Cevad Memduh Altar1902-1995
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Cevad Memduh Altar

(English text of the paper presented at the IV. International Congress of Verdi, celebrated on 18 September 1974 in Chicago, organized by Instituto di Studi Verdiani of Parma.)


            The basic reasons for the “Reformation” movement (Tanzimat), which had been initiated by the Ottoman State in 1839 in the form of political and social reforms, were indicated in my summary article which is included in the booklet of the Congress. this time I will pass directly to the subject and will submit the results of my research on Giuseppe Verdi and his operas in Turkey.

            The “Reformation” activities in the field of music in Turkey were based on the transformation of the monodical system into the harmonical system, by means of international knowledge and techniques of contemporary civilization, and on furnishing world literature with musical works, which would be created by the application of this technique on the sentiments fed by the national spirit. Therefore, it would be necessary in the first place to introduce in Turkey these kinds of works of western musical literature, and then to educate the Turkish composers by giving them the instruction reqired by this new technique. Thus, it was with this aim that a new movement was started in Turkey towards the end of the first half of the 19th century; and all through this period the Italian opera, more than anything else, served as a model, and the Italians showed the way to the talented young Turks working with western musical technique.

            It is very well known that in the 1th and 18th centuries some Italian operas were performed in Turkey for some reason or other, although my attemps to find out the titles of these operas have so far been unsuccessful. A brief reference to this fact is available in some of the Ambassadors’ Memoirs and foreigners’ diaries. However, the first cler example which I found on this subject happens to be a Verdi opera, Ernani, which was performed in Turkey for the first time in February 1846 by Italian artists.

            It will be noted that the recent research I have made, after sending out the summary of this communiqué, has enabled me to move back the date of the first Verdi operas in Turkey for five years, and has proved that the first Verdi opera in Turkey was not I masnadieri, performed by Italian artists in 1851, but Ernani, performed in 1846. Therefore, it would not be wrong to say that further studies of documents which may come to light in the future would place the first Verdi operas in Turkey at an even earlier date.

            The first performance dates of some of the Verdi operas within the 19th century period of the Ottoman Empire would reveal a chronological view of the subject, and a close examination of the characteristics of the period in the light of this chronological background would make it possible for my audience to have a clearer idea of it. Let us now study the chronological comparison of the very first performances of some of the Verdi operas in the West and in Turkey:


Titles of the operas in order of the first performance in Turkey Date and place of the first performance in the West Date of first performance in Istanbul Difference between the two
I Lombardi
I masnadieri
Il trovatore
La traviata
I vespri siciliani
Un ballo in maschera
La forza del destino
Venice, 9 March 1844
Milan, 9 March 1842
Florence, 14 March 1847
Milan, 11 February 1843
London, 22 July 1847
Rome, 19 January 1853
Venice, 11 March 1851
Venice, 6 March 1853
Paris, 13 June 1855
Rome, 17 February 1858
St. Petersburg, 10 Nov.1862
Cairo, 24 December 1871
1 February 1846
18 March 1846
4 October 1848
December 1850
18 October 1851
13 November 1853
14 February 1854
27 November 1856
January 1860
18 October 1862
December 1876
1 December 1885
2 years
4 years
1,5 years
7 years
4 years
10 months
3 years
3 years
5 years
3 years
14 years
14 years

            The first performances of the above-mentioned twelve operas of Giuseppe Verdi among others in Turkey fall within a period of 39 years, which may be divided into two separate parts of 1846-1862 and 1876-1885. The Italian operas which appear in this 39-year period of the 19th century were performed by Italian theatrical companies in three separate theatres called Bosko, Naum and Gedik Pasha, the former two situated in the district of Pera, which was largely inhabited by Europeans, and the latter constructed in the ancient part of the city surrounded by the ramparts.

