On the trail of opera in Beirut, amid wars and lies, and what it tells us about the Middle East today - Spear's Magazine

On the trail of opera in Beirut, amid wars and lies, and what it tells us about the Middle East today

Could Beirut be the new Bayreuth? Lebanon’s fledgling opera scene is emerging from desperate Civil War days with the help of bold philanthropists and (sometimes) harmonious sopranos — but not everyone is singing from the same libretto.

Josh Spero

On a not especially scorching day in Beirut — which is to say, a scorching day by most standards — I ducked into a Virgin Megastore and made my way, after being reprimanded for trying to take photos of the entrance, to the top floor, past piles of Angry Birds soft toys and DVD boxsets. Michael Buble’s syrupy tones oozed out of speakers as I browsed the racks of Arabic-music CDs and covertly got off a shot of the grand, rather odd space — high ceilings, a narrow, triangular footprint — all strewn with merchandise in indiscernible order.

It wasn’t that I was looking for a CD, but for the building itself. A sandstone wedge, like a Mediterranean Flatiron Building (pictured below), what is now a Virgin Megastore with Buble at full blast used to be the city’s opera house. (If its walls could speak, they would probably beg Buble to stop.) When you talk to Beirutis about the city’s opera culture, they talk to you about the old opera house and how embarrassing it is that it’s now a Virgin Megastore.

Except it’s not. It is most likely that no opera was ever sung here, no Mimi hacked herself to death and certainly no Valkyrie ever took flight. As I looked around, I struggled to fit an old-fashioned opera house into the Virgin Megastore’s shell. Where did the stage go? Would the building have been large enough to have the backstage you needed for grand opera? It didn’t seem so.

Truth and history

Some Beiruti bloggers agree. ‘From what I have read,’ wrote adiamondinsunlight in 2009, ‘the Virgin Megastore is housed in the old Cinema Opera, ie the cinema’s name was “Opera”, just like there was a Cinema Roxy, a Cinema Metropolis, a Cinema Empire, and so on. There was no Beirut empire, and there was no Beirut opera house — at least, as far as I can tell.’ A commenter confirmed this and suggested the Grand Theatre, at least in its earliest days, as the closest thing Beirut had to Covent Garden. The location of their opera house, however, turned out to be not the only way that the Lebanese were deceiving themselves.

Walking into a Virgin Megastore in Beirut was like seeing a C&A on my way into Cairo: these vanished stalwarts of the British high street immediately suggest that wherever you might be, it’s still 1997. Beirut as a whole is like this, writ large, over any number of years: 1930 if you look at the Opera, the first centuries AD by the ruins of the Roman baths, any year between 1975 and 1990 when you notice buildings with ruined roofs or the pockmarks of bullets which missed their targets. Those were the years of the Civil War, when Maronite Christians, leftists, Lebanese Muslims, pan-Arabists, Palestinians and Syrians formed, betrayed and broke alliances, forced a million people out of their homes and killed 120,000 in bitter street-fighting, like Stalingrad of the Levant.

In most cities there are these fractions of lost time, like the ruins of the Temple of Mithras on Queen Victoria Street in London, but Beirut seems always and everywhere to be running along two time-tracks at once: 1990 after the amnesty, just as the Syrian occupation was beginning, and 2013, or whichever year the rest of the world has agreed it is. The struggle of many Lebanese, whether prime minister or hotelier or musician, is to drag their portion into today. This is what makes Myrna Bustani’s festival so fascinating.

The secret garden

A short taxi ride out of Beirut takes you into the mountains, where tall iron gates protect the homes of the wealthy (but not wealthy enough to have left Beirut). The taxi climbed in the shadows of straight cedars until it reached the small courtyard of the Hotel Al-Bustan (‘The Garden’) in Beit Meri, when I got out and stepped straight back into the Sixties. Construction of the hotel was started in 1962 by Lebanese industrialist, MP and diplomat Emile Bustani and finished by his wife Laura in 1967, four years after Emile had died in a small plane crash off the coast of Beirut.

Today it is still run by their daughter, Myrna, without having noticeably changed since. Four clocks on the wall told you the time (but sadly not the year) in London, New York, Paris and Tokyo, like a Pan-Am executive’s suite, and in the background Barbra Streisand warbled one of her earlier albums. The glass in the wide window overlooking the valley was pink, with red, blue and orange psychedelic streaks, all casting a gentle yet lurid light over the hotel’s lounge.

Bustani herself seems frail amid the resilient design. Her Al Bustan Festival, five weeks of classical and operatic concerts by young and emerging stars over February and March, which had its twentieth incarnation earlier this year, is as frail and resilient as anything in Lebanon, strong with sponsorship from UBS and Solidere, a large Lebanese property company redeveloping the capital, and 70 or 80 per cent attendance in the Emile Bustani Auditorium, but always vulnerable to events of the outside world. It is Lebanon’s only classical music festival.

