Turkey is not the first country one associates with opera, yet ask any aficianado to name a Turkish opera singer one name will spring to their lips. Leyla Gencer (née Çeyrekgi) was born in Polonezköy (near Istanbul) to a Turkish father and a Polish mother in 1928. She found fame, mostly in Italy, as a bel canto soprano, especially well known for her Donizetti, contributing to the renaissance of the composer’s operas during the 20th century. She made her La Scala debut in the world première of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites (as Madame Lidoine) and performed 19 roles there between 1957-1983. She made few commercial recordings, but there is a tremendous RAI studio performance of Il trovatore (despite some poor lip-synching) from 1957 which catches her in her considerable prime.

Later in her life, Gencer dedicated herself to teaching and was artistic director of the academy at Opera Studio at La Scala. When she died in 2008, Gencer’s ashes were brought from Milan, in accordance with her wishes, and scattered into the Bosphorous.

There’s now a singing competition in her honour in Turkey and every season the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra puts on an operatic performance in her honour. This year, Sascha Goetzel, the orchestra’s music director since 2009, has chosen to put on Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, an opera never before performed in Turkey. The Marschallin isn’t a role associated with Gencer, so I wondered why it had been chosen.

“As far as I know, Leyla Gencer never sang Rosenkavalier,” explains Goetzel. “Our annual Leyla Gencer production is meant to bring opera on stage in Istanbul in her spirit. She was not only an outstanding soprano, but also an exceptional personality and teacher, leading the Opera Studio at La Scala for many years. By supporting young Turkish singers in our opera productions with the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic we are continuing what she set out to achieve.”

Sascha Goetzel © Harald Hoffmann
Sascha Goetzel
© Harald Hoffmann
Goetzel was a long-time violinist in the Vienna Philharmonic before turning to conducting, so knows Rosenkavalier very well. “It’s easy to talk for hours and probably days - if not weeks! - about Rosenkavalier and what makes this piece so unique. What strikes me particularly in almost every phrase is the interaction between the poetry of words and the poetry of music. Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss created an incomparable culmination of harmony between the two in the tradition of Richard Wagner, but in addition Richard Strauss ingeniously combines a connection between Wagnerian orchestral instrumentation and pre Wagnerian baroque opera with Mozartian structure and development. After Salome and Elektra I think it’s fair to say that with Rosenkavalier he revolutionised German opera – and indeed opera in general.”

Goetzel’s Marschallin in Istanbul is Angela Denoke, who also takes on the role when he conducts the opera in Vienna later this season. Goetzel is full of admiration for the German soprano. “She is an outstanding artist and I have always admired her approach towards and sincerity within each role she has sung, especially in the German repertoire. It means a lot to me personally that she agreed to do it and of course for both of us it will be wonderful to see each other again in May at the Vienna State Opera for their beautiful Rosenkavalier production.

Stepanie Houtzeel (Octavian) and Angela Denoke (The Marschallin) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (2013)
Stepanie Houtzeel (Octavian) and Angela Denoke (The Marschallin)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn (2013)
"With casts every conductor and director has naturally certain preferences. I always try to have a good character cast, by which I mean that I want to feel the voices and personalities of the singers fitting really comfortably in their roles. I think you can feel immediately if a singer feels comfortable in a role and simply loves to perform it, or if he/she struggles to find a connection with the character. I try to support the singers by inviting them for roles with which they really want to grow, to get deeper and deeper inside the character and make it really special. If everybody on stage has forgotten during the evening of the performance who they really are because they represent their character on stage 100%, then I’m happy – and so are the singers and indeed the audience.” Alongside Denoke are fine young singers Dorottya Láng (Octavian) and Chen Reiss (Sophie). Veteran Swiss bass-baritone Alfred Muff is the irascible Baron Ochs.

The Borusan’s opera this year, as Goetzel explains, is more than a concert performance, directed by Yekta Kara. “We will have an orchestra pit specially created for the first time in ou Lütfi Kirdar Concert Hall and a stage where the play will be fully staged with minimum stage and light choreography, but with costumes and multimedia support. We’d like the audience to dive deep into the singers’ emotions. Various cameras will show live close up pictures at the back of the stage. It’s a very exciting format which will bring the audience very close to the singers and the musicians.”

BIFO is a young orchestra. Since its establishment in 1999, from an enlarged Borusan Chamber Orchestra, it has become associated with exotic scores like Scheherazade and Respighi’s colourful Belkis, Queen of Sheba, two scores it shortly takes to the Hong Kong Festival. Yet the orchestra relishes the chance to play opera. “They love to support the drama and passion and also learn to phrase and breathe naturally with the singers,” enthuses Goetzel. “Opera orchestras have the “biggest ears” in the classical music world because they constantly have to listen with at least one ear tuned to the singers they accompany.

“In Richard Strauss’ operas, the demands on the orchestral forces are enormous and the scores are technically highly challenging for the individual players as well as for the ensemble. For a symphony orchestra to master a work like Rosenkavalier is a major challenge because the musicians need to combine all elements, their symphonic sound without the voices, the pure accompaganto and then the culmination of poetry of words and poetry of music. We have to tell a story with the orchestra just as the singers do, and our words are the notes, everything has to be narrative or atmospheric, there is a meaning behind every note.”

Der Rosenkavalier is performed in the Lütfi Kırdar International Convention and Exhibition Centre, Istanbul on 30th March 2017.

Article sponsored by the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra.