As Dubai Opera opens on Wednesday, August 31, Chief Executive Jasper Hope reveals details about his programming strategy, the day-to-day challenges he faces and his ambitious plans for the venue’s future
The single biggest challenge of my life” is how he once described his current position. Today, he refers to it as a “perpetual high”.
Meet Jasper Hope, Chief Executive of Dubai Opera. His demeanour is calm, despite being mere days away from a 31 August launch date, when acclaimed tenor Plácido Domingo will open the inaugural season. To say that the past few months have been eventful is an understatement.
“Time is flying by. When I arrived in January 2015, that building was slightly above ground level. It’s now complete in a structural sense, with work continuing on inside. It was just a site really when I arrived,” he says, gazing out at the dhow-shaped structure. His office in Emaar Square offers views of the plush Downtown Dubai area, but it’s the 2,000-seat opera house that steals the show.
Hope has been involved first hand in Dubai Opera’s interior features. “I’ve been advising on how things will work best, mostly in terms of the technical aspects of putting on a production,” he says. But as far as Hope’s job description goes, that’s only the beginning. “When I arrived, I was the first full-time employee of Dubai Opera. And I knew I was going to need some help,” he says. He is now working with a team of nearly 50, having personally recruited the senior members himself.
“The thing most people are going to judge us on is, who’s on stage. Attracting ensembles of the highest calibre to any building, particularly a new one, requires one to work a long way ahead of time,” he explains.
The 47-year-old Brit may be soft spoken, but his passion for all things theatre soon becomes clear when discussing how to bring the new hall to life. “The high point of my life in Dubai is that every single day, this is what I’m here to do,” he says, gesturing towards the venue.
Looking ahead to a successful launch, Hope says: “It’s a different emphasis. You’re talking about setting incredibly high standards and then delivering repeatedly. If you book yourself months or years ahead, you run the risk of becoming less relevant by missing out on new material and new artists. What you need to do is find the balance – one group could be very conservative, another very avant-garde. And you’re bound to have that in a city like Dubai.”
Hope rightfully describes his responsibility of determining what Dubai might like next as “extraordinarily difficult. You have to be engaged by talking to people about their preferences, and you can’t even rely just on that. You have to go out into the world and find the next big thing. You also have to think about how you might introduce artists from different genres or countries to collaborate with one another. All of these things are not about our first few months, they are about a side of Dubai Opera that should be a part of the city forever.”
Reflecting on Dubai’s multicultural and often transient population, Hope explains how its composition is both a benefit and a burden. “Just by virtue of how many nationalities live in the city, there is thus a market of people who might like Lebanese, Indian or English artists. As residents, we’re not all the same, but as a starting point, that’s brilliant.”
Dubai Opera is in the heart of Downtown Dubai and garners a lot of attention – it offers a brilliant opportunity to draw attention to a layer of activity that isn’t so internationally known
Though that cosmopolitan character is also a challenge. “I have a much stronger understanding of Europeans and their artistic wants than I do for this part of the world,” Hope admits, “so I have to learn as much as I possibly can, very quickly. ”
Add to that the fact that Hope has to equally consider the cultural preferences of the millions in town for business or leisure, and it is clear he has his work cut out for him. “It’s very important to me that we stand for as many different tastes as possible,” he stresses.
The Chief Executive may be looking at his fair share of challenges, yet his ability to put on a show cannot be doubted. During Hope’s seven-year tenure as COO of London’s Royal Albert Hall, he staged thousands of internationally acclaimed performances and led the historic arts complex to year-on-year growth.
Hope emphasises Dubai Opera’s role as an active participant in developing the city’s cultural scene. “We have to do more than just commercial activities. We have to introduce workshops, masterclasses and ways for schoolchildren to learn about the whole range of careers connected to entertainment,” he reveals. And he speaks highly of the efforts of existing venues and events to support the arts. “We might be bigger and newer,” Hope adds, “but we are no different. Dubai Opera is simply adding the next layer.”
That next layer will be essential in reflecting the city’s soul, according to Hope. “When you first arrive in Dubai, what’s obvious are the really high-profile, touristy things like the Burj Khalifa and amazing beaches. When you move here, however, you need more.” he says.
Spotlighting the soul of the city ranks high on Hope’s list of priorities. “Because Dubai Opera is in the heart of Downtown Dubai and garners a lot of attention, it offers a brilliant opportunity to draw attention to a layer of activity that isn’t so internationally known.”
Impressive calendar of events
With “something for everyone” driving his programming strategy, Hope has curated an inaugural season that is sure to silence purists seeking a greater number of world-class shows in the city. The day after Dubai Opera’s maiden performance follows a tribute to the UAE’s cultural heritage in the form of The Pearl Fishers.
The impressive line-up continues with The Barber of Seville, Les Misérables, adaptations of Giselle and Coppélia, and sitar maestro Anoushka Shankar taking the stage. Because Hope had never intended for Dubai Opera to be elitist in nature, family-friendly fare comes courtesy of championship skaters at The Nutcracker on Ice.
A theatrical spectacle by the name of Slava’s Snowshow will serve as the proverbial cherry on the top, ringing in the festive season. Hope describes the award-winning international sensation as “circus-esque, but very artistic”, before promising that 2017 will offer genres that are currently absent on the schedule, such as jazz. Approaching Dubai Opera’s programme requires Hope to ignore his own personal tastes. With a slight chuckle, he cites Barney – yes, the purple dinosaur – as one such example. “It’s not something I ever thought I would promote, but it was needed for a particular time, place and audience.”
It is this mindset that makes Hope open to experimental programming. “I want people to occasionally open their newspaper or turn on their radio and realise that we are doing something entirely different. Not to be controversial, but to challenge people’s perceptions,” he says.
Considering the ever-changing political and social scene of the Middle East, he expects life to inspire art, thus making an impact on future performances. “For centuries, art has been a means of social commentary through farce, songs and cartoons. What I’m interested in is how we can get involved.”
Hope aims to position Dubai Opera as the region’s performing arts hub by placing highest importance on his customers’ experience and how they value it. “Dubai Opera is the first building of its sort, so it’s all about how we are going to deliver the evening that you want – from the comfort of your seat to the acoustics in the room and who’s on stage. If we get those perfect every time, I’ll be delighted,” he concludes.
While Dubai Opera cannot boast the near 150-year-old heritage of Hope’s former employer the Royal Albert Hall, it has the advantage of youth, the latest technology and knowledge of what makes an auditorium great.
“Good parking” is Hope’s tongue-in-cheek reply, when asked what type of extras patrons can look forward to. As far as understanding the city’s needs is concerned, he’s obviously off to a smashing start."