Saudi Arabia witnesses its first ever opera show
Riyadh, the Saudi Kingdom’s capital, for the first time in its history celebrated an Arabic opera. It happened under the patronage of the Saudi Entertainment Authority on February 23 and 24, at the Princess Noura Bint Abdel-Rahman University Theatre.
After decades of hesitation and reservation Saudi Arabia has re-opened its doors to theatre, cinema, concerts and finally opera experiencing unprecedented artistic development.
Arabic history plays a major role in the first opera chosen, inspiring Antar and Abla . The opera displays lyrical music and eloquent poetry and features prominent singer Ghassan Saliba in Antar with soprano Lara Gokhdar in Abla. It was played to enthusiastic audiences in Beirut, 2016, and Bahrain, 2017, with a stunning cast of more than 100 actors.
The libretto was the creation of writer Antoine Maalouf and bravely tackled the pain of racism and the agony of war together with the harm thrust into the world by the arms trade.
The wonderful music score, soaring in its edgy beauty, was composed by maestro MarounAl-Raei. Direction was in the skillful hands of Joseph Sassine and Mirana Al-Naimi.
Choreography displayed the outstanding work of Malek Andari. Costumes inspired by Arabian desert themes displayed the vivid imagination of designer Raymond Raeid.
Despite weak, inexcusable media interest in Saudi theatre, the Kingdom found noticeable development in drama recently, with plays winning dozens of awards at Arab and International Festivals. In 2016 alone Saudi theatre won 47 international awards.
After 50 years of absence drama burst onto the public stage. Where women's participation in theater was once limited to closed female theaters, Saudi actress “Nagat Muftah” this month brought it into modernity, co-staring with male actors in public in the play, Life of an Emperor. Muftah will long be remembered as the first female actress to stage in front of a mixed audience. This historic event was sponsored by the Saudi Entertainment Authority.
Since 1985 Riyadh has had a ban on concerts. But, with the establishing of the Entertainment Authority in 2016, under the direction of Ammed Bin Aqeel Al-Khateeb, artistic life in the Kingdom was revived.
2017 witnessed the first big concert organized in Jeddah for the celebrated singer Mohammed Abdo. This was a revival of the last event which dates all the way back to 2009. Happily, the first concert for families took place in March 2017. Previous shows had been limited to youth only.
The renowned visiting Egyptian musician Omar Khairat took part in this concert, which took place at the Juman Park of King Abdullah’s Economic city. It was ceremonial in nature and part of a cultural and artistic plan to showcase several plays in the country.
Most significant in KSA cultural life has been the removal of a 30-year ban on cinemas, thus ending a three decade gap from the 1940’s to the 70’s , intended to prevent gender mixing. This will deeply alter the artistic landscape and sculpt new terrain for cultural innovation.
Prominent Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour, expressed her happiness at the decision by tweeting: "What a beautiful life, indescribable pride and happiness for my homeland. Expect our Saudi movies soon. An historic moment in KSA, my warmest congratulations to Saudi filmmakers".
Looking back, 2011 saw the birth of stand-up comedy shows on YouTube in the Kingdom. There had been sporadic attempts in English, but the actual beginning was the launch of programs attracting internet audiences, such as Quarter to Nine, Ali Al-Tayer and Eish Elli.
These shows quickly moved from Internet to reality, especially after the establishing of the first comedy club in Jeddah whose shows were acclaimed by Saudis. Eventually they were performed regularly every Thursday and have been so since 2014. Today there are an astonishing forty or so Comedians in the Comedy Club.
It is a celebration that since 2016 the popular City Comedy Club has had monthly stands proving Saudi youth have an enduring interest and vital sense of humor. Especially so in view of the subject matter being social, religious and political commentary.
Najat Maftah is a young Saudi actress. She first appeared on stage in the play Life of an Emperor, which was performed in February 2018 in Riyadh.