Bringing Arab opera to a Western stage

A concert performance at London’s Royal Opera House is a timely showcase of the Middle East’s gifted artists.

The Shubbak Contemporary Arab Art Festival
The Shubbak Arts Festival will seek to offer a new, alternative perspective on the Arab world's modern identity, writes Asfour [Getty]

Last Friday, London saw the launch of Shubbak, a two-week cultural extravaganza showcasing contemporary arts from the Arab world and its international diaspora.

In the same week, it was announced that this autumn the Whitechapel Gallery will hold an exhibition of work from the Barjeel Art Foundation, one of the largest collections of modern and contemporary Arab art.

The Dubai art fair, founded in 2006, and the Saatchi Gallery’s 2009 exhibition “New Art from the Middle East,” began to stir interest in Arab cultural expression and activity throughout the West. However, it wasn’t until 2011 – when the Shubbak festival was first held in London – that contemporary Arab art truly entered the UK’s cultural mainstream.

There has always been plenty of Arab art flourishing with international renown throughout history. But until recently, relatively little Arabic literature has been translated into English, and exhibitions of Arab art, or performances of Arab music and theatre have been specialised, small-scale affairs.

Part of the Shubbak festival, and arguably the apex of this recent and increasingly established interest in Arab culture, is the commission and performance of an Arab opera.

Cities of Salt, scenes from which will be presented in concert at the Royal Opera House on July 22, is based on the novel of the same name by Saudi-Iraqi novelist Abd al-Rahman Munif.

Counting the Cost – Art in the Gulf

Modern Arabic fiction

One of the most important works of modern Arabic fiction, Cities of Salt is the first of a five-novel series that charts the social, economic and developmental transformation of the Gulf countries and their Bedouin communities when American oil companies arrived in the 1930s.

It is deeply critical of both the Americans and the local businessmen who worked with them to create unprecedented change. While oil could have benefited the Gulf countries and their communities, it instead led to promises of wealth for elites and to the creation of shallow and insubstantial “cities of salt” that could easily dissolve.

The novel is banned in Saudi Arabia and Munif was stripped of his Saudi nationality for this and other writings – many of which contain parodied representations of political and economic elites. Cities of Salt is arguably his greatest work, and its adaptation into an opera is both a brilliant idea and a timely one.

The librettists, Rosalind Morris and Yvette Christianse, contacted the Brunel Institute for Contemporary Middle Eastern Music for help finding a composer – ultimately choosing Syrian composer Zaid Jabri.

His score merges European and Arabic musical traditions, absorbing Eastern quartertones and popular music into the Western symphonic tradition.

The opera’s producer, Oliver Butterworth, told Al Jazeera that Jabri should be seen as an individual composer and a unique and important voice within “world contemporary music”.

Limited by labels 

While he is, of course, a Syrian-Arab composer, he should not be limited by that label. “He has a special voice, a voice of his own – and that’s the rare thing in the end,” Butterworth added.

The introduction of a completely new work to the Royal Opera House should deliver a legacy that is both artistic and political.

It will certainly offer a greater understanding of the history of Western imperialism in the Middle East. But perhaps more importantly, it will showcase the work of gifted artists from the region – shifting focus away from the war-torn and “extremist” Middle Eastern identity the media often portrays.

These regional artists often need more help gaining notoriety and reputation - often, they come from environments which are less than encouraging of their creativity and the resources for training and development of talent are not sufficient or simply unavailable.


“We should show our appreciation for the talents of the region, no matter what’s happening there and who’s to blame for it,” Butterworth said.

This show will seek to offer a new, alternative perspective on the region’s modern identity.

The Middle East has been featured in Western art, literature, and popular culture for centuries as a space of projected Western fantasies – of exoticised “oriental” despotism and harems, of unleashed sexuality and oppressive sexism, of heightened uncontrollable emotions and barbarism – designed and implemented to contrast European rationality and practical liberalism.

In Rossini’s “L’italiana in Algeri” (The Italian Girl in Algiers) and Mozart’s “Die Entfuhrung aus dem serail” (The Abduction from the Seraglio), for example, the Ottoman Empire provides just such a colourful and exotic setting for the preoccupations, romances, infidelities, and intrigues of European characters. Rossini’s “Il turco in Italia” (The Turk in Italy), features Turkish characters – abroad in Italy – who are, stereotypically, master and slave-lover.

Awakening vision

The increasing interest in Arab art and culture offers hope that a new artistic vision might emerge, one that allows Arabs to be represented as rounded individuals. 

It is also vital in its introductory role for creative artists from the Middle East – where talent is as plentiful as anywhere else in the world – but often goes overlooked or is quelled by circumstance and lack of opportunity.

These regional artists often need more help gaining notoriety and reputation – often, they come from environments which are less than encouraging of their creativity and the resources for training and development of talent are not sufficient or simply unavailable.

Arab culture is defined by “amazingly gifted people who deserve their equal status in the world,” Butterworth was eager to emphasise.

It is too easy for people in the seemingly peaceful and developed West to listen to daily media reports about bombs and war, and imagine that this is the only reality of the Middle East.

The flourishing artistic traditions and innovations within the region are often overlooked. Algeria hosts a major annual international festival of music every year, and Lebanon’s three international music festivals at Baalbek, Beiteddine, and Al-Bustan are still going strong.

The outflow of arts and culture from the Arab world into the West and throughout the world is a welcome reversal of decades of stereotypes, misrepresentation, and cultural imperialism.

It is not all good news, though. London’s annual Palestinian Film Festival, which was founded in 1998 and has run successfully at the Barbican for the last decade, announced a month ago that it was suspended indefinitely due to lack of funding – dissolving one of the few remaining means by which this oppressed and often misunderstood population can express itself to the world.

Lana Asfour is a journalist based in London and Beirut.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.