Six months with the Istanbul Opera


The Turkish Opera had its auditions on the 11th for new people to become a sozmesleli, or independent contractor. You toil away for the opera at low pay for a few years doing that, waiting for an opening as a lead singer, or cadreau – at which point, you’re on the gravy train, salaried, tenured, with bennies, set for life. Lately, though, because of the influx of new students from the schools and the economic crisis, there’s a bottleneck of sozmesleliler, with no new cadreau openings. They just have to wait for a lead singer to retire or die, at which point, the sozmesleliler enter a competition for that new cadreau opening.

Elif auditioned for sozmesleli, and it turned out that the real purpose of the audition was actually to fire people rather than to hire new people; they made many sozmesleliler re-audition. They asked Elif to sing the bitchy Pamina aria, and then Mimi (instead of Micaela), which meant she had to sing long slow lyrical lines that need lots of breath, when she could barely speak – because she was so spent staying up with me during my recovery from my tonsillectomy. And still, with all of that, she made it in, number one on the list. We talked with the director, Mesut, and they put her down for lead roles as a lyric soprano, no coloratura anymore, thank goodness, go to the head of the class. But when it will all start is anyone’s guess; this season ends in May, so we’re figuring next season.

Elif immediately went down to the famous opera cafeteria, where the singers hang out and drink tea all day, to shmooze and rekindle her old ties with singers from like almost a decade ago. The prodigal daughter returns. To celebrate, we went to Changa, a New York-type bar owned by a famous chef whose name I forget. We had some nouveau trans-continental cuisine (eggplants with a sauce that was a combination of miso and tahini – yum!) and two drinks: mine was called an Asian Fusion (which included vodka and cucumber and ginger and some other stuff) and Elif’s was something of a pomegranate vodka snow-cone – it had all the sweetness, tartness, and bitterness of eating a pomegranate.



One of the top people at the opera has taken Elif on as a vocal coach for free, so certain she is of her stardom. Mesut, the opera director who loves Elif, is under the cloud of a scandal for fondling his students, and there is talk that he may be on his way out. Although he’d promised Elif the role of Musetta in La Boheme, it ended up going to one of the cadreaus. Mesut, who likes to please everyone, swears that he’ll violate the pecking order and give Elif the lead (the only) role in Menotti’s “The Telephone” (a 1-hour modern opera where the audience gets to hear Elif’s side of a telephone conversation).

Despite the crunch in funds, there’s a drive to open new opera companies in remote outposts. Elif is told that her biggest hope by far to become a cadreau in the near future is to sing in Samsun for a couple of years, and she’ll get fast-tracked so that by, say, 2004 or 2005 she’ll be tenured. Elif is not going to go to Samsun or any other Turkish city; her plan is to stay in Istanbul and get onstage here in whatever roles she can, and then, when a cadreau opens up here, audition for it.



Elif got a huge writeup in the large Turkish newspaper Radikal, a delightful piece about her singing career, her CD, and our film COUP. The article had the unexpected result of getting her strongly reprimanded by the opera company. Combining the best of Ottoman and Soviet organizational thinking, the opera heads told her that it was wrong for an individual player to grant an interview to the press, because opera is a team effort. Although they talk about Elif internally with such terms as “the future of the Turkish opera” &c., they don’t want to read about her in the papers – after all, people don’t go to see Placido Domingo, they go to see Tchaikovsky. Their biggest problem with the article, though, was Elif’s comment: “People unfamiliar with opera shouldn’t be scared of it. It’s not all big people screaming poetry for five hours – the melodies were once pop songs of their eras, and the librettos are often as light and silly as a soap opera or romance novel.” They informed her in no uncertain terms that opera is a serious, serious art, and people are all working very hard (and getting government salaries) to work on its serious, serious production. (I guess F.T. Marinetti wasn’t able to save art from the Solemn, the Sacred, and the Serious after all.) Elif came home irate, mostly at herself for swallowing her tongue for the first time I can think of.

Each time she goes for lessons with her free and enthusiastic vocal coach, she has to stop by the cafeteria to shmooze, and it’s really getting her down. She says that the singers are morally low and spend all their time gossiping, bad-mouthing, and philosophizing on the Ottoman intricacies of working your way up the opera hierarchy. One of the opera directors came into one of her vocal sessions and then gossiped about her to another student.

The good news is that she is down on the board to be a lead in next season’s Mozart aria festival, “Do You Like Mozart?” The bad news is that we saw one of the productions of that this year, filled with sozmesleliler, as it gave the company an opportunity to give its people stage time, and it was so bad that we thought it should be named “Did You Like Mozart?” Nothing’s posted on the board about them even mounting “The Telephone,” let alone with Elif starring in it.



The scandal over them having granted a sozmesleli to a Minister’s mistress has gotten out of control, so all current opera members, including Elif, have to reaudition. Elif is disgusted by the whole situation and says she has no intention of doing so. I know Elif, and when a situation doesn’t feel right for her, she’s completely done, and nothing will change her mind. Her vocal coach will be heartbroken, but I suppose we’re heading back to the U.S. soon.

We’d done a series of concerts, I’d written a screenplay and a stage play, Elif got into the Turkish opera, I taught English, and we were down our cat. Elif thinks it’s time to leave. She’s had it with the Turkish opera and will not reaudition for sozmesleli just because the opera admitted a Minister’s mistress. She says that she achieved her goal of getting into the opera, and that she only wanted a career here if she could get leading roles immediately and become a cadreau next year at the latest. I asked her about taking them up on their offer to fast-track her if she went to Samsun, but she says that she can’t spend a part of her life in such a place if she’s not doing a great public service like being a doctor. She’s also concerned that I’m finishing up a lot of my writing here and now need a real community to work in as an artist, and I’m barely able to do that in Istanbul, let alone in a small industrial city on the Black Sea coast. She says it would be fun to live in New York and make more recordings and do avant concerts. She seems at peace with this, as if getting into the opera again has cleared up a lot of “what-if” questions in her mind, ever since she divorced Mehmet in 1993 and came to America and met me.

I’m not thrilled to be going back to New York. I think that NYC works a little too well; that it constantly reminds one of opportunity and sunk cost (rent); that its finger points at your indolence and others for comparison; that it’s difficult to have or hear of or express a meaningful political opinion there; that living there will force me into its mechanized systems of transaction and utterly predictable rhythms of transportation and movement; that I’ll be captive audience to the John Cage symphony of car alarms, at which I am trained to understand that they in fact signify nothing other than the start of a time block which will hopefully pass. I love the chaos and wonder of Istanbul, the city that prays to the twin goddesses of atrophy and Brownian motion. I love being in an Islamic country whose national celebrities are transvestites, even Tansu Ciller.

But it’s settled, and I know better than to try to change Elif’s mind once I’ve seen that itch in her. It will be fun to take classes with David Rosenthal, to hook up more often with my friends and family, to think about my future in grad school for philosophy, or not, to make some strange short films about consciousness, and perhaps to mount a nifty new play I wrote based on Dennett’s Multiple Drafts Model.

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