Utku Bayburt, 25, is contemplating his prospects. He is about to graduate from the Istanbul University State Conservatory after seven demanding years studying the art of opera singing.
"This job is difficult; it is a big risk," says Bayburt of his future. "Anyone who wants to make a career in this job tries to find a way to go abroad," he says, a sentiment repeated by all of the students and instructors who spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review during a visit to the conservatory. Whereas young Turkish opera singers were once practically guaranteed official state jobs upon graduation, these days the chances of getting onto the payroll at one of Turkey’s six state opera houses have become markedly diminished; it is a simple case of too many graduates and not enough vacancies. (As part of the public sector, once "in," singers are assured employment until they are 65.) To escape this glut, and for the added professional challenge, Bayburt, like many of Turkey’s young talents, is determined to sing in another country.
While there may be more opportunities abroad (compare Germany’s approximately 100 opera houses to Turkey’s six), the standards of foreign opera companies are also extremely exacting, something Bayburt clearly relishes. "To have a chance abroad, you must be really well outfitted: Just going to class isn’t enough. You have to develop yourself from every angle. Theatre actors only act; opera singers must sing and act Ğ and we are expected to do both well."
"Here [at the conservatory] we are taught the technical side," Bayburt says. "But the emotional ’inner part’ can’t be taught; nobody can teach it. There’s a role, there’s a character Ğ getting into this character has to do with your imagination, the thoughts you’ve had, the life you’ve lived. And all this has to do with the books you’ve read, the music you’ve listened to, and the perspective you’ve developed since birth. We are talking about art not mathematics. You have to develop yourself."
And so, Bayburt trains everyday in the classrooms and practice halls at Istanbul University’s conservatory, which is housed in the Haldun Taner Theatre building at the Kadıköy Iskele on the Asian shore of Istanbul. Bayburt also studies Italian, French, and German and has had to learn to fence, practicing the sport for two hours every week. "Fencing teaches you to react quickly and precisely to others’ movements," something essential to opera performance, says Bayburt. "It teaches you subtlety and flexibility."
One of Bayburt’s instructors, Lynn Trepel Çağlar, has been in Turkey with the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet for more than 20 years and has been a voice teacher at the Istanbul University Conservatory for the last five. Before she came to Turkey, Trepel Çağlar, an American by birth, lived and worked in Germany on a Fulbright grant.
"When I first came to Turkey," says Trepel Çağlar, "I thought, ’Oh what a dream world this is!’ Because in Germany when you get out of a conservatory you have to get an agent, you audition Ğ and it’s not only a question of having money to go around and audition Ğ it’s also very competitive. And when I first came here I heard that students finished the conservatory Ğ this is in 1983-1984 Ğ and they automatically have a position. They start an internship the first year in the opera house. Nowhere in the world [was] there anything like that! It’s changed Ğ dramatically. It started in the 1990s that the positions have become all filled up and a lot of the kids Ğ especially if you’re a woman and a soprano it’s very hard to find work because there isn’t any more kadro, as they say."
Kadro is an official staff position, in this case with an opera house, secured by a full-time, long-term contract. Recently, in Istanbul, approximately 150 singers auditioned for two soloist positions, and even more for five positions in the chorus. A ratio Trepel Çağlar says exists outside of Turkey as well: "It’s not easy Ğ you’re in the arts!"
Some recent graduates working in Istanbul are working yevmiye Ğ a position paid by the hour as opposed to the salaried kadro positions. "It wouldn’t have been like that 15 years ago Ğ they would’ve had full-time positions," says Çağlar. "But it’s because of the fact that Ğ and there’s nothing you can do about it Ğ singers here, once you get into the opera house, you have a contract until you are 65-years-old. And, of course, singers Ğ most of them Ğ cannot sing anymore after [they are] 60-years-old; it’s like being an athlete. So most of them do other things within the opera house Ğ they teach or maybe they do administration. Maybe they are not on the stage but they have this position until they’re 65, so it doesn’t empty out. And even then, the government did not always give back those positions once people retired. That was very sad. You may be very, very good and you may have lots of experience, but Ğ and this is the sad part Ğ if we don’t have a position available here to offer, what can you do?"
Elif Tuğba Tekışık, upon graduation from Istanbul University’s conservatory last year, did manage to land a spot with the Istanbul State Opera. She spoke to the Daily News while she was taking a break during a rehearsal at the Süreyya Opera House in Kadıköy. Tekışık and her colleagues were practicing for a production of "The Merry Widow," an opera composed by the Austro-Hungarian Franz Leh?r in 1905 and perhaps most famous for the "Merry Widow Hat" fashion craze it created when first performed.
"I wasn’t planning on joining [the Istanbul State Opera]," says Tekışık. "But I went and wrote the exam and then I won a place in the chorus. I was shocked. It’s so difficult to get into this place. I just wanted to try my luck and it happened."
But "luck" and job security do not always sate ambition; though Tekışık has earned a coveted kadro, she is not entirely satisfied. "[The Istanbul State Opera] is good experience and a stepping-stone for me," says Tekışık, who aims to sing in France. "If you ask me if I’m happy Ğ I don’t know. I’m working. But I’m also struggling to go abroad; but I don’t know how it will happen. Working here at [Istanbul State Opera] is just a guarantee; I don’t want to be a state official at the age of 24 Ğ it’s too early. In a way, there is a disadvantage to getting into the [state opera]. [When you get in] you immediately sprawl-out and relax. You think, ’Somehow I got a kadro; somehow I got a post.’ And you let yourself go. This is, of course, a bad thing; the only thing you’ve fallen for is money. But if you’re good, you can make the same money anywhere in the world."
The song retains the stage
European opera debuted in Turkey in 1797 in Sultan (and musician) Selim III’s Topkapı Palace, almost 50 years before Richard Wagner (the revolutionary composer and animal-rights activist) declared his ambition in 1849 to produce, via opera, Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total art form." Later, the modern history of opera in Turkey began with the Westernizing program of Atatürk, which, among many other things, made it official state policy to encourage and ensure the introduction of Western art forms to the culture of the new Turkish Republic. The first Turkish opera, Özsoy, was commissioned by Atatürk himself and composed by Ahmet Adnan Saygun with the libretto by Münir Hayri Egeli.
For more than 80 years the Turkish state’s patronage has protected and nurtured the transplanted cultural sapling of opera. Ahmet Adnan Saygun (1907-1991) and Cemal Reşit Rey (1904-1985), Semiha Berksoy (1910Ğ2004), Leyla Gencer (1928-2008) and Selman Ada (b.1953) are among the most important names in Turkey’s operatic legacy. Today there are opera houses in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, Mersin, and Samsun, and hundreds of opera singers working full-time in Turkey.
Bülent Bezdüz, Didem and Sinem Balık, and Burak Bilgili are among a number of Turkish opera singers who have established themselves as world-class performers on the world’s most prestigious stages, such as Milan’s La Scala and NY’s Metropolitan Opera.