For war-weary Syrians, Damascus Opera brings welcome respite

DAMASCUS, SYRIA, Rim Haddad- After years of war forced it into near silence, Damascus' once-thriving Opera House is slowly coming back to life, bringing respite and a little culture to residents of Syria's capital.
Recent weeks have seen a sharp increase in the number of performances at the Opera House, as residents look to revive some of the capital's cultural life despite a civil war that has killed more than 200,000 people.

For Darin, a young woman from a Damascus suburb hit by heavy fighting, the performances have been a welcome break.
"When the concert begins, when the first note of the piece is played, I'm taken to another world where I can forget about the noise of war," she told AFP as she wandered the halls of the Opera House in central Damascus.
"We're hungry for art. We need to escape... and to give ourselves a boost of positive energy to keep on living."
Syria's crisis erupted in March 2011 with peaceful demonstrations against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and has since evolved into a multi-fronted war pitting rebels and Islamist militants against government forces.
The Opera House, inaugurated by Assad in 2004 as a showpiece cultural centre, has struggled throughout the conflict, managing to keep its doors open but with the number of its performances dropping considerably.
Near key government and military buildings on Umayyad Square, the Opera House was even damaged during a mortar attack last April that killed two people.
- 'Keep heritage alive' -
Fewer than half of its employees and musicians remain from before the war, many having fled the country or been drafted into the military.
But the Opera House has launched an attempt at a revival, dropping the price of first-class tickets to the equivalent of $1.50 (1.30 euros) in a bid to attract new visitors.
It has also brought it in local artists and groups -- some of them fledgling -- to grace its stage.
Recent performances have included classical and Latin music concerts, as well as a poetry reading.
Attendance even temporarily returned to pre-war levels last month, as more than 5,000 people attended a five-day Arab music festival.
The Opera House -- known officially as Dar al-Assad (The Assad Centre) for Culture and Arts -- contains three halls, the largest of which can accommodate 1,200 people in its red velvet seats.
"Those who died gave their lives so that we can live, and so that the theatres can stay open... They did not die so that we close down," Opera House director Juan Karajoli, who took charge last autumn, told AFP.
Karajoli said the opera planned to hold "many music festivals and cinema screenings" in 2015, as well as book fairs and art exhibitions.
Baraq Tanari, a musician from Syria's former commercial hub Aleppo, sees the revival of the Opera House as a chance to maintain Syria's artistic side after fighting destroyed many of the country's cultural landmarks.
"We established our band in order to keep our heritage alive during this crisis," Tanari, who heads the Tarab Dahab group, told AFP as he prepared to take the stage in December.
Tanari said he believes that his band's performances of traditional Arab music help show that Syrians are still on the cultural map despite their ruined country.
Amidst the chaos of war, he said, his musicians are trying to "keep the message of art flowing".

Wednesday, January 14th 2015
Rim Haddad

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