Jasper Hope reflects on an exhilarating first six months at the helm of Dubai’s new cultural destination
Back in August 2016 Vision spoke to a surprisingly calm Jasper Hope, Chief Executive of Dubai Opera, on the eve of the 2,000-seater venue’s launch.
Hope who, along with his 50-strong team, had been working tirelessly for the best part of two years laying the groundwork for one of the region’s hottest new cultural venues, was brimming with quiet confidence and expectation. Firm on his vision, he described how Dubai Opera should work in tune with Dubai’s famously diverse and cosmopolitan population, catering to conservative and more avant-garde audiences alike, sparking artistic collaborations and reflecting the city’s soul. Dubai Opera, said Hope, should aspire to be the region’s performing arts hub.
With more than six months under its belt, and world-class acts such as Plácido Domingo having performed on its stage, we asked Hope for his reflections on the venue’s debut season.
Vision last spoke to you just before Dubai Opera opened its doors. Six months on, is it already establishing itself as one of the region's premier cultural venues?
I think it’s fair to say we have definitely established Dubai Opera as a very serious new destination for world-class entertainment of many kinds and one which in regional terms has assumed a leading position for artists and producers to consider in their touring plans.
Which acts have proved most successful during this opening season? Any surprises?
Les Misérables sold more tickets than anything else in the first six months – more than 40,000 – so I guess that’s the most successful. But the majority of our shows have either sold out or got close to it. The variety of our programme has meant we’ve been able to appeal to a very broad section of the audience locally, regionally and internationally. I was a little nervous about some of the contemporary dance we programmed in the first few months, but the response was terrific when Ballet Béjart Lausanne came with two different productions and, as a result, we’ve secured LA Dance Project for this September.
What has been the response to the venue from the acts and theatre companies that have performed so far?
Amazing. Artists have enjoyed our acoustics, our facilities, our audiences and the opportunity to now have a world-class stage on which to perform in Dubai.
Can you describe the emotions you experienced after that opening night at the end of August? Were there any ‘seat-of-the-pants’ moments?
Opening night on 31 August was the culmination of a series of moments and emotions I will never forget. My team worked so hard and had so much incredible support in the run-up that it was essential to me to ensure that we left nothing to chance. My wife will tell you that until the second half of the performance began that night, I was sitting in the auditorium with her but I wasn’t really present; it was only at that moment when she felt my shoulders relax – just a little – that she knew all was well. As with all new productions, however, the first night is only the beginning and we are still working just as hard to ensure that the current shows are just as well planned and as well received.
On the Last Night of the Proms itself I hope to see flags flying from a wide range of the 200-or-so nations whose people make up Dubai’s cosmopolitan population
When we spoke in August you were excited about the venue’s education and outreach programme. How is that progressing?
This week we’ve been working with the British Council and Welsh National Opera to deliver a range of workshops, masterclasses, talks and the chance for over a thousand children to attend one of the dress rehearsals. All of that’s been part of the UK-UAE Year of Creative Collaboration, and there’s more to come with the BBC Symphony and BBC Singers who arrive in a couple of weeks’ time. Our ambition is not to try and do something with every ensemble that visits, but we hope to make it a very regular part of our activities in order to have a proper community strand to our work.
It’s an exciting year for UAE/UK cultural exchange, with the BBC Proms coming to Dubai Opera. What can audiences expect and what are you most excited about? Also, Last Night of the Proms is a quintessentially British event. Will you be recreating this with a regional twist?
This year will see us host a number of great British performances. We opened the year with Cats, we have WNO (Welsh National Opera) and the BBC Proms in March, Mary Poppins in May and even Status Quo in the autumn, there’s something there for everyone to get excited about! As far as a regional twist, we are planning an international musical offering throughout the Proms, which includes contemporary music by British composers living in Britain and Dubai, an Emirati composer and an Australian-Egyptian composer, along with some fantastic music from Britten to Mozart. And on the Last Night itself I hope to see flags flying from a wide range of the 200-or-so nations whose people make up Dubai’s cosmopolitan population.
What’s on your plate right now in terms of planning and bookings?
We have about 80 per cent of 2017 contracted and are working on the last 20 per cent now. Because we’re able to programme with such diversity it’s important to leave gaps to give those artists and genres who work with shorter lead times the opportunity to be part of what we’re doing each year.
For 2018 and beyond, we have a number of the big productions secured already but in general we wanted to give ourselves a full year of operation and the experience of as many different shows as possible before committing ourselves too far into the future. With Expo 2020 fast approaching, however, and the eyes of the world increasingly on Dubai as a result, there are some things we need to get into discussion about early to ensure we don’t miss out.
Dubai Opera is a spectacular building. Do you have a favourite spot?
Anywhere you can see our incredible chandelier. I knew it would look spectacular when I saw the designs but I was not anticipating quite how popular it would become as a selfie-taking-spot! When the rooftop restaurant opens in May I hope I’ll find one there too.