By Nicholas Boyd-Vaughan, Engagement and Communications Manager

11 April 2017

The first act of Joanna Marsh's brand new work My Beautiful Camel has its premiere performance on 4, 5, 6 May as part of Dubai-Rostov-New York, our 2017 contemporary scenes production.  We managed to grab a cup of tea and talk about the show.

We are delighted to be featuring seven scenes from your forthcoming opera My Beautiful Camel in Dubai-Rostov-New York.  Could you tell us a little more about the story, and where the idea came from?
The opera was written very much with the Dubai audience in mind while plans were afoot for the new Dubai Opera which opened last August. When I created the story I assumed a general inexperience with contemporary opera and looked to the story as a way of introducing the genre to people who might not have encountered it in its newest forms.  So comedy was a good way in, as was having a story dual language (English and Arabic), set in offices in the Burj Khalifa and centred around the fashion industry. Oh, and with live camels on stage. Which are very cheap to hire in Dubai as it happens. 
You moved to Dubai in 2007, has this had a great influence on your music?
Living in the Middle East for ten years has been an invitation to explore the work of artists and writers from the Arab world that I may not otherwise have encountered. This has been great fuel for new work and a way to engage and invoke a potential new audience. And this is generally how it has been for me: a resource library. But this piece is a step in a wholly different direction.
I had never lived in another country before leaving England in 2007 and over the last 10 years I have learned a great deal about what it really means to live in a well integrated multi-cultural society where at all levels, expectations are subtly different according to the social norms, preconceptions and interpretations of each nationality.
So in Dubai you have a rather inspiring ruler who is intent on delivering a top global city for his citizens. And you have a highly engaged workforce who have bought into the vision on a grand scale; love it, love him. But the ‘doing’ part of this can create some turbulence as they battle to understand each other to produce the deliverables. Small misinterpretations can be easily magnified into baffling parting of the ways as different segments of the workforce get stuck in. And unless kept in check, what arrived on the desk as a cogent strategy can mutate into an unholy mess from which recovery is unlikely. So this is what “My Beautiful Camel” is about, and it has been the first time I have explored this territory.
What do you hope audiences will take away with them after seeing My Beautiful Camel?
It’s a comedy, set in Dubai. They don’t have to belly laugh themselves into the aisles, but a twinkle in the eye might be nice occasionally.
A few people who have read the libretto have said to me: but wait, is it ok to write a story that essentially lampoons Dubai? Firstly – stop right there. It doesn’t. It is a story that simply takes to extremes what could easily be happening in most companies in the Middle East on a daily basis. That said, I don’t think it would be very easy for an Arab local to write a similar comedy about Dubai. The local Emiratis’ attitude to their homeland is characterised by a sincere and deeply felt reverence. It is a thing that doesn’t quite exist in the British mentality. The British think anyone and anything is a ripe target.
And it is in truth a piece intentionally full of caricatures and stereotypes because (quietly) they really do exist in the UAE and there is always new mileage to be found in adapting these tried and tested formulas to new comedic ends. But it is possible that the British audience isn’t necessarily aware of the specific stereotypes that those of us who live in Dubai recognise so easily. So this might be an eye-opener. We shall see.
Regarding the music, I have skittered around on the thin line between classical and jazz a great deal. Several characters come with their own tonal and motivic handle. I expect that the musicians in the audience will probably notice these, and as for everyone else, I just hope they are entertained by the piece.
These scenes are to be performed by our 2016/17 Young Artists, did that influence the way that you approached the work?
Most of the music was already written at the time I heard that National Opera Studio would like to feature the work with their Young Artists. However there were a few tweaks needed. One of the parts changed voice type so that it became a ‘trouser role’. The lower ones adapted up a little. One part was totally new but nothing changed in terms of style or intent.
When working with opera, what makes a good libretto from the composer’s perspective?
There is a general rule that words set to music take 8 times longer to perform than those delivered as speech. So from a composer’s perspective, a libretto needs to be succinct and clear.  Speech, sung speech, is generally the primary vessel for moving the action forward so if it goes on too long the drama can very quickly lose pace.
If a composer is lucky enough, as I have been, to work with someone who brings with them an entire lifetime of theatre experience, there will be extra advantages. With My Beautiful Camel, David had one or two fabulous musical ideas that he wrote into the libretto. He also had a clear sight-line as to how the characterisation of the personalities would function together and how these might be conveyed musically. These were so convincing that I simply had pour the ideas into a musical mould.
What are the plans for My Beautiful Camel once our production is over?
The plan is for a fabulous opera company somewhere to take the piece, make it a huge global hit, and then bring it back on tour to Dubai (guys, I’m happy to introduce you to the camel owner, just mail me).