Azerbaijan International

Winter 1997 (5.4)
Page 25

Leyli and Majnun - 90th Jubilee
The Opera that Shaped the Music of a Nation

by Ramazan Khalilov

On January 12, 1908, it will be 90 years since the premiere of Uzeyir Hajibeyov's opera, "Leyli and Majnun." Azerbaijanis take pride that this was the first opera, not only in Azerbaijan, but in the entire Muslim world. Furthermore, this was the first work by an Azerbaijani composer to incorporate traditional Azerbaijani mugam (modal) improvisations into the format of a European opera.

Left: Uzeyir Hajibeyov and his wife Maleyka in 1926.

"Leyli and Majnun" is a tragic love story based on the 16th century poem of the same name by the Azerbaijani poet Fuzuli. The story has its roots in a feudal Arabic legend.

Only one person in Baku is alive today who witnessed that historical presentation in 1908. Ramazan Khalilov was seven years old at the time. Here he reminisces about that eventful night that took place almost a century ago.

Ninety Years Ago
I was seven years old when the opera "Leyli and Majnun" was performed for the first time in Baku. I'm Chechen and was born in Grozny in 1900. My relation with Uzeyir Hajibeyov began through friendship, but later on, he married my aunt Malika Teregulova, my mom's younger sister.

My two uncles, Ali and his older brother Hanafi Teregulov, had become good friends with Uzeyir when they studied together in Gory Seminary in Tbilisi [Georgia] at the turn of the century. Both of them participated in this opera, and that's how I got involved. Ali directed the orchestra and played violin. Hanafi led the choir and played the role of Nofar, the military leader, who protected Majnun. Sometimes they would take me along to rehearsals. Of course, I was so young at the time that I didn't fully realize the importance of what was happening. Uzeyir bey (that's the polite term by which we used to call him) had promised that if I worked hard at school, I could come to the opening performance at the Taghiyev Theater. This theater, the first ever built in Baku, was sponsored by the oil baron Zeyn-al-abdin Taghiyev and built in 1880. It had an orchestra pit and was designed to accommodate both musical and dramatic works. The building was down close to the sea on the site where the new Music Comedy Theater is currently being built.

On the night of January 12, 1908, I remember that the theater was full. My mother and my aunts and relatives had come from Tbilisi for the occasion. The play was scheduled for 7 o'clock at night. The theater was one of the few buildings enjoying electric lights. Of course, people arrived on foot or by horse and carriage.

Ramazan Khalilov




Left: Ramazan Khalilov, 97, who saw Azerbaijan's first opera as a 7-year-old child. He was the Director of the Hajibeyov Memorial Home Museum until 1999 when he died. Photo: Blair, 1995.

I remember having to sit with my mother up in the women's gallery. At that time women were not allowed to appear in public unless they were veiled. And they weren't allowed to sit in the same assembly hall together with men, even their own husbands. The main floor was reserved for men. Women had to sit in reserved boxes on the second and third levels. Curiously, there was a thin veil-like screen, something like a fisherman's net, hanging over the gallery that made the women invisible from the rest of the audience. Needless, to say, it also obscured their vision of the stage.

I remember pestering my mom alot that evening. Mostly, I was bothered by the black netting. I couldn't see the stage very clearly, and I kept asking my mom questions about the plot. Remember, we didn't grow up with television or radio or theater like kids do today, and so the story unfolding on stage seemed real.

I really liked the Majnun character. It was played by Huseingulu Sarabski. He became insane from his love for Leyla. At the final scene Majnun comes to Leyli's grave, wearing ragged clothes. He was so distraught and exhausted that he couldn't even recognize his relatives. As the poem goes, even the animals shared his grief. And then he died beside Leyli's grave.

I remember being so deeply effected by that scene that I had wanted to cry. But my father had taught me that mountain men don't cry. My mom tried to comfort me by telling me that it was just a story and that I shouldn't worry-Majnun was really all right. After the opera was over, my family hung around for awhile, waiting for some of the performers. I saw Sarabski again. He was really all right. Nothing was wrong with him and so I calmed down.

