A new book examines opera and music houses in the Middle East and North Africa

Ati Metwaly , Monday 9 Mar 2020

In 'The Evolution of Opera Theatre in the Middle East and North Africa' by Paolo Petrocelli, the author looks at the presence of the opera houses in the region, while creating a rich historical background


The title of the recently published book The Evolution of Opera Theatre in the Middle East and North Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholar Publishing, 2019) by the Italian scholar Paolo Petrocelli sounds self-explanatory, yet the topic has deeper implications. As Petrocelli reveals in the first few pages of the book, this is the first attempt to summarise in as concentrated a form as possible, the evolution of opera houses in the Middle East and North Africa.

Through his work in the department of international development and external relations at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, over the years the author has developed strong links with many opera houses and companies in the MENA region. Petrocelli is, among other posts, the International Development and Special Projects Advisor at the Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman. Such commitments gave him a broad understanding of the cultural dynamics of the region, which he approaches in this book through the opera theatre component.

The book is made up of two introductory chapters followed by 20 chapters, each dedicated to one country. Petrocelli’s research is based on many discussions he had with his colleagues in the Arab world, articles published in English and French, and some Arabic sources (which the support of those colleagues gave him access too), as well as what few, sporadically published books tackling opera theatres.

The Evolution of Opera Theatre in the Middle East and North Africa also includes statistical tables demonstrating changes over time, with attention paid to the focal points and repertoire choices of the institutions in question. The end result is an account not only of the region’s opera houses but of the complexity of factors that have motored their construction and populated their stages.

In other words, while Petrocelli puts together a concise presentation of the buildings, cultural centres and theatres that accommodate operatic arts, he interweaves the economic, social-geopolitical-cultural developments that went into the process. The book thus offers an interesting insight into the global cultural dynamics of the region and the history of connections between the two worlds of Western art and MENA’s own performing priorities, all tackled in the context of social needs and aspirations.

“As a young professional musicologist and an Italian,” Petrocelli tells me, mentioning his long career in the music and performing arts field, “opera is my most representative artistic language. Through working at the external relations department of the Roma opera over the last five, seven years, I’ve enjoyed creating connection and collaborations with different cultures. Of course from a business perspective, as an Italian or a European, it is also an opportunity to work with emerging cultural markets and to transfer to them our productions.”

Cairo Opera House
Cairo Opera House, Cairo, Egypt

Petrocelli adds that his international connections often included government entities and private universities Egypt, the UAE, Oman and other countries. He has worked with the American University in Sharjah and the Kuwait Cultural Complex, for example. “I have visited many of the venues, which allowed me to see how they work and understand their strategy.”

The author opens the book with a chapter explaining history and dynamics of the Italian opera houses, their repertoires, long-term planning, and so on. Though the theatres described in the following chapters are well presented in the context of their own countries, the reader has the chance to compare how this “foreign art” is dealt with in each country, how it’s creative language and rules are followed outside Italian (or European) borders.

All of Italy’s creative industry is rooted in the development of opera, yet the managerial choices of the presentation and execution of the art have been tested and modified over the centuries. MENA’s artistic (not to mention sociopolitical) history is completely different, its audiences have a different cultural background, and however much European art is cherished as an instigator of dialogue, fusion and innovation, Western opera remains a cultural import. This is probably the main realisation that comes through in chapter after chapter.

Petrocelli deals with both older cultural spaces like Egypt and emergent ones barely a decade old like Kuwait, Bahrain and other Gulf countries. Across the region there are different approaches to artistic management and programming and different relations with the local market and local audiences. In chapters dedicated to Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia, Petrocelli shows how performances were held (and in some cases theatres constructed) as of the early 19th century.

The development of those cultural markets reflected their unique histories and social needs, and the impact of the colonisation or international exchange all feeding into the learning process and so influencing the literary and artistic products of local creative minds. As a result of this complexity, Petrocelli writes that “the first opera in Arabic could be said to be one of the works of the Lebanese composer Wadih Sabra; The Two Kings, with a libretto by Marun Ghusn, was performed for the first time in Beirut in 1927. The score has since been lost.”

In the case of Egypt, the author opens the relevant chapter by stating, “The majority of academics and music history books identify the origins of the opera theatre in Egypt with the construction of the Khedivial Opera House in Cairo in 1869, but they actually go back at least a century before that to the late 1700s, during the period of the French occupation of Egypt. It was Napoleon, in fact, who initially introduced modern European theatre to the country.”

Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre
Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Cultural Centre, Kuwait (Photo: courtesy of the Centre)

Petrocelli adds that, prior to that date, Egypt’s artistic products were represented forms of entertainment similar to theatrical performances: puppet shows, pantomimes and jesters, which took place in public places. By the mid-20th century, following the British occupation, there was also the opening of the Cairo Conservatory, the Ballet Institute and other artistic establishments that supported the emergence of both professionals and audiences. Indeed, in many chapters, Petrocelli stresses the importance of education which, over time, helped to fill the halls with artists and audiences, shaping the connection with Western opera.