We sit on a sofa beyond the pink light and I ask Bustani why she started the festival. ‘Because after the Lebanese civil war, and maybe as a result of the war, classical music disappeared. It did not exist any more in Lebanon. At the time the national conservatoire had been destroyed, all the schools had been burnt and it hardly started again in a little flat.’ She consulted the director of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory, who was planning on starting his own festival, and invited him to join her committee.

Western classical music, when it was present in Lebanon, had unfortunate connotations: ‘It was actually called funeral music because every time there was a catastrophe, a bomb exploding or something, they would interrupt the radio and TV programme and say, “We are interrupting the TV programme because we are in mourning now and we will be broadcasting funeral music,” then you had all Beethoven symphonies, Karajan conducting.’ She chuckles.

Classical musicians were excited to perform in Lebanon, Bustani says, even with her minuscule budget, because ‘they thought they were doing something, achieving something, by coming to Beirut’, and she made a virtue out of a necessity in gathering younger (cheaper) performers, often getting them to perform in a hastily constructed trio or quartet. Joseph Calleja, the Pavarotti of our times, was one early star: ‘I got him here when he was nobody. He didn’t have black tie, so I said, “We’ll get you one,” so we rented one and we got a fax with his measurements.’

I mention visiting the (not-opera) Opera and ask about whether Beirut will ever have an opera house. ‘To build the opera, it will not be difficult to get money from sponsors, but we need the land and the land is very, very expensive. We need the government to give us the land — not give us, rent us the land, for a hundred years. A lease. But people are busy — you can imagine. People are very busy and worried about things other than opera.’ But then she never thought she’d see a national orchestra either.

Fight or flight

As we walk out of the hotel, after a tour which glimpsed a choir of post-middle-aged local women tunefully rehearsing Piaf’s Sous le ciel de Paris, Bustani offers a glimpse of the festival’s — and country’s — fragility. ‘Every year there’s something to fight against. We never cancel anything. The first night in 2005 Rafik Hariri [Lebanese prime minister] was assassinated. We sold no tickets; there was no one here. But we carried on. We carried on. We carried on.’ My taxi takes me back to 2013.

For such a rarefied medium, opera is an oddly accurate microcosm for the Middle East. Lebanon is struggling to maintain its domestic scene, in part through domestic derangement and in part as external crises shake it, and its best singers, like its best businessmen, head abroad. The Lebanese wealthy travel for opera (Myrna Bustani used to visit the Wexford Festival regularly and attends the Proms) and anyone can watch it on the Arte and Mezzo TV channels or online.

Egypt has a glorious operatic history (Aida was commissioned by the Khedive and premiered in Cairo in 1871) and the enduring Cairo Opera Company was established, of all times, soon after the 1952 revolution — a secular nod to the West, perhaps — but the Cairo Opera website does not list any performances for the rest of the year and it is currently recruiting a principal conductor and artistic director for the permanent corps.

On the other hand, the oil-wealthy kings of the region are cultivating opera with cash and construction. ‘In a monarchy,’ says Professor Paul du Quenoy, who teaches an opera class at the American University of Beirut, ‘the sultan can decide to have an opera company or bring productions from other companies. Abu Dhabi has a Wagner society — but it’s run by Americans!’ Indeed, Abu Dhabi now has a Zaha Hadid-designed opera house for any Wagner that Sheikh Khalifa might like to hear.

Oman has its own Royal Opera House in Muscat, opened in 2011, which bears a distinct resemblance to the Metropolitan in New York. It will have over the next season The Barber of Seville by a Neapolitan company, Figaro by the Vienna State Opera and Maria Stuarda by the Welsh National Opera — in essence, no one local and (most likely) no productions which will frighten any of Sultan Qaboos’ beloved horses. Incorporated into the Royal Opera House is the Opera Galleria, ‘Muscat’s new flagship shopping destination… It boasts 50 shops offering a wide range and carefully balanced mix of art outlets, gems, fashion and perfumes.’

Constructive criticism

On the Corniche where Rafik Hariri’s motorcade was blown up, most likely by the Syrians whose occupation he opposed, stand two monuments to him. One consists of a garden on the exact spot of the bombing with a bronze sculpture of him and a tall square bronze column; the other is a massive banner hanging from an adjacent, dilapidated building which reads ‘STOP SOLIDERE’, the property company (and Al Bustan Festival sponsor) founded by Hariri.

Solidere was granted powers by the government in the early Nineties to uproot private landowners for its redevelopment to progress, and progress there has been. Among other grands projets, Solidere brought Virgin Megastores to Beirut and created the Beirut Souks, a huge upmarket commercial district, to replace the shops which had been bombed and burnt in the first months of the Civil War. On the first floor of the Souks is a Beiruti outpost of London’s very own Momo, where I spent an enjoyable night comparing dishes with London. (Beirut was better.)

