OMAN Magazine meets with Director General of the Royal Opera House Muscat, Mr Umberto Fanni to talk about his distinguished career in Opera, Theatre & Creative Direction…
Tell us about your career to date and what led you to Oman?
After graduating from the Music Conservatory of Geneva in Piano, Virtuoso Level, I founded a youth orchestra with talented young musicians, all of whom, I am thrilled to say, are now in brilliant careers. Next I served as Artistic & Production Assistant to Claudio Scimone, the founder and conductor of what is now Italy’s finest chamber orchestra, I Solisti Veneti. My orchestral involvement continued in the role of General Manager for the Teatro Donizetti Symphonic Orchestra (Bergamo). Next I worked with several theatres and music festival in both artistic and managerial capacity and also created a jazz festival as well as a commercial arts entertainment company. In my role as artistic director of premiere Italian opera companies, including Fondazione Arena of Verona, Fondazione “Teatro Giuseppe Verdi” of Trieste and Fondazione Teatro Lirico of Cagliari, I was able to broaden and refine my experience. Management know-how is vitally important in the performing arts of today, and I was fortunate to serve for a number of years as Professor of Management & Administration of Performing Arts & Communication Industries at the University of Brescia and Milan. I first came to the Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM) in October 2011 as Artistic Director of Fondazione Arena di Verona when we were engaged to perform the inaugural opera, a specially commissioned production of Puccini’s Turandot, designed by Franco Zeffirelli and conducted by Placido Domingo. Three years after the inauguration, I was honoured to be offered the post of Artistic Director of the ROHM, and accepted this appointment with a great deal of pleasure. I am now fortunate to be, from past November 2015, also the Director General of what is surely the most exciting new opera house in the world.
What is your personal favourite Opera and why?
It so happens that Puccini’s Turandot, which was selected by the Royal Opera House Muscat and approved by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said as the ROHM’s inaugural opera, has long been my favourite. Audiences are impressed by the exotic setting, the legendary context and the sheer magic and magnificence of the aesthetic atmosphere in Turandot, but it is most of all the music that makes for greatness in opera. The music of Turandot is hauntingly beautiful in its dramatic eloquence and illustrative sensitivity. It seeps into the soul. Because we want to be moved by great art and learn from its illumination of life, the emotional and didactic content is vital. Turandot reminds us of the powerful transcendence of love and the importance of seeing the truth of our inner selves. With Turandot, Puccini has given the world one of opera’s most famous and best-loved arias – the sweepingly powerful “Nessun Dorma”, (“None Shall Sleep”). The appeal of “Nessun Dorma”, an aria that represents the soaring spirit of the human heart in pursuit of a dream, is such that it has broken through the usual constraints of high art and entered mainstream culture.
As the very first Opera House in the GCC, what have the past few years demonstrated with respect to the culture and audience of Opera in the Middle East?
Instead of referring to the “Middle East”, a vaguely defined term coined in the nineteenth century which can include as many as fourteen different countries – let’s speak of our region, meaning the Arabian Gulf countries and the regional Arab and Islamic World. This is the area of core relevance to the Royal Opera House Muscat. The Royal Opera House Muscat presents not only opera, but all the performing arts – opera, ballet, dance, musicals, concerts, jazz, and world music, as well as local, regional and international shows. The world of today is decidedly global and many local and regional Arabs are already familiar with, and appreciate, not only opera but other genres of the classic Western performing arts. We must add to this the natural interest of younger as well as older generations anywhere in the world in experiencing new forms of arts entertainment. Local and regional Arabs flock to the ROHM’s Omani and Arab productions which constitute more than thirty percent of annual programming. The number of Arabs attending non-Arab productions is increasing year by year, just as the number of non-Arabs attending Arab events is growing. What the past few years have demonstrated most significantly is the importance of diversity in programming to suit the needs of today’s cosmopolitan audiences, while challenging them to appreciate a broader range of genres in artistic entertainment, and responding effectively to audience feedback. Enhanced cultural sophistication and meaningful intercultural exchange has become a hallmark of the Royal Opera House Muscat and its audiences.
Why do you believe the ROHM is such as iconic destination for tourists and residents alike?
