Azerbaijan International

Winter 1997 (5.4)
Pages 70-71

Opera in Azerbaijan

by Azer Rezayev

 Azerbaijan State Theater of Opera and BalletOpera in Azerbaijan is basically a 20th century phenomenon which has incorporated elements of Azerbaijani traditional music. The first opera performances in Baku were staged at the old Taghiyev Theater, a building that once stood on the site where the new Musical Comedy Theater is presently being constructed. The new theater should open this year-1998.

Photo: The Azerbaijan State Theater of Opera and Ballet.

The Azerbaijan State Theater of Opera and Ballet was built in 1910. The circumstances surrounding its construction add to its intrigue and romance. It seems an Italian diva came to Baku in 1909. Astonished to find that there was no proper opera house where she could perform, she refused to sing.

According to the story, "The Bygone Days" written by Manaf Suleymanov, now in his mid-80s, a certain oil baron by the name of Mailov fell in love with her and offered to build an opera house in Baku if she would return a year later.

Opera in AzerbaijanBut could such an ornate building be completed in a single year? Oil baron and philanthropist Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev who had constructed numerous buildings in Baku had his doubts. And so he challenged Mailov, betting him that it could not be done. If Mailov succeeded within the deadline, Taghiyev promised to underwrite the costs of construction. Ten months later, Taghiyev had to shell out the money. The opera house was ready.

Left: Scene from "Ashug Garib" by Aulfugar Hajibeyov. Courtesy UNDP

Civil engineer and architect N. G. Bayev, a graduate of the Institute of Civil Engineering in St. Petersburg designed the building along the lines of the Renaissance style architecture. The total costs for construction exceeded 250,000 rubles (approximately $30,000) an enormous sum of money for that period.

The Opera Theater which was so vital to musical culture in Baku mysteriously burned down in 1985. It's still not clear how the fire started. But the building had become such a central landmark for music and culture that officials decided to rebuild it. Three years later on January 3, 1988, the Opera Theater opened again. Today it stands as one of the most beautiful and majestic symbols of cultural life in Azerbaijan.

First Azeri Operas
Azerbaijan prides itself with having created the first opera of the Middle East -"Leyli and Majnun" (1908) by Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948), which is based on the poetry of Nizami. It was
Hajibeyov's first major work. He was 22 at the time and admits that he really didn't have the formal preparation to tackle an opera - music and libretto. Nevertheless, it was Hajibeyov who opened the first page of Azerbaijan's national opera history. He set the tone and direction of many works that followed. For example, Hajibeyov led the battle to retain traditional Azerbaijani modal forms, melodies and folk instruments. In the early 1920s, there was a furious intellectual battle going on between those who wanted to hold on to the traditional musical expressions of the past and those who wanted totally to discard them and embrace European music.

Hajibeyov was the genius who took the best of blending eastern traditional elements (melody, mode and instruments) with western style and form, specifically opera, which was followed later on by other composers who wrote works of symphonic, ballet, concerto and chamber music.
Opera in Azerbaijan

Between 1908 to 1915, Uzeyir wrote five more operas, one after another, making a total of six during the pre-revolutionary period. In addition, he wrote three musical comedies. After the Soviet power was established (1920), his productivity slackened in terms of composing as he was deeply involved with many administrative and pedagogical tasks. Hajibeyov went on to write only one more opera - Koroglu (The Blind Man's Son) in 1937. Fortunately, it was a masterpiece.

Early singers of opera, remembered for their masterful performances, include Bul-bul, Shovkat Mammadova, H. Sarabski, H. Hajibabayev and M. Bagirov. Later others like Sona Hajiyeva, Khurshud and Surayya Hajar, Hagigat Rezayeva and Sona Mustafayeva followed.

Left: Program for "Shah Ismayil" by Muslim Magomayev

After 1920, opera in Baku was spurred on by the staging of several of the Western classics by Verdi, Bizet, Puccini, Rossini, Glinka, Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.

