Sound Designs

Commercial Interior Design gets an exclusive tour around the Royal Opera House Muscat. Report and interview by Devina Divecha and Gavin Davids

An idea spanning decades has finally come to fruition with the establishment and opening of the Royal Opera House Muscat. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said, a well-known music enthusiast, thought about building an opera house in his country as far back as 1984.

“His Majesty is a huge lover of music so this is no surprise to us,” said John Loader, the deputy project director and a chartered architect working directly for the Royal Estates in Muscat.

The Royal Estates is an architectural department within government and is part of the Royal Court Affairs. “We are responsible for designing and delivering all palace work as well as the country’s most prominent civic buildings such as the Grand Mosque, Majlis Oman (Parliament) and the Royal Opera House Muscat,” said Loader.

The Royal Opera House Muscat is located on a sprawling estate of nearly 80,000m2. The architectural character of the building is influenced by the grand style of modern Omani palaces.

The site has a large car park connected by a bridge to the souk. A Maidan (open square) next to the Opera House is an outdoor performance venue, and can be seen from terraced areas of the souk.

Colonnades are built along the west and east sides of the Royal Opera House, with a small ‘black box’ studio theatre for smaller events. Visitors can enter the main building via the Maidan Lobby, which contains the ticket office.

The building houses the auditorium and the various majlis areas, along with the Royal Reception Area, the stage, the moveable concert shell, and a porte-cochère (a covered carriage entrance leading into a courtyard).

The imposing building overlooks gardens, and the Great Lawn, which can be used for performances.

His Majesty preceded this project with many other musically inclined activities that led up to what stands today. “We were looking at building a large concert theatre for His Majesty at the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra campus complex at Bait Al Barakah in 1992, but the idea and intention on His Majesty’s part for a significant theatre most certainly precedes that,” said Loader.

The initial concept was detailed in 2002, with the contract awarded in August 2004. The designs were then worked on to fit His Majesty’s vision. On-site construction began in April 2007, with the official inauguration taking place on October 12, 2011. “For 20-25 years now, we’ve been developing a style that His Majesty is happy with and my direct bosses are happy with — it’s a fusion of regional Islamic designs and has an Omani theme to it,” said Loader.

“This design is the culmination of what we’ve been working towards in terms of Omani-themed palace architecture. This, you can say, is the apex of what we’ve done so far,” he added.

Luxurious, yet simple, the interiors make use of understated elements. Loader mentions materials such as marble, travertine (a form of limestone), timber and gypsum.

Travertine has been used for the flooring, with Omani Desert Rose limestone the choice for the external walls. Loader said travertine is a classic building material, which made it an obvious selection. He pointed out the gypsum detailing in the columns, as well as glass reinforced concrete (GRC) screens.

An interesting decoration element was ‘zouaq’, which Loader explained is a form of stenciling. Considered a Moroccan style, this art form has been practised around the Arab region. “Zouaq is a painted decoration carried out with stenciling to form and control the design,” said Loader.

Inside the main foyer, columns, inside of arches and niches feature zouaq, as well as the ceiling. In the latter, zouaq work has been done on the teak beams, embellished with fine gold leaf.

From the main foyer, guests can see the Grand Staircase made of marble. “This staircase here — and I say this with a lot of pride — it’s one of the most beautiful staircases you’ll find regionally if not wider than that. It’s a lovely piece of marble craftsmanship,” said Loader.

Attention to detail has been paramount throughout the property, where the design team has extensively utilised skills of local artisans in Oman.

An example of this can be seen in its doors. Loader said the suite of doors throughout the project has five variants, where the lowest grade are the ones leading to the restroom, with the highest being the Royal standard doors.

While the basic proportion and symmetry remain the same, it’s the carvings that differentiate the ‘status’ of the entryways. Another way details have been adhered to is concealment of back-of-house operations. Walking through the entire site, visitors will be hard pressed to find visible ducts, grills or loud speakers. All of these have been worked into the interiors to hide them.

“Everything is about detail. In the next four months, we’re going to start a process to pick up on the inevitable snags. That’s our next task. So it’s definitely an evolving project,” he added.

Zouaq is not the only regional technique used in the scheme. The Royal Lobby on the first floor boasts a ceiling that uses ‘chemsiana’ work in the dome.

“This technique involves stained glass inserted into GRG/GRC (glass reinforced gypsum/concrete) mouldings purely as a decorative sunlit effect. In our case, the GRC was in the form of a dome with a second, outer dome, onto which we shone floodlights to give us a backlighting effect to the stained glass in the inner, visible dome,” said Loader.

