Operatic Principal

Sarah Townsend sits down with Jasper Hope, CEO of Dubai Opera
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Given the UAE’s pearl diving heritage, it comes as little surprise that one of the first performances at the new Dubai Opera set to open this autumn is Georges Bizet’s ‘The Pearl Fishers’ — the tale of two friends who discover they are in love with the same woman and decide to give her up. The new venue is even designed in the shape of a dhow, the traditional Arab sailing vessel once used for pearl-diving expeditions.

The inaugural season line-up contains a world-class selection of other shows — from concerts by Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo and sitar player Anouskha Shankar, to adaptations of ‘Giselle’ and ‘Coppélia’ by the Russian State Ballet and Orchestra of Siberia, and family-friendly performances such as ‘The Nutcracker on Ice’ and Slava’s ‘Snowshow’.

It is an impressive schedule for any entertainment venue let alone Dubai, a city with little or no previous experience in hosting such shows and which has been criticised by international culture-vultures for its slim offering of classical music, ballets and operas.

For Dubai Opera CEO Jasper Hope, however, the completion of the new venue in Downtown Dubai in August could change such negative perceptions for good.

Hope says: “You have to start somewhere. In many areas of culture — design, fashion, visual arts – Dubai has more than started to establish itself, but in performing arts it hasn’t remotely begun and, to start, you have to have one of these [gesturing towards the still under-construction Opera House].”

“It’s a pretty serious statement of intent just having this building; it’s not like these are built every day around the world. Brand new ones - with the latest technology, latest knowledge of what makes a great auditorium, great acoustics, a fantastic experience — are few and far between.”

The 47-year-old Brit, a Dubai newcomer who relocated to take up the post in January 2015, having never visited the city, certainly knows how to put on a show. With a background in live events at IMG Europe and AEG UK, Hope was most recently the chief operating officer of London’s Royal Albert Hall for seven years, helping to lead the famous cultural institution to year-on-year growth, including its best ever financial performance the year he departed. In December 2014, total revenues had increased by 6.4 per cent to $39.2m, according to the charity’s latest full-year results.

But the Royal Albert Hall is an established venue, built by Queen Victoria in 1871 to promote public appreciation of the arts, which has since staged thousands of internationally renowned performances. Dubai Opera has none of this heritage and prestige to build on, and Hope acknowledges this challenge.

“The fact that it’s never been done here before and I will never have the chance again [is a big challenge]. People are often wary and nervous of new things and because this country has nothing like this I will have to work twice as hard to make it work. But it will be twice as rewarding when it does.”

In convincing the public — including the millions of foreign visitors the emirate receives each year — of the calibre of performances on offer at Dubai Opera, the new building is vital, he says. “The fact that Dubai is creating a whole new venue for this work helps me enormously in the challenge. Of course, it will take time, people are always sceptical of new things and Dubai doesn’t have this built-in history and centuries of this type of entertainment taking place regularly. But it’s starting now, and it’s starting in a very big way.”

“It’s not necessarily about who you put on stage or what type or how many [shows]. If you accept that those things are a given, that you need great shows to attract great audiences, then the stuff that really makes a difference is how you look after the people who have paid money to see the shows you’re putting on.”

“In other words, people are going to buy a ticket because of who you put on stage — that’s what convinces them to come in the first place. But what makes them come back another time, tell a friend, put it on Facebook — those things that follow and build a venue’s reputation — is how they were met at the door, how they were served an interval drink, how they were looked after, the comfort of their seats, the leg room, the facilities, the acoustics."

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The 2,000-seat multi-use venue has been designed to be used for opera, theatre, concerts, art exhibitions, orchestra, film, sports events and other seasonal entertainment programmes, according to the scheme’s developer Emaar. Inside, there is a main auditorium that can be reconfigured depending on the type of performance, as well as a second, smaller space seating around 250 people that can be used to run education workshops, rehearsals, pre-performance talks or other events at the same time as the main performance.

Shaped like a wooden dhow, the ‘hull’ of the building contains waiting areas for spectators, a taxi drop-off area and parking. The ‘bow’ contains the main stage, orchestra and seating areas, as well as a rooftop garden and restaurants. There are also plans for a licensed bar.

The building was originally touted for completion in Q1 but was pushed back to August. However, Hope claims to have no knowledge of the reasons for the delay and says he “never thought it was going to open before summer 2016”. In any case, there are “no opportunities for delay”, he insists, “we have shows booked, the first is on August 31st and construction is on track”.

Following this interview, a spokesperson from Dubai Opera added there has been no delay and the building was “structurally complete”, with any ongoing work only to finish the interior.

In designing the inaugural season’s programme, Hope says he tried to be as versatile as possible. “I have a hit list, I know from experience what is generally popular but you also have to know as much about your potential market as possible, so I spent my first 15 months in Dubai getting out and about, meeting people and asking them, ‘what do you want to see? What is missing from Dubai if you could have anything?’”

Hope says including a single Emirati singer in the programme (Hussain Al Jassmi) was not a token gesture. “I am not here to stick to some sort of quota system. There are around 200 different nationalities living in Dubai, it’s a very cosmopolitan place. I think everyone will find something of a suitable quality for them and of course we will look at having more Emirati performers in future — I have no doubt that is to come.”

Hope refuses to detail financial targets but says the key objective will be to break even rather than make a profit year in, year out. The company has 42 staff at present and aims to have doubled that by the time the opera house opens, but there are no further hiring plans, to ensure it remains lean.

“The goal is to make this project a success and for that you have to cover your costs. So we will ensure that, in the course of any one financial period, income at least matches expenditure. If we can generate a profit, fantastic.”

"Even if Dubai Opera failed to make a profit for the next 10 years that would be okay," he insists. “You have to delve a bit deeper. This is not a standalone building or enterprise. It is part of Emaar, of course, which has other business interests. More importantly, however, it’s a destination, a cultural centre that’s being created for the benefit of those that live and work here, and for tourists and business visitors.”

“I believe Dubai Opera is going to offer a huge appeal to people on holiday. At the moment you can have an amazing time if you come to Dubai but you can’t go and see a show. That, to me, means you’re missing something. I like including that sort of cultural experience in my holiday.

“I hadn’t been to Dubai before I lived here," he continues. "I had changed flights here but never got out and explored the city — and there must be millions of other people like me who enjoy, as part of their personal leisure time, going to see great performances. This is something that has never existed in Dubai before and it is much more important to make it a success than to target a particular profit.”

Dubai, he adds, offers a freedom for entrepreneurial and artistic expression. “My family and I have settled into life here extremely quickly. Professionally, I love the fact that [the city] lacks so many of the frustrations and limitations that other places have. If you have a good idea and can show it has potential, you can just go for it.”

And ‘go for it’ Hope will, as he prepares to raise the curtains on Dubai Opera’s maiden show in just a couple of months’ time.

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