A Night At The Opera

Turkey, our adopted country, is a blessed place for opera and ballet lovers with six (Yes, six!) State Opera and Ballet Companies with their associated Orchestras – Ankara; Istanbul; Izmir; Antalya; Mersin and Samsun – all of them are world class. Add to that a venue like the near-perfectly preserved Aspendos amphitheatre with its near-perfect acoustics; a full moon (if you are lucky) and you have the ingredients for a truly magical experience.


Until I came to Turkey I had never been to an opera, I’d listen to and greatly enjoyed stuff on vinyl and later on CD, but the cost and hassle of getting to a performance in the UK had always been too high a hurdle to bother with. J, on the other hand, is a graduate of the London College of Music and as a student could take advantage of all sorts of concessions. In return for getting dressed up in a well pinned brocade curtain, selling programmes and curtsying to the queen for St Cecelia’s (patron saint of musicians) Day at the Royal Albert Hall and being a member of the Student Union, she got free tickets/passes to all sorts of rehearsals and performances.




Back in 2000 J got wind of the Aspendos Festival and we attended a performance of ‘Turandot’. Picture, if you can, the setting and the spectacle. The amphitheatre with its near-perfect curtain wall, with tier upon tier abuzz with people. There are no curtains so the sumptuous set is there, ablaze with colour and glitter as you wait for the start; you feel as if you are sitting in the heart of the set. The orchestra files in, it is the Presidential Orchestra, Turkey’s finest; the lights dim, the music swells and, as the performance begins, the full moon rises above the curtain wall.

two shots from Turandot in 2008

That first real taste of a real opera had me hooked. Imagine, the Presidential Orchestra, a cast so huge it took the combined Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir State Opera companies to fill it. A cast so great that at the curtain call there wasn’t enough space on the stage and many had to stand in the auditorium. Even the stage hands and set-changers were dressed as Chinese coolies!

We’ve been back most years since that first visit, sometimes J goes several times in a season. Even though this year prices have almost doubled, where else can you get opera of this quality in such a setting with a full moon thrown in for just 40TL (about £14)? Unless you have been there it is almost impossible to grasp the grandeur and majesty of the setting and performance.

Anyway, back to our recent visit; this year has seen a number of performances by foreign companies. In the case of Madam Butterfly it was the Beijing National Opera, and what a performance it was with soprano Shen Na in the lead role. She is the epitome of the perfect ‘Butterfly’ – delicately beautiful with a voice that had the audience enchanted. The duet between her and ‘Suzuki’ was about as perfect as it gets. J was enthralled and commented that ‘even their vibrato was in sync!’ I’m just a country bumpkin and wouldn’t have a clue about such technicalities. Full marks go to the Samsun State Opera and Ballet Orchestra and to the entertaining and spirited ‘performance’ of Conductor Yu Feng – there were many moments when his passionate involvement melded wonderfully with the action on the stage.

I’ve tried hard to find some video of Shen Na singing without success so a photo extracted from a Chinese newspaper will have to suffice. Meanwhile the season continues with ‘SwanLake’ on 10th Sept and Tannhäuser on 15th Sept – go on, get yourself down there – even without Shen Na and a full moon it’s still a magical experience. Meanwhile a few photos from the night . .

 Butterfly arrives

the ‘wedding’ (Pinkerton, you unmitigated bastard)


after everyone rejects her, Pinkerton promises eternal love (ha, ha)


 Pinkerton’s wife turns up, Butterfly is devastated

her child taken, her love lost, Butterfly prepares for the end

Pinkerton you double-dealing bastard!


 thank you, Butterfly – you were magnificent!

 Alan Fenn, Okçular Köyü

25 thoughts on “A Night At The Opera

  1. We are spoilt for choice here in Turkey. A few years ago I watched Carlos Acosta dance in the Bodrum Castle theatre ( £8 for a third row ticket) and this month Simon Rattle is in Ephesus.

    1. the great man said there would be culture and there is culture – I’m just glad that that inexpensive was mentioned in the small print

  2. Alan, you lucky bastard! (just joking) Well, we certainly are jealous but we have every intention of getting down there some year. We’ve seen some good productions here in Istanbul but the Beijing National Opera doing ‘Butterfly’ in Aspendos – my, my, my. The photos were really great. Did you take them yourself?

    1. the first 6 down to Shen Na are stock; the ‘Butterfly’ ones are mine using flash-less low light settings which mostly worked out. The only drawback is that the low-light lens is a prime with no telephoto. As for getting there sometime, it’s a must if you love opera or ballet and appreciate the spectacle/setting.

  3. Really enjoyed madam butterfly while i was in Eastern Europe about two years ago. Lucky you, having the time of your life huh. am jealous……lol

    1. . . has to be one of the grandest venues in the world that is used on an annual basis. Yeah! Life is pretty good!

  4. Liam’s a huge opera buff and we always regretted not doing the Aspendos gig. We did attend an Opera recital in a car park Turgutreis a few back. Sadly, it sounded like an opera in a car park.

    1. Hi Jack! The season has been extended at both ends so catching a performance as part of a holiday visit is much more feasible. The programme goes up on line well before season starts, tickets via trip agents or on site on the night.

  5. We keep saying we’ll try to go to one of these performances, one day. We’re like you, never been and Turkey will probably be the first time we go. We don’t think we’d like but I bet once we’re there and the performance is under way, we’d love it. 🙂

    1. . . if you are not a buff, pick one of the spectacular ones like Turandot or Aida and enjoy the feast for the eyes and atmosphere if nothing else. Truth is, I think that after a performance you just might become a convert – either way, you need to go at least one time.

  6. Gorgeous post Alan, we try to catch the concerts or opera whenever we are back home – once we saw Placido Domingo at Aspendos, it was magical. Enjoy the concerts for us too!:)

  7. Great post Alan. I’ve seen the Aspendos Theatre, but not the right time to experience a performance. I have been tot he opera house in Ankara a few times. Last week I read that during renovations of the Ankara Opera House, they had to dig deep to repair the elevators. While doing so, they discovered human bones and pottery. They brought in an archaeologist the same day and within less than 24 hours, decided that there was nothing else to find. Send the bones to a museum. And decided the show must go on and went back to work. I also read they believe there was an Armenian grave yard there. Interesting stuff.

    1. . . certainly something to fit in if you can. I think that the mentality is that there are so many historic sites in this country that unless it is really special it’s going under water or the bulldozer’s blade!

  8. Wow, I loved this post. It took me away…and had me planning for an opera tour. Just sold all of my Grandpa’s ancient Opera recordings to someone who loved them – but second-guessing myself. He’s the old soul whose letters you read in that green volume…I think opera was a big part in keeping him sane after WWI and the troubles in the trenches et alia….

    1. The various companies are all world-class and the setting – well! I know I’m repeating myself, but you have to do this on one of your visits.

  9. Great post. I’ve seen the opera Theatre in sydney, but not the right time to experience a performance. I went with my brother for Opera in Australia. It’s really a great music venue.

  10. Thanks Shane, and welcome to Archers! Opera at Aspendos is a unique experience – as the saying goes – ‘Location, location, location!’

  11. Looks incredible! I’m sure the pictures don’t do it justice at all. You’ve definitely inspired me to check out an opera in my home town, it’s been something I’ve been interested in for a while, and this post was the motivation I needed.

    1. Hi Miranda and welcome to Archers! You really should check these wonderful performances – I’m sure you’s enjoy them.

    2. Hi Miranda and welcome to Archers! You really should check these wonderful performances – I’m sure you’d enjoy them.

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