The classroom fell eerily quiet. There’s a first time for everything. I had just announced to my top set year 7 (11 and 12 year olds) science group that I was leaving in two weeks time to work as a senior sound and broadcast technician at a new opera house in Muscat, Oman. I had a few slides prepared on my powerpoint presentation to show the geographical location and a few tourist snaps of desert with camels. A sea of blank faces and open mouths starred at me. After what felt like a life time, Alfie piped up with,
‘Oman is the only country in the world to begin with O… Miss’.
In retrospect I should have been more equipped to answer the barrage of questions to follow,
‘Will you have to wear a burka?’
‘Can women drive a car there?’
‘Will you have to eat goat?’
Much to my amusement, the questions in the staff room were not dissimilar at break time. And so began the start of the most extraordinary chapter of my working career.
Five years ago, The Royal Opera House, Muscat was the first opera house to open in the Middle East. His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said came to power in 1970 and has since transformed the country; building roads, schools and infrastructure. As part of his vision, Sultan Qaboos instructed the building of the opera house and hence the introduction of international arts and culture to the people of Oman.
The opera house essentially runs as a ‘Festival’ with our programming department booking a diverse selection of productions over the season. Last season this included opera from Vienna Opera House, ballet from English National Ballet, the Buena Vista Social Club, Maher Zain and Chinese Dragon Acrobats.
The sound and broadcast department is comprised of ten specialists, recruited internationally, including three Omanis. Between us we speak six languages. As expats, we are contracted to train our Omani colleagues as part of a national ‘Omanisation’ programme. In day to day work, this presents itself as training ‘as we go’. Due to the importance and urgency of Omanisation, I have been lucky enough to be part of developing a skills based competency framework. Although not strictly part of my job description, I have found immense satisfaction in delivering effective new training methods. Needless to say, this is now starting to be rolled out across other departments.
Having been a teacher I am aware of the sometimes subtle differences between hearing and understanding. Communication is a constant challenge within our team. A task that would be straight forward in a small sound team at home suddenly becomes a logistical (and health and safety) nightmare. Some of the practical ways in which we overcome these difficulties include employing translators, colour coding nearly everything, clear and concise labelling and a work environment that lends itself to open team discussion. As you can imagine, the technical experience between us is immense and we are always learning new skills and different ways of doing things from each other. Diplomatic solutions are always only ever a conversation away.
It is all too easy to forget the enormity of our jobs here during our hectic season. The careful balance between respecting the Omani culture and delivering iconic opera and ballet from around the world is a constant. For example, in our department, we need to ensure that music is not playing during prayer times and that surtitles are provided in Arabic. Abiding by local customs and traditions is of utmost importance if we are going to have any hope of engaging with our audiences.
Family is an absolute core value here and an Omani will always put them first. For the expats who work here, this can be a hard pill to swallow. Our own cultures are often far from this ideal. Rehearsals can be called off at the last minute if there is even the slightest chance of rain. Many of our Omani colleagues live in villages many kilometres from Muscat and flooding wadis (normally dry river beds) can mean perilous journeys or even areas that are totally cut off for a few days. Situations like this in the West would be unspeakable. I’ve known colleagues in London to sleep in the theatre rather than stop the show during snow storms! Likewise, if a family member needs assistance, work will be sacrificed.
Despite the searing temperatures and daily challenges of working in this diverse environment, I feel incredibly blessed to have my eyes opened to the reality of life in the Middle East. Western media is a bombardment of negativity towards this part of the world, hence the bizarre array of questions from my students and fellow teachers. Our opera house is a beacon of inspiration.
Clare Hibberd: Clare is a Senior Sound and Broadcast Technician at the Royal Opera House, Muscat. Her career has taken her all over the world, working on some of the most successful (and not so successful) musical theatre productions to come out of the West-End. With the added bonus of recently completing a post graduate teaching certificate, she is now looking to implement teaching and learning programmes for Omani technical trainees as part of a wider Omanisation strategy.