The anti-Solidere banner, draped to protest the company’s plans to tear down what seemed like a decrepit if charming building, was best viewed from across Ibn Sina Street, in the Phoenicia Hotel. A grand, modern hotel with apartments in three tall buildings around a swimming pool and courtyard (plus divan-swing, much recommended with a cocktail in hand), between two of them you can glimpse what looks like the skeleton of a building awaiting the glass cladding and worker bees of a modern office tower. Only, on closer attention, you notice the scorch marks.

Phoenicia from the flames

The Holiday Inn, a broad and tall building, made a perfect vantage point for the Christian militias which stormed it in October 1975, an early stage in the Civil War, indeed while tourists were still in residence. Until March 1976, Muslim and Christian military detachments took up positions in the luxury hotels beside the Corniche, including the Phoenicia, stormed their enemies’ hotels and protected their own. Heavy machine-gun fire incessantly battered the buildings. Some of them burned. As a prime strategic position, the Holiday Inn was also a prime target, and though it still stands today it is neither stable enough to be worth restoring nor fragile enough to deserve demolishing.

An InterContinential hotel, the Phoenicia was reborn. It has all the grandities you might expect — a high marble staircase up to reception, a breakfast buffet which goes for miles (labneh — Lebanese yoghurt — and knafeh — a syrup-soaked cheese pastry — were my daily choices), a modern spa which looks like a science lab. But there are unexpected touches, too: movies projected over the pool on to a drop-down screen (quite Seventies LA, I’d say), or a Richard Long painting above the entrance which I’d wager most visitors have never registered. This Long, which resembles a giant eye with black pupil and brown iris, is one of his site-specific works in mud, all hand-applied in vivid scattering. It’s so unlikely here that it is a real pleasure.

Saturday night at the Phoenicia, before I snuck out to another club night on the shore (after Friday’s hilarious Decks on the Beach), we had dinner on the top floor of the hotel. Most of the restaurant was taken up by an engagement party, yet our table of journalists seemed to be more raucous (as if such a thing were credible), and once the band struck up lively for the happy couple we joined in. There was always an excuse to dance in Beirut, it seemed to me.

Stately progress

The American University of Beirut, a small, green campus tucked away near the luxury hotel district, opened in 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College; its motto is ‘That they may have life and have it more abundantly’. One of the things the AUB provides with (relative) abundance is classical music. On both the Saturday and Sunday nights of my stay, there were concerts: first, the Beirut Chamber Choir was giving Handel’s anthem ‘The Lord is my light’ and Poulenc’s Mass in G Major, and the next evening had various combinations of a pianist, a cellist, and a flautist and a baritone. (Also on Saturday, elsewhere, were the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra performing Beethoven’s Seventh, a Mozart violin concerto and his Prague Symphony, and a Lebanese Youth Orchestra concert.) I had been invited to both by the baritone Fady Jeanbart, who runs the Facebook group Beirut Underground Opera and was then privately teaching music in the city.

AUB’s Assembly Hall suggests a church, with its pews, organ and rose window of dark blue, light blue and red diamonds, but — as makes perfect sense in Lebanon — there were no sacred accoutrements. The programme was varied, moving from a Mozart sonata and a Handel aria to a Strauss song and a 20th-century Italian song, Non ti scordar di me, and the auditorium was nearly full when I arrived, gaining latecomers through the first few items.

The pianist was most convincing. Lory Aintablian, whose biography in the programme did not mention any lessons her mother might have given her (unlike another’s), supported the other three with light fingers, covering for any faltering and playing tirelessly. Baritone Mohamed Haidar was more of a worry, first in his choice of repertoire — Revenge, Timotheus Cries from Handel’s Alexander’s Feast is a bass aria, Non ti scordar di me a tenor standby — and then in his execution: he had to reach unpleasantly far for some of the high notes.

At the end of the concert, the audience was rapturous. There was a standing ovation, whooping and cheering, camera flashes from every side and finally a stage invasion by friends and family. I headed out front to wait for Jeanbart before one of the musicians was carried down the aisle in a chair.

Cynic surroundings

A short walk away is Hamra Street, where earlier I had tried to find a gay bar for a drink only to encounter a short romantic film being made. (‘Can you act? We can make you a star!’) Jeanbart brought me to a bright restaurant, where I ordered a haloumi wrap and sparkling water and we started to talk about the concert.

