A Theatrical Life’s Breath

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BY RAYA ABBASOVA

AZERI OBSERVER CONTRIBUTOR

The year 2020, brought a lot of ‘surprises’, but it is still a year of many important anniversaries, including the 100th anniversary of the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater. The pandemic which has taken over the world has forced to postpone a long list of anniversary events, including bright premiere performances, visits of famous opera and ballet artists to Baku, and a large Gala concert – a creative parade of the best representatives of music and stage art. “All the planned anniversary events will definitely happen. It’s just a matter of time,” the director of the theater, Honored Art Worker of Azerbaijan, Akif Melikov promises. “I cannot give you exact dates for obvious reasons, but I really hope for the successful implementation of the majority of the important projects.”

Question: I believe that as a director of such a big creative organization you should have a lot of things to worry about during the pandemic, despite the optimistic forecast.

A.: It is true. However, everything becomes less important compared to the exciting events, to put it mildly, which largely determine the further fate of our Motherland. I mean the just war of our country to retake the occupied territory of Nagorno-Karabakh from the aggressor. I stress once again that it is a just, Patriotic War, and Azerbaijan entered it not by our own free will; we don’t have acquisitive, predatory intentions, but instead just wish to retrieve our primordial Azerbaijani land.

As for the pandemic, of course, it is a big disaster! The pandemic has paralyzed almost all important areas and everyone dreams of returning to a normal lifestyle. At the same time, the pandemic pause is a right time to reflect, ponder and comprehend the future plans. We think how to live on, restore our activity, what schemes to come up with to make the viewer – who is frightened by the current situation and used to the self-isolation and absence of lively interaction – to overcome the behavioral customs developed during the pandemic and return to the theater. Regarding the theater itself and its staff, we are in unusual conditions, as the theatrical art envisages presence and active interaction of many people. After all, what is theater? It is a big organization; and its activities are fulfilled by an organic combination of many components. In case of a musical theater, there are many more components. Each performance requires soloists, a choir, an orchestra, plus employees who ensure the right course of a stage action. Keeping a distance, as well as artists in masks on stage is simply impossible here. And I have yet to mention a fairly large audience of different ages. A full house was a common occurrence in our theater.

Q.: After such a long break, the artists will probably have to work hard to restore their form and the usual high level of performances.

A.: Certainly. In addition to the internal discipline, the habit of working hard, and desire to polish our performances up to the highest quality level, we are driven by the responsibility to the audience. We perceive it as a great incentive for the creative self-expression. However, the viewers also miss the art: they show a keen interest and call us a lot asking when the theater will start functioning. Such attention pleases me endlessly!

I can assure you that the actors of the Academic Theater did their best in order not to lose their professional form during the forced leave of absence. We were constantly in touch. The main concern was the health of our large well-coordinated team, every member of which is irreplaceable. I will not exaggerate if I say that we work a lot. Our soloists constantly demonstrate their professional skills on social networks: perform excerpts from operas and ballets. They receive a lot of kind comments and words of gratitude for their devotion to art and attention to the audience, deprived of the opportunity to visit the theater and communicate with its favorite characters.

Q.: What will the theater’s repertoire policy look like after the COVID-19 pandemic? Will you continue with the previously approved schedule of performances?

A.: We have a well-structured repertoire. It’s no secret that there are some performances, which are a traditional part of the repertoire. Moreover, we have premieres every theater season. Unfortunately, this year we were forced to postpone the planned premieres and stop the rehearsals for a long time. Such a protracted period of stage inactivity bothers and frustrates us. However, we have no right, and we do not want to change our main course, aimed at the quality of our performances. It is a well-known fact that one of the theater’s main criteria for success is the attention of the audience. It is difficult and bad to perform in a half-empty, sluggishly applauding hall. And it is impossible to fool the audience! People go to the theater for quality performances, which will satisfy their spiritual, artistic and aesthetic needs. We have no right to disappoint our viewers, as well as ourselves! We have to be ready to receive the audience, otherwise we can lose them. It has happened before in the history of our theater. Coming back to your question, I can say that we will start the theatrical season with a piece by Uzeyir Hajibeyli (Ed. note: an outstanding Azerbaijani composer, founder of Azerbaijani professional musical art and opera), whose 135th anniversary has been celebrated this year. Though, we don’t know yet when it will happen. Thanks to the national television and various internet platforms, the theater staff managed to express our respect and reverent attitude towards such a significant date. Of course, it is sad that we did not have an opportunity to demonstrate the composer’s masterpieces on the theater stage, and to realize important projects related to the anniversaries of Uzeyir Hajibeyli and Muslim Magomayev (Ed. note: famous Azerbaijani opera and popular music singer). However, we can do nothing to change the sharp turns of life.

Q.: You mentioned that the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater had a difficult period in its history. Could you comment on that?

