Given the UAE’s pearl diving heritage, it is little surprise that one of the first performances at the new Dubai Opera set to open this autumn is Georges Bizet’s 'The Pearl Fishers' – the tale of two friends who discover they are in love with the same woman and decide to give her up.
The new venue is even designed in the shape of a dhow, the traditional Arab sailing vessel once used on pearl-diving expeditions.
The inaugural season line-up announced this month contains a world-class selection of other shows – from concerts by Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo and sitar player Anouskha Shankar, to adaptations of 'Giselle' and 'Coppélia' by the Russian State Ballet and Orchestra of Siberia, and family-friendly performances such as 'The Nutcracker on Ice' and Slava’s 'Snowshow'.
It is an impressive schedule for any entertainment venue let alone Dubai, a city with little or no previous experience in hosting such shows and which has been criticised by international culture-vultures for its slim offering of classical music, ballets and operas.
For Dubai Opera CEO Jasper Hope, the completion of the new venue in Downtown Dubai in August could change such negative perceptions for good. Arabian Business meets him at the Palace Hotel, where we are afforded an uninterrupted view of the opera house across Burj Lake as workers race to finish construction in time for Domingo’s opening concert on August 31.
Gesturing towards the building, Hope says: “You have to start somewhere. In many areas of culture – design, fashion, visual arts – Dubai has more than started to establish itself, but in performing arts it hasn’t remotely begun, and to start, you have to have one of these.
“It’s a pretty serious statement of intent just having this building; it’s not like these are built every day around the world. Brand new ones - with the latest technology, latest knowledge of what makes a great auditorium, great acoustics, a fantastic experience - are few and far between.”
The 47-year-old Brit, a Dubai newcomer who relocated to take up the post in January 2015, having never visited the city, certainly knows how to put on a show. With a background in live events at IMG Europe and AEG UK, Hope was most recently the chief operating officer of London’s Royal Albert Hall for seven years, helping to lead the famous cultural institution to year-on-year growth, including its best ever financial performance the year he departed. In December 2014, total revenues had increased by 6.4 percent to $39.2m, according to the charity’s latest full-year results.
But the Royal Albert Hall is an established venue, built by Queen Victoria in 1871 to promote public appreciation of the arts and which has since staged thousands of internationally renowned performances. Dubai Opera has none of this heritage and prestige to build on and Hope acknowledges the challenge.
“The fact that it’s never been done here before and I will never have the chance again [is a big challenge]. People are often wary and nervous of new things and because this country has nothing like this I will have to work twice as hard to make it work. But it will be twice as rewarding when it does.”
In convincing the public – including the millions of foreign visitors the emirate receives each year – of the calibre of performances on offer at Dubai Opera, the new building is vital, he says. “The fact that Dubai is creating a whole new venue for this work helps me enormously in the challenge.
“If I was persuading people to come to a hotel ballroom or some other less appropriate venue I would have a more difficult task on my hands. To be able to show people what it will be like, to say I have been inside, seen with my own eyes, worked with all the specialists who have designed the space; to be able to say to agents and managers I’ve known in previous lives, ‘look, this is going to be incredible, you, your people, the artists you represent really need to come and see this and make it part of your touring schedule’, is crucial.
“Of course, it will take time, people are always sceptical of new things and Dubai doesn’t have this built-in history and centuries of this type of entertainment taking place regularly. But it’s starting now, and it’s starting in a very big way.”
Slightly reserved at the start of our conversation, it is not long before Hope’s passion for his work surfaces and he speaks at length about what makes a successful venue. “I don’t often talk to people in this much detail about what we’re doing so it’s quite fun,” he says. During his tenure at the Royal Albert Hall, he adds, he learned that “everything comes down to customers’ experience and how they value it”.
“It’s not necessarily about who you put on stage or what type or how many [shows]. If you accept that those things are a given, that you need great shows to attract great audiences, then the stuff that really makes a difference is how you look after the people who have paid money to see the shows you’re putting on.
“In other words, people are going to buy a ticket because of who you put on stage – that’s what convinces them to come in the first place. But what makes them come back another time, tell a friend, put it on Facebook - those things that follow and build a venue’s reputation - is how they were met at the door, how they were served an interval drink, how they were looked after, the comfort of their seats, the leg room, the facilities on offer, the acoustics.
“So many things, some tangible, some intangible, form the definition of their enjoyment of one night and [at the Royal Albert Hall] I learned the value of that to millions of people. Finding a Dubai way of using those lessons – that’s what I intend to do here.”
