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Hitting the right notes

Interview - April 4, 2012
Oman has always been culturally rich, and the recent opening of the Royal Opera House will add to that legacy. Mr. Brett Egan, Acting CEO of the Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM), discusses how the project will help promote a new understanding between Western and Arab cultures
The Royal Opera House of Muscat is the brainchild of His Majesty the Sultan. It was established with the goal to create global dialogue through arts and culture, and it is the first Royal Opera House in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). What was the vision behind the establishment of such a groundbreaking institution in the heart of Muscat?

I understand it all began about 10 years ago with a Royal Decree instituting a process whereby the development of the building would commence. An international competition was held to select an architect from the finest standards available in theatrical architecture worldwide. There was an international study done on what was working and what was not, in terms of historical and contemporary architecture, through which they devised a plan that can now be seen throughout this building. These were the initial stages. The last eight or so years have been committed to actually developing the physical infrastructure and developing contacts internationally that would actually provide the services required in order to run it. In the last year-and-a-half, those efforts were intensifying towards the grand opening on October 12th 2011, with a performance of Zefferelli’s production of Turandot, attended by His Majesty.
The last six months, which includes a couple of months prior to when I joined here, there has been a tremendous focus on the question of, “why an opera house?” as it began to materialize at both official and unofficial, more viral levels. People really began to take it seriously, wondering why we are building an opera house at a moment when there is considerable economic strain around the world; at a moment when we have access to free entertainment, why are we building something where people will have to pay; at a moment when the country is focused on ‘Omanization’, why are building what is essentially a global space for the presentation of artists from throughout the world?
Even more than just the emergence of a building, this space is a catalyst for a dialogue which is truly a modern, global, future-focused dialogue, with economic, civic, cultural, philosophical and political strands. Today the Royal Opera House of Muscat functions as a symbol of the convergence of the greatest Arabic traditions, through the architecture we see throughout the building, as well as the intent and nobility of the vision, but also a convergence with very, very modern themes of global exchange, and the essential requirement of fluid citizen-to-citizen dialogue between people from different countries.

Why do you think Oman is the first country in the GCC to have an opera house?

There have been several efforts – and that is not to say there are no other fine examples of fine arts taking place throughout the region, as there is in the Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, and perhaps less visible but of no less quality examples in places that I do not know about. To build a cultural institution is a financial commitment, a very specific social commitment, and from a human resource standpoint – especially when you are not surrounded by similar institutions – it is a very strong move in the direction of creating a new space in society.
What I would like your readers to understand about what is truly special that is taking place here, is that if you walk around this building, every single person that is here, except for the technical staff, is working for a theatre for the very first time in their lives. In some cases, the people working here are experiencing the daily life of a theatre for the first time, and some have never even set foot in a theatre before in their lives. This is diametrically different than what you would find even if you wanted to set up an opera house in a small town in Italy, where there are people who have spent hundreds of nights in the opera.
I think that is really vital to understand when you are asking, “why is this the first opera house of this scale in the region?” I think that is because you are looking at is a movement towards an understanding between Western culture and Arab culture, and Arab culture and Eastern culture, where the concept of an opera house is a long-established one. Ideally this will promote the establishment and convergence of Arab and Western cultures in other places throughout the world. This is essentially a Western paradigm that has been interpreted through an Arabic lens. But it is so new because I think that for the first time in millennia, this dialogue has achieved a level of stability, even if we are seeing historic political and economic instability. This kind of sentiment or desire for cultural understanding is stronger today than it has ever been. Only in this environment would you see this kind of convergence taking place.

Being the first project of its kind and magnitude in the region implies that you have to create a new market, develop an audience, as well as train the first generation of Royal Opera House staff. How important is your role as an educator, and what are the main challenges you have been facing over the past months?

