King of the Opera House – How Director General Umberto Fanni Is Transforming the Royal Opera House Muscat

By David Salazar
(Credit: © KHALID ALBUSAIDI / Provided by Royal Opera House Muscat)

He was artistic director all over Italy with such organizations as the Teatro Licirco Di Caligari, the Arena di Verona, the Teatro Lirico di Trieste, and Teatro Comunale Odea di Lumezzane.

But now Umberto Fanni is thousands of miles away leading as the General Director of the Royal Opera House Muscat.

So what made him trade away the world of established opera culture for a world where opera culture needed to be built?

“Peace and tranquility,” he noted in a recent interview with OperaWire ahead of the Royal Opera House Muscat’s 2019-20 season.

From Performing Arts Center To Production House

Fanni actually came to the Royal Opera House Muscat back in 2014 as its Artistic Director. He was then promoted to Acting General Director between January 2015 and October 2015 before being made the General Director ahead of the 2015-16 season.

When he first arrived, the theater didn’t really have much of an identity and there was a lot of work to be done.

“I found a theater with a modern performing arts center. It was mainly used to host companies from abroad,” he noted before explaining that more problematic was how empty the hall was on a night to night basis. “There was only 53 percent fulfillment of the venues.”

But under his lead, things have turned around substantially.

The first step was to end this idea of the Royal Opera House Muscat as a performing arts centers for companies from abroad. “I wanted to turn it into a production theater,” he emphasized.

In 2017, that dream started to come to fruition when the company engaged in its first co-production with the Opéra de Rouen for a production of “Norma.” A year later, the company co-produced “Eine Nacht in Venedig” with the Opéra de Lyon and Oper Graz. As per Fanni, these co-productions mainly came about from financial perspectives, with the ROHM not quite developing any of the creative or technical assets.

But things continued to evolve and in 2018-19, the company became involved in a “global production” of Délibes’ “Lakmé,” which starred Elena Mosuc. For that production, Fanni “activated workshops for costumes and makeups,” allowing the company to start creating in-house.

“For this global production, we did the costumes. It is very important for us and this is something we will continue to do by activating other workshops,” He noted, before adding that the goal is for the company to start creating its own sets until eventually it can create its own productions of major works.

The next big step for the company comes this January with its very own new production of “The Magic Flute” as directed by David Livermore. This new mise-en-scene will set Mozart’s classic fairy-tale in the Arab world, allowing for a unique mix of western and eastern cultures.

“Think of it as Mozart meets the ‘1,001 Arabians Nights,'” Fanni stated.


(Credit: Royal Opera House Muscat)


Celebrating Two Anniversaries

And while the 2019-20 season remains at the forefront for Fanni and team, the 2020-21 season is very much on the radar and at the top of his mind.

It will mark not only the 10th anniversary for the house, but, more importantly, the 50th anniversary of the birth of the sultanate of Oman. Fanni noted that the season will mark a culmination of the projects set in motion since the opera house first opened in 2011.

To this effect, the company will open its season with its very own production of “Rigoletto,” as designed by the late Franco Zeffirelli. The choice of Zeffirelli to open the company’s 10th season was particularly poignant as the famed Italian director opened the house back in 2011 with a production of “Turandot.” Putting a stamp on the first decade with his own production would undeniably be the closing of one cycle and the commencement of another.

However, Zeffirelli died in February 2019 at the age of 96, ensuring that he would not be around for the momentous occasion.

The maestro was aware of this possibility and had taken the appropriate steps with the ROHM and Fanni to ensure that even if he did not live to see the opening performance of his new “Rigoletto,” his vision remained intact.

Zeffirelli tasked his close collaborator Stefano Trespidi, who was recently named Artistic Director of the Arena di Verona, to handle all of the main ideas for the “Rigoletto” design and staging. They also built up a production team of close associates and Zeffirelli himself recorded many of his ideas for posterity.

“It’s will be a unique and strange ‘Rigoletto,’” Fanni explained. “’ Rigoletto’ is something that is more intimate and this one will be more of a chamber approach. Obviously with the grandeur, but it will have a greater focus on the characters.”

And while Zeffirelli’s “Rigoletto” is undeniably an exciting project, it is the second production of 2020-21 that has Fanni most excited. The company is co-commissioning a new opera alongside a number of other Arab countries.

“It will have a libretto in Arab with a composer from the Arab world,” Fanni explained, though he could not reveal, at the moment, the specifics of the work. He did note that it was likely to open around November, around the celebration of Oman’s “diamond jubilee.”



Opening The Door

All of this is in keeping with Fanni’s ultimate vision for making the Royal Opera House Muscat a destination for opera lovers around the world, in addition to fomenting an opera culture in Oman and the region.

“The challenge is to open the door,” he explained. “If you don’t open the door to the community, you will have no chance of even telling the people what you are doing or improving on it. In Italy and in Europe, if you don’t reach out to the people, your theater will be seen as elite. That is what we are hoping to avoid here.”

The company has taken a number of steps toward ensuring a wider audience. The company has programmed an opera geared toward children and their families every single year. This year’s opera is “L’Elisir d’Amore,” but 2020-21 will bring a well-known character from Oman; what’s more, it will be streamed across 20 countries to connect with families around the world.

Moreover, in addition to opera, the company constantly puts on performances of local and regional artists. There will be an Omani Women’s Day Celebration on Oct. 17 with Moroccan-Egyptian pop star Samira Said performing in the hall a day later. These are just two of several such performances scattered throughout the year.

“For me, it is important to bring in people that have never gone to an opera house. They can be five, 10, 30, 50, 70, or 90 years of age. That is the mission for the job we do. Otherwise it would make no sense,” the Director General explained before noting that the 53 percent capacity he had mentioned earlier was now at 94 percent.

“It is not just thanks to me but to my colleagues and all of the people working on this team,” Fanni concluded. “I am very lucky to have a group of people around me who are dedicated to the mission of this opera house and transforming it into one of the great opera companies in the world.”


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