            Due to the fact that the Naum Theatre was the victim of a second fire on 5 June 1870, and that the Ottoman Empire was undergoing some political crises at that time, the above-mentioned opera activities were abandoned. Moreover, musical activities and especially the opera were more or less at a standstill during the 38-year period from 1885 to 1923. Political crises on one hand, and various wars which started together with the 20th century (1) on the other, hushed the muses in Turkey for quite a long time (Inter arma silent musae!), and the activities of lyrical-drama above all came to a complete sandstill, with the exception of some limited performances. Thus the door which had been kept open since the 17th century and which had let in quite a bright light until the middle of the second half of the 19th century was definitely closed after 1885. This door was reopened ony after our Independence War, preceded by the First World War, with the establishment of the Republic and Atatürk reforms. It is evident that the uneasiness caused by the wars during this 47-year period from 1876 to 1923 obstructed the development of the art of opera in Turkey.

            Let us now return to this period of the opera in Turkey to take a brief look at the chronological development of the first theatres founded with the help of Italian artists and study the practices and repertory from the point of view of Verdi’s art.

            The lyrical-drama activities which fall within the period of the Ottoman Empire and later the Turkish Republic started and developed in the following three theatres:


            The Naum Theatre, which was situated in the district called Pera and
which was burnt twice, is the first theatre where Verdi operas were performed, and as I have already mentioned, the first performance of Ernani in Turkey took place in this same theatre. An opera announcement, printed on a silk material and discovered after a long research, contains three Verdi operas, among others, and also gives the names of the Italian artists who performed them. This opera company, which had been invited from Italy, was naturally accompanied by its own chorus and conductor.

            Another Verdi opera, Attila, which was first performed in Turkey in 1850 in the same theatre, was repeated in 1851.

            The Naum Theatre attained even a greater importance in the 1851/52 season, for the Government had given Naum, because of his great success, the privilege of running an opera, first for a period of 10 years and later for another 5 years. For this same season Naum invited an Italian company of 117 persons including soloists, orchestra, managers and other personnel. It was again for the same season that opera announcements were printed on silk materials to be submitted to the Sultan and other important persons.

            According to these announcements, the first Italian opera to be performed in the 1851/52 season was Verdi’s I masnadieri. The first performance of this opera was made by the following Italian artists: Marietta Alberti, Adelaide Minatti Ramoni, Caroline Budini, Giovanna Mnatti (or Miniati), Giuseppina Buonamici, Giuseppine Montai Tito Palmieri, Giovanni Piccini, Carlo Bartologi (?), Giacchino Ramoni, Giuseppe Broscoli, Gaetani Salani, and the conductor, Gaetano Valabrano, the conductor of the chorus, Salvatore Botticelli, and the theatre manager, Minolo Lanzoni.

            According to a newspaper announcement, the first performance date of Il Trovatore at the Naum Theatre is 13 November 1853. As the first performance date of this opera in Rome is known to be 19 January 1853, it is very interesting for us to note that the first world performance took place in Istanbul only ten months after the first one, whereas the dates of its first performance in some big cities are as follows: Paris 1854, Vienna 1854, London 1855, New York 1855, Berlin 1857.

            Another interesting fact about the 1853 Verdi performances in Istanbul is that the opera devotees were very fond of two Italian artists called Donatelli and Mario Celli, and were very much interested in their performances. Even the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid attended the performance of Il Trovatore and later paid his compliments to these artists.

            In the 1856/57 season, the Italian operas performed in the Naum Theatre were conducted by a famous Italian conductor, Luigi Arditi (1822-1903), who was well-known for his song-dances. It has been impossible to find out for how long Arditi worked in Turkey.

            The 1864/65 season was an extremely important one for the Naum Theatre from the point of view of Verdi operas, because it was during this season that 17 opera artists, a chorus of 40 persons, a ballet group of 17 and an orchestra of 35 members came to Istanbul from Italy and the first performance of I vespri sicilianiwas done successfully in October 1864.

