fewer tourists in parts of the summer, but there aren’t ‘no tourists’.”
Dubai Opera can still operate, he says, which means he needs “a very broad selection of entertainment offerings”. Ballet, contemporary dance, classical music – all hallmarks of a typical venue of its type – will feature next year. Hope admits they haven’t had one of the more obvious performances – theatrical plays – but that will change next year too. Given the size of the venue, the play would have to command an audience capable of matching a production on Broadway and West End. “I think it has to be one of two things,” he says. “It either has to be famous which means, yes, it would be from Broadway or West End, or somewhere that has a certain status that people instantly understand. But the other option is more thematic. If it was entirely relevant to the place that is Dubai.”
But at the same time Hope says he’s not “fixated” on the notion that everything must come direct from London or the New York stage. “There are some things I absolutely want because they represent the best quality.” For instance, following a recent trip to Mumbai, there are plans to bring some Indian shows to Dubai Opera next year – and to share some shows in the opposite direction. “I saw a couple of different shows when I was there,” he says. “I hope within the next few months to be able to bring at least one of those here. And again, they come with so many different styles. One that I saw was Indian folk dance, and one was a musical theatre but a totally Indian story, cast, music and everything. I think we have enough of a population here to warrant that.”
Paying its way
But it won’t necessarily be at a different price point to similar shows, he insists, citing the example of British-Indian sitar player Anoushka Shankar, who played at Dubai Opera in October last year. “We made no allowance for the fact that her audience might in whole, or in part, be Indian, in terms of the pricing. It was very similar to a number of other concerts around the same time.”
That said, Hope does think that shows can be offered at different prices. He says the key is defining in advance who is the target audience and what level of disposable income might they have. And if it’s going to be modest, then Dubai Opera must put on a more modestly-priced production.
“If either the volume of people or the price-per-head can’t justify bringing them in, then it’s not possible to operate a business any other way, but that doesn’t mean you have to think every show from one region should be at one price point because it’s simply not the case.”
Hope is in a slightly curious/enviable position, because the business side to Dubai Opera, owned by Emaar, is not necessarily based on making a profit show-by-show. But he insists that “we’re absolutely out to make a profit if it’s possible. But it’s not just about the profit from that particular night. There are a number of other elements that feed into it.”
He says Emaar’s hotels, F&B outlets and other businesses that are located in the vicinity of Dubai Opera all benefit from the shows. “If the costs of that show can be covered [by just the show], it’s perfectly possible to look at the other businesses as a kind of a wider unit,” he says. “There are hotels that for artists to stay while they’re here, and hopefully we encourage people who are staying in those hotels to come and visit us and thereby feed off one another.”
In addition to revenue from the shows and the F&B, he say Dubai Opera is also supported by sponsors and corporate partners, which helps to put on the shows it wants. The past year also saw another spectacular venue open in La Perle. The Habtoor City venue runs year-round show in its purpose-built theatre and Hopes admits that it’s not beyond the possibilities of doing some sort of promotional tie-up. “I think I would actually look a little bit wider,” he says of the suggestion, pointing to the theme parks, Alserkal Avenue or one of the arts events, like the Emirates Literature Festival or Art Dubai.
A cultural space
Fourteen months on, the venue continues to evolve in other ways. There are tours of the building, and every now and again tourists file by the majlis room, heads agog, looking every which way at the splendour and enormity of the building. The rooftop now features a Sean Connolly restaurant, while outdoors, the Dubai Opera Garden is finally taking shape, and more artistic pieces – like those on the front plaza – will be added in the months to come. The Garden, he says, will host performances “from time to time.”
In fact, it’s becoming the type of venue that Hope had envisaged when he landed in Dubai two years before the doors opened. “There isn’t a great deal of open public space in Dubai. This is going to be one of those spaces. It is a green, open area that you don’t have to pay to get in to. You can just wander through on the way from one place to another,” he says.
He says the space provides the sort of opportunity that exists in many other cities to have a kind of piazza space; to have somewhere with life; to have that feeling of a cultural destination that fits in perfectly with everything that Dubai Opera stands for.
“The way the opera house building was designed was that it should sit in the centre of a great many other developments – probably tall tower developments – but at a ground level, so as to invite people in. That’s why we had a glass exterior, so people can see and not be intimidated as they are in some of the other cities about going in to opera. This is a perfectly accessible place.”
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