These interiors are just the prelude to what waits within the main auditorium and concert area. To meet the acoustical challenges, the standard shape of the auditorium was tweaked.

Loader said the challenge was huge because of the dual nature of the auditorium — a concert theatre and an orchestral house. “They’re two completely different things — one’s a theatre with a proscenium and the other’s an auditorium,” he added.

A proscenium is the area of a modern theatre located between the curtain and the orchestra. To accommodate the opera function of the space, a concert shell was created, where the symphony orchestra is meant to perform.

“We had to produce this shell, which is essentially part and parcel of the auditorium interiors, with exactly the same detail and design. It’s big at 500 tonnes, and is stuck on railway tracks. It rolls forward very slowly and mates up, if you like, with the rest of the theatre. But before that, you’ve got to change from one mode to the other,” said Loader.

The design of the Royal Opera House Muscat truly shines here, as it possesses two modes of functioning. In the concert mode, the shell is joined with the proscenium to form one single room. In the theatre mode, the concert shell on railway tracks can be rolled back 20m, with the proscenium closing in. The forward boxes then turn in to meet the proscenium creating a horseshoe shape. The ceiling in front of the proscenium also lowers to improve acoustics.

Key features of the interior design in this area include: seatback electronic librettos, moveable theatre boxes, reverberation chamber control, in-auditorium control positions, retractable acoustic reflectors, and three basement stowed seat wagons to adjust the seating capacity according to the event.

“Everything behind the proscenium — the lighting, fire curtains and more — weighs a huge amount. But the proscenium itself is movable because it’s got to roll back out of the way to revert to a concert mode. Equally the boxes on three floors have got to roll back and rotate in, so that’s quite a task on its own.

“The columns fold back as well. So there are about nine or 10 different movements that take place before it can actually change from one particular mode to the other. It’s pretty complex,” said Loader.

He added the complex part of this procedure wasn’t about the machinery in question, but the obstacle of integrating the machinery with the interiors. The auditorium’s interior is as lavish and detailed as the front-of-house.

“To tie that kind of interior design in with those kinds of motions and movements, and make it a practical theatre in terms of its ability to work, was a massive challenge,” he said.

Acoustics was another consideration for the designers. In addition to the moveable shell and proscenium, a number of other measures were taken to improve sound systems in the space.

Acoustic reflector panels merged with the ceiling decorations can be lowered to reflect sound for theatre performances. Reverberation chambers around the side walls can be open or closed for better sound. The mashrabiya-style screens around the hall have been designed with a double layer of woodwork concealing roller banners that reflect or absorb sound.

Loader added it was imperative for the acoustics to be variable to cater for any kind of performance, from showing a film to hosting an organ recital.

“We opened up acoustic louvres on the side of the orchestra shell and let the sound enter into the reverberation chambers around the sides of the auditorium. They’re there to increase the volume and to provide additional reflection or absorption as we want it.

That sound in turn rolls over the top, over the attic of the auditorium,” he said.

He added doing this meant it was possible to change reverberation time, the noise characteristics and reflections within the building at the same time.

“The acoustic challenge was probably as big as the task of fitting in the interior design with the moving elements.”

The feedback from the clients and the people using the Royal Opera House has been encouraging, according to Loader. “The reaction? It’s been tops, especially from the most critical people: the actors, the players, singers and so on. They’ve all been very, very complimentary about it,” he said.

Loader said for him it was a great experience to transfer the work done in contemporary and significant civic buildings to a project like this for the public to enjoy.

“For me, that’s almost an aspirational thing. For the public to see this kind of stuff is great, as far as I’m concerned.”

Now that the Royal Opera House Muscat has opened and greeted a throng of visitors to a myriad of cultural events, the team has moved to related ventures.

Loader said they are working on another theatre. “The idea was that this is the centerpiece, the showpiece. It’s the focus for the Royal Opera House as a complex. But we need to have a lot of rehearsal spaces.”

A 500-seat theatre is in the works, which will serve a dual purpose of being a rehearsal spot for artists and a “bridge to the community”.

“This one you could easily see this as being too sophisticated for many Omanis. But they would probably feel comfortable about a small theatre doing Arabic performances just across the road, as an introduction,” said Loader.

Loader says rumours of building a hotel and leisure complex at the site are “just froth and myth” at present time.

Another plan that is in discussion is building a music library that will host all kinds of recordings — music, dance, videos and cinematography — from a time as early as 1904.

“We would like to build a regional library to world-class standards as part of this complex. There is nothing like that, as I understand it, in the Gulf at the moment that offers that kind of access to music and dance recordings and research material. That will be interesting,” said Loader.

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