            1865/66 season was as important as the previous one for the Naum Theatre. During this season six Verdi operas were performed in the theatre under the direction of an Italian maestro, Guatelli Pasha (1820-1899), who was the court music teacher and the director of music at the Naum Teatre. Attila was repeated and Rigoletto, Un ballo in maschera, Ernani, La traviataand Nabuccowere performed for the first time in Istanbul. It has been definitely discovered that the first performances of Ernani and Un ballo in maschera were made in January, La traviata in February and Nabucco in April of the year 1866.

            1869/70 was the last important season for the Naum Theatre. Although certain documents are available, proving that various operas were performed in this theatre during the 1869/70 season, others which would show the titles of these operas have so far been unavailable.

            It was a pity that the Naum Theatre, which owed its existence to both material and spiritual support of the Court and the Ottoman Government, was burnt down for the second time on 5 June 1870 after a bright period of 25 years, and the founder of the establishment, Michael Naum, did not attempt to run another theatre after this disaster.

            Michael Naum had firs started to run a theatre in 1841 in the district of Galata in Istanbul, in a wooden building which belonged to a foreigner. The opera performances, which he started later in 1844 in the district of Beyoglu in a theatre taken over from Bosko, continued in this same theatre until it was burnt down in 1846. He then had another theatre built of stone, which he ran until 1870. When a second fire destroyed this new theatre on 5 June 1870, Naum stopped his activities; thus the opera culture of Istanbul, born and developed under his direction, fell into a heavy sleep from which it could not awaken until the establishment of the Republic and Atatürk reforms.

            The reason why I went into detail about the Naum Theatre and neglected the Bosko Teatre, which existed even before the Naum Theatre of the Pera district, is that historical documents about the Bosko Theatre have so far been unavailable. It is definitely known that many operas were performed also in this theatre in the year 1840, but it has been impossible to find out the titles of these operas.

            Another theatre, founded in 1860 in the historical district of Gedik Pasha in Istanbul, was run under the name of  the “Ottoman Theatre” by an Italian called Razi in the year 1866. Although I have come across some documents about many opera performances in this theatre, which moved to a new building in 1867, I have unfortunately been unable to determine the titles of these operas. The only information I have so far obtained on the Ottoman Theatre is that some arias from Italian operas were included in the programs. It is mentioned in some newspaper articles that some of the Il Trovatore arias were also among those arias which were sung by local or foreign artists in performances organized in the form of concerts.

            According to some Italian documents, besides the above-mentioned three private theatres, another private opera was opened in Istanbul in 1879 under the name of “Verdi Theatre”, where Ernani was performed in the same year. However, due to the unavailability of further information about the activities of this theatre during the following years, I believe this opera was closed after a very short period of time.

            During the Ottoman era, traces of a rather primitive opera art also appear in the musical activities in the Ottoman court, where musical education had started during the reign of Mahmud II (1784-1839), known as the father of the first reforms in Turkey, and developed to a great extent following the year 1828, when the famous opera composer Gaetano Donizetti’s brother Giuseppe Donizetti (1788-1856) was invited to Istanbul to be in charge of such activities in the court.

            Giuseppe Donizetti, who died in Istanbul in 1856 after working at the court for a period of 28 years, founded the first harmonic military band of young Turkish musicians whom he chose among the courtiers, and together with maestros whom he invited from Italy he rendered great services in the development of this band. A concert program of the Second Artillery Troop Band, dated 1847, which I discovered in 1956 in the archives of the Topkapi Palace, reveals all the happy results obtained thanks to Donizetti’s efforts during this period of 19 years. Among the Italian, German and Turkish works of this program are also included the following three pieces from Verdi operas: the finale of Ernani, an aria from I Lombardi and a theme from Nabucco.

