With its first grand opera, Saudi Arabia sets the stage for a new theatrical future

Zarqa Al Yamama will be performed by local and international stars – and it's just the beginning for the growing industry

Lee Bradshaw, Sarah Connolly and Reemaz Oqbi are collaborating on Saudi Arabia's first grand opera Zarqa Al Yamama. Photo: Opera Hwadi
Powered by automated translation

The future of Gulf opera is now in motion.

With a new Arabic opera inspired by an ancient folktale arriving in Saudi Arabia in April, plans are coming into place for a greater focus on Gulf opera overall, with both international players and local talent working in tandem.

Deemed the kingdom's first grand opera, Zarqa Al Yamama will run from April 25 to May 4 in a soon-to-be-announced Riyadh venue.

The show is based on a pre-Islamic Arabian story about the fabled Zarqa Al Yamama, a woman blessed with foresight, who unsuccessfully warns her tribe of imminent danger. It features a libretto by Saudi writer and poet Saleh Zamanan and music by Australia's Lee Bradshaw. Saudi vocalists Khayran Al Zahrani, Sawsan Al Bahiti and Reemaz Oqbi also appear in main roles.

For the show's star, English opera veteran Sarah Connolly, it marks not only a bold new step for the art form, but also a welcome return to the time-honoured tradition of opera, transporting its audience to a part of the world with a rich heritage still ripe for discovery.

Untapped resource

The prospect of such a momentous undertaking pushed Connolly to sign up for the challenging assignment, which includes intensive Arabic language and singing lessons.

“And it's not just the classes, I do my own study because listening is very important for singers,” Connolly tells The National.

“I have sung in many languages like Russian, Polish and Czech and it is always difficult at first because you can't always understand every inflection and it will be the same with classical Arabic … but at the end when everything comes together it will hopefully wow the audience.”

Underscoring some of that confidence is the medium's rich history of composers seeking inspiration from abroad.

“There have been so many composers like [German-British composer] George Handel, who in the 18th century wrote in languages he didn't understand, like English,” she says.

“He made a few mistakes, which we English singers corrected now. And there is [Italian composer] Giacomo Puccini whose opera Madame Butterfly was heavily inspired by Japanese culture.”

Connolly hopes Zarqa Al Yamama demonstrates how the Arab Peninsula, a region steeped in a rich storytelling and poetry tradition, is an untapped resource for future classical musical projects.

She says the plotline echoes some of the turmoil in the world today, with an unfolding tragedy that is Shakespearean in scope.

“The story is very meaningful because it's about a strong woman who was leading her people, but they didn't listen to her [warning] and eventually they all lose.

“It speaks about the annihilation of a tribe and so many current political thoughts and worries that people have,” she adds. “Not only does she remind me of one of the great opera characters Cassandra, who can also tell the future, but I was also reminded of Macbeth, with the scene of the enemy hiding and coming from the trees.”

A new creative sector

Such insights were music to the ears of Sultan Al Bazie, chief executive of Saudi Arabia’s Theatre and Performing Arts Commission – established by the kingdom’s Ministry of Culture in 2020.

Al Bazie says Zarqa Al Yamama is one of several initiatives the organisation hopes to develop and stage in Saudi Arabia before taking the production on the road.

“It is available to tour the world because operas are always looking for new productions and content that is different from what they see not only in the West but the East as well,” he tells The National.

“I believe we need to tap into the great wealth of stories in Arabian culture, especially in the Arabian Peninsula.

“The history from the pre-Islamic, Islamic and modern days is full of tales that could be an inspiration for the world.

“We are used to seeing our stories told by others, so it’s time for us to tell our story ourselves and we are obliged to do that.”

This means having more Saudis in creative and technical roles.

Al Bazie says plans are in motion for the commission to launch an academy teaching various facets of the industry.

While an opening date has not yet been announced, he says it will launch sometime after the premiere of Zarqa Al Yamama.

“Theatre is a strong employment sector,” he says. "To produce even a modest production you need no less than 20 people backstage in addition to those front of house.

“We are talking about stage management, audience management, lighting, sound, costumes, make-up and so many other things. Before we launch our academy, this production will be an opportunity to give our young people a chance to be inspired and learn skills from the field itself.”

Connolly knows this all too well.

She credits her father for taking her as a child to local theatre productions in her hometown of Darlington for motivating her to become a piano prodigy by the age of 10.

“I always felt that younger people are more open and far more accepting of a new world of sound than others and that's what makes that exposure so exciting.”

Updated: January 14, 2024, 5:06 AM