Built for a song

The Royal Opera House in Muscat has turned a lot of heads

The verdant landscaping design was by Verdaus.
The verdant landscaping design was by Verdaus.

With less than a year to its grand opening, the Royal Opera House in Muscat is only the second building of its kind in the Middle East.

The Royal Opera House in Muscat has turned a lot of heads since it was first announced in 2001, and ten years on, the project is progressing smoothly towards its targeted grand opening in October 2011.

When complete, the opera house will be only the second of its kind in the Middle East, occupying an area of 80,000m2, half of which will be set aside for landscaped gardens.

The complex will also include a mini-theatre, restaurants and luxury stores. The only other opera house in the region is in Cairo, established in 1988.

FM director Yasser ba Omar was appointed by His Excellency the Head of Royal Estates, which developed the project, in September 2008.

He attained the position due to his experience in running palaces to royal standards, together with a MSc degree in FM, making him the first Omani with this particular qualification.

“I was not nervous about getting the job, as I have plenty of experience. I started my career as a building services engineer in 2001, first for a Royal Palace in Oman, and later in the Royal Court Ministers villa,” says ba Omar.

“I also worked at His Majesty’s main Presidential Palace, starting during the last year of construction, through handover to operational readiness, where I stayed for four years.

There is also an auditorium there which gave me some experience in terms of managing large events. I am proud to be the first Omani to have an MSc degree in FM. I studied in the UK for six years, including a final year at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, obtaining my Master’s degree.

“I do not believe the Royal Opera House is something just any facilities manager could do; significant experience is required, and I am very pleased to have the support of Royal Estates. The Royal Opera House development requires both new practices and previous experience and expertise. I am very proud to be a part of it.”

Designed by WATG and commissioned by opera-loving Sultan Qaboos, the building imitates an Italian-style opera house in the surroundings of Muscat’s diplomatic quarter, alongside such government buildings as the foreign ministry.

General director Iman Hindawi told AFP in an interview last year that the opera house was originally supposed to be finished in time for the 40th anniversary of the rule of Sultan Qaboos in 2010, but that “construction is proceeding, and it will be ready by October 2011.”

The project is months away from a soft opening, with less than a year left to the grand opening, says ba Omar. Davis Langdon was appointed in late 2010 to develop the FM strategy and assist in recruiting an FM team. It will also tender FM services and provide overall support as it moves towards handover of the Royal Opera House assets.

“I oversee Davis Langdon’s work, and ensure service levels are being applied to the project to meet royal standards. We work closely with the project and technical team to ensure we meet the expectations of His Majesty,” says ba Omar.

“Davis Langdon has developed the FM strategy. It has developed the departmental structure, strategised the procurement, researched the local market and is tendering services. It is important for us to liaise closely with all stakeholders to make sure that FM services meet their expectation.

“For example, we need to ensure that catering is provided to the technical stage crew who can work 14 to 16 hours a day preparing for a performance. We also need to manage access control when large performance companies visit our opera house, meaning we need to find a way to allow secure access to the building for more than 200 people, who cannot carry access cards with them on stage and only visit for a few days. This requires a well thought-out strategy.”

Davis Langdon has one senior FM consultant working with ba Omar, Linda Engstrom, and one associate, Mike Mowbray. Once the recruitment process is complete, he will have a team of about 15 in-house staff, including administrational support. The service delivery will be outsourced to a third party, which will add to the overall number of staff.

“Our scope involves developing an FM strategy, which includes recruitment of key members of ba Omar’s team. Going forward, we will develop policies and procedures, advise on FM technology, produce a service-cost model and continuously advise ba Omar and his team on best practice FM,” says Engstrom.

“By collaborating closely with the technical, front-of-house and management teams, we ensure ba Omar receives the assistance he requires, and which suits the needs of the opera house.

Challenges have presented themselves in terms of resource requirements and logistics, which we have already begun to solve. It is important that all the advice we provide makes sense in the local market – what works in Dubai will not necessarily work in Muscat,” says Engstrom.

According to ba Omar, the development consists not only of the opera house itself, but a luxury souk, car park, landscaped grounds and an off-site custom-built storage facility.

This will house the technical stage equipment, and contains workshops, paint shops, specialist workshops for wigs and costumes and several other theatre-support facilities. The scope of FM services stretches across the entire development.

There are also plans for a major new development on a large plot of land behind the opera house, to be constructed within the next five years. This may include leisure facilities such as hotels, cinemas, sports and other entertainment facilities.

Project director Hamid al-Ghazali stated recently that the biggest challenge during construction was organising the manpower on-site, with some 1,500 workers and 40 subcontractors involved in the project.

“The Royal Opera House in Muscat is different from other opera houses around the world. For example, we have state-of-the-art equipment to alter the seating configuration of the auditorium, using specially-built seating sections housed in the basement, and lifted up using sophisticated hydraulics,” says ba Omar.

“In terms of challenges, we will need to consistently maintain levels of excellence to help build a reputation as an international opera house with very good service delivery and operational standards.

Some of the world’s most famous opera companies, international stars and artists will perform at our venue. Our job is to ensure everything runs smoothly and our audience enjoys the performance, and the venue.

Ba Omar says that to schedule resources and planned maintenance activities and to meet the needs of the performance schedule is a challenge that all opera house management teams face. It also needs to be profitable, so the FM operation, in turn, must be efficient.

“I have worked on the project for two years now, and during that time I have worked closely with the project team to ensure that the FM strategy has been considered as far back in the design and construction process as possible,” he says. “This is a Royal Opera House, which means standards are very high. Only the best-of-the-best is good enough.

The international theatre community is watching us, and of course we want to make sure that the Royal Opera House in Muscat is a great success.” WATG’s involvement began in 2003 when the Royal Court Affairs of the Sultanate of Oman invited firms to compete for the design of the project. After a number of competitive stages, it won the contract and was invited to lead the team for the complete design and supervision services.

This included master planning, architecture, interior design and landscape architecture, as well as design management of the decorative lighting, kitchen design, graphics, signage, all engineering services and acoustic design consultants.

The architectural character of the building was influenced by the grand style of modern Omani palaces, and reflects their outward design features and circulation patterns.

The front entrance is an expansive palm-tree piazza backed by five tall, arched entryways into a hall that forms the central focus of a colonnade designed to create a grand feeling of entrance. The building is clad in light-coloured stone and complementary stucco, all locally sourced.

Ba Omar says the programme of events is currently being developed, and includes everything from local performers of Islamic, Arabic and Omani arts to international opera companies.

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