House of Cultures – Paolo Petrocelli Unveils His First Season at the Head of Dubai Opera

By David Salazar

Back in February, the Dubai Opera made a major announcement – Dr. Paolo Petrocelli would become the face of the organization, taking over the top position as Head of the company.

For Petrocelli, the Director General of the Stauffer Center for Strings, one of Friends of Europe’s 40 most influential young personalities, and the man who literally wrote the book on the development of opera in MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa), among other accolades, the ensuing journey from that announcement to Sept. 7, 2023, when the Dubai Opera official unveiled its new season, would be a fast-paced race.

For one, Petrocelli would be entering a unique situation. The Dubai Opera as a structure lies at the heart of the Downtown area of the number one global destination in the world. In fact, it sits right next to the tallest building on the planet, the Burj Khalifa and a 10-minute walk (in potentially scorching heat, mind you) from the Dubai Mall, one of the largest in the world. Nearby is an entire street full of art galleries.

This prominence extends to what’s within its walls where audiences can find 2,000 red leather seats (reportedly employing the same leather used in Lamborghini and Ferrari cars) and oak wood throughout to reverberate the sound throughout the hall. On the second floor, one can find the imposing “Symphony,” 3,000 handmade blown glass bulbs held together by 7,000 strings, that illuminates the area every performance night.

Since opening in 2016, the building has hosted over 2,000 shows, 5,000 international performers, and over 1.5 million spectators. A lot of this was built off of mixed programming from EMAAR, the Emirati multinational real estate development company whose logo is prominent on major buildings throughout Dubai.

But when COVID-19 came around, that programming stopped. It was Petrocelli’s task to not only revive the company’s programming, but refresh it. And he had six months to do it.

House of Cultures

Anyone who knows how the opera world works knows that most artists are booked years in advance meaning that production / repertory is already organized to suit them. In that context, six months is very little time to engage artists.

So, Petrocelli had to pivot. And quickly.

First on his agenda was to curate a program presented by the Dubai Opera as part of a new identity that he hoped to forge for the organization – “House of Cultures.” In the official press conference on Sept. 7, Petrocelli made note that the aim for the programming would be an inclusive showcase that features a wide range of performances and performers that takes into account the differing musical interests of the city’s population.

Given the swift turn around since his appointment to the official season, Petrocelli managed one major opera production for the season with a number of other opera-adjacent concerts and performances. The opera in question was the Hungarian State Opera’s “Madama Butterfly,” which opened as part of a double opening night gala on Sept. 12 and 13; a week early, the same organization opened the season with a production of “Swan Lake” on Sept. 9 and 10, an event that featured representatives from Embassies to Dubai around the world (Ireland, India, Argentina, Switzerland, France, Brazil, Belgium, Hungary); Consulate Generals from Singapore, Palestine, Thailand, Italy, Japan, China, Israel, Egypt; and representatives of such companies as Level Shoes, Apple Music, ADMIRAL WORLD, Pirelli, Van Cleef & Arples, Kerzner, Bloomberg, Valentino, and CHANEL, among many others.

Later in the season, Petrocelli emphasized two other major orchestra showcases, “Concert for Tomorrow” and Händel’s “Messiah.” The latter follows the standard tradition of showcasing the famed oratorio during the December holiday season. But the former represents a major coup for Petrocelli as it brings the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra to Dubai for the first time. That concert, conducted by Michele Gamba on Dec. 1, 2023, will feature music by Verdi, Puccini, and Mascagni, with soprano Aida Garifullina and tenor Piero Pretti headlining (Garifullina will appear in two other performances at Dubai Opera that are not part of the official season).

More importantly, the performance will take place during the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP), which is important to the thematic underpinning of the performance.

“The program includes works by Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, whose death centenary we will celebrate next year. These composers represent the tradition and identity of our theatre, and the La Scala Orchestra performs them with an unmistakable sound and passion,” said Dominique Meyer, CEO and Artistic Director of Teatro alla Scala Milan, in a video presented during the press conference. “Equally important is the occasion of this concert: La Scala shares the concern about the risks of global warming and is committed to a concrete plan of energy efficiency and rationalization of resources that has already begun to yield important results. We are very excited about the performance and look forward to seeing you there.”

Dubai Opera

Beyond Opera

Petrocelli told OperaWire that there would be plans to broaden the operatic offerings in future seasons, but his aim as a whole was to not attempt a prescriptive Western opera company model, but a more flexible one that could invite a vast array of audience members.

“Ballet is more and more popular here in Dubai,” Petrocelli noted at one point in the conference.

Hence the importance of opening the season with “Swan Lake,” the subsequent UAE debut of the Rome Opera Ballet in May 2024, the La Scala Theatre Ballet School’s debut in February 2024, and a holiday presentation of “The Nutcracker” by the Ballet Theatre and State Opera Orchestra of Astana in Kazahkstan.

Then there are more hybrid showcases, including a New Year’s Day Gala featuring the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra under conductor and violinist Julian Rachlin that will spotlight singers from the Middle East, and a concert starring violinst David Garrett on his “ICONIC” tour.

Then it branches out to more popular offerings. Those who want more musical theater or theater offerings will get a chance to check out “Mathilda,” “The Phanton of the Opera,” a production of “The Little Prince,” “Slava’s Snow Show,” and a staging of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” by the English Touring Theatre. Also on offer will be the Dubai Comedy Festival.

There are also programs by Brazilian artists Gilberto Gil in his final worldwide tour, jazz virtuoso Kenny Garrett, jazz legend Ravi Coltrane (as part of International Jazz Day celebration) Asian singer Ali Sethi, rock star Jethro Tull, pop singer Matteo Bocelli, pianist Ludovico Einaudi, pianist Alice Sara Ott, and British band Incognio, among others.

The season will include a film music week during which audiences will hear the score to their favorite films while watching said picture. For this inaugural edition, Petrocelli will be screening “Star Wars: A New Hope,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” and films by Charlie Chaplin. There will also be a concert honoring the working of Ennio Morricone, directed by his son Andrea Morricone, and another showcase that spotlights the music of John Williams and Hans Zimmer.

Finally, Petrocelli made mention of the Studio Concert Series which will include programs that spotlight UAE artists, pianists, and the first prize winners of major competitions (the Queen Elizabeth Competition and Paganini Competition are among the first featured).

Developing the Future

Finally, Petrocelli revealed that while the performances were essential to the company, education and development of new and future audiences was just as essential to the Opera’s mission.

“We don’t want to be just an organization that promotes performances. Yes, that’s the core of our mission, but we also want to stay close to the community and to the new generation of young professionals that are hoping one day to maybe perform one day on this stage, or to work behind this curtain,” Petrocelli emphasized during the press conference. “So, the Dubai Opera will also be a place where you can learn to work in the performing arts.”

To that effect, he unveiled a number of partnerships and collaborations with the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, UNESCO, and Dubai‘s Department of Economy and Tourism.

The Dubai College of Tourism will also work with the company to build the first-ever training program for aspiring arts professionals. As part of the program, young professionals will be given opportunities to work at the Dubai Opera and “learn and interact with our exceptional team.”

There are also international partnership, including one with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute and the launch of its famed Lullaby Project for the first time in the Middle East.

There are also technological projects with Preevue and d&b audiotechnik to ensure that the hall is always at the forefront of performance technology and experiences.


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