Turkish Opera Under Attack
Columnist Tarik Gunersel has come under fire from a right-wing newspaper in Turkey for a libretto he wrote in 1988.
Here is the short version of my defensive dialogue from October 2015. A pro-government journalist in Turkey, writing for the Yeni Akit, a conservative and Islamist daily newspaper known for its extremist views, phoned me on my mobile. He sounded like a polite young man, worth spending one hour (exactly) with on the phone.
–You wrote the libretto to Selman Ada’s opera Ali Baba and the 40 (Thieves), right?
–Some people are disturbed by the opera.
-Really? How come?
–Because in the play some thieves call the head of their gang “Chief.”
–President Erdogan’s followers call him “Chief.” Do you mean that Erdogan is the head of a gang?
-I wrote the libretto in 1988.
–One of the thieves is called Shorty (Bacaksiz). Do you mean our Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu?
-I can’t believe I’m having this conversation! Mr. Davutoğlu became the Prime Minister only recently!
–Towards the end of the opera, the Chief Thief says: “I cannot be taken to court. If I am imprisoned, then free enterprise and freedom are imprisoned.” Do you refer to President Erdogan?
-I made that change in 2005, referring to George W. Bush, after the US invasion of Iraq for oil. The Chief Thief also says: “I want to donate you oil, but first you must give your oil to me so that I can give it back to you.”
–Shorty says, “The rest of the treasures are in Swiss Banks.”
–President Erdogan has been wrongly accused of keeping money in Swiss banks.
-But I wrote that a long time ago! The opera is a joyful satire.
–So you accept that the opera is a satire?
–Now I’m checking your website. You have led a fruitful life. Congratulations.
-Err… Thank you.
–I found your poems in favor of the Gezi Park protests.
-Is this a court hearing?
–You have also written a few poems recently, published in BirGün, the left wing daily. Your poems imply hatred against President Erdoğan, though no name is mentioned.
-I feel I’m being interrogated by the Inquisition!
–Could you send the original libretto (in 1988) and the version in 2005?
-The original libretto was published by Ankara State Opera and Ballet in 1991. I don’t have it on my computer.
–The news will be published tomorrow.
-Please let’s focus on the false accusations against the opera. Thank you for politely phoning me and receiving the correct information.
But the next day, the headline to the story in the Yeni Akit read:
“Immoral Opera’tion against the government!”
All the accusations above, without a single one of my explanations – but with the photos of the composer and me –dangerously provoked government supporters against us.
Why had I spent an hour on the phone if the newspaper was not going to use me as a source?
That day the State Opera sent the original 1988 version of the libretto, with the revised version from 2005, to the newspaper.
But the following day one more article appeared in the newspaper, again accusing me of being the librettist of a destructive opera and the poet in favor of the Gezi Park protests.
I refrain from taking the newspaper to court, because that would make things worse. I’ve already become a target for the readers of that newspaper. You cannot tell who will attack when and how.
Opera and Ballet in Turkey
The composer Selman Ada is also the General Artistic Director of the State (or National) Opera and Ballet in Turkey. We have opera and ballet companies in Ankara, Antalya, Istanbul, Izmir, Mersin and Samsun. All of the theaters are sponsored by the government Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Each has a different artistic director, yet all forming a single organization headed by the General Artistic Director.
Having written four operas based on my libretti, Selman Ada (b.1953), who is also a conductor and pianist, was wisely invited to become the General Artistic Director and Head of the Administration under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
But this time, some of the journalists attacked him for various reasons basically because he was brought to this position by the neoliberal Islamist right wing Justice and Development Party (AKP) government.
And now some of the Turkish media not only focus on the ISIS attacks but also on hearsay:
“The title of the opera ALI BABA & THE 40 THIEVES has been censored!”
“Why has the word THIEVES disappeared?”
“Now it’s only ALI BABA & 40.”
“Obviously, the government has censored it!”
“No,” I try to explain, spending three days clarifying the fact that there was no censorship at play, still with little success.
A Brief History of an Opera Title
“In 1988 the title was ALI BABA AND THE FORTY THIEVES. Then, with my composer friend’s consent, I decided to use the ampersand sign. Later on, I wrote 40 instead of “the forty.” In 2005 Selman Ada and I decided to get rid of the unnecessary word THIEVES. The entire world knows the full title anyway. Turkey is not democratic and while there is oppression, no censorship occurred in this case.”
“But in the 2012 German production, the word Thieves (Rauber) was used? At the Wuppertal Opera House in Germany?!”
“Because our German friend, Director Johannes Weigand and the dramaturg-translator Ulrike Olbrich preferred the title and asked us for our permission. Besides, the Ankara production in 2012 was also entitled Ali Baba & 40.”
A tweet says: “Let’s demand a plebiscite.”
And now my wife says:
–Really, why on earth did you eliminate the word THIEVES?
-For the sake of simplicity. You know my passion for a plain style.
-I couldn’t have imagined I would have lost so much time and effort to defend the new title!
–You always make your life more complicated, and therefore mine!