This week we tread the boards at Dubai Opera and go behind the scenes with the European Union Youth Orchestra as they tune-up for their debut performance in the emirate. We also visit a refugee camp in Jordan where traditional music is helping Syrians reconnect with their heritage.
In the wake of the 75th anniversary of composer Sergei Rachmaninov’s passing, the European Union Youth Orchestra played to packed venues in the UAE, with special performances in Abu Dhabi and at the Dubai Opera.
Since it first began bridging the gap between music colleges and the professional world of the arts in 1976, the EUYO has been touring cities from New York to Shanghai. The orchestra’s members are aged just 16 to 26 and they are made up of players from 28 different EU states.
Inspire Middle East managed to sneak into their rehearsals and speak to Russian-born, award-winning conductor, Vasily Petrenko.
Petrenko believes that the EUYO is a shining example of how bringing together different nations and cultures can be a fulfilling experience for both musicians and the general public.
Furthermore, the maestro’s first trip to the UAE seemed to strike a positive personal note, with Petrenko acknowledging the country’s commitment to artistic diversity.
“It’s very important that the growth of a country is based not only on economic growth but also on the cultural growth,” he said. “And the more international, more open to the world the country is, better are the benefits.”
In a similar vein, Jasper Hope, the CEO of Dubai Opera, outlined that upcoming acts at the venue he curates would not only include international bands and dance troupes but also talented locals.
“We’re still pretty new in terms of our Arabic programming strand, but for the next show – in a couple of weeks’ time – we have a group of five Arabic indie bands,” Hope explained.
“The aim is to be able to inspire local talent, irrespective of what kind of music we have on our stage,” he said. “I really hope that the next generation of Emirati stars will start to think ‘this is somewhere I have to aspire to get to’.”
One of the potential challenges faced by aspiring opera singers and composers in the region is the current lack of specialist training available. Hope explained that studying overseas in world-renowned conservatoires, before joining international companies, was the choice for many burgeoning classical music artistes.
That’s not to say the chief executive wasn’t optimistic that changes were afoot:
“I have no doubt, at all, that one day we’ll have our own company right here in Dubai – being able to put on our own productions, rather than importing them from elsewhere.”
High Notes: A Brief History of MENA Opera
The first dedicated opera space to be built in the Middle East and North Africa was Egypt’s Khedivial Opera House in 1869. It was erected to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal yet tragically, just over a century later, the opera house burnt to the ground.
It was not until 1988 that the Cairo Opera House was opened in the Egyptian capital, further enriching the country’s classical music scene.
In the Syrian capital Damascus, a five-level opera house and performing arts space was officially inaugurated in 2004, whilst in Oman the imposing Royal Opera House has been drawing crowds since 2011.
Algeria was next to add to the list of opera houses in the region, rolling out the red carpet of the Algiers Opera House in 2016.
That same year, Kuwait cut the ribbon of the Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Cultural Centre, also known as the Kuwait Opera House.
The region’s most recent opening was Dubai Opera, which was inaugurated two years ago with a performance by Spanish Tenor Placido Domingo. The venue’s architecture and design has been much lauded, not least for the concealed hydraulics system of the main stage, which allows it to create layouts suitable for plays, pop concerts and Broadway musicals.
In the pipeline, is Saudi Arabia, with plans to construct its first opera house – situated in Jeddah – as part of the Kingdom’s $64bn entertainment sector budget for the coming decade.
Soul Music: Traditional Taarab Music Performed for Syrian Refugees
Soulful, traditional and alluring are words often used to describe the operatic Arab art form of ’taarab’.
According to taarab performer Mustafa al Sagheer, the specific words, melodies, instruments and dress of the performances are meant to enthrall the listener and transport them from their current reality.
Taarab ballads – each lasting up to ten minutes – are romantic and nostalgic poems adapted to music.
When they play, performers always don traditional garb from the Ottoman period – including a shawl tied around the waist and a tarboosh hat.
The Salateen Al Taarab (Sultans of Taarab) were formed in Syria in 1992. Since then they have performed all over the world from Germany to Canada – endeavouring to share their heritage through music. But geopolitical tensions in their homeland caused the group to disperse – and in 2012 the one remaining member, Al Sagheer, formed a new band with his fellow countrymen and Jordanians.
Salateen Al Taarab were invited to the Azraq refugee camp in Jordan by the World Food Programme (WFP) to perform for those living there.
“We came to contribute to the happiness of the people here and to make them feel that life is present and that from suffering we bring happiness,” said Al Sagheer.
Nineteen-year-old Jameel, who lives at the camp, explained what it was like to witness Taarab music for the first time:
“Today when I attended the guys’ performance, I felt something strange – truly, through the music, the sound, the tunes. Something very strange happened inside me. This music brings us back to the old days, to our childhood. Yes, I’m not old, but it brings me back to the old memories.”