Geoffrey Wheel is pleased as punch.
Cracking jokes and making puns as he leads us around the stairways, back passages and public areas of Muscat’s glittering Royal Opera House, the technical director exhibits the pride of a parent as he talks about the project he’s worked on since inception.
“I’ve travelled and worked all over the world,” he says, adding that he left a career at that other Royal Opera House, the one in Covent Garden, to move to Muscat, “and I’ve never seen this kind of opulence before.”
Well, not this side of the demise of European monarchy, any way. Opera began life in the courts and for most of its history, was a royal affair. The ROHM continues in the same tradition, an opera house that is, literally, fit for a king.
Set in eight hectares of formal gardens in the Shatti al-Qurm district, when seen from the outside, the ROHM looks like it could be a palace. Designing in a style that for want of another tag, could be called Omani Modern – just enough tradition to look authentic, just enough modernity to be international - WATG, the Honolulu-based architectural super-group best known for high-end hotels and luxury resorts, has coloured the interiors in a concerto of cappuccinos, rich browns and creams, set off with splashes of gold (door handles), sparkling crystal (chandeliers) and rich reds (carpeting). Both wood and stone are carved, the latter inlaid with subtle patterns in coloured stone, the former sometimes gilded.
The ROHM isn’t just designed to be pretty. Or to be a white elephant. Royal patronage or not, it intends to be a working house and as the audience for opera is somewhat limited in the region, British consultants, Theatre Projects have created a space capable of handling almost any kind of performance; ballet, theatre, symphonies and recitals, live music, dance, musicals, lectures even, when the massive hidden screen is lowered, 3D film screenings.
Effectively, the ROHM is many buildings, or spaces, in one. Intelligent and multi-purpose, it can be radically reconfigured with the flip of a few switches. The stage can be extended over the sunken orchestra pit for theatre or dance performances, or simply to put in more seating. The first column of boxes is retractable and the wood proscenium can be raised into the roof, enlarging the stage to a width of 22 metres. There’s even a stage behind the stage that houses an enormous German pipe organ. Set on rails, all 500 tonnes of it can be rolled forward, replacing the stage with an acoustic shell specifically designed for musical performances.
“You don’t see the mechanisms,” says Wheel, pointing out carefully concealed rigging points, speakers, projection units and trapdoors as we walk around, “but they’re all there.”
It isn’t until we enter the auditorium, though, that the house reveals its full glory. From the floor, rows of plush red armchairs, interactive display screens built into their backs, rise in classic horseshoe configuration in three vertiginous tiers with boxes at the front on either side of the stage. The Royal Box is directly opposite the stage on the second floor.
Though it can seat just over 1000, the auditorium is intimate. Even from the very back row, the stage is close enough to enjoy without opera glasses and when it is extended, front row spectators will be so close to the action that as Wheel puts it, “they’ll almost be able to shake hands with the performers on stage.”
Originally published in Bespoke