A flurry went around the art world when conservative Oman named a woman as the chief executive of the Persian Gulf’s only opera house in Muscat.
German-born Christina Scheppelmann is moving from Washington D.C. She’s planning classical, jazz and world music concerts at the opera house, which opened last year with performances by Placido Domingo and Andrea Bocelli.
“There are enough good stories, enough wonderful poetry, and enough traditional music, if anyone wants to combine those elements and tell a story,” she says in an interview in Muscat.
“Theater as a concept is a little foreign, but using your own stories and your own music, it is easier to comprehend.”
Oman -- the biggest Arab oil exporter that isn’t a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- opened the Royal Opera House Muscat in October 2011. Its neighbors are rushing to follow suit. Iraq laid the foundation stone in May for a 170 billion dinar ($150 million) cultural complex in Baghdad, while Dubai, one of seven sheikhdoms in the United Arab Emirates, plans a cultural district. Both include opera houses. Abu Dhabi, the U.A.E. capital, and Qatar have also begun hosting operas as part of music and art festivals.
Scheppelmann, looking fresh after a 16-hour flight from the U.S., is wrapping up her duties as artistic director at the Washington National Opera and sitting in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel, sipping a cappuccino and water.
It was through WNO’s affiliation with the Kennedy Center -- which helped Oman’s opera house put a season together -- that she heard about the job. She starts on Dec. 1, and her mandate is to build up the staff and bring a range of performances.
“It’s an absolutely unique opportunity in the world to come to an opera house that is brand new, not just as a building, but as an institution,” says 46-year-old Scheppelmann, wearing a black suit and pink shirt.
“And the fact that it’s not only opera -- I started off going to as many operas as symphonic concerts, and a lot to ballet, and I love jazz. To me it’s the most beautiful opera house that has been built in the past 50 years. It is unique in every way and new as a concept. And that’s great fun.”
The new opera chief, a slender, bespectacled blonde who radiates an engaging mix of friendliness and formality, says she is determined to learn some Arabic so she can understand better the local environment. “Language is the access to a mentality, to a culture,” she says.
“I speak several languages. I know colleagues in South America very well, I know the people I worked with in Italy, and I can talk to them in their language. I think language is really key. It’s a matter of understanding. It’s the people who make the color of the language -- that’s why dialects exist. Why are dialects different? Because people are different in various regions. So the language tells you something about the people.”
The complex of white marble colonnades is designed by Hawaii-based WATG. Already productions brought from Europe, Asia and the Middle East can sell out weeks in advance as Omanis and expats alike flock to the venue.
After the interview, Scheppelmann picks up the keys to her rental car from reception and drives us to the opera house, already comfortable navigating the roads before she has even moved in. We watch a Sufi production celebrating Muslim devotional practices. It shows the many interpretations of Islam in a region where minority beliefs are often repressed.
Pakistanis spin to the beat of the dhol drum, played by deaf and mute Goonga Sain. Saudi Arabia’s Hashim Baroom sings poetry in praise of Prophet Muhammed. Algeria’s Nadi al-Hilal al-Thaqafi expresses devotion through classical Arab-Andalusian music, while Uzbek classical singer Yulduz Turdieva performs songs in Uzbek-Turkic and Farsi.
Scheppelmann is beset with staff welcoming her back as she arrives at the opera house before the show. She takes time to catch up with each person, patiently listening to updates on what has happened since she was last in town.
Although she’s the boss, she requests security clearance to go backstage, respectfully deferring to local protocol. She does a quick tour, pointing out the German-handcrafted pipe organ along the back wall. The unusual addition to an opera house was requested by the ruler Qaboos bin Said al-Said.
Thanks to his love of classical music, the country has its own Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra.
The challenge is “to create an interest, so that the Omani audience takes to the symphonic pieces, to the jazz, to the opera, and develops a taste for it, and that the expats will actually have the curiosity to come to all these events that they haven’t heard about,” she says in a faint German accent, watered down after leaving the country when she was 22.
“It’s up to us, through the press, to give information to the audience, to excite them, so they can develop a curiosity to come.”
Scheppelmann will be able to draw from her wide network of contacts, from Italy to South America, to bring performances to Oman. Artists are also willing to stay in residence for a few days after a performance and give workshops and teach, she says.
While nobody has explicitly warned her to avoid certain types of performances, she’s “not going to have productions that are overly sexual, bare naked people on stage.” Producers are “quite cooperative” in adapting.
The Deborah Colker ballet from Brazil will wear less skimpy outfits when it performs in Oman in February, she says.
“The movement is the same, it will still look the same.”
Her contract is for two years, with a two-year automatic extension.
“When I look at what needs to be done, I think four years is a good time to really structure something, make it work, and train Omanis,” she says. “I mean, they don’t want me here in 10 years. Also in the technical areas. With time, you can train anyone with a technical background to learn about stage technology, stagecraft, stage systems.”
The language of music is universal, says Scheppelmann, rejecting the notion that because opera is foreign to the region, it won’t be appealing. She compares it to going on a trip abroad, where you use your guidebook, and prepare a little.
“All you have to do in operas is maybe read the synopsis and say, aha, this piece was written in 1835 and it was a great success and it’s been done since over and over again, so I guess it’s a good piece if it survived 180 years,” she says. “Try it out. Music is very emotional, it’s very communicative. Unless you’re an emotional monster, if it’s good music, it will work.”