The GuardianIslam the opera: curtain up on Clusters of Light about life of prophet Muhammad
Musical production telling the story of Islam's main prophet has premiered in Sharjah, the small emirate adjoining Dubai
Peter Walker and Susan Schulman
Sunday 30 March 2014 10.06 EDT
It was quite a challenge, even for the crack team of theatrical experts summoned from around the world: less than six months to produce a hi-tech musical extravaganza about one of the most renowned figures in human history. Oh yes, and the title character can't appear on stage.
But somehow it happened and on Sunday night a lavish production about the life and teachings of Muhammad, Islam's main prophet, intended as a rejoinder to more militant interpretations of the faith, premiered at a specially built £20m mock-Roman amphitheatre in Sharjah, the small emirate adjoining Dubai.
The show had to be assembled in months by an international team that includes Piers Shepperd, technical director of the 2012 Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, and the man who made Danny Boyle's creative ideas happen on stage. Now he has done the same for a show whose scope is roughly equivalent to Islam: the Opera. The 90-minute production, Clusters of Light, has the ambitious stated intent of rebranding the religion internationally.
The story is told with a cast of about 200, including some of the Arab world's most celebrated singers, such as Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian winner of Arab Idol, and the Tunisian tenor Lotfi Bouchnak, with spectacular animated scenes projected around them.
An inaugural run in Sharjah will be followed by mooted tours to Malaysia, Turkey and even Paris. There are tentative plans to translate the libretto, by a Saudi poet, into other languages with a view to attracting non-Muslim audiences.
From the beginning, the production faced one particular challenge: under Islamic convention Muhammad cannot be portrayed in human form.
The first step for the team, according to Richard Lindsay, the creative director, was to watch The Message, a 1977 film about Muhammad's life that showed the story from his direct perspective, conveniently keeping him off-screen.
"As we weren't making a film, we didn't have that luxury," said Lindsay. "There's only once in the show we refer to the prophet, and then we represent him as a source of light, which is accepted. For the rest of the time we didn't need him in the story, as it revolves around him. The show is about what he's doing, but it doesn't actually need to show him."
The production is lavish to an almost Bollywood extent, with images projected to a huge screen behind the cast, forming the background scenes, sometimes animating to interact with the on-stage action or provide images such as a falcon seemingly soaring above the audience.
Gavin Robins, the director, with a background in the somewhat different world of the Eurovision song contest and stage productions such as How to Tame Your Dragon, describes it as the most technically advanced show he has worked on, and one of the most dramatic. "You could describe it as a romantic thriller," he said. "When we first rehearsed the scene about the prophet's death, the entire company was genuinely weeping. It's a gift to be able to take that energy from a cast."
Shepperd said his involvement changed his view about the religion's take on several subjects, for example the position of women.
He said: "If you look at the popular misconceptions about Islam, that isn't the case at all. It's great to be working on a show that explores those kinds of things."
Whatever the intended message, the broader cultural context is arguably slightly more complex. Sharjah is sufficiently traditional to possess a set of "public decency rules" that prohibit, among other things, men and women being alone together in public unless they are married or related. The author of the libretto, Abdulrahman al-Ashmawy, has reportedly written a poem criticising attempts by women in his native Saudi Arabia to be permitted to drive. However, the man ultimately overseeing Clusters of Light, Philippe Skaff, said he welcomed Sharjah's ambitious scheme from the very personal perspective of a Lebanese Christian: "As a Christian Arab, if anyone feels threatened by extremism, it's us. It's very comforting to see a work like this commissioned.
"At the start of all this the sheikh told me, 'If we don't do this, if we don't spread the real message of Islam, we're letting the extremists take over. This is our way of responding to them.'"