I am only here as a sort of midwife, to make sure that mother and child stay alive during the birthing process. A tremendous amount of work has taken place prior to my arrival and the most important work will continue after I leave. I do not really think of my role as an educational one, but rather a support structure to ensure that the incredibly hard work, done by tens of thousands of Omanis over the course of the last 10 years, materializes and takes the shape of a truly world-class environment.
Now to get to the heart of your question, when you are building a new type of institution in a part of the world where such an institution has not previously existed, there is a human resource vacuum. There is a very understandable lack of experience in institutions like this. Part of our role here working together with the board is to try to offer a framework policy structure, and some training for the immensely talented, and primarily young people who are working with us. The government of Oman which has taken a very strong and active interest in developing the human resource requirements around this institution, by and for Omanis, over the next 2-5 years in many critical areas of the building.

One of the commitments of the ROHM is to attract as many Omanis as possible to welcome the world’s best artists and performances. How are you developing your audience?

When you are developing a product or service, regardless of what field you are in, it takes time to create demand in the market, especially if it is a new market. When personal computers first came to market, nobody thought they would ever want, or have any need for those things. It is no different than introducing a cultural product or service into a community – it takes time. This process of developing a relationship with the Omani people will take years, if not decades, and it has to be done again and again throughout generations. The project of engaging an audience is at the core of every cultural institution. It does not matter if it is here in Oman, or in London, Brussels, Washington, New York, San Francisco or Tokyo. This is a constantly on-going process.
We have developed the technologies to do this. We have developed ‘affinity partnerships’ with communities or organizations that have interests in certain types of content. For instance, the Syrian community, Lebanese community, or the Egyptian community living here in Muscat will have an interest in seeing certain types of artists or art. So we reach out to these communities through promotions, discounts, or special offers to try to engage them and bring them in. We will hold pre-performance conversations with audiences to give them a greater context of the performances and allow them to dig in deeper. This is a way of trying to engage more people in what is being presented here, which is free and open to the public.
The Opera House will engage in open houses, and offer an extremely low-cost experience in the Opera House for families, children, but really for anyone to come in and see performances, exhibitions, speak with members of the staff, and listen to lectures that will take place every month starting in March. Daily tours will also be taking place. We will also be working extensively with schools in partnership with the Ministry of Education.
In the U.S. it is a very common practice, and I do not think it would be any different here, that you would begin to develop specific relationships with people who have specific needs – the elderly, underserved children, handicapped children, and those with learning disadvantages. This is essentially affinity marketing, developing an affinity relationship with different types of people. This process is one of the most difficult for opera houses to develop because it simply takes a lot of time, perseverance, sincerity, honesty, and a great product. But I think you can draw this parallel to virtually any service or product entering a new market.

What audience profile have you attracted during the first few months? What has been the response so far?

It is an extremely diverse audience of both Omanis and expatriates. The expatriates are not only Western, but Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese, and Emiratis. We even had people coming from the Emirates, Doha, Bahrain, and Kuwait City, so the region has really shown a great level of interest. By and large, the performances have been sold out. I think this is an indication of the hunger that existed, or in business terms, the latent demand that had built up for this type of experience.
Interestingly, I have learned that this is one of the few places in society where men and women spend social time together, in a non-threatening, non-confrontational, leisure-based environment. Without wanting to make a political comment, I think this is a development worth noting. It is encouraging to see this space being used in this way by all members of society.

You have managed to attract some of the most esteemed names in performing arts, from Andrea Bocelli to Renee Fleming. Could you elaborate on the concept of the program? How do you strike the right balance between the diversity of the Western arts and Arabic arts? 

The first season was really the door opening to a global audience. The first three months of programming intended to say to the world of performing arts and to culture-goers, that this was a place to celebrate the traditions of all people. In the initial season we are here to celebrate some of the icons of these cultures. In the second season from January through April, you will begin to see a more refined, deeper look at some of the artists who have made their names by specifying in the culture of a specific region, including Egyptian soundtrack writers, Ud masters from Oman and Egypt, Tarab specialists from Syria, Japanese classical drummers, and Argentine Tango. These have very distinct cultural specificity in this upcoming season.
In future seasons I think audiences will see a mix between these two emphases. Certainly every season should have ‘programming spikes’ that everybody recognizes. But that is not necessarily the mission of the Opera House – to only produce the most popular and most famous performers from throughout the world. The mission of the organization is not only to entertain but to educate. In this second part of the season, you see figures that many Westerners in particular would not recognize. It is important to push audiences to discover something new. In fact, this is the theme of the second season. But in the future, audiences will see a combination of these two primary themes.
We try to develop a balanced portfolio like in stocks. We have a mix of blue chip stocks, which you know are going to perform well in the long run, such as your Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming which are going to be sold out. But you also have your social investment stocks, emerging market stocks, small cap-high risk stocks, which we also have in the arts. We invest in those due to the promise they represent.

