Opera Is a Feast: Tosca

We have been lucky to have the opportunity to make some new friends with some of the other people here in Istanbul who are on a Fulbright Fellowship. One of them is Jim who works in urban planning. He also happens to be an opera lover like me.

The Istanbul Opera and Ballet company normally performs at the Ataturk Cultural Center. The building, in Taksim Square, is currently being renovated. So the company has moved temporarily across the Bosphorus to the Süreyya Opera House in Kadıköy. This smaller venue is very elegant and quite intimate.

One of the operas he heard was going to be performed was Puccini’s Tosca. I thought, perfect. I love Tosca. And, even better, it was supposed to be free.

At first we thought we were going to an orchestral performance of Tosca; a performance without costumes and staging, etc. Which would be fine with me and Jim, too.

Then after some back and forth between Jim and our Fulbright Fixer, it was determined that it was not a performance per se, but some kind of interactive presentation by the singer Zeliha Berksoy.

From our email conversation:

Jim,

If it’s an “interactive” show I’m still game. Does that mean we can heckle Zeliha if she screws up “Vissi d’arte?” I’ll be curious to know what [our Fulbright Fixer] finds out. It won’t be dull, that’s for sure!

– Rich

Rich- ok, now it isn’t the football team! Still, maybe if she needs a little help we can add our two cents…

jim

Apparently, the people who put together the program don’t know the English word “lecture.” Because that’s what it was. The program was titled “Opera Is a Feast: Tosca.” I agree that opera is a feast of the senses. But there wasn’t anything interactive about the presentation except for the argument Berksoy had with the projectionist later on during the lecture.

Berksoy took the stage and sat on a chair next to a small table on which were set a bottle of water and a small stack of notes. Behind her was an enormous screen on which an image of the Süreyya Opera House was projected. She spoke in Turkish, I’m assuming, in a very knowledgeable way about the opera and certain performances.

My Toddler-level Turkish was not enough for me to understand what Berksoy was saying. Jim, who has been taking private lessons for several months had a better idea of what she was saying but not much better.

At one point Berksoy played a very old recording of the aria “Vissi d’arte” while on the screen was an image of a woman, who I can only assume was an opera singer from the first half of the 20th century. Then she talked for several more minutes.

After awhile, the lights dimmed and on the screen in English it indicated that what we were about to see and hear was from a performance of Tosca with Titto Gobbi and Maria Callas at Covent Garden in 1964. Wow, both Jim and I were thinking, this must be some remarkable footage. We were right. Except the images were in slow motion while the music was at normal speed.

This lasted for several minutes with the music and images never syncing up. Zerliha said a few things into her microphone. The projectionist went back to the start. The sound and images were still out of sync. Zerliha said a few more things. The projectionist tried again. The sound and images were still out of sync.

The lights went up. By now Zerliha was visibly angry and started speaking rapidly with a raised voice. A few people from the audience chimed in. The projectionist said something back to her that Jim said was along the lines of, “I’m doing the best I can!”

Jim also said it was probably best not to piss off the old mezzo-soprano. I said it was best not to piss off the old soprano who had played Tosca, that you were likely to get the Scarpia treatment.

After several more minutes, the lights dimmed and finally the video from Covent Garden played as it was supposed to. The footage, which was from the second act of the opera, of Callas and Gobbi was remarkable. I managed to find a video on Youtube of it. Sadly, the excerpt shown at the lecture was shorter than what’s available in the embedded video below. No “Vissi d’arte” or Tosca sticking the knife in Scarpia, but feel free to watch it now. It’s riveting.

After the footage was shown the lights went up and Berksoy spoke some more.

“If you’re ready, we can go,” whispered Jim to me.

“It’s up to you,” I said.

“I’m ready if you are.”

We quietly made our way out the nearest exit.

Outside we agreed that it was worth the trek across the Bosphorus to see the opera house and the vintage footage of Callas. Even if we couldn’t understand a word of what Berksoy was saying. And I do plan to see an opera or two before we leave Istanbul next summer.

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