In the Ankara State Opera and Ballet’s backstage area, voices reverberate through the labyrinthine halls, preparing for the night’s rendition of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’. Upstairs, past the many framed black and white photographs of the opera’s countless performances, makeup is applied and wigs are adjusted in a preparatory whirlwind, before a voice finally issues from the loudspeakers: ‘Good evening. The performance will begin in 30 minutes.’
The story of opera in Turkey began with a sleepless night. A performance of Georges Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ in Sofia, Bulgaria, had such a profound effect on the then-Ottoman military attaché Mustafa Kemal Atatürk that it kept him awake in his bed later that evening. By the time he founded the Turkish republic and became its first president in 1923, Atatürk’s reforms included a fervent promotion of the arts. The first Turkish opera, ‘Özsoy’, was performed in 1934. Based on Ferdowsi’s ‘Shahnameh’, it was composed by Ahmet Adnan Saygun for the Shah of Iran Reza Pahlavi, who was visiting Ankara at the time. The next year, noted German composer Paul Hindemith and theatre director Carl Ebert were asked to deliver lectures at the Musiki Muallim Mektebi, a training institute for music teachers that would later become the Ankara State Conservatory, now part of Hacettepe University. In 1936, the students staged their first performance, Mozart’s ‘Bastien und Bastienne’, followed by Giacomo Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ and ‘Tosca’ in the early 1940s.
With such an effervescent rise in artistic capability, the capital city began its search for an opera building and eventually decided on the Ankara Exhibition Hall, designed by Turkish architect Şevki Balmumcu and skilfully renovated by Paul Bonatz. On April 2, 1948, the Ankara State Opera officially opened its doors with performances composed by the Turkish Five, Turkey’s five pioneers of Western classical music: Ahmet Adnan Saygun, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, Cemal Reşit Rey, Hasan Ferit Alnar and Necil Kazım Akses. Through the 1950s, an orchestra and solo recitals were introduced, and a branch of the ballet school founded in Istanbul by the ‘godmother’ of English and Irish ballet, Ninette de Valois, was incorporated into the conservatory.
‘Atatürk was a man who knew that the arts are the ultimate representation of modernity,’ says Yavuz Öztürk, the longest serving and eldest tenor at the opera, who began his career in 1980. ‘The high quality of education and training gave way to world class artists. Back then, the Ankara State Opera and Ballet was a stepping stone to a career in Europe.’ Nostalgic for a past that he only witnessed partially, Öztürk is still enamoured by the gleaming sophistication of the opera’s golden age. ‘The audience was absolutely amazing back then. Men would arrive in their tuxedos and women in their chicest dresses.’
As the main hall begins to welcome its crowd, retired tenor Şakir İlyasoğulları appears like an elegant time traveller, clad in a perfectly tailored tuxedo and top hat. ‘I started at the opera in 1966 and retired in 2007,’ he says. ‘Opera may have arrived late in Turkey but we always looked upon it with gratitude, and our people love this art.’
Backstage, the office of the opera’s stage manager Bahadır Sağdık has a constant flow of people coming in and out of the door. ‘I think my door hasn’t been closed once in the 20 years that I’ve been here,’ says Sağdık, who’s responsible for every part of the opera’s operation, from the off stage activities to the curtain call. ‘We have the chance to work very closely with our artists and I often think I know them better than their own families,’ he jokes. Sağdık heads downstairs to the opera’s ‘underground city’ as he calls it, where the carpentry, metal and sculpture ateliers that produce the intricate set designs are located. Sounds from the stage echo through the huge space housing pieces from previous set designs – a golden Ottoman style gate here, a giant white hand there. A metal machine resembling an oversized elevator, which used to carry the heavy props onto the stage, stands idle.
‘I’ve been collecting anecdotes over the years and I’m hoping to write a “Memories of a Stage Manager” kind of book when I retire,’ says Sağdık. He’s also a member of the organisation committee for the opera’s other major project, the Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival near Antalya. Held annually in the roughly 2,000-year-old ancient Roman Aspendos Theatre, the festival has had the chance to host members of renowned institutions such as the Bolshoi Theatre and the Vienna State Opera. ‘The conductor Anton Guadagno, who worked with the great Maria Callas, did a rehearsal at Aspendos for the opera “Aida”,’ says tenor Cem Akyüz, who has been at the Ankara State Opera and Ballet since 1987. ‘He had his baton in his hand, and after about two measures, he just put it down and said, “Go ahead, I don’t have to do anything, you’re playing unbelievably.”’
Soprano Görkem Ezgi Yıldırım turns down the sound of the loudspeaker in her dressing room and sits in front of the mirror to have her wig of long flowing red hair adjusted. In under half an hour she will leave this room and become Violetta, the Parisian courtesan in ‘La Traviata’ whose life changes dramatically by the woes of love. Born and raised in the Turkish capital and a graduate of the Ankara State Conservatory, she has worked here for around 12 years. ‘Opera is my life, apart from being my occupation. The stage is where I’m happiest,’ she says. ‘I think our viewers love us because the seats are always full and the tickets always sell out. I would love for our theatre to be bigger, so that we can reach even more people.’
At the end of ‘La Traviata’, Violetta succumbs to her illness and the love of Alfredo is not enough to save her from death’s grip. Yıldırım’s voice is awe-inspiring, carrying every minute sorrow of her character’s forlorn love and life. As her coffin is closed, she reaches out to Alfredo, the lights dim and the red velvet curtain closes.
Brownbook, January-February, 2018