When we were living in New York, we recorded a CD of Elif singing opera songs by gay composers of the 19th-20th centuries. Somehow the CD made its way to some opera directors in Turkey, and a few weeks after September 11, 2001, we received a fax from one Tugrul Gogus asking Elif to sing in a series of concerts in Adana with the orchestra. The fax also, oddly, mentioned September 11th and said that the US “had it coming.” We were already thinking of moving back to Turkey, and her giving some concerts would be an ideal excuse for another extended stay, despite the strange political aside in the middle of the fax. Also, we’ve never been to Adana, Turkey‘s fourth-largest city (after Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.) They said they’d pay Elif “250” – though we didn’t know if that was $250 or 250 million Turkish Lira – and airfare for a flight from Istanbul to Adana, and accommodations.
Elif accepted the gig and was asked to pick out some scores for them to perform. She suggested, among other pieces, Montsalvatge’s Canciones Negras. Tugrul asked if we could help him find it. Elif emailed Presser explaining the situation and said that the orchestra had little funds, and they said they’d rent it to us for a month for $270. Tugrul couldn’t pay it. So Elif suggested other scores which would be much easier to find.
In December, we moved to Istanbul, and we spent New Year’s with Elif’s father in Antalya. While we were there, they took us to the Antalya Opera, where we saw an Azeri (!) operetta called Arsin Mal Alan. Once the novelty of seeing an opera from Azerbaijan wore off, the thing was pretty much unwatchable, and we left after the first act. The first act was 90 minutes, mostly broad comedy, recitative, and organ-grinder music; the music was simpler than most nursery rhymes or rock songs. It was the opposite what I expected – I was hoping for some folkloric Bartok-like music play – and the singing was surprisingly excellent! – but it was a rare form of torture to sit there for that act. Still, it’s impressive that Antalya even has opera at all.
When we got back to Istanbul, we got a call from Tugrul, the head of the Adana Symphony, saying that they were having trouble finding the score to an aria from “La Boheme” – not an exotic piece of music, by any reckoning. It turns out that Tugrul got into a fight with the head of the Mersin Opera over stealing each others’ scores, and Mersin had the parts but refused to give them to him. Elif, exasperated, used her connections to get into the library of the State Opera in Istanbul to Xerox the part-scores for it, but the parts were unavailable, as they’re rehearsing the same piece. So she called Tugrul and told him to get the parts from some other company or to resolve his issues with Mersin. It was going to be fine.
On the morning of the 16th, two hours before we were to leave for the airport, we get a call from Tugrul saying that he actually did need us to find the La Boheme scores, because he got the wrong ones. Elif started talking to him in a manner that I thought would damage her vocal cords. He hung up and called back just as we were leaving to tell us that he was able to get the parts from Ankara. We arrived at the Adana airport; Tugrul and the driver came; they let me load the car myself, and the driver smoked in the car. Tugrul constantly corrected my Turkish grammar and tense and told me that I would be bored at the talk tonight. We checked into the 5-star hotel, and then went out to eat with Elif’s family (who had come down separately by bus, which took over 12 hours) and had mezes in a restaurant where the cockroaches outmassed the appetizers.
That night, the opera had a function at the Hilton Hotel. A woman gave a flowery Ottoman talk. They showed an interminable video – inexplicably in Russian, without translation – to demonstrate to “cukurova” music lovers that there should be classical western culture in southern Turkey. The video was about Pavarotti and the importance of village choruses. Elif pointed out that it’s about a different culture’s folk music anyway. Three speakers then spoke, all talking about Ataturk. Then a children’s choir gave a performance, with wavering sopranos, and basses pulling everyone flat. Elif picked out some kid out of the mass, fourth child from the right, second-to-back row, and said that she liked his voice and that he would be a good tenor someday.
I at least looked forward to the buffet and schmoozing afterward, but after a couple of minutes, Tugrul wanted to leave because he “hated crowds.” I found that odd, because the entire time, all he did was gossip – about the politics of classical music administration, about the different opera companies, about how he used to play great violin but stopped because of his hand (Elif thought he was lying). Elif whispered to me that instead of all this gossip, he should be thinking about how he can’t keep his own children’s choir from dragging – and why he didn’t didn’t know that his own conductor was a leftie. We pulled out of the Hilton parking lot and Tugrul reached in his wallet and tried to pay with a credit card the 1 million TL parking fee, or about 75 cents. The guy refused to take cards, and Tugrul had no cash whatsoever, so I had to kick in for parking. We went out to a real kahvehane and had corba (soup) with Elif’s family. The fumes from the pollution were incredible, burning my eyes and throat. We went back to the hotel and laughed hysterically at the film “The Green Mile.”
