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Leyli and Majnun
First Opera of the Muslim East (1908)

by Betty Blair
Azerbaijan International (AI 9.3), Autumn 2001

The premiere of the opera "Leyli and Majnun" took place on January 25, 1908, in the Taghiyev Theater in Baku. The work became identified as the "First Opera of the Muslim East". The plot, based on an immortal love story, can best be compared to "Romeo and Juliet," though in oral tradition the legend of "Leyli and Majnun" predates Shakespeare by more than a thousand years.

Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885-1948) composed the music for this opera. He was 22 at the time of its premiere. Together he and his younger brother, Jeyhun (1891-1962), wrote the libretto based on the poetic rendition of "Leyli and Majnun" by Azerbaijani poet Fuzuli (1480-1562). Many of the verses were kept in their original form.

The idea for the opera can be traced to the boys' childhood in their hometown of Shusha [under occupation by Armenian military forces since 1992]. In 1898, there had been an amateur dramatization, and the brothers had sung together in a boys' chorus interpreting the song of Majnun at Leyli's graveside. The experience had a profound effect on them.

Staging Difficulties
Hajibeyov used to talk about the difficulties
- both financial and creative - that they encountered in staging "Leyli and Majnun". Rehearsals took place at the Hotel Islamia, the home of the composers, and of Imran Gasimov, who was the only one to offer financial support.

One of the greatest obstacles was that there was no serious performing culture in Baku at the time. There were no professional actors or singers. None had been trained professionally; few could read music. It wasn't easy to find vocalists who could perform the leading roles for the two-hour production. Quite by chance, Hajibeyov stumbled upon various individuals and persuaded them to take major roles.

The first was Huseingulu Sarabski (1879-1945), who worked at a water distribution center not far from Hotel Tabriz, where Uzeyir was living. One day he heard the young man singing as he worked. It wasn't long before he tapped him for the lead role of Majnun.

But the female role of Leyli was much more difficult to fill. Religious tradition did not allow women to perform on stage, and no man wanted to take the part. As the story goes, one day Hajibeyov was sitting in a "chaykhana" (tea house) when a tall, good-looking waiter, A. Farajev, approached his table bringing tea. Again, he just happened to be singing at his work. But this time, it took a great deal more persuasion to get him to consent to the role.

"Leyli and Majnun" is not a typical opera in the European sense of the word, as it is based on traditional Azerbaijani mughams, which are performed in their original form - meaning unwritten and improvised. Entire segments of the opera feature specific mughams, depending on the emotional effect the composer was trying to convey. Mahur-Hindi, Segah, Bayati-Shiraz, Shushtar, Bayati-Kurd and Chahargah are used in this opera.

Another innovation of this work was that it included choral harmonic music, which is not an indigenous characteristic of Azerbaijani music. The chorus was used to move the plot along, comment on events, and reflect on the psychological state of the main characters. The chorus was accompanied by a symphony orchestra - another new feature.

The premiere was not without its last-minute glitches. Two hours before the show, Uzeyir had to rewrite some of the music for the violins, and when the two tar players didn't show up, he himself went down into the orchestra pit to play the violin.

Ramazan Khalilov (1900-1998), who later became Uzeyir's assistant and the Director of the Hajibeyov Home Museum, recalled that first performance in 1908. He was seven years old at the time. He remembered complaining to his mother about the dark netting that had been draped across the balconies where they were sitting, which obscured their view of the stage. His mother explained that the nets kept the men who were seated below on the theater's main floor from being able to see the women. They were just part of the Muslim tradition of the day.

Despite all the difficulties in staging the premiere, Hajibeyov viewed the opera as a success. He felt that the public was hungry for dramatic enactments of classic scenes accompanied by folk music. The opera has survived and is dearly loved in Azerbaijan today. It is viewed as one of the most significant contributions of Hajibeyov's musical legacy.

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