By: Obelit Yadgar
Master of Ceremonies
That warm August evening in 2008, I was master of ceremonies at the second annual A Mesopotamian Night: Melodies from the East, presented by the Assyrian Aid Society, Central Valley Chapter, at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, California.
Watching the production from the wing, I realized that more than ever I also needed to see part of it as other Assyrians at the concert. I needed to be in the audience myself, to share with my fellow Assyrians something that was a first for all of us. I was enthralled as well as curious, as they seemed to be, by selections from the opera Gilgamesh — sung in Assyrian, our language.
I had seen many an opera throughout the years of devouring classical music — in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Prague, London, Chicago and San Francisco — all elaborate productions, with full costumes, staging, orchestra, and some of the greatest singers in the world. I also had seen a production of Semiramide, an opera based on the life of our queen Shamiram.
I can count 10 different versions of Semiramide: by Rossini, Ziani, Cimarosa, Gluck, Salieri, Porpora, Respighi, Paisiello, Meyerbeer and Handel. Except for Rossini’s version, the others are rarely or never performed. There is also the opera Nabucco, Verdi’s first big hit, from 1842, with the backdrop of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. Judith and Holofernes, centers on love and betrayal, about Judith and the Assyrian army commander Holofernes. Versions of the opera include those by Serov, Nathaniel Berg, Vivaldi, Mozart (as La Betulia Liberata), Siegfried Matthus, Emile Von Reznicek, Myron Fink, Eugene Goossens, John Gibson, and David Lang whose version is a puppet opera.
Rossini’s is the only version of Semiramide I have. I have also seen Verdi’s Nabucco, in one production of which I was also the narrator. Neither of these, plus the countless other operas I have enjoyed in some of Europe’s most magnificent opera houses, with all the glorious music, all the great singers, none has meant more to me than what I heard that night — an opera in Assyrian, my own language. The American composer John Craton set the music to the transliteration by Rabi Addai Alkhas of portions from Gilgamesh. The music was presented in concert form. The excerpts included the opera’s overture and the Bull of the Heaven scene. Lorraine Davis, a classically trained Assyrian soprano with a rich voice, sang the role of Ishtar, and Donn Bradley was Gilgamesh. Ironically, Bradley, who is an American and speaks no Assyrian, did a remarkable job of singing the role, yes, in Assyrian.
When the overture began, I slipped away from backstage and for a few minutes sat in the last row with the audience. The production was simple, the singing good, but I think all of us in the audience realized, each in his or her own way, that we were witnessing a newly discovered nugget in the Assyrian history. Yes, an opera playing to the rhythm of our language. It was a wonderful experience for me.
Sitting back there, I envisioned other Assyrian operas in full production, using Assyrian composers, librettists, orchestras, singers, stage designers and directors — magnificent operas with the original stamp of Assyrian. I heard glorious voices soaring with the warmth and passion of Assyrians. I envisioned colorful tales from Assyria, ancient and new, brought to life by Assyrian artists from every field of our arts.
My mind soared in search of fellow Assyrian artists around the world. I know we have the singers, dancers, librettists, stage designers, composers, conductors, directors, painters and writers. They are out there, scattered around the world, and I know it takes dedicated Assyrians to find them. I include myself in that group of Assyrian artists in search of my fellow Assyrian artists. All we need is support and encouragement from our nation to find them. To present them. To acknowledge their creations. And yes, to ask them to take a deserved bow for making our nation proud. So yes, a complete opera with a story and a music score that would grab one of the thousands of stories lining our long history. I wondered if that day would ever come during my lifetime: when I would attend an Assyrian grand opera. For me, it would be a miracle, but then, I do believe in miracles. Perhaps I would write a libretto myself, and one of our composers would set it to music. What a fine dream for me.
I returned to my perch as master of ceremonies backstage and enjoyed the rest of the evening from there. In the second half, Assyrian pop singer Walter Aziz and Ashur Bet Sargis rocked the concert hall, topping an evening many would find an unforgettable experience. That the proceeds from the production would be used by the Assyrian Aid Society to help Assyrians of Iraq in need, made the night even more remarkable.
This year, again as the master of ceremonies and program annotator, I invite you to join the Assyrian Aid Society and me for a new and compelling production of A Mesopotamian Night: Melodies From the East. The evening will offer an exciting program of Assyrian classical and popular music performed by some of our finest artists.
But more about the music for this year’s production in later posts. For now, mark your calendar for August 15 at the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto, California. I promise you will go home whistling. I know I will as I fly back the next day to my home in Wisconsin. See you at the concert.