Q&A: Maria Arnaout, General Director, Damascus Opera House

The leader of the country’s central arts venue talks about the future of the space.

Maria Arnaout

Maria Arnaout

Recently, Damascus Opera House started producing its own shows and running community projects. Are you planning to move from solely being a space for arts to developing the local arts scene?

It is not really a change in our role. This has always been our aim but Damascus Opera House is still young and it is now that we have become ready to work on development projects.

We got a small grant from the Czech embassy to start an audio-visual library. We are gathering CDs and DVDs of rare music, theatre and dance performances.

The Ministry of Culture has allocated to us a car equipped with a TV filming set to be able to record our own shows. We recorded a concert by Syrian pianist Ghazwan Zerikly in which he played compositions by Franz Liszt and we will start selling copies for a reasonable price.

We’ve also produced our own shows; namely The Marriage of Figaro last season and Gianni Schicchi by Giacomo Puccini. The latter will be showing in May. We’ve also finished auditions and casting for the musical Oliver! based on the novel Oliver Twist.

There is a music project called El Sistema that Venezuela started in the 1980s to help homeless children get away from drugs, alcohol and street violence by offering them free musical instruments and tuition. Today, there are over a hundred youth orchestras in Venezuela and some of those homeless children became internationally renowned musicians. Inspired by El Sistema, I suggested that we invite Syrian orphans to perform in Oliver!. We chose 25 children from over 60 young applicants from orphanages.

Audiences are often made up primarily of intellectuals and the elite. What are you doing to expand your outreach?
We sell tickets for very reasonable prices that average Syrians can afford. Syrians can attend shows that cost hundreds of Euros abroad for very cheap prices here. Few operas around the world can boast such cheap tickets.

We are also working on raising awareness about our shows. We are planning to work together with our guest artists and organise public classes and workshops run by them for Syrian students. This way, we can raise awareness about art among everyday Syrians who are not experts in this field.

How can Damascus Opera House sustain itself financially?
We are one of the few opera houses that get governmental funds. It is a well-known fact that when a country is hit by an economic crisis, the cultural activities are always the first to suffer from a cut in the budget. The over 100-year-old Philadelphia Orchestra, for example, filed for bankruptcy protection this April. Of course, the budget allocated to Damascus Opera House cannot compare to that of other opera houses around the world, but the funds we get help us continue our work. Still, we encourage the private sector to invest. In fact, we’ve just opened the opera’s café and restaurant for investment.

How are the recent events in Syria affecting the opera house?
I believe that, under any circumstances, cultural events should continue. If we stop our cultural work, we would be taking the country backward. Therefore, the Opera House did not cancel any of its events. Those events that were cancelled were cancelled by the artists. While some were Syrian, most of the cancelled events were by foreign artists whose foreign ministries advised them to avoid travelling to Syria due to the current situation. However, our other events this month were well attended.

Will any big names perform in the opera this year?

We’ll host a Russian ballet performance on ice in December. This will be the first event of its kind in Syria. They’ll perform Swan Lake and the Nutcracker.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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