On one side you have to build trust with the audience, but at the same time one of the missions of ROHM is to develop a closer relationship with Omani artists. How do you create a new generation of art leaders in Oman?

You have a very fine example of a generation-long effort to cultivate Omani artists with the Royal Omani Symphony Orchestra, which was founded in 1985 by His Majesty to develop professionally trained classical musicians. The orchestra has performed in our previous season, and will perform in all of our upcoming seasons. The job of the Royal Opera House is to push them to perform at their finest, and compete at a global level with the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Philharmonic.
At the same time, we hope the Opera House will inspire the development of fledging or as yet non-existent institutions in orchestral and vocal music, spoken word, traditional and contemporary dance, even ballet. There are already examples of this alive and well in Oman. We want to encourage and on-going institutionalization and refinement of quality.

Are you also engaging in exchange programs with other institutions? 

In the coming years there will be a higher level of collaboration. Right now, the Opera House is working to establish its fundamental systems. There has been a very substantial level of exchange with certain institutions, like the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra, and several hobbyist associations with dialogue and educational activities. But this activity of reaching out and creating bonds, linkages and partnerships with other cultural institutions is going to unfold over time. This season the emphasis has been on providing access to world class performances. In future seasons we will begin to see more regularity in the effort to build relationships with other cultural institutions.
The ROHM is a non-profit organization. How does that impact your day-to-day activities, especially when it comes to providing incentives to world-class artists? 

Most opera houses around the world are increasingly what we would think of as not-for-profit style organizations. Certainly in the U.S. they all are, as well as the vast majority in Western Europe, with few notable exceptions in Asia. In practical terms, outside of the U.S. ‘not-for-profit’ means that you are not going to live off of government subsidy forever, so please begin to think about how to raise more money, whether that be through earned income, such as ticket sales, licensing, rentals, merchandise sales, services in schools, or through contributed income. That is not the case here. At least initially, there is not the intent to raise money as you would in the U.S.
In Oman ‘not-for-profit’ means that first of all, this is an autonomous organization, not a governmental organization. It will of course have a strong and lasting bond with the government, this space was built and funded by the government, but it is not meant to be wholly reliant on the government. There is an imperative to develop a sustainable funding model. Across the street a massive mall is in development, which is meant to subsidize the activities of the Royal Opera House through rental fees paid by tenants to management. Of course ticket sales play a role in this, which need to be balanced with your mission to make the opera house successful. If we were to sell tickets at the true value of what that ticket is worth, those tickets can cost in excess of $3,000 dollars. That is no different than any other opera house around the world, but ticket sales must be heavily subsidized in order to be accessible to most of society.
In terms of offering fees to artists, there needs to be a balance between those artists who bring some celebrity and charge very high fees, and the development of new cultural products, operas, productions, which are very expensive and which you see increasingly less of around the world. You have to balance these very expensive projects with less expensive projects, smaller and lesser known ensembles. This is the kind of balanced stock portfolio that I spoke about earlier, not only in terms of the kinds of returns we can expect, but in terms of what kind of expense you have put out in order to bring that in. But frankly the model here is no different than the model anywhere else around the world, except for now - somewhat luxuriously - this place has the support of the government. At this point, it is a necessary wind at the back of the institution.

There are many indirect benefits of the Opera House, including the positive impact in the tourism industry. For some performances, tickets are being sold out in less than 24 hours and hotels in Muscat are fully booked. How closely do you cooperate with the Ministry of Tourism in order to maximize the benefits of the ROHM?

