Istanbul Music Festival to host US composer’s Mevlana project

Istanbul Music Festival to host US composer’s Mevlana project

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Istanbul Music Festival to host US composer’s Mevlana project

‘Say I Am You’ is based on the idea of putting Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi’s poetry into the mouths of nearly all the characters as they act out this drama of mystical love, loss, and regaining.

This year’s 40th Istanbul Music Festival, organized by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (İKSV), will host a very special concert featuring music commissioned especially for the festival on June 24. “Say I Am You-Mevlana” is a project co-produced with Rotterdam Operadagen and supported by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, within the framework of celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and the Netherlands.

“Say I Am You” is a musical composed by one of the leading composers of our time, Michael Ellison, focusing on Mevlana Celaddiin-i Rumi’s relationship with his mentor Shams-i-Tabrizi. The premier of the piece in Turkey will take place under the musical direction of Lucas Vis. Theatrical aspects will be performed by VocaalLAB and the local Hezarfen Ensemble, with singers Arnout Lems as Mevlana, Ekaterına Levental as Melike, Gunnar Brandt-Sıgurdsson as Shams the Azeri, Mevlana’s mentor.

Speaking to the Hürriyet Daily News through email correspondence, Ellison said the starting point of this work was his desire to do something dramatic with Mevlana [Celaddiin-i Rumi]. “I first thought about it in 1999, after experiencing first hand the devastation of the Gölcük earthquake, and witnessing the extraordinary courage of ordinary Turkish people. I somehow wanted to give something back to Turkey, something with a Beethovenian, Shakespearian kind of scope and universality, and Mevlana, one of the reasons I came to Turkey in the first place, seemed like the natural choice.”

Based on Mevlana poetry

The libretto of the piece is based on the idea of putting Mevlana’s poetry into the mouths of nearly all the characters as they act out this drama of mystical love, loss, and regaining. “I wrote the first version of that, which the Belgian director Caroline Petrick - who had a big influence on the piece and deserves a lot of credit for its evolution - criticized for being too historical, though she loved the idea of the poetry and other elements. We then found a dramaturge to help, and then an actual librettist to rewrite, but then Caroline was even less pleased with his version than with my original. At that point in the summer of 2009, having absorbed this whole process, I took the libretto again and totally rewrote it,” Ellison said.

After the rewriting process the action became more direct, more down to earth and forceful by utilizing speech more, something which is very much needed amidst all of this poetry, Ellison added. “Now, the libretto still has linearity, there is a much more ‘vertical’ aspect to it: it is more poetic, more abstract, less historical, while the action is more palpable because the characters are very down to earth in their interactions. It works much better dramatically this way, and despite all of the gorgeous poetry everywhere, we also try to be very clear about the story,” he said.

After the writing was complete it was time to bring music to the piece, so Operadagen, VocaalLAB, İKSV and the Istanbul Music Festival came together to collaborate on the production of the project’s music.

“Yesim Gürer in 2011 introduced me to Deniz Ova, İKSV’s international director, and thus the connection was made that would lead to the work’s premier on the 40th year of the music festival. The fact that you are seeing a new, contemporary opera premiered on this festival along with all the other extraordinary concerts is really a credit to Ova,” Ellison said.

He noted that the music was not a reflection on Mevlana’s philosophy as much as a portrayal of his moment of great spiritual crisis, when Shams-i Tabriz came and turned his life upside down. “Listen the Reed,” the famous opening 14 lines, as well as a story of a mouse and frog, are included from the Mesnevi, which in general is a more philosophical work. But most of the poetic material is taken from his early ghazels.

“These poems are on fire with longing for Shams, longing for the Beloved, desire for annihilation in the divine. They are fully alive, exquisitely beautiful and therefore very, very inspiring for music,” Ellison said.

Ellison wants the opera to first have its full impact at the Istanbul premier before seeing what to do next with the project. However, after the work’s premier in Turkey there are one or two possibilities on the horizon for the reenactment of the show in the United Kingdom, elsewhere in Turkey and even the United States, according to Ellison. “We will also record it in the days before the premier, so this should end up as a CD with international distribution.”

“Say I Am You” will be performed at the Hagia Irene Museum at 9 p.m.