During my stay in İstanbul, I had the opportunity to see an opera in the charming little, 600 seat Süreyya Opereti opera house in the Kadıköy district, a quick commuter-ferry ride from the European side of the town. The house has a story of itself; built in the 1920s, it was never actually used for opera before becoming a movie theater in the 30s. Only in 2007, after extensive redevelopment, was it returned to its intended purpose and is now home to İstanbul’s State Opera and Ballet… at least as long the Atatürk Cultural Center with the city’s main opera house is being renovated.
Opera in İstanbul has a good deal of history, largely because the interests of the region’s primary jump-starter of (Occidental) Classical Music, Giuseppe Donizetti Pasha—Imperial Ottoman Instructor General of Music at the court of Sultan Mahmud II, ran in that direction. In his twenty-eight years in the city, until his death in 1856, the famous composer’s elder brother shaped the musical scene in then—Constantinople well beyond military music (where Turkey’s modern orchestral tradition started). The opera scene’s emphasis on Italian fare reflects that to this day.
On this occasion it wasn’t Donizetti jr. or early Verdi, but a homegrown, Turkish opera by Ferit Tüzün (1929-1977). I wouldn’t have pretended familiarity even with the name Tüzün, except that I did actually attend (and forget) a performance of his (exquisite) Capriccio à la turque a couple years ago. A cursory glance at his biography in Evin İlyasoğlu’s handy “71 Turkish Composers” proved promising: Munich educated, Tüzün studied with Fritz Lehmann and received moral support from Karl Amadeus Hartmann, and Carl Orff. My local chaperon, the founder and publisher of Andante (the country’s foremost, possibly only, classical müsik magazine) and seemingly infinitely knowledgeable about Istanbul’s fledgling classical music scene, also chimed in that Tüzün was a composer of very agreeable music.
Midas’ Ears (Midas'ýn Kulaklari), a satirical opera in two acts, is decidedly not such one. It’s a silly little thing; an operatic soufflé in the tradition of Italian musical farces (Donizetti et al.), with plenty dialogue (at least half the duration), easy to follow even without any grasp of Turkish or subtitles, and not a little ham-handed: “Gilbert & Sullivan go to Turkey”, except not very funny and musically not as compelling. While the veteran ears of my similarly dismayed accomplice heard simplistic Stravinsky, I heard lesser Rosza, and even then more in aspiration than achievement. There was a repeated oboe melody the chaps from Midsomer Murders might have inadvertently lifted, and a big, orchestral and choral climax: Let’s do a silly little dance and hop away to third rate Orff.
The eager production was droll; amiable at best. The lackluster dance numbers, the naturalistic costumes, the small stage (hardly anyone’s fault), the bad wigs: there were definite touches of a revue number as it might be described in Wodehouse, replete with scarlet tights and a frightful false beards. Charming, in a naïve sort of way.
The story, for completeness sake: Midas, evidently before his precious haptic affliction, is asked to judge a music contest between Apollo and Pan. Apollo goes first and every bystander pretends delight with the fair sounds. Only a barber admits to hear nothing. Frustrated with the others’ pretense he tricks a buddy into finally admitting as much: a case of The Emperor has no Notes. It’s not clear whether Midas really hears the music, perceptible only to sensitive and refined ears. When Pan plays, everyone can hear alright, but no one likes it. A clever, self-deprecating twist of Tüzün’s, who wrote a dodecaphonic virtuoso piece for Pan’s appearance. Midas gives the prize to Pan, anyway.
The synopsis suggests he does this just to mess with cocksure Apollo. My willful interpretation is that even a wild and queer music is better than merely imagined sounds. (In the underlying myth King Tmolus judged, awarded Apollo, and Midas, a follower of Pan, merely dissented too vigorously.) In any case, Apollo is not amused and gives Midas a set of donkey’s ears. In choppy small scenes, one after another, Midas goes through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—only to have, just as he comes to terms with his new look, the ears taken away again, suggesting another course of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Fortunately the opera ends before that happens.
The singers were decent, which was enough given how little they had to sing. Among them, Sedat Öztoprak’s Midas still had the most to do. He isn’t a vocal wonder and somewhat past his prime, but a sonorous Verdi baritone can be detected beneath the veneer. Apollo’s voice (courtesy Zefer Erdaş) was that of a well worn bass with a still-pleasant timbre in the lower tessitura. The Barber’s is a speaking comedic rôle, performed by the retired tenor and audience-favorite Süha Yildiz who hammed it up like a 70s Bollywood actor. Tülay Uyar stole the Queen of the Night’s costume from a previous production of the Magic Flute and sang her short bit as Moon Goddess nicely. The quip that she not quit her day job would be apt, not malevolent in this case: she doubles as the company’s PR manager.
The opera’s moral suggests to “turn uniqueness (adversity) to strength” and that being “different is but a matter of fashion”. Tüzün’s opera fails on both counts: the opera can’t overcome the inherent weaknesses of the hokey form of the farce. And while he manages to sound different from any composer, eschewing most avant-garde trends, he fails to sound unique, much less fashionable. Tüzün is better served performing other works—like the Capriccio à la turque.