A Music Shop Drops Anchor
Dubai had a population of only 90,000 in 1960 and was an underdeveloped sleepy desert sheikdom. Today it is one of the fastest growing countries in the world. By 2020 it will have an estimated population of over 2.8 million and will host the 2020 World’s Fair. A new quarter was built in one piece, Downtown Dubai. This is where the new opera house was inaugurated in 2016. The auditorium can be transformed from a concert hall to an opera house.
Dubai was part of a group of sheikdoms in the south eastern Persian Gulf referred to by the British as the “Pirate Coast”.
The British were influential in the Persian Gulf which is also known in some Arab states as the Arabian Gulf or often simply as the Gulf. Dubai and many other sheikdoms signed treaties with the British and became known as the Trucial (Treaty) States and effectively a British Protectorate. Dubai was historically a port for both legal trading and illegal smuggling to neighbouring Iran and other states. A major industry was pearling which died in the 1930’s with the Great Depression. In the 1950’s the leadership was determined to develop the small country, building infrastructure, a hotel and an airstrip on salt flats.
Neighbouring Abu Dhabi had and has massive oil reserves. Oil was discovered in Dubai in 1966 in much smaller quantities but this enabled further development of a major port, infrastructure and growth of a trading economy. In the 1960‘s the British decided to withdraw from the Gulf. Dubai and five other sheikdoms came together to form the United Arab Emirates in 1971 with Ras al Khaimah becoming the seventh emirate in 1972. Dubai frequently appears on listings of World, Global or Primate Cities. The Globalization and World Cities Research Network lists two Alpha++ cities – London and New York. Dubai is one of eight cities in the second Alpha+ category.
While Dubai has boomed the performing arts, entertainment and culture has lagged some way behind. This is not to say the area is devoid of activity. In Dubai 37% of the population is of Indian origin and that community has many events based on traditional and contemporary Indian music and dance. International groups like Cirque de Soleil are presented regularly in the Emirate. Emirati companies invested in Cirque and a purpose built theatre was planned and even started construction until the economy crashed in 2008. Big name entertainers are presented in a variety of venues including hotels, the tennis centre and other “found” spaces. Dubai had been slow in developing purpose built performing arts facilities, indeed many other Gulf States have been more active in building and opening new facilities – Oman has the Royal Opera House in Muscat; Bahrain opened a new National Theatre, Qatar has built a huge conference and entertainment centre while Kuwait is currently building.
Dubai has a number of large companies which are independent but closely related to the government and ruling family. One of the largest is Emaar Properties which has grown to become a global property development company. It is best known for big development projects often combining residential, hotels, offices and retail.
Its signature project is Downtown Dubai a mega-development covering 200 hectares. Many projects in the Gulf attract superlatives – biggest, highest, longest, fastest, etc. All these words can be ascribed to elements of Downtown Dubai. At its centre is Burj Khalifa the world’s tallest building. Immediately adjacent is the Dubai Mall the world’s largest shopping mall. These both adjoin the Dubai Fountain the world’s tallest performing fountain. The district houses several major hotels and extensive residential properties.
Art and Commerce
A significant focus for Downtown Dubai and indeed the entire emirate is tourism. Over 86 million people passed through Dubai airport in 2016. Downtown Dubai claims to be the world’s most visited destination attracting more visitors each year than either Covent Garden in London or Times Square in New York. The leadership of Emaar was very effective at building commercially successful projects. But they realised that commercial development alone was not sufficient in fostering new cities and communities. Other elements are important including recreation, culture and entertainment. Like all Emirati companies Emaar pays no taxes to the Government. The leadership decided to create a signature performing arts building in Downtown. This would effectively be Emaar’s contribution to its own country. This was a bold step for a property development company who freely acknowledged they knew nothing about planning, building and operating a performing arts building.
Emaar’s vision for the opera house is to create one of the preeminent venues among the international touring circuit, competing with the likes of London and New York. The team was charged with creating a multi-purpose facility that can host not only spectacular shows from Cirque du Soleil or West-End musicals like The Lion King, but almost any kind of culture or theatre event.