At 10AM they had their first rehearsal. The conductor, Burak Tuzun, was a guest conductor, a 31-year-old novice who wanted to conduct Puccini like Brahms. He took the tempo of “Elle a Fui” so slowly that Elif was gasping for air. Burak looked at Elif and told her, right on stage in front of everyone, that she should feel free to suggest the rhythms and tempos if it would make her more comfortable. Elif told him that it’s not her place to do so, and then whispered in his ear that at we’d get together in private at 1PM to explain the pieces to him. I sat in the balcony with his beautiful 25-year-old wife, the pianist Lillian Tonella. She filmed the rehearsal and would roll her eyes and grin to me about the incompetence of some of the performers – but I didn’t grin back. I was too worried about how the concert would go and how it would reflect on Elif – and I was also cringing at her husband’s unique interpretation of the pieces.
At 1PM we met Burak backstage first to talk about the pieces, and then finally to explain them. (Elif: “The girl is supposed to be praying in church, not dancing an Irish jig.”) Burak said that he had never conducted opera before, and that Elif should explain the characters to the orchestra. Elif said that was his role. Lilian sat studying English and I sat studying Turkish.
We went to the dinky Adana museum; on our way there, we passed several posters around town advertising the Elif Savas FELSEN in concert – how exciting! Then it was back to the hotel, where I wrote her a new cadenza, and we saw “The Story of Us,” which was almost as funny as “The Green Mile.” We reconnected at 7PM with Elif’s family and a couple of members of the orchestra for dinner in Ocakbasi. They ordered us vegetables, since we’re vegetarian. I wolfed down the mezes, which were especially good – bread and cheese and turnips and hot peppers and patlican. The violist got drunk, and it turned out that she didn’t know many classical pieces that I did. Tugrul tried to gossip about Elif’s parents and whether they would need a ride from him to the hotel, and Elif put him in his place saying that they could get around just fine, since her mom’s an attorney and her stepfather is a judge from Istanbul. Back at the hotel, we rode up in the elevator with the conductor Burak and his wife; Burak told us that in the two days he’d been here hanging out with the orchestra, they never once talked about music after the rehearsal ended.
We had our second and final rehearsal in the morning. The conductor had listened to tempos but was not in control of the show. The orchestra would dance in their seats when playing “Una Voce Poco Fa” as if they were so masterful, and the piece so easy, that it was somehow beneath them. The bassists would grin like monkeys when plucking. When some strings didn’t play the phrasing right, the violinists didn’t want to play a staccato to demonstrate. I felt like an English colonist with the lazy natives. Burak kept telling Elif to tell the orchestra what she told him about the meaning of the pieces. Elif refused and told him to be a man and stand up for himself like a real conductor. I asked for the score and showed the conductor where a coronet was playing an entire passage in the wrong key so it sounded like Stravinsky; the conductor said he was helpless to do anything about it. Several people asked Elif if she were single.
We went to the opera house, and Elif dressed up backstage. Cos sent flowers, and the deliverer smoked. Elif and Tugrul made a No Smoking sign. The mayor came by so Elif could kiss his ass, and Elif blew him off. The concert was delightful, and Elif was divine. The conductor remembered everything we told him, and the orchestra sounded competent. Everyone piled into the dressing room trying to get near Elif after the show. The mayor did get to see her, telling her with tears in his eyes, “I’m so happy you didn’t die in 9/11.” Tugrul was cool, riding the gravy train, telling Elif, “Everyone loved it.”
After the show, we went to dinner with almost the entire orchestra. The musicians asked Elif questions during the dinner. Are American players more talented? No, they’re less lazy. Didn’t America know about 9/11? Depends on who you mean by “America.” Burak and his wife sat near me. Lilian studied piano in Moscow but hated the city and the Russians. She learned philosophy in school, but only Karl Marx. She was excited that he got a gig conducting in Eskesehir and that it would be a great city culturally to live in. I felt sorry for her, but I’d once taken my Turkish princess to Fishtown. Our conversation got interrupted when the violist who’s been flirting with me for the last two days showed up. Elif joked that I would enjoy a lovely 3-month relationship with Lilian and a one-night relationship with the violist. The orchestra began getting more drunk and giving Burak advice on how to conduct. Lilian became frustrated, but it’s up to her to tell her husband that not everybody has to like him all the time.
Breakfast was a buffet in our hotel. Burak hovered over it, scooping food onto his plate as if it were the first days after food rationing. Elif fought with the waiters, who had cleverly designated every other table as a smoking section.
The second concert, at 11AM, was packed, which we didn’t expect it to be. A group of American servicemen and local high school children were in attendance. Nobody was quite as good as they were last night, perhaps because many were hung over. Elif’s family thought it was better, simply because they had better seats. The audience went nuts, giving Elif bravo after bravo. Backstage after the show, kids mobbed Elif for autographs and many just wanted to touch her. Elif gave a 13-year-old advice on having a singing career. We checked out of the hotel and left Tugrul stuck with a bill for 3 million lira for bottled water.
Went to lunch at our cockroach restaurant again with Elif’s family, got screwed by a cab driver who said his meter was broken, and gave our flowers away to the cops at the Adana airport, who distributed them according to a hierarchy of rank. And on the airplane back to Istanbul, Elif decided that she would try out for the National Opera; auditions were to be held on February 11.