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As War Looms, Pavarotti Wows Them in a Laid-Back Qatar

March 07, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

DOHA, Qatar — The Middle East may be on the precipice of another war. And this placid Persian Gulf emirate may be HQ for the mightiest army on the planet. But Thursday was a night for the opera.

To the collective excitement of expatriates, a white-robed Qatari elite and restless war reporters, superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti took the stage in a heavily chandeliered, sold-out concert hall and made his way steadily through Verdi, Puccini and Mascagni.

Accompanied by Russia's Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra -- in town for a performance of the ballet "Swan Lake" this weekend -- Pavarotti also sang duets with American soprano Cynthia Lawrence and ended the performance with three standing ovations. The rotund virtuoso looked a little weak, as he has for years; he propped himself up against a lectern for each aria and held on to the conductor as he repeatedly exited the stage.

But none of this diminished the enthusiasm in a wildly diverse audience eager for entertainment and distraction from global cares.

"Sure, we are worried about the war, and we hope it won't happen, but life goes on," said 15-year-old Hanoof al Thani, a tall, articulate opera buff from Qatar's royal family who was attending Thursday's show with a group of female friends and relatives, all dressed in scarves and shroudlike black abayas. They mingled in a crowd with European women in strapless evening gowns, Western oil company executives in the occasional tux and youths in jeans.

Pavarotti's somewhat incongruous concert reflects Qatar's laissez-faire attitude about the coming conflict, even as the U.S. military plans a massive assault on Iraq from these shores. Qataris say it's a combination of denial, confidence and indifference; much of the region is preparing for war, but not Qatar.

This week alone, the Qatari capital is host to the Doha Cultural Festival 2003 and an international table tennis tournament. The European golf championship is next week, women's tennis was two weeks ago, and a major international conference for gas and oil producers comes later this month.

"It's very hard to feel the pressure of war here," said Marta Andreeva, a marketing manager for the Sheraton Hotel, where Pavarotti performed. "It's crazy. One week before the war, and all the hotels are 100% occupied."

As she spoke in the crowded hotel lobby earlier in the day, a member of Slovenia's table tennis team strolled by, followed by the president of Yemen and a bevy of children headed for the pool.

Doha will serve as the base for the U.S. Central Command, the military juggernaut that will run any invasion of Iraq. A 262-acre desert compound just outside the city and a sprawling airfield with the region's longest landing strip are the most visible features of the U.S. buildup here.

Although combat aircraft roar overhead regularly, there are no signs that citizens are buying gas masks -- as they are doing in Kuwait -- or using duct tape to seal rooms against poisonous gas, as people are doing in Israel.

"We did all that in '91," Fahed Kawari, an official with the Qatari Foreign Ministry, said, referring to the Persian Gulf War, "but not this time."

Having thrown their lot so decisively in with the Americans, Qataris appear to believe that they are largely immune to terrorist attack, will be protected against any Iraqi reprisals and are safe to go about their usual pursuits of business and leisure.

Although a couple of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles hit the Qatari desert in the Gulf War, no one was hurt, and Qatar today feels sufficiently out of Iraqi range.

"This time," said Hassan Ansari, director of the Gulf Studies Center at the University of Qatar, "there is a sense that the war is going away from us."

The Pavarotti concert was also part of Qatar's attempt to modernize and promote the arts -- a pet project of the emir's second wife, Sheika Mozah Nasser Misnad, who was spotted among the front-row royalty in Thursday night's audience.

No one seemed to flinch when Pavarotti embraced his glamorous co-star onstage. In some more conservative gulf societies, such a display would be forbidden.

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