Emaar is an astute development company and quickly realised that the area surrounding the Dubai Opera could become an attractive area to live and for entertainment and recreation. The unbuilt area was rebranded as the “Opera District” and planned with developments intended to benefit from and create synergies with the new theatre. The Opera District will also include a modern art museum, a retail plaza, galleries, restaurants, waterfront promenades, two hotels, flats and serviced apartments, recreational spaces, and parks. Emaar studied the opportunities and sought expert advice. It rapidly became clear there was an opportunity for a well-planned and managed new theatre in Dubai. While Emaar were willing to meet the capital cost of constructing the new building they were not prepared to offer a large on-going operating subsidy to the new building. The building had to be conceived in a creative manner to make it as commercially viable as possible.
Research also indicated that the theatre would have to accommodate a wide range of performances from classical music and opera to more popular entertainment. Theatre Projects worked with Emaar and project managers Mirage to develop a unique concept for the new project. Although titled Dubai Opera the new building was not an opera house, it needed to be a flexible multi-form theatre that could be reconfigured to successfully and seamlessly house a range of performances and other events.
The auditorium and stage were conceived as having three different forms or modes –
Theatre mode – this was anticipated as the most frequently used form. An auditorium with 1800 to 1900 seats depending on detailed configuration would face a large stage big enough to house the largest musicals, opera or ballets. A flexible proscenium arch would allow the width to be varied from as little as 12 m wide for smaller events up to 16 m for larger events. The height would similarly be adjustable between 8 m and 10 m high. In front of the stage two elevators could be used to create a small or large orchestra pit or extend an apron stage into the auditorium.
Concert mode – the theatre will house all types of music ranging from full symphony orchestras with choir to soloists and traditional Arabic music. The proscenium arch can be opened or removed entirely to open the concert platform to the audience.
The side walls of the auditorium immediately adjacent to the stage were conceived as moving elements that can pivot to reduce the apparent width of the room for small scale events or open to create a wide space more suited to large scale music.
Flat-floor mode – perhaps the most unusual mode is the ability to clear all the audience seating at the lower level and create a large flat-floor extending unbroken from the rear wall of the stage to the back of the auditorium an area of over 1,800 m2. In this mode the room can be used from banquets seating up to x,xxx or for weddings, ceremonies, exhibitions, presentations and any other event needing a highly serviced flat floor space.
Conventional theatre equipment and technology
The opera is equipped with a full set of conventional theatre equipment including –
A flying system installed by Thyssen Krupp with 52 across stage fly bars, 4 up and downstage fly bars, 8 point hoists, etc.
The stage floor includes a modular trapped area and there are two conventional orchestra pit elevators in front of the stage. These can be lowered to create either a small or large orchestra pit. They can be raised to stage level to create aprons or forestages to extend the stage into the auditorium. Alternatively they can be positioned at auditorium floor level and have additional audience seating.
Production lighting includes an ETC EOS control system with sensor dimming and luminaires by Robert Juliat and ETC and Selecon. Moving lights by Martin. These systems were supplied and installed by LSI Projects. A comprehensive sound, communications and video system is also installed with a Digico SD10 consoles and network, and d&B Audioteknik amplification and loudspeakers.
Transformation theatre technology
In addition to the conventional stage equipotent the theatre incorporates equipment to allow it to be reconfigured into the three modes. The plans and sections alongside show the room as a theatre (on the left) and in flat floor mode (on the right).
There are three movable acoustic reflectors in the auditorium which can raise, lower and tilt. These are used to both vary the appearance of the room and as devices to change its acoustics. Four additional reflectors are used over the stage and rear stage area, these fold and store at high level in the rear stage.
In theatre mode the reflector/ceiling panels over the auditorium are raised and those over the stage are stowed. In flat floor mode the panels over the auditorium are lowered to a horizontal position and the four reflectors are deployed to create a ceiling in the stage and rear stage area.