Expanding Repertoire
The greatest developments in opera took place during the 1930s when some of the most outstanding operas were written, including "Shah Sanam" by Reinhold Gliere (1875-1956), "Nargiz" by Muslim Magomayev (1885- 1937) and "Koroglu" by Hajibeyov.

Gliere, an eminent Russian composer came to Baku because of his fascination with folk songs of the Caucasus. He incorporated many Azerbaijani melodies into his opera "Shah Sanam" (1934) in which Shovkat Mammadova and Bul-bul performed the leading roles.

The year 1937 was a watershed in the history of opera in Azerbaijan as it marked the first perfor-mance of Hajibeyov's opera "Koroglu"(The Blind Man's Son) and Muslim Magomayev's "Nargiz."

Koroglu was based on Azeri folk music but it incorporated arias, recitatives, ensembles, a large chorus and dances. Folk instruments, such as the tar (a stringed instrument) and zurna (a wind instrument) were also written into the score along with western symphonic instruments. The scenes are dramatic. Even a horse-Koroglu's, of course-appears on stage.

Koroglu is based on an Azerbaijani folk legend. The hero overthrows the khan who has been exploiting the people. The plot is based on an Azeri folk legend but perfectly suited the Soviet propaganda machine of the time. The music score is extraordinary and hailed as Hajibeyov's masterpiece.

Three Troupes
When we speak about the Azerbaijan Opera Theater, it's important to note a distinguishing characteristic about its performance troupes. The opera collectives of Italy, England, America, Germany, France and other countries usually consist of only one troupe, meaning that all operas are performed in the native language of that nation or are performed in the composers' native languages. The same vocalists perform all of them. In other countries, the opera collectives consist of two troupes-those performing in the native language operas and those singing in languages of the Western classics.

But in Azerbaijan, there are three troupes. One troupe is comprised of mugam where the soloists are mugam performers who sing in the Azeri language. The second troupe consists of the soloists who perform the classic operas of Azerbaijani composers in the Azeri language. The third troupe, known as the Russian troupe, consists of soloists who perform European classic operas, as well as operas by Russian composers. During the Soviet period, most of the European classics were translated into Russian; so, many of these operas are traditionally performed in Russian instead of the original languages in which the operas were written-German, French and Italian. In addition to these three troupes, Azerbaijan has one single chorus and an orchestra that go to make up the Azerbaijan opera collective.

The Azerbaijan Opera and Ballet Theater troupe often toured throughout the former Soviet Union. In 1941, they performed in Iran and later went on to make appearances in France, Morocco and various Asian countries.

Looking Ahead
The opera is a powerful medium because it creates dramatic characters that take on a life of their own. Lately, with the economic difficulties that we have been experiencing since the collapse of the Soviet Union, opera has had severe setbacks and been neglected. It is critical that we don't lose what we have worked so hard to gain and that our singers maintain the high professional level of their previous performances. It's vital that we continue this legacy of Azerbaijani opera and pass it to the next generation. Somehow, we must find ways for the vibrancy of the opera to be able to continue to live and breathe and sing.

Major Operas by Azerbaijani Composers

1908 Leyli and Majnun
1910 Husband & Wife*
1911 Mashadi Ibad*
1913 Arshin Mal Alan*
1915 Ashug Garib
Shah Ismayil
1935 Nargiz
Vatan (Motherland)
1953 Sevil
1957 Azad
1960 Vagif
1972 Bridal Rock
Uzeyir Hajibeyov
Uzeyir Hajibeyov
Uzeyir Hajibeyov
Uzeyir Hajibeyov
Zulfugar Hajibeyov
Muslim Magomayev
Muslim Magomayev
Uzeyir Hajibeyov
Gara Garayev & Jovdat Hajiyev
Fikrat Amirov
Jahangir Jahangirov
Ramiz Mustafayev
Shafiga Akhundova

* music comedy operetta

Azer Rezayev, "People's Artist," composer and professor, teaches at the Academy of Music. He also is the Founding Director (1996) of the newly established and magnificent Children's Philharmonic Orchestra of the Bul Bul School.

Fuad Akhundov, history enthusiast, also contributed to this article.

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

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