I think that the Opera House can and should be a symbol of what is happening in Oman and in the region generally speaking, which is an increasing level of accessibility to the culture and people of this beautiful and welcoming country. Insofar that this is a symbol broadcast worldwide, of course it has ramifications for tourism. We have a very strong working relationship between the Opera House and the Ministry of Tourism, which will continue for decades to come.
Indirect benefits are something we use in cultural economics all the time. There are basically three things that happen to a dollar or a Rial when it is spent in cultural institutions. First, there is the spending in the institution itself, which pays for the salaries of the people that work there. Then the cultural institution spends that money in something else; paying an artist, a vendor, a teacher to render a class for students, so that money is spent again. That is what we call ‘indirect spending’. The third type of spending is what we call ‘induced spending’, which is that once that dollar gets distributed to the second party, it goes out and creates other levels of activity, working its way through the bloodstream of the economy.
This results in, for instance the vendors in the restaurants, or the teachers are spending it on in goods and services within this community. That means you have to have more restaurants, more places to shop, more public recreational areas – more infrastructure. In most communities, it means you have higher tax revenue. It means that every time the value and prestige of this building increases, the value and prestige of everything around it increases, like real estate property values. School systems tend to attract greater value when they are closer to cultural institutions. There are many ways of looking at these types of spending, direct, indirect and induced, when we talk at the development of cultural economy.
Europeans are very good at this because they had to defend, in a very vigorous way, relatively high levels of public subsidy within the context of supporting culture. This conversation is starting here, which is good, because the facts are at the back of cultural institutions.
All around the world you see cultural institutions engaging in, what in America we call, “place-making.” This essentially says that you can choose to live anywhere you want - New York, Kansas City or San Francisco - but if a small town in Iowa, Massachusetts or Florida wants you to come and live there, they have to make a case that it is a good place to live. If they do not have enough people living there, they are not going have any taxes to pay for public officials and infrastructure, and the city is going to disappear. The number of people living in an area, and the property values, are very important. Right now, cultural institutions are at the center of a global focus about the role they play in place-making, and here in Oman is no different.

This is another good reason to invest in cultural institutions when there seem to be other priorities…

You are right, that is the answer of why to invest in these types of institutions. Not to mention another very important theme concerning the relationship between cultural institutions and education. Globally, there is a divide between labor and service industries, and information and creative industries. There are certain countries that are becoming increasingly dependent on service and labor-related income, and there are countries that are becoming increasingly dependent on information or technology-related income.
The educational systems that produce labor and service human resources are different than the education and social systems that produce information and technology-based societies, to the extent that we see wealth being created around technology and information. That wealth being exponential, forces policy makers to question what tools they have in place to develop and train problem solvers, and people that can develop new products and solve the challenges faced not only by their communities, but globally.
Right now this is the argument in significant parts of the West for defending arts education. If we are not training creative problem solvers, where will we be in 20, 30, or 50 years in the global race towards the development of technologies and consumer products that require a great deal of entrepreneurial creativity to develop? If you are not offering young people access to art, culture, creativity, and ways of thinking about problem solving, they will fall behind in that race.
There are the short term, direct and indirect, induced economic benefits that we talked about. But then there are critically, the long term development of human potential, that we in the arts really feel can be achieved primarily and only through arts education. You are going to teach a child to think creatively in some ways if you teach math, physics, sports, but the arts need to be part of that mix. If not, societies will fall behind.

What is your vision for this institution 10 years from now? Can the ROHM be the trigger that drives the creation of similar institutions in the region?