There is a completely flexible and removable proscenium system. This can be used to vary the width and height of the proscenium opening for theatre events. For concerts the proscenium can be opened wide and high to minimise the division between auditorium and platform. In flat floor mode the entire proscenium structure can be flown to remove any obstructions and obstacles in the flat floor room.
In the auditorium there are movable towers on either side of the proscenium.
In theatre mode the towers have boxes with audience seating and are hinged and positioned to frame the required proscenium.
In concert mode the towers also have audience seating but are pulled back to be almost parallel and form a natural part of the auditorium flowing into the concert platform.
In flat floor mode the towers are retracted into storage pockets to maximise the clear flat floor area for banquets, events, etc.
On the main floor (stalls or orchestra level) the audience seating is mounted on 34 seating wagons. These wagons are designed and engineered to be robust and eliminate any of the feel and appearance of temporary movable seating. The seats are permanently mounted on the wagons to minimise damage when the room is changed or re-configured. A number of subsequent hybrid modes have since been established that provide a combination of seated and standing areas close to stage, or allow for loose VIP or cabaret seating to be used.
Transport elevator, equalising elevator and garages
In addition to the orchestra pit elevators the theatre has a large transport elevator used to move the seating wagons from auditorium floor level down to one of two storage garages located underneath the auditorium. There is one final equalising elevator in the auditorium.
In theatre or concert mode the seating wagons are positioned on the auditorium floor in pre-designated positions to create a solid flat floor complete with risers, steps, aisle lighting, etc.
In flat floor mode all the seats are removed into the garages and the elevators are all positioned at stage level to give a completely flat floor at stage level measuring 56 m by 34 m to provide an open area of 1,904 m2
The room acoustics seek to vary the room between the extremes of concert mode with a full orchestra on stage, through to musical theatre and similar amplified events. A combination of banners and curtains have been concealed within the side and rear wall design of the room. Additional adsorption for the banquet mode is provided by a series of inflatable baffles. The RT range required was 1.9 – 2.3 seconds for concert mode with no absorption in the room and from 0.9 to 1.3 seconds in theatre mode with the absorption in place. Feedback from visiting companies and orchestras has been good.
Jasper Hope, the CEO of Dubai Opera commented
Dubai Opera was not just the first theatre in Dubai but also the first venue of its kind anywhere in the UAE and, as a result, the challenges were considerable. What we found more than anything was an extraordinary swell of goodwill and support from all quarters and a sense of genuine excitement of what was to come.
Because this is a new kind of space for Dubai and the UAE, we deliberately selected an exceptionally broad programme for the first year so as to meet the expectations of the diverse and cosmopolitan population, both residents and tourists. Our first eight months have included Opera from Italy, Ballet from Russia, Orchestral music from Vienna, Flamenco from Spain, the great sitar player Anoushka Shankar, local artists such as Hussain al Jasmi and even an ice show. As we develop we’ll learn more about our audiences and what they want and we will adjust our programme accordingly. Dubai Opera has a determination to find a balance between quality, variety and community in the performances and artists we host in this incredible city.
The end of the Twentieth Century and the start of the new millennium have seen new theatre buildings planned and constructed in new countries and emerging cities. The traditional home of theatres, opera houses and concert halls was Europe and especially central Europe. The Americas, north and south, developed many new theatre buildings in the 19th and 20th centuries. Recent years have seen cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, Qatar, and now Dubai creating new theatres to serve their growing diverse populations.
Client Emaar Properties
Architect W.S. Atkins Overseas Ltd
Development managers Mirage Leisure & Development Inc
Theatre consultant Theatre Projects Consultants
Acoustic consultant Theatre Projects Consultants/Sandy Brown Associates
Architectural Lighting Designers Light & Design Associates & Neo Light
Interior Designer Arts Architecture Ltd
Stage engineering (above stage) Thyssen Krupp - Spain
Stage engineering (below stage) Thyssen Krupp - Spain
Production lighting systems LSI Projects Ltd - UK
Sound & communication systems LSI Projects Ltd – UK
Seating Manufacture Poltrona Frau – Italy
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