Opera was the favorite form of theatre in 19th century Istanbul. A troupe from Italy performed for an entire season at one theatre, while French operas were staged at another. Istanbul was one of a handful of opera capitals in Europe. Indeed, Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’ was performed in Istanbul before it was staged in Paris and sometimes the same opera was performed at several theatres on a given evening. On the evening of 8 July 1899, for example, three productions of ‘Aida’ were running simultaneously. I should point out however that all these productions were performed by artists from abroad, and most of the city’s opera-goers as well were from its Levantine and minority communities. Opera productions and concerts were also held at the palace theatres. Sultan Abdulhamid II was particularly fond of this art form and took great pleasure in attending operas at the theatre in Yildiz Palace, to which he appointed an Italian by the name of Arturo Stravolo director.

Stravolo also appeared on stage together with his family. Among the operas performed in Beyoglu there were even some actually created in Turkey. Their composers were mostly Italians who had lived in the country for generations, who were also responsible for the libretti. Two operas however had Turkish libretti. One of these was ‘Giselda’, music by Lombardi, libretto by Tondi, which was first performed at the Naum Theatre in Beyoglu in 1850. The second was ‘L’Assedio de Silistra’ (The Siege of Silistra), composed by Giacomo Panizza, which tells the story of the Russian siege of the Turkish fort at Silistra in northern Bulgaria in 1854 and the heroic resistance of the Turks. Staged at the large Naum Theatre in 1855, its libretto was written by none other than Gabriel Naum, a relative of the theatre’s owner.

But we must wait for Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, before we can speak of a national opera in Turkey. Ataturk, who placed great importance on music as on all the arts, commissioned a young man by the name of Munir Hayri Egeli to write libretti on three themes. Titled ‘A Path of Idealism’, ‘The Leader’ and ‘The Doll’, these libretti were given to Turkey’s leading composers, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Necil Kazim Akses and Ahmet Adnan Saygun, to be set to music. Erkin never composed the first; Akses composed a brief section of the second, and Saygun completed the third in one act. The last two were performed on the anniversary of Ataturk’s arrival in Ankara at the start of the War of Liberation.

It was June 1934. The Shah of Iran was going to visit Turkey from 10 June to 6 July to observe Ataturk’s reforms at first hand with the idea of introducing their equivalents in his own country. Ataturk had the idea of producing an opera for the Shah that would last all night. Münir Hayri Egeli was immediately summoned for the task. The epic poem, the Shah-name or Book of Kings, by the famous Iranian poet Ferdowsi, was chosen.

After being examined carefully by Ataturk, the libretto was given to Adnan Saygun to be set to music and the three-act opera was soon completed. The basic theme of the opera, which was based on mythology, was that Iranians and Turks are brothers with common origins. The librettist Münir Hayri Egeli staged the production. Nimet Vahit, a voice teacher at the Istanbul Conservatory played the lead female role. This artist, who trained a number of important opera singers, was also the teacher of Semiha Berksoy, who played the peasant girl Aysim in the production. She is recognized as a first-class interpreter of Wagner. The lead male role of Feridun was played by baritone Nurullah Taskiran, who was trained in Europe’s finest music schools. Ataturk demonstrated that a three-act opera could be created and staged even under the most difficult conditions, thereby preparing the ground for a national opera in Turkey. Staged successfully for the visiting Iranian monarch, the opera, this time scaled down to a single act, was performed again on the evening of 3 February 1982.

Ismet Inönü, Turkey’s second president, and Hasan Ali Yücel, minister of culture and education, were two more pioneers of the Turkish national opera. The renowned German composer Paul Hindemith came to Turkey to found the State Conservatory in 1935, and another German, opera and theatre director Karl Ebert, set up departments of opera and theatre in the Conservatory as well as founding a ‘practice theatre’ where opera and drama students could appear in public performance. The first opera performed was Mozart’s one-act ‘Bastien and Bastienne’, which he composed at the age of fourteen.

The second acts only of Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ and ‘Tosca’ were performed in 1940 and 1941 respectively, followed by Beethoven’s only opera, ‘Fidelio’, and ‘Madame Butterfly’ in full the following year. Subsequent opera productions included Smetana’s ‘The Bartered Bride’ (1943), Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ (1944), Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ (1945), Verdi’s ‘Masked Ball’ (1947) and Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ (1948). The Exhibition Hall in Ankara was converted into a theatre and opera building in 1947-48. Known as the ‘Buyuk Tiyatro’ or Great Theatre, it opened on 2 April 1948 with a performance of Ahmet Adnan Saygun’s opera ’Kerem’. The Ankara State Opera and Ballet commenced activities in 1949 following the enactment of a special law. Two of Ataturk’s great dreams were thus realized. Today operas are produced regularly in five of Turkey’s cities.

With the performance of Madame Butterfly, Ankara theatre-goers began to develop an ardent interest in the opera, which they came to know and love. A 25-year-old soprano named Mesude Caglayan in the role of Madame Butterfly (Cho-Cho San) captured hearts with her voice and her acting ability, and the present writer, who was a school boy at the time, was captivated by the art of the theatre forever. Not only were all the performers successful, but the decor, created by one of Turkey’s great artists, Turgut Zaim, was spectacular. 2004 marks the 100th anniversary of the premiere performance of Madame Butterfly at La Scala on 17 February 1904. The Istanbul State Opera and Ballet is joining in the celebration by producing Madame Butterfly again in its 2004 season after a hiatus of many years.

Prof. Dr. Metin And

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