Saudi Arabia hosts first ever Arabic opera

Saudi Arabia hosts first ever Arabic opera
The opera production marks a milestone for Saudi Arabia in its cultural expansion that has seen musicians from all over the world perform
3 min read
26 April, 2024
The opera will be a first for Riyadh and also the first production in the Arabic language [GETTY]

Saudi Arabia hosted its first-ever opera show on Thursday, marking a significant cultural milestone for the Gulf Kingdom, which has sought to develop its cultural and entertainment scene as part of broader modernisation efforts and to foster closer ties to Western nations.

The 'Zarqa Al Yamama' opera premiered in Riyadh last night, performed by acclaimed British opera singer Dame Sarah Connolly. She leads the principal vocal cast, supported by nine renowned Saudi musicians.

The opera is the first to be produced by the Kingdom and will show for ten days at the 2,700-seat King Fahad Cultural Centre in Riyadh. It has been compared to nearby Dubai Opera House which opened in the UAE in 2016.

It was commissioned by Saudi's Theater and Performing Arts Commission under the Ministry of Culture in January and is part of the government’s development of the performing arts sector.

The opera is put together by an international team of musicians, with the original score composed by Australian Lee Bradshaw and the libretto created by Saudi poet and playwright Saleh Zamanan.

Under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi has embarked on a vast cultural program as part of the 'Kingdom's Vision 2030' which has seen artists and musicians from all over the world come and play.

In January, a host of mainstream Western pop bands, including OneRepublic, Swedish DJ Alesso, and US boyband The Backstreet Boys, performed at Saudi's Formula E Diriyah E-Prix car race.

Artists have faced criticism for performing in Saudi, with activists arguing that it ignores the Kingdom's egregious human rights record and its treatment of women and the LGBTQ community.

The opera is also a notable moment for renowned mezzo-soprano Connolly, who will perform in the Arabic language for the first time. Conolly told the BBC in an interview this week that she had been daunted by the challenge to sing in Arabic.

'Zarqa Al Yamama' is based on an ancient story from pre-Islamic Arabia and depicts a woman who has the ability to see into the future which brings dangers to a rival tribe.

The commission's CEO Sultan Al-Bazei said that the opera represented a historic moment in the country’s "cultural journey" and help inspire a new generation of Saudi artists.

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The Sunni-majority nation has been embarking on major projects and investments in the cultural and sports sectors in recent years.

It has spent billions on sports sponsorship deals and buying football teams, as well as placing bids to hold major sports competitions, including the FIFA world cup.

Earlier this week it was announced that FIFA had signed a four-year deal with Saudi’s oil and gas conglomerate Saudi Aramco to become a worldwide sponsorship partner.

Rights groups have said that Saudi Arabia’s efforts to modernise the Kingdom through developments in the arts and sports industries are distractions from existing realties for Saudis, who face infringements on their freedom of expression and live under a state which imposes capital punishment on political opponents.