A Sound Girl In Oman: Bridging Cultural Gaps Through Theatre
By Sound Girls
My journey began when I announced to my science class students that I was leaving in two weeks’ time to work as a senior sound and broadcast technician at a new opera house in Muscat, Oman. A sea of blank faces and open mouths stared at me.
Five years ago, The Royal Opera House, Muscat was the first opera house to open in the Middle East. His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said came to power in 1970 and has since transformed the country; building roads, schools and infrastructure. As part of his vision, Sultan Qaboos instructed the building of the opera house and hence the introduction of international arts and culture to the people of Oman.
The opera house essentially runs as a ‘Festival’ with our programming department booking a diverse selection of productions over the season. Last season this included opera from Vienna Opera House, a ballet from the English National Ballet, the Buena Vista Social Club, Maher Zain and Chinese Dragon Acrobats. The building of the opera house led to compiling a team of experts from all over the world and with that we have learned and are continuing to learn how to bridge our cultural gaps.
The sound and broadcast department is comprised of ten specialists, recruited internationally, including three Omanis. Between us we speak six languages.
Communication is a constant challenge within our team. A task that would be straightforward in a small sound team at home suddenly becomes a logistical (and health and safety) nightmare.
We must also maintain a careful balance between respecting the Omani culture and delivering iconic opera and ballet from around the world. For example, in our department, we need to ensure that music is not playing during prayer times and that surtitles are provided in Arabic. Abiding by local customs and traditions is of utmost importance if we are going to have any hope of engaging with our audiences.
Family is an absolute core value here and an Omani will always put them first. For the expats who work here, this can be a hard pill to swallow. Our own cultures are often far from this ideal. Rehearsals can be called off at the last minute if there is even the slightest chance of rain. Many of our Omani colleagues live in villages many kilometres from Muscat and flooding wadis (normally dry river beds) can mean perilous journeys or even areas that are totally cut off for a few days. Situations like this in the West would be unspeakable. I’ve known colleagues in London to sleep in the theatre rather than stop the show during snow storms!
Working with such a diverse team in a country whose culture is vastly different than mine has taught me how to work beyond culture. Having been a teacher I am aware of the sometimes-subtle differences between hearing and understanding. Although not strictly part of my job description, I have found immense satisfaction in delivering effective new training methods.
Some of the practical ways in which we overcome these difficulties include employing translators, colour coding nearly everything, clear and concise labelling and a work environment that lends itself to open team discussion.
As you can imagine, the technical experience between us is immense and we are always learning new skills and different ways of doing things from each other. Diplomatic solutions are always only a conversation away. Needless to say, this is now starting to be rolled out across other departments.
Despite the searing temperatures and daily challenges of working in this diverse environment, I feel incredibly blessed to have my eyes opened to the reality of life in the Middle East. Western media is a bombardment of negativity towards this part of the world. Our opera house is a beacon of inspiration.
Article by Sound Girl: Clare Hibberd