The ROHM has a remarkable universal appeal first because the institution is not simply an opera house, but Oman’s Royal Opera House, conceived and supported by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said according to his farsighted vision for the advanced cultural development of the nation. This is important to national as well as expatriate residents because of their sincere and heartfelt admiration of His Majesty, their trust in his judgment and their gratitude for the opportunities he continually provides. The fact that the Royal Opera House presents, not just opera, but all the performing arts, makes it appealing to a wider range of patrons, which is perhaps more important in this part of the world than it is in the Western world where there is a strong and long-standing tradition of opera. International tourists are delighted to find in what they see as an exotic Arabian destination, the world’s most famous stars and finest productions, some of which, such as for instance the Vienna Philharmonic, they must otherwise wait for many years to see and pay several times the price. The unique architectural beauty of the ROHM building and its palatial Euro-Arabian character, along with the theatre’s state-of-the-art technological sophistication, including its world-class acoustics are at once a source of pride for residents and a fabulous experience for tourists no matter where they come from. ROHM programming is at a high standard of quality and excellence with a diversity that suits both the cosmopolitan audiences of Muscat and of today’s global world.
Tell us about what goes on behind the scenes at ROHM. How many staff, daily tasks, hidden theatre secrets, the flawless execution. What is it really like to run an operation such as ROHM?
Of course the operations of the Royal Opera House Muscat are as complex and the demands on management are as challenging as for any other world-class centre for the performing arts. The ROHM is also in many ways similar to a business enterprise in that efficiency and cost effectiveness are vital. The management structure must facilitate not only efficiency and smooth operations along with the flawless technical support of productions, but also the genuine hospitality for which Oman is renowned. At the same time, it is of utmost importance that the majority of the staff (73%) be qualified Omani nationals who are given excellent training and advancement opportunities. ROHM’s staff complement presently has 223 employees. As is well known, people – human resources – are at once the most challenging and rewarding aspect of any organisation and I am pleased to say that at the Royal Opera House Muscat, we are blessed in this regard. We have an excellent and incredibly supportive Board, as well as an experienced and highly committed executive management team, dedicated support staff and highly skilled technicians who ensure flawless performances. Our front of house staff, the public face of the Royal Opera House, are all Omanis and their pride in the institution is evident in all they do. Simply speaking, daily tasks are centred in the administration and logistics of implementing current programs and planning new seasons. Public relations strategies are extremely important and we monitor booking levels to adjust these strategies accordingly. We also pay attention to in-house audience response and feedback on social media. For me it is extremely important to value our staff and support and encourage them in all endeavours. Relations with the Board as just as important and it is my job and pleasure to seek their guidance and keep them informed. And all the while, there are the patrons with whom we interact in the lobby at performances to make them feel welcome and to listen to their comments. Transporting, hosting and accommodating companies from abroad, sometimes including casts and musicians numbering more than 300, involves not only complex logistics and effective communication and support systems, but also the human touch. We make sure that visiting personnel experience the hospitality for which Oman is renowned. There is much more – from the technical aspects of ensuring flawless performances to the smooth flow of front of house operations, the Royal Opera House Muscat is called upon to ensure the best possible outcomes on all fronts at all times. Our staff, particularly the technical and logistics teams, work extraordinary hours in the run-up to performances and in their execution. The greatest secret of success is the extraordinary dedication of our staff and the inspirational love that they have for the performing arts in themselves and as an articulate expression of Oman’s evolving cultural identity in a global world – an identity that nevertheless maintains its traditional roots. What it is really like to run an institution such as the ROHM? It is at once a lot of hard work and a great joy!
What does the future have in store at ROHM?
In the 2016-17 Season we will reach an important milestone, which we expect to mark the beginning of a transition of the ROHM to a producing as well as a receiving institution. In a very exciting new development, this coming season, the Royal Opera House Muscat will for the first time present two in-house production: The Opera!, created in cooperation with Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia Valencia and a fantastic show called Celebrating Oman, The Great Journey, especially dedicated to Omani Renaissance. This marks the beginning of a new era for the Royal Opera House Muscat. An overriding aim for the future is to further the ROHM mission in maintaining and enhancing the high standards of excellence and quality which have become a hallmark of the Royal Opera House Muscat recognised around the world. And the Royal Opera House of the future will feature greater Omani talent in all realms – management, administration, technical skills and performance.
How can our readers keep up to date with ROHM’s program of events and news?
The ROHM Website (www.rohmuscat.org.om) is state-of-the-art, live and continuously updated with the latest news. It features illustrated synopses of all performances and upcoming events as well as a complete archive of past performances. The website’s on-line booking service is reliable user-friendly and efficient. Many thousands of patrons and the interested public follow the Royal Opera House Muscat and provide valuable feedback on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In addition, a smartphone ROHM App will soon be launched. It is extremely important to the ROHM to be well-connected with the public and au courant with the latest means of interactive communications.
Royal Opera House Muscat
P.O.Box 35 , PC 103 Bareeq AlShatti,
Qurum, Sultanate of Oman
Tel. +968 24953655
Fax. +968 24403322