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Opera comes to Riyadh, in the footsteps of the world

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

Published: Updated:

Music with all its different genres has been recently introduced to Gulf capitals and opera houses. Gulf societies that have a taste for good music hope that well-being improves with entertainment. During the past years, I attended some events at the Abu Dhabi Classics Music Season. We were lucky to attend a concert held by renowned conductor Daniel Barenboim. He is a prominent pianist whom only very few compete with in our current times. He is also an intellectual who has his own political opinions and he was very good friends with Edward Said. He is described as “lover of Palestinians.” I have never heard anything as good as his music ever since.

It is quite amazing to witness this phase of interest in music in Gulf capitals. This lively classical music which reflects sophistication is produced by geniuses who are not just musicians but also intellectuals with ties to the history of philosophy, literature and poetry.

Recently, a Japanese orchestra held an opera concert for the first time in Saudi Arabia at the King Fahad Cultural Center. They played various pieces including some of Tchaikovsky’s compositions. Tchaikovsky is not only an amazing musician as he was also interested in philosophy and critical of Arthur Schopenhauer’s principles. He also commented on the philosophical concepts of Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Solovyov and Chicherin. During his last days, he studied Baruch Spinoza.

Influenced by history, philosophy

These geniuses’ music with all its themes and symbolism are influenced by history, social struggles, and philosophical debates and are the product of fractures resulting from the world’s contradictions. In other words, music contributes to elevating taste and improving vision and it makes it easier for people to break free from the chains which were either imposed on them or which they have gotten accustomed to.

On September 4 last year, Saudi Minister of Culture and Information Adel Al Toraifi met with a delegation of Japanese officials and they talked about enabling music and culture in Saudi Arabia. The minister is well-known among intellectuals to be interested in classical music and opera. He has his own independent opinions about symphonies and he has memorized the music of some classical movies.

Opera is a state of continuous dialogue between man and what is around him. Its basis is inquiry and the desire to hear a response. It is an outburst between questions and answers, the body and the spirit, truth and possibility, light and darkness, day and night and water and fire. It’s an artistic record of contradictions and a response to the element of surprise, the originality of question and vitality of discovery. It disciplines societies and elevates their calmness and openness towards others.

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran


During his meeting with the delegation, he said: “I love classical music. Brahms’ opera may be the best music ever. I listen to all his works but Piano Concerto No. 2 is my favorite, especially after Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan played it again in the 1960’s. I think he is very famous in Japan. I wish that one day I get to see a young Saudi cellist who is famous internationally like Yo-Yo Ma or like Jacqueline du Pré. I think there is great potential among young Saudis and we need to enable them to keep up with their goals and ambitions in the fields of culture and arts. This is very important for me.”

Minister's promise

Saudi society’s wishes came true later on following the minister’s promise. People lined up to buy tickets for the opera concert at the King Fahad Cultural Center. Tickets were sold out in no time and many who had hoped to attend the concert could not go because there weren’t any tickets left. Videos shared by people on social media showed the audience’s harmony with the mesmerizing and captivating music.

Although these opera or classical music concerts are new to the Saudi society, the latter does have a relation with music through radio and television channels, CDs and the internet. However, this relation was renewed when they personally attended a concert instead of just listening to it.

Opera’s meaning has been deep ever since it was established during the ancient Greek era. It has been influenced by Indian prayers and Persian traditional music. Opera is a state of continuous dialogue between man and what is around him. Its basis is inquiry and the desire to hear a response. It is an outburst between questions and answers, the body and the spirit, truth and possibility, light and darkness, day and night and water and fire. It’s an artistic record of contradictions and a response to the element of surprise, the originality of question and vitality of discovery. It disciplines societies and elevates their calmness and openness towards others. Opera is complete and it is thus a formula that embarrasses stillness. It unites society’s inner dialogues and unites music and ideas, love and hate and struggles between good and evil.

An example is the magical and immortal Carmen opera by Georges Bizet (1875). Its dramatic introduction and end takes us from serenity to misery, to falling in love with the gorgeous girl, stabbing her and being sentenced to death. It’s a beautiful opera that expresses the contradictions and the moments which man goes through on a daily basis without realizing it.

Two centuries ago, British Poet George Gordon Byron wrote:

There's music in the sighing of a reed;
There's music in the gushing of a rill;
There's music in all things, if men had ears;
The earth is but the music of the spheres.

This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat on April 20, 2017

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Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.