A.: In 1987, I was assigned to head the Azerbaijani state opera and ballet theater. Simultaneously, I was entrusted to lead the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic for 10 years. It was a period of a severe crisis – not only economic, but also political, which embraced all the republics of the dying Soviet Union. To say that it was difficult would be an understatement! People’s minds could not be on culture when the seemingly eternal social foundations collapsed! This destructive force did not bypass the State opera and ballet theater, which were highly criticized at that time. For the sake of fairness, I have to agree that the sharp criticism in a number of articles was quite justified. Imagine, when I came here, the theater had been under endless renovations for 5 years, and had not had a single guest performer for 12 years in row. These are just a couple of facts showing the extent of the negligence and indifference to the historical and architectural monument (the theater’s building which was built in 1911), and to the country’s opera and ballet art. The theater required an urgent ‘reanimation’, we had to start from scratch: to destroy everything worthless, and create a new one, meeting the requirements of that time. I faced many difficult tasks, first of all to revive the glorious traditions of the once famous theater and thereby attract the audience. First, we bet on the big names: Elena Obraztsova, Maria Bieshu, Virgilius Noreiko, Vladislav Piavko and other world celebrities. Their high professionalism and widespread fame attracted not just ordinary spectators, but a sophisticated audience, who knows a lot about the art of opera. Simultaneously, we restored the art of ballet. Baku balletomanes could not resist the unique talent of Maya Plisetskaya, Nina Semizorova, Nadezhda Pavlova, Galina Mezentseva, Vyacheslav Gordeev and many others! Sold-out performances in the theater, which had been on the verge of oblivion, led to the revival of a great public interest in opera and ballet on our stage. It was a fantastic, well-deserved victory for the entire creative team, who received an incentive for further professional growth. It is also worth mentioning the importance of the guest conductors. Their skills were a valuable opportunity to become acquainted with different interpretations of opera and ballet pieces. Since theater is a spectacular art, a visual picture of every performance is also important. We paid serious attention to the fully revised stage sets, and changed the costumes, which also contributed to the success of our performances. Looking back at that period, I realize that overcoming such difficulties was a good school for a relatively young director. When you learn the work from the inside, face serious problems and overcome them, you receive … not quite confidence, but hope that everything can work out. A sense of responsibility is a valuable gift that must be cherished!

Q.: I often attend the Azerbaijani state opera and ballet theater’s performances, and every time I see you in the director’s box. Is it a distrust for the performers or a natural state of mind to watch?

A.: I will be frank: distrust is out of the question. I attend almost every rehearsal, and know all the nuances of the happenings. It could sound immodest, but I have an innate aesthetic sense, which is very helpful in my work. I am very involved in the preparation of every performance, despite the professionalism of artists, costume designers, lighting technicians, etc. It has nothing in common with distrust, on the contrary, it is valuable to discuss and coordinate things together and reach a common understanding. Our joint efforts are aimed towards the maximum result. There is no indulgence for anyone. I have a critical eye for everything happening on the stage, not because I like to find faults, but because I want to make it perfect. Such an attitude ensures a high professional level of the theater. That is why we discuss every play, express our opinions, which are listened to and respected by others. Artists are people, and people can make mistakes: there can be some flaws in makeup, hairstyle and even stage costume, and they should all be noticed and corrected. It is painstaking work, guarding against the smallest hint of provincialism, which can sometimes happen even in quite well-known troupes.

Q.: Your attention and trust in creative youth deserves a separate conversation.

A.: The main goal of such attention is not to miss such talents, to give them an opportunity to realize their natural gifts and professional skills. We are proud that our theater has discovered many famous names. We have close contacts with the Baku Choreography Academy. We look after talented students and invite them to join our team after graduation. Many artists want to become a part of our troupe, but only the ones with talent and a good appearance can and should work at our theater. The talent and appearance should correspond to the performed character. It is a very important fusion, which greatly determines the fate of young artists.

Q.: During this interview, I feel a silence, which is unusual for a theater. Does the absence of a theatrical life’s breath frustrate you?

A.: It’s very hard and unusual. You chose the right expression – a theatrical life’s breath. It is usually mellifluous, but the silence and absence of voices is depressing. However, we all hope for a new tomorrow. I believe that all good things will come back, and justice will prevail. Our brave soldiers will return home with victory, the world will overcome the pandemic, and theaters and concert halls will come to life. Life must win – there can be no other outcome!

Q.: This year you celebrate not only the 100th anniversary of the theater, but also your own anniversary. Allow me, on behalf of the Azeri Observer Magazine’s team to congratulate you on both these anniversaries and a high governmental award – ‘For service to the Fatherland’ Order of the second class, for your contribution to the development and promotion of Azerbaijani musical culture, and wish you further success in your creative activity.

A.: Thank you. I am infinitely grateful to Mr. President for the assessment of my modest merits. Our country is in the center of attention of the entire world now. Azerbaijani people are confidently striding the path of success, which was started by the great politician of our time, Heydar Aliyev, and successfully continued by our highly respected President, Ilham Aliyev and his companion in life and work, the First Vice President, Mehriban Aliyeva. I strongly believe that such continuity is the key to the successful present and future of our country!