Dubai Opera – the first of its kind

As Dubai Opera house opens its doors for the first time we speak to chief executive Jasper Hope about his plans for bringing the city’s first performing arts venue to life

‘It is called Dubai Opera but it is not only an opera house,’ begins Jasper Hope, chief executive of Dubai Opera, when I call him on the phone. ‘It is a multi-format contemporary theatre. It can do ballet, concert performances and theatre. We can host all manner of different genres, events and styles of performance.’

Hope is trying to explain the role he sees for this brand new building in a city that is obsessed with newness. Famous for its soaring towers, fast cars and expensive lifestyles, in terms of culture Dubai has lagged behind. Yes there are fashion shows, and art collectors are increasingly active, but there has been little in the way of artistic music, theatre or movement. In fact, the opera house is the first building of its kind in Dubai and that, says Hope, is why it must be eclectic and interesting.

Dubai Opera House‘In a city like this it is important – especially as it is the first of its kind – to have a breadth of programming. We must include Arabic music, world music, and anything and everything of quality that the audience wants to see. Will we do opera – of course, that is at the heart of our programming – but that is not the only thing we will do.’

The opening night concert on 31 August features a performance from Plácido Domingo, while its first season includes a production of Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, a staging of West Side Story and a concert from singer Hussain Al Jassmi.

The opera house has been three years in the making. It sprang up out of the Dubai desert, and forms part of a sprawling and sparkling downtown complex built by Emaar Properties, who are behind the physical structures that will edge the region into an era of cultural maturity.

‘The UAE is coming up to its 45th birthday,’ says Hope, as he explains the origins of the Opera House. ‘In that time they have been amazingly busy with building this modern destination. But despite all the achievements in terms of ports, airports and infrastructure, hitherto there has not been a high focus on culture. But it has always been part of the master plan.

‘His Highness Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum wants Dubai to be a centre of creativity as well as tourism and business. Dubai Opera specifically is not the final or only way of achieving that, and it doesn’t cover every aspect of culture, but it is a huge first step. It compliments everything that has gone before and will add to the quality of life for those of us who live in Dubai and those who visit as well.’

Dubai Opera HouseAs well as bringing culture to the city the building also honours its past. Its gleaming glass shape represents a dhow, the boat that brought prosperity to the region through pearl fishing and trade.

‘The dhow is absolutely symbolic as the most important means of transport,’ explains Hope. ‘On the outside is this recreation of the hull shape in glass, while inside there’s an internal wooden hull that will be the auditorium. The internal fixtures and fittings all reflect the maritime history and heritage of Dubai.’

Could there be a Dubai Opera company or orchestra one day? Potentially, he says, but not yet. ‘Resident orchestras or resident companies I would not rule out, though initially for the first period of time it is not something we are going to do. This is going to be a receiving house for work coming from other places. If that is successful, and the demand is what we think it is going to be, we will reassess the situation.’

And, from what Hope has heard so far, the demand is definitely there. ‘The potential audience I have met is incredibly excited and keen,’ says the chief executive. ‘They can’t wait for Dubai to have this centre of excellence – they’ll no longer have to travel elsewhere to see a performance. It’s the same for the artists too: they have wanted to perform in the Middle East for a long time but there has been a lack of facilities. We’re not the only venue in the Middle East, but we are the only one in Dubai, so until now many artists have not been able to perform here. It is a very exciting city and people want to perform in front of its cosmopolitan and international audience.’

Most opera houses aren’t just about shows, they work with schools, engage with the community and offer all kinds of other creative and educational activities – is this something Hope plans to roll out at Dubai Opera?

‘I agree – I believe it is an essential component for this project. That is part of the mission, to create a cultural community. That is what will help bring an extra dimension to this city. In terms of partners and programmes, we definitely have plans to do it from the beginning, not just tack it on after. But there are not many music, dance and theatrical programmes in schools here. We have to help create that from scratch, and it is going to take time. I can’t sit here and tell you the programmes we have organised because we’re not there yet.

‘One of the ways I am approaching this need for reach is through other art forms. Dubai already has an incredible following for fine art, fashion and design of all kinds. So we want to combine music and theatre with these existing disciplines – that way we’re not starting from nothing.’

Hope was previously chief operating office at London’s Royal Albert Hall. In some ways the two buildings couldn’t be more different: one is steeped in history, within a city crammed with culture; the other is the first of its kind.

‘What runs through both with equal importance, at the top of the list without question, is the audience,’ says Hope. ‘My job is to work out who the audience is and how to give them what they need. In London there is so much history and so many companies, that it’s an altogether easier task. Here in Dubai the challenge remains the same; can you entertain your visitors and satisfy their needs?’

‘At a new venue, you must be absolutely clear about the purpose of the building – who you want to attract and why. That’s not to say you shouldn’t think about details like acoustics, but at the end of the day the artists’ requirements and expectations of the audience have to be met. Everything comes back to those two things.’

Does he miss London? ‘I am here with my family and we miss friends, colleagues, and our relatives – but I can’t honestly say we miss much else,’ he laughs. ‘It an extraordinary project to be involved with. Now I am looking forward to delivering for the audience. For me that is what it is all about. I want to see people in the show enjoying their time with us, sitting back, listening to the music and loving the experience. I want to see them coming out afterwards brimming with that excitement and atmosphere you only get after a great concert. That’s not something this part of the world has ever seen. That is what I want for Dubai.’