“In Egypt, over many years, Western art found a way to connect with people, and the Cairo Opera is among the main references points for other countries,” Petrocelli tells me. We do know however that, despite decades of education and opera practice in Egypt, today this art form faces a range of new challenges, from administrative and planning mishaps to budget constraints. This, in fact, could be a topic for a whole new volume Petrocelli might consider writing.

Cultural dynamics are not the same in the Gulf where the emergence of opera houses was triggered by a completely different socio-economic history. Chapters dedicated to the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman deal with the wealth of those countries and their far more recent need to forge intercultural connections.

One interesting fact is that, commissioned by King Fahd, the first opera building in Saudi Arabia was built in early 1970 in Riyadh, long before Bahrain or Oman stepped on the scene. Though aimed at introducing the kingdom to European art, under pressure from the conservative Muslim clergy, the $140 million edifice, “maintained in pristine, air-conditioned splendor by a full-time staff of 180,” did not serve its original purpose until 2017. Today known as King Fahd Cultural Center, this opera’s activities will be overshadowed by another building in construction which, as the Saudi media announced last year, will be the first opera in Jeddah, scheduled for completion in 2022.

The question of cultural development and what seems to be a sense of urgency come through in the chapters dedicated to Gulf countries. As much as the regional oil-producing countries began stepping into the cultural arena more recently, Petrocelli also points to their lack of readiness to set up a well-structured artistic vision.

In the chapter dedicated to Kuwait, he writes, “the magnitude of the financial investments and the speed with which the work to build the opera theatres was carried out (just two years in the case of Kuwait) do not correspond with the amount of vigour (and perhaps levels of capability, vision and experience) exerted in setting up a solid management structure, which takes at least a three-year plan into consideration and is supported by a pre-established annual budget. The absence of data relating to the cultural sector in the country’s official national statistics is a more general demonstration that culture does not yet represent one of the central elements to Kuwait’s project for social growth.”

Royal Opera House, Muscat
Royal Opera House, Muscat, Oman (Photo: Khalid AlBusaidi)

The chapter on Bahrain likewise sheds light on the National Theatre of Bahrain in Manama – a state-of-the-art edifice and part of the waterfront cultural complex, which in hardly five years has hosted dozens of internationally renowned troupes.

“Theatrical arts developed in Bahrain in the early 1900s after the introduction of formal education in the country and with the opening of the first school in the Gulf region in 1925,” Petrocelli writes, pointing to Bahrain as one of the first Gulf countries to introduce formal art education with the “first stage performances of moral, historical and religious dramas, mainly by Egyptian and Syrian authors, organised by students and teachers within these same school buildings.” It was with “the start of the new millennium and the development of the country’s tourist industry, a project to construct Bahrain’s first national theatre finally began.”

“Many of the countries,” Petrocelli says, referring to the Gulf region, “wish to reach very quickly international standards in the sphere of performing arts. Understandably the very first strategy was to infuse their countries with the best performers, troupes and orchestras coming from Europe and the USA. Their impact is definitely very important, as from the social and cultural point of view this is just part of a bigger mission.” The managerial and educational angles need to support those causes.

There is no need to go into the details of all historical backgrounds which Petrocelli smoothly weaves into each story. The opera houses are but an anchor for a much larger discourse on the region, its connection with the West, dialogue and the readiness for it. In our discussion, Petrocelli underlined how, with each opera theatre or cultural centre hosting “foreign art”, he wanted “to analyze the more general elements that belong to a variety of cultural systems that govern the countries of the region.”

Whether it is Egypt, where cultural relations took place over many decades (and centuries for that matter), the UAE’s commercial approach to the opera house as an entertainment entity, or Oman’s aim to shine with top notch international opera troupes and orchestras, the connection is taking place, governed by a variety of priorities.

Moreover, and as the author shows, the MENA region is by no means a homogenous region: within the Levant the cultures differ, each country in the Gulf is governed by different principles, and so on. Naturally the development of opera will take a different path in each setting. It is probably this point that gives Petrocelli’s book such value.

If we look at each chapter separately, The Evolution of Opera Theatre in the Middle East and North Africa is a well presented, concise look at the cultural stepping stones of each country. It is an important historical view of the reasons behind the entry of Western art into the region and the many challenges that this art form faces in a culture which after all welcomes it with open heart, whether for intellectual, entertainment or purely business reasons.

In our conversation, Petrocelli expressed the possibility that he will engage in further research, going deeper into the history and culture of each country, while shedding light on the presence of opera houses in the region. Indeed, even if the book is an important step in regional cultural studies, the topic is too vast to be captured in just one volume. Hopefully other scholars will join in this fascinating discussion.

Dubai Opera
Dubai Opera, UAE (Photo: Chris Down)


*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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