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Blog: On Othello in the Seraglio

On Othello in the Seraglio

By Margaret Goddard '19
ATB Ambassador

Dünya Ensemble’s Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol and Robert Labaree and their original work Othello in the Seraglio: The Tragedy of Sümbül the Black Eunuch are coming to Holy Cross this month for a panel discussion, lecture, and performance. Othello in the Seraglio is a tale of slavery, prejudice, empathy, tragedy, love, revenge, war, and the space where disparate cultures meet, told through a storyteller’s voice and the music and acting of eleven performers. Immediately, you jump into a world of swirling emotions, sad and happy, of romance and revenge, of song and sorrow, of goodness and evil.

Othello in the Seraglio is a reimagination of William Shakespeare’s play Othello set in the culture of Ottoman Empire-era Istanbul. The story revolves around the chief black eunuch of the 17th century Ottoman court, Sümbül, a slave from Africa taken as a boy who rose through the ranks and became powerful. He is retired and freed in his old age and lives in his own mansion in Istanbul. To thank the sultan he once served who has now decided to free him, he goes to the slave market to purchase a concubine as a present. Here he finds Suzan, a beautiful Italian girl, who he finds out he cannot give to the sultan because she is pregnant. The two, who have lost so much in their lives, fall in love and marry in the hope of a new beginning. Of course, if the story had ended with this happy finale, things would not be so interesting. The Sultan sends Sümbül along with Suzan and their staff to Cyprus to advise the defense against the attacking Venetians, where things start to unravel. Sümbül’s trusted aide, a former European slave, Frenk Mustafa, declares his love for Suzan, who promptly rejects him. The fire of rejection is kindled in Mustafa and he vows to seek revenge. From this moment on, the Eastern and Western characters and instruments mix together and the lines between cultures blur.

A map of modern day Turkey, Istanbul (then Constantinople) and Cyprus

The perfect stage for such a rich drama is the coffeehouse-opera combination. Traditional Italian opera relies on storytelling through song and dramatic performance, and has thrived since the 17th century. Coffeehouses first appeared in the Ottoman Empire almost five hundred years ago, and remain a staple of Turkish tradition. Coffeehouses were the center of social life, where poets, comedians, intellectuals, and notable members of society gathered. Travelers from Europe brought coffee back home with them, resulting in the popularization and widespread use we enjoy today. In modern Turkey, coffeehouses can be found on every street corner, where friends meet up for a drink or play backgammon and chess. Meddah, the storyteller in Othello, talks to the audience as if sipping coffee and conversing intimately in one of these Ottoman coffeehouses. He transplants us Westerners to an ancient Eastern setting, where we find ourselves foreigners open to the unexplored mysteries of his story.

A late Ottoman coffeehouse

Othello in the Seraglio is itself a product of a multitude of global influences. Grammy-nominated composer Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol conceived and composed the piece, reimagining Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Othello in the context of the Ottoman Empire. The plot is based on two other Italian and Turkish stories: Un Capitano Moro (A Moorish Captain) by Giovanbattista Giraldi in 1565 and Kızlarağası’nın Piçi (The Bastard of the Chief Black Eunuch) by Reşad Ekrem Koçu in 1933.  Mehmet borrowed from Turkish proverbs, Ottoman poetic forms, and shadow theatre. The characters themselves speak and sing in Turkish, Italian, and Elizabethan English, reinforcing the global sourcing of inspiration. Ethnomusicologist Robert Larabee wrote the storyteller’s script, based on the traditional Ottoman meddah. Othello’s meddah uses playwright and theater director Bertolt Brecht’s style of narration of the 20th century, where he reminds the members of the audience that we are detached from the events of the play, warning us not to over-sympathize or jump completely into the story. All of these varieties of influences blend together within the drama of the play, complementing the convergence of characters of different cultures themselves.

An Ottoman meddah

Mehmet notes that the music has three layers: period music, both European and Turkish; original music featuring some borrowed material; and carefully chosen musical instruments given a special spotlight. Italian music like that of Monteverdi and music from the preserved Ottoman manuscripts of Ali Ufki ring side by side. According to Mehmet, he has created a “coherent musical statement by balancing these layers within the architecture of the opera.” He masterfully weaves together these Eastern and Western sounds together at moments that call for unity and allows them to stand apart at moments of discord. This diversity of sound is brought about by merely eleven performers, playing almost 30 different instruments, in addition to the human voice. The instruments hail from both Ottoman tradition and classical Western genres.

A darbuka, an hour-glass shaped drum is one of the percussion instruments used in Othello

Othello in the Seraglio is a platform for discovery. The characters exude the emotions and make the tragic mistakes we expect from a dramatic opera, yet there are underlying concerns we, as audience members, react to, such as slavery, racism, gender dynamics, and war. At the same time, we watch love, hate, revenge, and passion unfold among the characters. All of this is presented through the music and song of multifarious cultures and time periods. No member of the audience can walk out of the theater unaffected by Othello. The possibilities of interpretations, conversations, opinions, emotions, and realizations await.

The coffeehouse opera is produced by the Dünya ensemble, a musicians’ collective and record label from Boston created by Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol and Robert Labaree. A panel discussion will be held on October 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Seelos Theater with composer Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol and faculty of Political Science, History and Theatre Departments. The Dünya Ensemble, including Ali Sanlıkol and fellow performers Robert Labaree, Burcu Güleç, Beth Bahia Cohen, George Lernis, and Bertram Lehmann, will hold a lecture-demonstration on October 26 at 5 p.m. at the Mary Chapel. Othello in the Seraglio will be performed on October 27 and 28 at 8 p.m. at Brooks Concert Hall.

A scene from Dünya Ensemble’s Othello