The first ever Saudi opera

A night at the opera – the first ever Saudi Opera – certainly wasn’t on the cards when I planned my road trip across the Kingdom. But how often do you get the opportunity to go to the first night of a first ever? Also, I love the drama and excess of opera and I wanted to see how that translated into Arabic.

So, I delayed leaving Riyadh for a day and booked my tickets online – with great ease and at a brilliant price. Fortunately, I had brought something posh to wear, a golden-peach silky long dress. I cursed myself for leaving my silvery headscarf at home, though, because it would have matched perfectly.

Uber is by far the best way to get around Riyadh and I was dropped off about 250 metres away from the entrance to the King Fahad Cultural Centre which was lit in a vibrant, royal blue. The ubiquitous golf cart arrived and we were driven to the door.

Female privilege

There, I enjoyed some female privilege, our queue was much shorter, and in 30 seconds I was being greeted by smiling Saudi staff. The women were wearing rich blue abayas to match the opera design.

Zarqa Al Yamama, the blue-eyed woman of Al Yamama, is not a happy tale – but this is opera. Zarqa has the gift of foresight and can see enemies approaching. But, the men of her tribe don’t believe her when a rival tribe uses tree branches to conceal themselves (shades of Macbeth). They arrive unopposed, slaughter her tribe, rip out Zarqa’s eyes and crucify her.

The curtain lifted and the music began. The staging had all the drama and colour you could want: red for the blood-soaked baddies, desert pastels for the virgins and that blue for Zarqa. The cast were an international ensemble starring  Dame Sarah Connolly  with local talent like Sawsan al Bahiti and their voices soared. I really enjoyed hearing the Arabic instruments like the oud come through.

Arabic triumph

Most of all, though, I loved the depth of the Arabic libretto. It was written by Saleh Zamanan and the Arabic language did not disappoint. For every word in English, there are seven in Arabic, and I think Saleh used them all. Not just love حب but عشق which means to cleave to, the irresistible desire to obtain possession of the beloved….

Before I arrived, I thought I would probably leave after half an hour having got my ‘tick’ for attending the first ever Saudi opera. But when the curtain rose for the interval, I was totally hooked and honestly moved by the plight and the voice of the bride who had sacrificed herself for the good of her tribe. I was going nowhere.

Two other single women were beside me and we got chatting. We all agreed that it was genuinely gripping and that the music and words were full of excitement. They were both surprised at how well the foreign cast was coping with the Arabic. Sara was from Jeddah and was wearing a colourful abaya and Fatima was wearing full black including a face veil. I asked them about it and they both laughed, ‘You can wear what you feel comfortable in and we are all different,’ Sara said.

A better future

The second half came to its tragic climax and I could not help thinking of the parallels with Gaza as hundreds of cloth-stuffed dummies were piled into a mountain on the stage to represent the slaughter. The final song hoping for a better future was sung and the curtain came down.

And this was the best bit.

The audience roared to their feet, full of pride and excitement. The whole cast, the orchestra, the directors and the sponsors were also cheering and dancing and enjoying their moment. I really felt part of something special: the first ever Saudi opera.

As we walked out a young couple stopped me, ‘Did you like it. Do you think it could go outside Saudi?’ the husband asked. ‘I really did, I thought it was fantastic, and, yes, absolutely,’ I could truthfully reply.

He and his wife beamed at me as we walked on out into the warm night air together.

Please check out my new BBC series, Arabian Adventures, on iPlayer.

There is more on the delights of the opera and my road trip about Saudi on my podcast

And, if you like my writing, check out my books.

One comment on “The first ever Saudi opera

  1. Chris Bernard on

    Fascinating to read about this. The first opera in Saudi wow! These cultural fusions are so important. Sadly the changes and openness, our cultures mixing and understanding each other come too slowly but they come. This is a great example. I love reading about and seeing your impromptu chats with local people, like in Petra with the Bedu man in your fab BBC series – and striking up an impromptu conversation with folk in the audience. I so want to visit Saudi but I have too many issues – but we have to start joining together somewhere. This is a great start, and an eye opener. I hope I can make Saudi in my lifetime inshallah . Your feelings about the scene with the dummy bodies piled up on the mountain, and the parallels with the genocide in Gaza were important and touching. Your seemingly everyday experiences and interaction with people in the Arab world – so much in common and so different too. But gives a much needed and positive balance and insight – entertainment with meaning.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *