The sound of Wagner resonates around Beirut’s Grand Theatre des Mille et Une Nuits, as viewers watch rapt from their plush velvet chairs in the art deco theater.
While this may have been a common sight in the 1930s, today the theater sits derelict and off-limits in central Beirut. The seats are gone, the floral stained glass roof is broken and the teal wall paint is peeling away.
Despite its dereliction, the theater has recently hosted guests again – albeit virtually, with the audience watching from the comfort of their couches as the ghostly projection of soprano Mona Hallab serenaded the theater’s empty halls.
Last week, the theater screened “Shabah al Rih” (The Second Wind), an online music-film project by Lebanese creatives Anthony Sahyoun and Aya Atoui, who seek to bring music back to the stage which once showcased Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Wahab.
Left to crumble after the 1975 to 1990 Lebanese civil war, the theater was largely forgotten until the October 2019 protestors tore down the fences sealing the building away and stormed in to reclaim the once public space. Sahyoun, Atoui and Hallab were amongst those discovering the theater for the first time, and were inspired to make sure it wasn’t forgotten again.
“It was the first time we got to go inside. A lot of people didn’t even know what the space was and I was concerned about the state of the space and the amount of people that were in there,” Sahyoun told Al Arabiya English. “I experienced a rush of thoughts concerning what show played there last and who was there to see it. We had so many unanswered questions.”
The duo teamed up with Hallab after seeing a short video of her singing at the theater during the October 2019 protests, and started experimenting with ideas, before filming the final piece in July.
“Shabah al Rih” projects Hallab’s face as she sings onto a white curtain, hung in the dark theater and set billowing by two electric fans, creating an eerie effect similar to those used in early theater productions that featured ghosts. The set was designed by Whard Sleiman and Nader Bahsoun was responsible for cinematography. “When you go into the theater you can’t help but feel the spirits and history of the place, hear the people clapping, imagine artists on stage,” Hallab said, “and Aya had this idea to create a ghost as if the spirits from the past were still there.”
Atoui, who grew up in the relatively new city of Dubai, where war-torn relics from history are uncommon, was fascinated with the space’s evolution as it nears its centenary.
Built in the late 1920s by the architect Youssef Aftimos and poet Jaques Tabet, the theater hosted local and international performances and movie screenings, and was the second theater built after the Ottomans left Lebanon.
“The theater was not built for the masses really, a lot of people couldn’t afford to go in and watch a show but, apparently, many would climb up to the roof and watch the shows from above through this dome that was built to open and close,” Sahyoun told Al Arabiya English.
“[In the 1960s] the theater started to decline and was turned into a cinema, which was no longer just for the upper class,” he said.
“Come the 1975 civil war, the Grand Theatre actually falls on the infamous green line that separated Christian east Beirut from Muslim west Beirut,” he added. “According to a short documentary titled ‘Grand Theatre: A Tale of Beirut’ by Omar Naim, the space was then transformed into a cinema that showcased pornography as entertainment for the militiamen that occupied it during the civil war.”
The pristine white exterior – fitted in the 1994 by Solidere, the development company linked to former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that bought up what remained of central Beirut after the war and modernized it – covers up the dilapidated theater, still baring graffiti left by the militiamen and curious trespassers. Solidere had said it planned to renovate the building into a boutique hotel at the time, but 26 years later the theater still sits abandoned and decaying.
The project has had its challenges, from the team braving roadblocks to getting electricity into a space left abandoned for almost 60 years. While the army tried their best to reseal the building, people were constantly sneaking in to look around.
“We always found the opportunity to slowly take equipment inside and hide it day by day, as we were nearing the final shoot,” Atoui said. “In the end, we came up with the idea of a 100 meter cord to extend from a small shop next to the theater. The man who worked at the shop was happy to work with us. If you are in an urban space…you really can get everything available to you, if you work harmoniously with the space’s resources.”
Sahyoun and Atoui wanted to create a work that coexisted with the space’s current condition, as well as reclaim it as artists, for the performers who never got to exhibit their work there, and the public denied a national performance space.
“Anthony and I really just wanted to have the Grand Theatre unravel musically and visually to give people a different perspective on how space can be used, despite time eating at it for decades,” Atoui said. “We also wanted to show how a space can tell you what to do with it, and the Grand Theatre is very demanding in its presence and you just have to listen.”
The music choice reflects this. Sahyoun and Atoui are both fans of “Tristan and Isolde,” and felt there were parallels between the tragic romance, the theater’s history and its possible future. In “Liebestod,”the opera’s final number, Isolde sings about her love for Tristan as he lays dead nearby, and her hopes for them after his resurrection.
“Shabah al Rih” uses the opera to reflect on what might have been, had Lebanon not been torn apart by war and neglect, or if the theater had survived and resumed its role as a national platform cultivating performance art.
“Its significance speaks to this idea of a new chance at their love after Tristan’s resurrection. There was a similar tonality of voice at the height of the 2019 Lebanese revolution,” Sahyoun said. “The concept of destruction and the resurrection of a new order rang very true to us as we listened to the piece.”
As it stands, Lebanon has no national opera house or theatre, and its absence is often felt by classically trained artists. Performances taking place in Lebanon are now mostly contemporary dance and theater, with the occasional international performance offering something else.
Lebanese classical artists often perform around the region or in Europe and productions of “Carmen,” “Swan Lake” or “Hamlet” are rarely performed by visiting international troupes.
“I’ve sung in in the opera houses of Muscat, Damascus, Dubai, but here we have politicians who stole everything from us; our talent, youth and dreams, and now our money and life,” Hallab said. “Artists are not being appreciated here. I get more acknowledgement in Europe than I do in my own country.”
The project was initially intended to be a live performance, drawing the public into the mysterious building slumbering in central Beirut, but the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by the August 4 port explosion, forced them to rethink their plan.
With this virtual offering now out in the world reminding people that Lebanon once had such a space, the duo hope to return in the future, with plans for some sort of live sensory experience for the public to discover in person, when it’s safe to do so.