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Oil, Politics and Music – The Opera in Baku

Legend has it that in 1910, while visiting Baku, on the Caspian Sea, the Russian diva, Antonina Nezhdanova, declined an invitation to return to the city to perform, citing the lack of a real opera house where singers could show their talent.

The façade of the Baku Opera House

When Daniel Mailov, an Armenian tycoon and an admirer of the great soprano heard of her comments, he pledged to build an opera house within a year and invited her to sing in the inaugural program.

Once the Azeri oil baron Haji Zeynalabdin Taqiyev - who had already built a theater in the city – heard of such a foolish pledge, he made a wager. If Mailov managed to finish the opera within a year, Taqiyev would cover all the expenses. Lo and behold, the opera was completed within ten months, obliging Taqiyev to pay 250,000 rubles to cover the cost of the building.

Antonina Nezhdanova

Prior to the discovery of oil in the middle of nineteenth century, Baku was a small backwater city, confined to the walls of its twelfth century old town. As oil become the engine of growth for Russia’s rapidly expanding industry, Baku prospered. The population grew from 10,000 in the 1850’s to over 100,000 in 1903 and over 250,000 before the WW1. By then, Baku produced over half of the oil in the world. Azeris with a little over a quarter of the population constituted the majority, followed by Armenians, Russians, Persians, Georgians, Poles, Germans and Jews. Most residents at this time, spoke at least three languages: Azeri-Turkish, Russian, and Persian. It was not hard to find residents speaking five or six languages including Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Swedish, Yiddish, and the lingua franca: French.

As the city’s affluence grew, so did its appetite for culture. The first theater in Baku was opened in 1873, built by its most prominent citizen – the oil baron Taqieyv, the illiterate son of a cobbler who had become its richest man, residing in its most ostentatious mansion. But an opera house placed Baku on a path to compete with Tbilisi – which already had a 1200 seat Moorish Opera house – for regional supremacy. Azeri Opera The first Azeri opera, Leyli and Majnun, composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyov based on a poem by Fuzzuli, was premiered in 1908 featuring an all-male cast with Huseyngulu Sarabski in the title role. The piece combined the traditional classical music of the east, mugam, (originating in pre- Islam Iran and called radif), with Azeri folk songs and classical opera traditions, to create a new genre: Mugam-Opera. Hajibeyov went on to create arguably the most well-known Azeri operetta, Arshen Mal Alan (“The Cloth Peddler”) in 1913, as well as the national anthem for the short-lived Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918. A video of Leyli and Majnun and of Arshen Mal Alan will give the listener a taste of Azeri mugam music and drama. The background of Arshen Mal Alan provides fascinating reading.

Zeynalabdin Taqiyev

The 600-seat Baku opera house, designed by the Armenian-Russian architect Nikolai Bayev in Art Nuovo style, was inaugurated on the of February 28, 1911. The grand opening featured Nezhdanova as the lead in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. Many of the city’s dignitaries who attended the performance had to ride on the shoulders of their servants to get to the theater as the rain had turned the unpaved surrounding area into a mud lake. After acquiring a resident opera group - the Pavel Amirago Opera Troupe in 1916, the opera house offered regular seasonal programing. Both Nezhdanova and fellow soprano Natalia Ermolenko Yuzhina performed regularly in the opera house, as did bass Chaliapin. The tenor Sobinov continued preforming after the Bolshevik takeover. Enter the Bolsheviks

Huseyngulu Sarabski

The Bolshevik takeover of Azerbaijan in 1920 brought many changes. The Bolsheviks promoted Proletkult (proletarian culture), and rejected the cultural heritage of all Soviet nations as backward and reactionary. They campaigned against the use of Azerbaijan's national instrument, tar, a traditional stringed instrument similar to the lute, and excluded mugham operas from the repertoire of the nationalized and renamed Azerbaijan Opera and Ballet Theater. Tars were publicly burned and broken, making people afraid of keeping them in their homes.

In 1925, Azerbaijani Opera Troupe, the Russian Opera Troupe and the Drama Troupe merged to form the official resident organization of the opera house. In 1927 the theatre was renamed again after Mirza Fatali Akhundov, a celebrated Iranian-Azeri playwright, nationalist and fervent atheist! Despite the Bolshevik’s disdain for Azeri folk culture and suspicion of Hajibeyov, who was associated with Azerbaijan’s independence movement, the opera house continued to flourish during the Stalinist era. Away from Moscow and St. Petersburg, Baku maintained a degree of autonomy during this period perhaps because the Georgian Stalin who was sheltered in the city early in the century had a soft spot for it in his heart. Reinhold Gliere, an eminent Russian composer, collected folk songs of the Caucasus in Baku. He weaved Azerbaijani melodies into his opera "Shah Sanam", premiered in Baku in 1934, featuring Azeri singers, Bulbul, and the La Scala trained Shovkat Mammadova. Music East and West Soon enough mugam opera was brought back, and new ones were written with proletarian and patriotic themes. The music of these new mugam operas, still replete with Azeri folk melodies, was closer to the romantic western opera than traditional mugam. Even Hajibeyov was rehabilitated. Stalin was so enthralled with his masterpiece, Koroglu (“The Blind Man’s Son”) in its Moscow premiere in 1938, that he awarded Hajibeyov the title of People’s Artist of the USSR, and the Order of Lenin. The return of Gara Garayev, friend and student of Dimitry Shostakovich to Baku in 1941, solidified the opera house’s prominence. The highly acclaimed Sevil, composed by Fikrat Amirov, that premiered in Baku in December 1953, is a product of this period. Sevil is close to romantic western music while seamlessly incorporating mugam. The opera house became an academic theatre in 1959. In 1985, the newly renovated theatre mysteriously burned down, but was rebuilt and reopened in 1987. Today, the opera house, renamed the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, offers regular seasonal performances. Its repertoire, in addition to famous works by Western and Russian composers, includes Mugam operas as well eclectic pieces by musicians - mostly local - unknown to most opera lovers. The seasonal offerings in 2019 included La Traviata, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, La Boehme, Aida, Carmen, and Il Cavalier Rustica, but also Leyli and Majnun, by Gara Garayev; Shah Ismayil by Muslim Magomayev; and Tango of Love, a one act ballet by Astor Piazzolla, a composer of Tango music. Opera in Azerbaijan A list of the most influential operas from Baku: Leyli and Majnun, composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyov, 1908

Husband and Wife*, composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyov, 1910

Mashadi Ibad*, composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyov, 1911

Arshin Mal Alan*, composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyov, 1913

Ashug Garib, composed by Zulfugar Hajibeyov, 1915

Shah Ismayil, composed by Muslim Magomayev, 1919

Nargiz, composed by Muslim Magomayev, 1935

Koroglu, composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyov, 1937

Vatan (Motherland), composed by Gara Garayev & Jovdat Hajiyev, 1945

Sevil, composed by Fikrat Amirov, 1953

Azad, composed by Jahangir Jahangirov, 1957

Vagif, composed by Ramiz Mustafayev, 1960

Bridal Rock, composed by Shafiga Akhundova, 1972

The interior of the Baku Opera House

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