From his Facebook messages, it was clear that Jeanbart was no fan of the Beirut opera scene: ‘they all think that Pavarotti came after them and they are all maestros’; the audience is ‘people [who] go to see and to be seen, snobbish ignorant European wantobes who define all male opera singers as sopranos and all female singers as tenors’; ‘so called local singers [compete] on who screams louder and lousier’.

Some people even deny that there is an opera scene at all. The AUB’s Professor du Quenoy told me in an email: ‘I so wish I could be of help to you, but the sad truth is that Beirut has no “opera scene” to speak of. There is no performing company, society of enthusiasts, informal club, or any other organisation that does anything to promote the art form. Lebanon receives 1-2 performances of opera a year at most, and these are usually haphazard presentations given by visiting companies from abroad.’ In a later phone call, he said that an architecture student who had wanted to design an opera house for Beirut as her final-year project had been mockingly told not to by her assessors.

Having sung in Paris, which doesn’t have the most exciting opera scene today but is still a respected stop on the global circuit, Jeanbart has high standards, and neither the AUB’s concerts nor Myrna Bustani’s festival meets them. ‘Don’t charge $100 for what I would pay $5 to see in Paris,’ he says about the concerts up in the mountains. He can’t hide his scorn for the national orchestra — ‘third-rate Romanians coming over here for money’. As for Bustani’s idea of an opera house, ‘Why do they need an opera house? Who’s it for? It’s for foreigners.’

The problem is that no one is honest, he says: instead of constructive criticism at music schools, everyone has to be Callas or Domingo right away. ‘People have to stop lying to themselves and each other. They need to start small.’ He returns to the theme of lying again and again, sometimes stressing that Lebanon could have great stars if they acknowledge their flaws. Professor du Quenoy agrees, although in less forthright terms: he wouldn’t call it dishonesty, but perhaps lack of experience.

Jeanbart takes me through the ins and outs of ructions and stabs in the back at the Conservatoire, the late dictatorial director who never cultivated a successor, leaving a vacuum now filled with squabbles. It emerges as an institution run by divas, producing divas. Jeanbart perhaps has his own angle: having returned to Lebanon to care for a sick relative, he may have small-town syndrome, where, deprived of his advancing operatic career in Paris, he feels stuck in the sticks. Some successful sopranos, ‘those who got it easy because they’re daddy’s daughter’, are an object of resentment. Early Sunday morning, I had seen him sing a Schubert song on MTV (a private network, not the former music channel) after a presenter with an immobile face had failed to feign interest in the subject; he was good — too good for Lebanon, I think he felt. He is now gleefully back in Paris.

Crimes of passion

When I was back in London, Jeanbart sent me videos of Lebanese singers, good and bad. There certainly isn’t any end of effort, as a Marriage of Figaro with an Arabic libretto showed. Clips from that 2009 production at the ninth Al Ain Festival in Abu Dhabi showed up the beautiful voice of Nadine Nassar as the maid Susanna (watch below), although she and the Warsaw Philharmonic had to compete with the camera clicks of the audience. (She lives in Warsaw now.) Nassar was also clear and fine in a moody black-and-white video of Pergolesi’s Stabat mater.

There was a less pleasant end, too. Rima Tawil fairly shrieked her way through Massenet’s Ave Maria at a Christmas Day performance in 2012, and Charpentier’s Te per orbem at the American University of Beirut showed up the weaknesses of the trio of soloists.

A singer he didn’t send was Hiba al-Kawas, one of Lebanon’s best known chanteuses and composers of both Western and Arabic music. In a phone interview, al-Kawas talked of a decade of progress, with more students at the Conservatoire, who were singing better and putting on local productions, and foreign productions visiting (although regional turmoil, spreading into Beirut with deaths in riots and car bombs, may make this less likely). International stars have sung in concert: Pavarotti, Domingo, Netrebko, Alagna, Curas. Al-Kawas is also an enthusiast for an opera house: ‘I have all the promises for the land and even the building itself, I have funding for that… However, the political scene is making us postpone it.’ This seems a gentle euphemism for a damaged hope.

Academic argument

Hope has not died, however: what the opera scene needs before the opera house is an opera academy, al-Kawas says, which is why her foundation is starting one ‘that will take care of talented students from around the Arab world… bring them international experts.’ She disparages the Conservatoire (‘To be frank, we don’t have a real department’) but looks forward to her academy taking up the slack.

One of the baritone’s pieces at the concert that evening had been Avant de quitter ces lieux from Gounod’s Faust, where the soldier Valentin asks a friend to take care of his sister Marguerite before he leaves for war. (Mephistopheles has other ideas.) Mohamed Haidar had fluffed it, not forgetting any words but not mastering the song. Worse, said Jeanbart (who knew it much better than I did), he hadn’t even gone for the highest notes, which was typical of the Beiruti opera scene: ecstatic applause for a mediocre performance. ‘What’s the point of singing when you change the notes?’

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