The 2,000-seat multi-use venue has been designed to be used for opera, theatre, concerts, art exhibitions, orchestra, film, sports events and other seasonal entertainment programmes, according to the scheme’s developer Emaar. Inside, there is a main auditorium that can be reconfigured depending on the type of performance, as well as a second, smaller space seating around 250 people that can be used to run education workshops, rehearsals, pre-performance talks or other events at the same time as the main performance.
Shaped like a wooden dhow, the “hull” of the building contains waiting areas for spectators, a taxi drop-off area and parking. The “bow” contains the main stage, orchestra and seating areas, as well as a rooftop garden and restaurants. There are also plans for a licensed bar, Hope reveals. “The intention is to have a licensed bar and restaurant as part of Dubai Opera. I cannot give you details of the menu concept or restaurant design of the food and beverage space yet. Those details will be part of separate announcements in the coming months.”
The venue sits within Dubai’s new Opera District, accessed via Mohammed Bin Rashid Boulevard and fronting the Burj Khalifa, Burj Park and Dubai Fountain.
The building was originally touted for completion last month but was pushed back to August. However, Hope claims to have no knowledge of the reasons for the delay and says he “never thought it was going to open before summer 2016”. In any case, there are “no opportunities for delay”, he insists, “we have shows booked, the first is on August 31 and construction is on track”.
Following the interview, a Dubai Opera spokesperson said there has been no delay and the building was “structurally complete”; ongoing work was only to finish the interior.
In designing the inaugural season’s programme, Hope says he tried to be as versatile as possible. “I have a hit list, I know from experience what is generally popular but you also have to know as much about your potential market as possible, so I spent my first 15 months in Dubai getting out and about, meeting people and asking them, ‘what do you want to see? What is missing from Dubai if you could have anything?’”
Hope says including a single Emirati singer in the programme (Hussain Al Jassmi) was not a token gesture. “I am not here to stick to some sort of quota system. There are around 200 different nationalities living in Dubai, it’s a very cosmopolitan place. I think everyone will find something of a suitable quality for them and of course we will look at having more Emirati performers in future – I have no doubt that is to come.”
In general, he plans to broaden the opera’s repertoire. “The first few months are pretty broad but there is no jazz, no pop music, no comedy, no plays. In future I would love to increase the diversity of genres.”
In the meantime, tickets go on sale from 9am on Sunday, April 24. There will typically be four price categories for each show, ranging from AED200 ($54) to between AED750 ($204) and AED1,000 ($272) depending on seating plan, cost of artist and length of performance run. Hope says the pricing is on a par with the Royal Albert Hall.
However, unlike the Royal Albert Hall, Dubai Opera is a business – a wholly owned subsidiary of Emaar rather than a charitable organisation.
Hope refuses to detail financial targets but says the key objective will be to break even rather than make a profit year in, year out. The company has 42 staff at present and aims to have doubled that by the time the opera house opens, but there are no further hiring plans, to ensure it remains lean.
“The goal is to make this project a success and for that you have to cover your costs. So we will ensure that in the course of any one financial period, income at least matches expenditure. If we can generate a profit, fantastic.”
Even if Dubai Opera failed to make a profit for the next 10 years that would be okay, he insists. “You have to delve a bit deeper. This is not a standalone building or enterprise. It is part of Emaar, of course, which has other business interests. More importantly, however, it’s a destination, a cultural centre that’s being created for the benefit of those that live and work here, and for tourists and business visitors.
“I believe Dubai Opera is going to offer a huge appeal to people coming on holiday. At the moment you can have an amazing time if you come to Dubai but you can’t go and see a show. That to me means you’re missing something. I like including that sort of cultural experience in my holiday.
“I hadn’t been to Dubai before I lived here – I had changed flights but never got out and explored the city – and there must be millions of other people like me who enjoy, as part of their personal leisure time, going to see great performances.
“This is something that has never existed in Dubai before and it is much more important to make it a success, than to target a particular profit.”
Before we part ways, Hope reveals his favourite opera – Bizet’s Carmen – and his favourite ballet, Coppelia. The Pearl Fishers is not one of his favourites, he divulges, without giving reasons. He says his youngest son, who is three, “is showing worrying signs of talent”, but his six-year-old son, “like myself, is unlikely to ever set foot on the stage”.
Dubai, he adds, offers a refreshing freedom for entrepreneurial and artistic expression. “My family and I have settled into life here extremely quickly. Professionally, I love the fact that [the city] lacks so many of the frustrations and limitations that other places have. If you have a good idea and can show it has potential, you can just go for it.”
And “go for it” Hope will, as he prepares to raise the curtains on Dubai Opera’s maiden show in just a few months’ time.
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