Innovative Opera Takes Center Stage at S.F. World Music Festival

Innovative Opera Takes Center Stage at S.F. World Music Festival-Chinese Peking Opera Singer Zi Rui performing Female Generals of the Yang Family; Courtesy China National Peking Opera Company.

At age 90, Adelaida Mammadova is still a formidable presence — spry, talkative and full of verve — as Michael Santoro found out when he visited her in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. Santoro, who directs the annual San Francisco World Music Festival, sought out Mammadova to talk about her late husband, Murtuza Mammadov, who was one of the world’s most esteemed opera singers. During the visit, Mammadova showed Santoro a photo album that contained a picture, taken in 1960, of her husband with Mei Lanfang, Beijing’s greatest opera star. Here was the first clue that Murtuza Mammadov and Mei Lanfang had planned to collaborate in what would have been a meeting of historic importance. The collaboration never happened. Both singers died in 1961, within a month of each other.

“I don’t read the Azeri language, and she handed me a book, and I’m flipping through and I immediately go to the photos,” says Santoro. “As I’m flipping through, I see a photo of her husband sitting at a table with Mei Lanfang. I’ve studied (Mei Lanfang’s) music the past two years, and I saw this picture and I was just blown away. I never thought I’d find it there in Baku. She lit up when she saw me point to that picture. She said that Mei Lanfang had heard her husband singing on the radio, and fell in love with it, and came to Azerbaijan and attended his opera, and then they went to their house, which is where we were. It’s now a museum for her husband and Mugham opera. She said, ‘In this very room, after they came back from the opera, I cooked Mei Lanfang dinner.’ I’m sitting there, and I’m thinking, ‘No one knows this story.’ ”


Mei Lanfang and Murtuza Mammadov; Photo courtesy of Adelaida Mammadova.

They do now. This year’s San Francisco World Music Festival, which begins Thursday, November 8, 2012 is fulfilling the dream of Murtuza Mammadov and Mei Lanfang by staging The Opera Project: Voices From the Other Side . . ., which features singers and musicians from China and Azerbaijan, along with others from South Korea and Tibet. When the full ensemble of artists take the stage at the Jewish Community Center, it will premier a work that shows off the stunning operatic traditions of each country. From China, Santoro and the festival recruited four prominent members of the China National Peking Opera Company, which Mei Lanfang helped found in 1955. From Azerbaijan, Santoro and the festival recruited The Land of the Fire Consorts, a group that melds operatic music that Murtuza Mammadov championed with other Azeri musical traditions. The rehearsals have been “intense,” Santoro says.

“You can feel the hunger in the room,” he says. “You can feel the intensity of this quest for an innovative way to combine their cultures and their music.”

It’s certainly rare to hear, on the same stage, master violinists from China and Azerbaijan performing on the spike fiddle — a violin that’s set on the ground and bowed from a sitting position. And it’s rare to hear, on the same stage, bellowing voices from Mugham opera, which is based on Persian and Arabic music scales, alongside those from Beijing opera, alongside those from Korean opera called P’ansori, which is based on Korean folk traditions, alongside other countries’ operatic art forms.


Azerbaijani Opera artists Imamyar Hasanov, Vusala Musayeva, Rufat Hasanov; Photo by Michael Santoro.

Murtuza Mammadov and Mei Lanfang certainly would have been proud of The Opera Project. Mammadov was best known by his nickname, “Bulbul,” which means “nightingale” in the Azerbaijani language. In Baku, meeting Murtuza Mammadov’s widow left an indelible impression on Santoro, who was already planning on doing the The Opera Project, but came away with even more motivation. “She kept telling me, ‘You need to tell this story. You need to tell this story. I don’t know how much longer I’m going to live,’” Santoro says. “They were going to bring “Bulbul” and his opera company to China to do something, but then they both died. When she was telling me this, she was very emotional, very intense. I told her, ‘If you put together a package for me, I’ll personally hand-deliver it to Mei Lanfang’s troupe.’ And when I handed the package to them in Beijing, they were visibly moved.”

“Whenever you go into these countries,” Santoro adds, “you really don’t know what it’s going to bring you until you’re there on the ground.” Like previous programs at the San Francisco World Music Festival, which is now in its 13th year, The Opera Project is global innovation on a high scale.

The Opera Project: Voices From The Other Side . . . is performed Friday-Sunday, Nov. 9-11, at the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. The San Francisco World Music Festival begins Thursday, Nov. 8, with a film screening of Intangible Asset No. 82, featuring Korean P’ansori singer Bae Il Dong and Korean percussionist Kim Dong Won, who are both performing in The Opera Project: Voices From The Other Side . . . . For tickets and more information, visit sfworldmusicfestival.org.

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Jonathan Curiel

Jonathan Curiel has written widely about music, film, books, art, photography and other cultural subjects for such publications as  SF Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, the Christian Science Monitor, The Wire (a London music magazine), Tablet and GlobalPost.  He has researched architecture at England's Oxford University as a Thomson Reuters Foundation Research Fellow, taught music journalism at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, and been a juror at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

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