3. Art & Culture‎ > ‎

3.4. Opera & Ballet


Opera & Ballet

Dictionaries and encyclopedias define “opera” as a stage work of art of which all or some parts of the words are sung and interpreted to music, and a stage play consisting of solos, chorus and orchestra.

The first opera, “Dafne,” was composed by Jacopo Pei in 1597 in Florence, Italy. The art form then rapidly spread and developed, although it took some time to become popular in Turkey.

Any discussion of opera in Turkey needs to be divided into two sections;


Reports of representatives to European countries mention the word “opera” during the Ottoman period. Ambassadors’ frequent mention of “opera” began to attract attention, and as a result an interest in opera started to develop at the palace. The first musical play to be staged at the palace was during the reign of Murat III (1574-1595). One palace clerk noted that Sultan Selim III (1761-1808), who was also a composer, was influenced by those reports and invited a foreign company to stage an opera at Topkapi Palace in 1797.

Reports about opera continued to be written by Ottoman ambassadors during the 18th and 19th centuries. Italian comanies performed operas by Verdi at the theatres built in Istanbul following administrative reforms. The Italian art of opera was taken as a model, and particular advantage was taken of teachers from Italy, the home of the art. The first important example was the opera “Ernani’ by the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), which was performed by an Italian company in Beyoglu in 1846, seven years after the reforms. Researchers have firmly established that operas by Verdi were performend in Istanbul between 1846-1877, a few years after their world premieres in Italy. Posters and newspaper reports regarding operas performed by Italian companies at Beyoglu theatres in Istanbul reveal that operas reached a wide audience.

Gaetano Donizetti’s opera “Belisario” was the first to be translated into Turkish, and was performed in 1840 at the first theatre built by the Italian architect Bosco. In 1844, that theatre was transferred to Tütüncüoglu Michael Naum Efendi who served the citizens of Istanbul for 26 years. The first opera performed at the Naum Efendi Theatre was Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” in 1844. The theatre burned down in 1846, and Naum Efendi built a new one where Tokatliyan Ishani stands today. Sultan Abdülmecit watched his performances.

On account of a second fire at Michael Naum’s theatre on 5 June 1870, and given the political problems of the Ottoman Empire, opera failed to be taken seriously. Even so, Naum staged plays regularly until the building burnt down. As the holder of the only licence to stage plays in foreign languages, he enjoyed a monopoly. Opera groups established by minorities were also important. Works by Dikran Çuhaciyan, Güllü Agop, Küçük Ismail and Minakyan are the most important of these. For 38 years however, from 1885 to 1923 when the empire became a thing of the past, Turkish polyphonic music and opera were unable to develop.

Back to Top


There were no important musical developments at the time of the declaration of the republic. Influenced by the musical ideas of Ziya Gökalp, Mustafa Kemal’s (Atatürk) policy on music was to mould a new music by using Western developed polyphonic technique fundamentally based on Turkish folk music. Following this principle, talented young people were sent to Europe for musical training. Young musicians who returned to Turkey after studying abroad began to have an effect in the 1930s. The establishment of the Musiki Muallim Mektebi in Ankara and the Darülelhan in Istanbul, and young lecturers starting to train students at those establishments, were the first steps taken in the direction of a hopeful future asa regards opera, composition and performance levels.

Ahmet Adnan (Saygun) composed the first opera acceptable to the new republic’s policy on music. Münir Hayri (Egeli) wrote the lyrics of that opera, named “Özsoy” (or Feridun), which won acceptance from Kemal Atatürk. “Özsoy” concerned the way that Turks and Iranians were memebrs of the same race, and was first performed on 19 June 1934 in the presence of Mustafa Kemal and his official guest the shah of Iran, Riza Pehlevi. Adnan Saygun’s “Tasbebek” and Necim Kazim Akses’ “Bayönde” followed subsequently.

The first national opera performed in Turkey shortly had the expected result, and on Atatürk’s orders the Ministry of Education began to prepare to establish a state school of music. First of all, a Fine Arts General Directorate was establsihed at the ministry.

In 1936, music school classes were initiated with talented employees chosen from among the students of the Musiki Muallim Mektebi, which opened in Ankara in 1924. During the 1935/36 academic year, the famous composer Paul Hindemith and theater director Karl Ebert from Germany were invited to Ankara. In line with the report that followed their joint studies, state conservatory classes began to be held at the Musiki Muallim Mektebi. In the 1935/36 academic term at the state conservatory, theatre and opera classes had already started, as well as others in all branches of music. Paul Hindemith declined to accept a permanent post, but visited Ankara to inspect the music school and report on its activities. Karl Ebert stayed on in Ankara as agreed and directed the State Conservatory theater school and opera studio for nine years.

In the beginning, Karl Ebert’s classes at the Ankara State Conservatory opera studio developed with standard works by arts taken from the body of international opera and trials with Turkish texts. The first performance by the students staged was Mozart’s one-act opera Bastien and Bastienne. This work was performed in Turkish text to the accompaniment of the Presidential Symphony Orchestra, and attracted the attention of the press of the time. Given this positive development in opera, librettos in Turkish were experimented with, and in 1940, for the first time in Turkey, the second act of Madame Butterfly by Puccini was performed in Turkish by the staff of the opera studio. This was followed in may, 1941, by the second act of Puccini’s Tosca. These performances were a great success, and this was reflected in the press. That success was the result of three years of hard work. Under a law which came into force on May 16, 1940, the State Conservatory classes established and initiated at the Musiki Muallim Mektebi were officially turned into a State Conservatory consisting of music, opera, ballet and theatre. As the years passed, Atatürk’s dream came true. The State Conservatory trained talented composers, musicians, soloists and ballet dancers.

During 1947 and 1948, the Sergilevi building in Ankara was transformed into a theatre and opera hall by the famous German architecture Bonatz. The “Great Theatre” was opened with a ceremony on the night of Friday April 2,1948. At the opening, pieces of music composed by the “Turkish Five” were performed. That same night, Ahmet Adan Saygun’s opera “Kerem” was performed for the first time.

Studies in the context of a particular legal framework began in 1949. Under that, the Ankara State Opera and Ballet and the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet which was established under the auspices of that foundation were aothorised to find the employees they needed from among State Conservatory graduates.

The opera orchestra and chorus, and the ballet school, were organized in 1950-53 and those three distinct units were completed at the same time. The ballet school was first established in Istanbul at a primary school in Yesilköy with the help of the prima ballerina Dame Ninette de Valois. After being trained for three years, the first ballet dancers trained by talented specialists continued their education at the ballet department at Ankara’s State Conservatory. The first graduates completed their studies in 1956-1957.

Cevdet Memduh Altar was assigned as general manager in 1951, after Muhsin Ertugrul the first director of state theatres. Altar consdered the repertoire and star systems. He also invited important stage artist from around the world.

When the theatre and the opera were separated in 1958, two different general directorates were set up. Necil Kazim Akses wasassigned to the general directorate of the Ankara State Opera and Ballet. In 1959/60 the efforts to assemble an opera company in Istanbul came to a conclusion, and Aydin Gün established the Istanbul City Opera at the Tepebasi Drama Theatre. This establishment was nationalised in 1970, and still operates at the Atatürk Culture Center as the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet Directorate, linked to the Ankara State Opera and Ballet. After the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet, the Izmir State Opera and Ballet General Directorate was established in 1983. The Mersin State Opera and Ballet followed in 1992, and the Antalya State Opera and Ballet in 1999.

Back to Top