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Norwegian architects to help bring opera to Saudi masses

  • Royal Diriyah Opera House due in 2028
  • Design will be ‘unique’
  • Developing interest ‘could be tall order’

Norwegian architects Snøhetta have unveiled the design for an opera house to be built in Riyadh by 2028 as part of Saudi Arabia’s drive to make a once forbidding capital city a global cultural destination. 

Video representations of the Royal Diriyah Opera House were shown last week at a ceremony in the historical Diriyah district of Riyadh, which is being developed into a major tourist, residential and commercial zone as part of Saudi Arabia’s vast expansion plans.  

Snøhetta says the multi-purpose building, resembling vast layered flat slabs of rock, will be unique among world opera houses in its design, function and management.  

In addition to a traditional auditorium for opera performances, the building includes an experimental theatre, an outdoor amphitheatre, and a hall which could be used for weddings and conferences. 

“What differentiates this from other operas is the fourth venue at the top, which is an outdoor amphitheatre, covered and shaded. You will have exceptional views and the possibility of all types of performances,” said senior architect Zenul Khan in an interview. 

“It’s also a non-resident opera. Many other opera houses have a company that actually runs, owns and operates the opera. Here it will be inviting a broad spectrum of international guests, and this will bring a massive influx of culture, arts and creativity,” Khan said. 

Arts and culture are flourishing Gulf industries. The Guggenheim and Louvre have opened museums in Abu Dhabi, celebrated architects have designed iconic buildings such as Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, and governments are building new national museums. 

Attention has shifted to opera. Jeddah Central, another giga-project owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, signed a contract last year with the Danish architects Henning Larsen and Britain’s Buro Happold for an opera house in Saudi Arabia’s second city, which has received less media attention and promotion. 

Khan said Snøhetta had been one of the bidders for the Jeddah contract. The detailed design phase for the Diriyah opera house will run from January to June next year, with an expectation of completion within four years. 

Saudi Arabia is pushing to get many of its major projects, which include the $500 billion futuristic city Neom, finished by specific dates. It is due to hold the Asian Winter Games in 2029, the World Expo 2030 in Riyadh, and the football World Cup in 2034. 

An economic slowdown caused by slipping oil prices, despite Opec+ output cuts, could put pressure on the giga-projects. But Neom and Riyadh-based projects such as Diriyah are certain to be given priority. 

The opera houses are symbolic of Saudi Arabia’s effort to break away from a religious conservatism that for long stifled cultural and economic life and made Riyadh a closed concrete jungle.

Since Salman took power in 2015, women have been allowed to drive, gender segregation has ended, music and cinema are no longer frowned upon, and the country has opened up to tourism. 

But developing an interest in Western opera could be a tall order. 

Jasper Hope, an adviser at the Royal Commission for Riyadh City, said the aim was to change public attitudes towards arts and culture. 

The new venue will be “a place where talent from across the kingdom can be nurtured, invested in and celebrated… where the best of the rest of the world can come to perform,” he told tourism industry luminaries at the ceremony. Diriyah would be one of the world’s “great new opera houses,” Hope said 

Sara Alissa, a Saudi architect with Syn Architects, which is working with Snøhetta on the project, said the unique design and location would be vital in instilling sustained public interest.  

“Architecture is an essential aspect of cultural identity,” she said. “Buildings in public spaces create a place of gathering and togetherness and foster a real sense of shared identity and pride in a country’s cultural heritage. I think the Royal Diriyah Opera House does just that.”

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