Behind the Scenes
Husein Arablinski directed the opera. Hajibeyov himself was in the orchestra pit, playing violin that first night. Gurban Primov played tar, accompanying the mugam singers, and Abdul Ahverdiyev conducted the orchestra. Ahverdiyev was a famous writer and scriptwriter from Shusha [a city in Karabakh which is now under military occupation by Armenians]. Ahverdiyev had written a stage version of "Leyli and Majnun" that Hajibeyov had seen ten years earlier as a 13-year-old boy. Actually, the idea to write an opera using Azerbaijani literary themes and musical motifs came to Hajibeyov when he was studying at Gory Seminary in Tbilisi. It was there that he had had the chance to see Rossini's Italian opera"Barber from Seville."

One of the unique aspects of the performance is that Hajibeyov used traditional Azerbaijani mugams in their original form-in the unwritten form-within the opera. But he insisted that the mugam singers base their text on the poetry of Fuzuli's original poem. Many of the opera's lines were identical to the original poetry.

Although choral singing was not an Azerbaijani tradition, Hajibeyov created a choir to comment on the events developing in the plot, to make it more dynamic and to emphasize the psychological state of the characters. It was the first time a choir had been used in Azerbaijan.

Hajibeyov viewed the opera as a success. He felt that the public was hungry for a dramatic enactment of a classic scene with folk music. He also credited Sarabski who was so artistic in his portrayal of Majnun.

Hajibeyov used to talk about the difficulties they had to overcome in staging "Leyli and Majnun." There were lots of problems-both financial as well as creative. At that time, there was no serious performing culture-no professional actors or singers. It wasn't easy to find individuals who could perform the lead roles.

Actually, Hajibeyov discovered Sarabski quite by chance. Not far from the hotel "Tabriz," where he was staying, was a water distribution center. Hajibeyov often passed by, and one day he realized that the young man who worked there loved to sing. In the evenings after work, that young man, Huseingulu Sarabski, was actively involved with dramatic groups. So Uzeyir offered him the role of the main character, Majnun. It turned out to be a very successful choice.

The Female Role
But selecting someone to play Leyli, the female lead, was more difficult. Religious authorities had complained about Muslim men singing on stage. They were even more adamant against women. Muslim women simply could not appear on stage. Of course, Russian women living in Baku didn't fall under the same restrictions, but none of them could sing mugams (traditional modal music) in the Azeri language. So an Azerbaijani man had to be found to play Leyli's part.

As the story goes, one day Hajibeyov, Sarabski and Arablinski were sitting together in a "chaykhana" (tea house) when a tall, good-looking waiter came over to their table and brought them tea. He just happened to be singing. That's when they decided to broach the possibility of his playing the woman's role, Leyli. After a great deal of persuasion, he finally consented. His name was Abdulrahim Farajev. So he dressed up as a woman and took the female lead in the first performances of Azerbaijan's first opera.

There were other difficulties as well that related to the inadequacy of props and financial arrangements. Hajibeyov complained that he had had to sell his opera for a small pittance, and the fact that the hall was filled night after night brought him no additional financial benefit.

But more importantly, because of the popular success of the work, the opera not only secured a place in the annals of the cultural history of Azerbaijan for the young 23-year-old composer, but it also set the precedent in Azerbaijan for synthesizing eastern and western techniques and styles in much of the composed music that came to be written during the century that followed.

It wasn't until after the Soviets seized power in the 1920s that women could appear in public without wearing veils. Even today there are statues in Baku that commemorate this event.
Hajibeyov himself was very sensitive to the issue. The story is told that even when he was four years old, he used to complain to his mother about the veil that she had to wear. He would say, "Mom, you're so pretty. Why do you cover your face with that rag?"

Hajibeyov later went on to write several music comedies that satirized this social custom, the most famous of which was "Arshin Mal Alan" (Cloth Peddler). In his play, the protagonist, a rich merchant, had everything he wanted in life except the chance to choose his own bride as all the girls on the street were fully veiled. He then decided to disguise himself as a cloth peddler just to gain entrance inside the courtyards to see the pretty girls and choose one as his wife.

Ramazan Khalilov, 97 (born December 27, 1900), served as Deputy Assistant when Uzeyir Hajibeyov was the Director of Baku's Conservatory of Music. He became the "executor of Hajibeyov's will" after the composer died in 1948 of complications related to diabetes. Thanks to Ramazan's enormous efforts, the Hajibeyov Memorial Home Museum was opened in 1975. He has been its Director ever since. Ramazan died in 1999.

Elmira Abbasova, Professor and former Director of the Music Academy, also contributed to this article.

From Azerbaijan International (5.4) Winter 1997
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All Rights Reserved.

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