Lights, camera, action: behind-the-scenes at Dubai Opera

Sam Price goes behind the scenes at Dubai Opera to discover what was required to deliver the first-ever sporting event to be held at the state-of-the-art venue. With insight from a number of people that contributed to the overall production, we paint a picture of how the 2017 PSA Dubai World Series Finals were put together

“One of the greatest things about Dubai,” muses Ziad Al-Turki, Chairman of the Professional Squash Association (PSA), “is that a building gets built, and immediately becomes iconic.”

Dubai Opera has been open to the public for less than nine months, but following the conclusion of the 2017 PSA Dubai World Series Finals – the first-ever sporting event to take place at the 2,000-capacity theatre – few would dispute that the venue is already carrying ‘iconic’ status.

Designed by leading architect Janus Rostock, the state-of-the-art building gleams at night to resemble a dhow – the Arabian sailing vessel that was so pivotal to the development of the Middle East – and has already welcomed a diverse programme of theatrical events thanks to innovative features that allow the inside of the building to transform itself from one form to another.

“Through changing the levels of both the auditorium seating, and in some cases the stage – and the walls and the roof around the stage – we are able to create almost any atmosphere that we want, to host almost any kind of event that we want,” says Jasper Hope, who took office as Chief Executive of Dubai Opera in January 2015 – when it was still being constructed.

Whether it’s contemporary musical theatre, Iftar banquets during Ramadan or high-octane squash, the multi-functional space can adapt for the occasion. “We are only limited by our imagination,” adds Hope.

Squash’s unique selling point is that the glass court in which it is played can in theory be ‘dropped’ anywhere, but there is more to it than that, with a host of logistical considerations required to please players, officials, spectators and broadcasters before the show can get underway. Did this pose any problems for Dubai Opera in its first venture into hosting a live, televised sporting event?

“The similarities with building a set for a great show are there,” according to Hope, “and it’s pretty much the same procedure we have to go through. Whether it’s Mary Poppins on stage or the PSA World Series Finals, we need lights, we need sound, we need cameras and screens – and we need dressing rooms for the players rather than the artists.”

While the PSA handled the on-court aspects of their showcase tournament, it was production company Progress that managed the delivery of everything that went on outside of the Z Court – from lighting to music, graphics to trophy presentations.

Progress are widely associated with the success of founder James O’Brien’s reinvention of the Olympic and Paralympic spectator experience, following the delivery at London 2012 of an educational, entertaining and innovative programme of sport presentation across all events.

And the hallmarks of that production effort were in evidence across the five days at Dubai Opera, with catchy music played during breaks in the play, explanations of rules and permutations provided by assured presenter Michael Absalom, and spectacular lighting that gave an ethereal quality to the illuminated, purple Z-Court.

“The idea was to give the PSA Dubai World Series Finals a theatrical-style production to match the stunning Opera House venue,” explains O’Brien.

“But in doing that, you have to reach a compromise between creating a cinematic experience for the spectators, and not changing the field of play to the extent that it puts the players off their games,” he adds.

With a musical background as former director of the MTV Video Music Awards, O’Brien was well qualified to lead the presentation of the first sporting event at Dubai Opera, and showed his famed attention to detail by selecting a track by Morrissey – James Willstrop’s favourite singer – to accompany the player’s stage entrance.

Indeed, Progress’s ability to think beyond conventional sports production has proved a perfect match with Dubai’s focus on innovation, with the company having also delivered the presentation of the 2016 Dubai BWF World Superseries Finals at Hamdan Sports Complex, which transformed a 50-metre swimming pool into a badminton arena. But unlike that set-up, in which badminton referees are positioned on court, extra consideration had to be made for squash’s officials, who – uniquely for sport – sit among the crowd.

In Dubai Opera, the officials were in an elevated position on the second tier of the atrium, from where they made the crucial calls and engaged in often-humorous dialogue with fired-up players.

“I’ve loved the whole concept of the players being on-stage, and refereeing a match from up on the balcony,” said Roy Gingell, Director of Refereeing for the World Squash Federation, who was part of a three-man officiating team at the Finals.

“The challenge was the distance, but with the technology we’ve got now with the video referee, hopefully we reached the right outcome with the majority of decisions.”

Squash at the Dubai Opera 2
The PSA Dubai World Series Finals was the first-ever sporting event to be held at Dubai Opera

In addition to making sure the officials and spectators had a clear view of the action, organisers also had to keep the cameramen – whether situated up high, or close-up behind the court – happy with the lighting, so that a slick television product could be beamed out to more than 150 countries across the globe.

Progress brought some equipment with them, but they were also able to utilise Dubai Opera’s outstanding collection of LED lights to ensure that the pictures matched the engaging commentary of Squash TV’s Lee Drew, Joey Barrington and Vanessa Atkinson.

With positive feedback from both from the in-house and television audience indicating that Dubai Opera’s first foray into sports entertainment was a successful one, is there any room for improvement or innovation as attention turns to next year’s edition of the PSA Dubai World Series Finals?

“The event this year was great, but I think there are opportunities to better it, because [Dubai Opera] is such an incredible building,” says Al-Turki, whose revolutionising of squash’s presentation and broadcast product over the last decade has been at the heart of the sport’s resurrection.

“It’s so modular, there’s so much you can do with it and I think we could do a completely different set-up next year that would make the tournament even better for the spectators.”

Hope agreed. “We’ll certainly look with great eagerness at the position of the court,” said the 48-year-old, who had previously overseen the staging of tennis at Royal Albert Hall during his seven-year stint as COO of the prestigious London concert venue. “It’s already pretty close to the spectators but I think there’s a little bit of scope to bring it further into the auditorium.”

As business returns to normal for Hope and his team approaching the one-year anniversary of the opening of Dubai Opera, everybody involved in the delivery of the 2017 World Series Finals – from players to cameramen, lighting crew to sound engineers – can take pride in an event which fused sport and culture to a successful degree, and served as a perfect illustration of Dubai’s desire to do things differently.