            Another event, which I consider to be very interesting, is that one of the well-known Italian conductors of that time, Angelo Mariani (1822-1873), was also invited to the Ottoman court as conductor and teacher. Mariani, who had volunteered to participate in the Italian Independence War of 1848, went to Istanbul at the age of 27, and started working at the court, most probably having been invited upon a suggestion of Donizetti, who was already quite an old man. I believe Mariani to have gone back to Italy four years later in 1852, and these four years must have had a positive effect on the opera activities of those years in Istanbul.

            In spite of the fact that the young Turkish musicians, who were educated under the direction of Giuseppe Donizetti, worked on Italian operas, I have never seen any document which would show that they performed an entire Italian opera, with the exception of some documents which confirm that the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid (1823-1861) asked Donizetti to organize some opera performances.  The Court Theatre, the construction of which seems to have started in 1858 according to the plans of the Italian architect Fosatti during Sultan Abdulmecid’s reign, was completed in 1859.  Although it is known that a large Italian company participated in the inauguration of this theatre on 8 January 1859, unfortunately I have not been able to find out which opera was performed.

            According to some documents, the opera performances made at the Court Theatre by Italian artists came to a standstill; and although some years later Sultan Abdulaziz (1830-1876) had the theatre reconstructed after being completely burnt down, he was not interested in opera performances at all. After the reigns of Sultan Aziz and Sultan Murat, it was Sultan Abdulhamit II (1842-1911) who was again interested in the Court Theatre; however, musical activities or opera performances gradually died away within the walls of the palace.

            The special interest formerly attached to the opera could not be revived during the last decades of the 19th century, and it was only after the foundation of the Turkish Republic, following the Independence War, in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) that Turkey returned to the art of opera. Thus, the first State Opera in Turkey was founded in 1947 with the help of Turkish musicians who were educated in the Ankara State Conservatory. Italian maestros once more rendered great services, and Giuseppe Verdi’s works in particular were put in the programs of the State Opera, which was founded by the famous opera stage-manager Prof. Carl Ebert, who worked in Ankara during the period of 1936-1945.

            The Republican era opera activities, which started and developed with the support of the State, created many talented Turkish opera artists, some of whom attained great success on the stages of many important world operas including La Scala. The Turkish opera during the Republican era has not only presented western operas, but has also given birth to national Turkish operas. Today, at the Turkish State Opera, which has celebrated its 27th anniversary, works chosen from world opera literature, and particularly Italian operas, are being performed with both Turkish and Italian librettos, sometimes by Turkish artists and sometimes by both Turkish and famous Italian artists.

            Our country, which has been successful in applying the knowledge and technique of contemporary civilization in the field of music during the above-mentioned 50-year period, has attached special interest to the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi and has added 10 Turkish librettos of Verdi operas to the national repertory. The titles of these operas and their first performance dates in the a chronological order during the Republican era are as follows:

Un ballo in maschera
Un ballo in maschera
La traviata
Il trovatore
La forza del destino
Don Carlos
1947, Ankara State Conservatory
2 November 1955, Ankara State Opera
1 October 1950, Ankara State Opera
18 April 1954, Ankara State Opera
6 February 1955, Ankara State Opera
20 March 1958, Ankara State Opera
12 March 1960, Ankara State Opera
14 April 1962, Ankara State Opera
2 March 1964, Ankara State Opera
1969, Istanbul State Opera

            Out of the above-mentioned first performances of the Verdi operas during this time, La forza del destino was performed in Italian on 21 March 1964 by Turkish artists, with the participation of the Italian baritone Meliciani.

            The program of the Ankara State Opera for the present season will be ended with the performance of La Traviata.

            I have tried to summarize, in a chronological order, the significance of the works created by such a genius as Giuseppe Verdi from the point of view of Turkey’s cultural efforts during the 19th century and the present Republic era. I would like to express my appreciation and thanks to the Opera of Chicago and the Instituto di Studi Verdiani for having given me this opportunity.




(1) The Turkish-Russian War of 1877-78, Tripoli War of 1911-12, Balkan War of 1912-13, First World War of 1914-18 and the Independence War of 1921-23.