It is a warm desert evening in Muscat and I’m on my way to the Royal Opera House. I’m going to see I Capuleti e I Montecchi, the 2013 production of Vincenzo Bellini’s opera performed by the renowned Fondazione Arena Di Verona, and it seems like the perfect opportunity to do some people-watching among Muscat’s cultural elite.
Besides the performance space, the complex is a cultural centre with art galleries, shops of independent designers, cafés, and patisseries. There is a trickle of elegance on the marble patio outside the Opera House: blondes in beaded dresses, dark-haired beauties in white wedding dress-like gowns, Arab men indicating their nationalities through the collars of their dishdashas and scarves. The Bahrainis wear red and white chequered scarves and their crisp thobes (like the Omani dishdashas) have mandarin collars and wide cuffs. The Omani headdress is an embroidered scarf wrapped into a turban and the dishdashas have tassels at the collar, which are dipped in attar. The creases look sharp enough to give paper cuts.
But it’s the ladies wearing elaborate, flowing abayas who fascinate me. There is a science to the silhouette of the Omani woman. The hair is tied in a bun, sometimes with a hairpiece, so that the profile is lifted high when the scarf is tied. I know this because scarf-tying is a well-practised skill in the powder rooms of restaurants and malls, and I’ve had the chance to see it often during my trip.
Each abaya is as unique as the wearer it partly conceals. I’m captivated by three girls who walk in, their demeanour revealing the haughtiness of youth. They stand under the chandeliers, basking in the warmth of the golden walls and surveying the room to see whether they are being admired.
One of them has an initial etched in black diamanté on the cuffs of her burqa. Another has pearl epaulettes and strings decorating her sleeves. The third has modelled her abaya on the style of British Ladies of the Garter. Streams of diaphanous purple cloth flow from her short balloon-like sleeve. The rest of the slim arm is encased in black velvet.
I can’t resist chatting when I encounter them in the restroom. The one in purple is Dahlia and she tells me they had their outfits specially tailored for the opera. “Mine is like the ladies of the Elizabethan court,” Dahlia says, “because we were coming to see Shakespeare’s work. When we go watch Hindi movies, we wear brocade scarves made from saris.” Her friend with the initialled abaya is a Harry Potter fan and has fashioned hers to look like a wizard’s robes with pointy sleeves.
The ladies from Europe have more trouble adjusting. Two men at the entrance discreetly check hemlines. The invitation had asked guests to dress formally, with shoulders and knees covered. A French woman is handed an abaya because her glimmering white shift dress grazes her knee. She puts it on and it pools around her ankles. She doesn’t look happy. Behind her is a young woman who looks like a model in a dress so tight it could have been stitched on. I am in awe of her mile-long legs and her narrow waist, but the unimpressed sentries hand her an abaya. She puts it on with a laugh and a shake of her mane.
A clink of glass tells me it’s time for the opera. One show is over, the other is about to begin.
Royal Opera House Muscat is now open for public tours from 8.30-10.30 a.m. daily.
Appeared in the October 2014 issue as “People Over Opera“.