I am a very small piece of a very large puzzle, so I am not sure that my vision matters very much. But I can tell you what my hope would be, or what I am inspired to think might happen. This is a historic groundbreaking moment. It is the first time in the region that there has been a statement made, at this scale, in support of global dialogue through culture. It comes at a time when we are looking throughout the region and internationally, and the U.S. is not exempt from this, where respectful and issues-based dialogue is vital for achieving civility. This building is a symbol of that commitment here in Oman. Does this say that the rest of the region cannot be part of this dialogue unless they have an institution like this? No, it does not. I hope that it says both to the region and most importantly to the West that we are here to be part of this. We have shown up and we are committed. This is not a multiyear commitment but a multigenerational, multi-centric commitment.
I will hope that it inspires similar undertakings in countries throughout the region. There are rumors of this happening, and nothing would make me happier than to see a great cultural hub in the Arabian Peninsula. I can very easily foresee a network of powerful, dynamic, creative and open cultural institutions throughout the region. There are already impressive places in the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Beirut, and Damascus, and a network cultural institutions evolving along the Arabian Peninsula from Muscat to Bahrain. This should be a place where cultural tourists come to the opera houses in Muscat, Dubai, and Bahrain, and to the new cultural center in Kuwait City, so this becomes a “neighborhood of art” like you find in Paris, London, Brussels, and Amsterdam, or in the U.S. between Boston, New York and Washington. These are the elements that create bonds between the cultures of different countries, communities and societies, and I think that it can happen here.

You joined the ROHM team a few weeks before the inauguration. At a personal level, what does it mean for you to be part of such an historic event?

You could work your entire life in the arts and never have an opportunity like this one. The challenges faced when opening a cultural institution anywhere on the planet are exhausting. You are building policy, human resources, systems, and physical infrastructure. You are dealing with artists, engaging with the community and the press, trying to tell the story, creating new marketing channels, identifying what is the right media mix; it is overwhelming. It does not matter if it is in Muscat, Doha, Tokyo, Beijing or Johannesburg. But that in itself is exciting, and something that not everyone has the chance to do. To have an opportunity to do it in a place like Muscat, for the first time in the history of this region, is humbling and exciting. It keeps you up at night, makes you worried and exhilarated, and both frustrates and thrills you. I would imagine that it is something similar to having a child. But I am a minute fraction of the work that is taking place here, and it has been a tremendous honor to do it.

Over the past year, the global media have bombarded the audience with images of violence, uprisings, and conflicts in the Arab world. As an American living and working in Oman, what do you think Americans should know about Oman today?

I do not know what it is like to live in other parts of the Arab world, all I can speak about is what it is like to live here in Oman. I was here when Oman played a central role in the negotiations with Iran for the liberation of the American hiker hostages. The discretion with which it took place, regarding the role of the government of Oman in helping secure the release of the hostages, was astounding. It was as if they had played no role at all.
I would say that the overwhelming sentiment that an outsider will receive when they come here is that the Omanis are above all an extremely tactful people. They have an immense grace and reserve, and an almost self-effacing nobility in the simplicity with which they carry on. I would say that tact and diplomacy are a way of life in Oman. It is fundamentally different to many aspects of Western culture, where you would not necessarily describe them as a tactful people. But here diplomacy happens at a person-to-person level, even in the stressful environment of a cultural institution where things happen very quickly and the stakes feel very high even when they are not. I can be guilty of that, because like many Americans, I wear my heart in my sleeve. I say what I feel and push for my way of thinking. I am not trying to say that Omanis do not express how they feel and push their opinions, but they do it with a lot of grace, and this is something that I will truly take away from this experience. The people are immensely kind and it is extremely beautiful here. The cultural and architectural traditions are very strong, and I imagine that it would be on any tourist itinerary for anybody that has a sincere interest in the region.
The world should be paying attention to what is happening here in this building. The statement that is being made with this building may not seem all that startling to the readers in the United States. But what I would like them to take away is that there is a historic commitment being made right now in this building, to develop a linkage to the finest traditions from around the world. To the extent that we are bombarded with negative imaginary from both sides - it is not only Western media showing Arabs as terrorist, and obsessing over destruction in Cairo and Damascus, it happens here too.
Art has a way of making noble the exchange of ideas between people, and creating a sense of the sacred around that exchange. All of a sudden, we have here a very exquisite and privileged space in Muscat, that is emblematic of so many of the finest elements of this region, that has been built explicitly for this purpose - for saying from one citizen to other citizen, that we want to engage in a dialogue with you. It is historic, and something that people should pay close attention to as a global moment.