Proud look of a man in his sixties with a tri-color Azerbaijani flag in the background projected over an audience of 3,156 spectators as they burst into emotional applause at the finale of a world-famous opera on September 7 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles. The crowd of people with different ethnic and social backgrounds, some with smiles, some with tears, cheered to the great Azerbaijani composer whose humble image represented the masterpiece he had laid out on paper precisely 100 years ago. Uzeyir Hajibeyli, a renowned Azerbaijani composer with a legacy to live on for ages, had written the opera “Arshin Mal Alan” (The Cloth Peddler) in 1913 in the picturesque Azerbaijani town of Shusha. Although the play depicted the contemporary events of the early 20th century Azerbaijan, it certainly outlived its time. The operetta had been screened several times by Azerbaijani film directors in the past and was put on stage in Europe and Asia, travelling as far east as Beijing.
In the summer of last year, the Consulate General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles came up with the initiative to premiere the world-famous Arshin Mal Alan in California with the purpose of completing the cultural East-West link of which Azerbaijan is often considered to be a hub. It took several months and hard work as the Consulate General and State Oil Company of Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR) joined hands to bring the operetta to Los Angeles. The intent was not only to premiere just another opera, but to present it to the contemporary and culturally different and diverse American public in a new light, yet without deviating from the main message of the masterpiece. To put it into words of the producer Michael Schnack who had played an immense role in the success of the project, “Azerbaijan and other countries with centuries of tradition — often passed down specifically through imitation of master artists — view traditional works as nearly sacrosanct. Americans expect each generation to interpret traditional works in new, original ways. Both approaches stem from a feeling of reverence, of cherishing works of the past, but the expressions are totally different. My team and I have approached “Arshin mal alan” with great respect, but our artistic goal is to show the audience how we — as contemporary Americans — react to and interact with this great piece of art, interpreting it through the lens of our experiences”.
The plot of Arshin Mal Alan is centered on the love story of Asgar (James Judd) and Gulchohra (Asha Lindsey). A young wealthy merchant Asgar has a painful void in his life. He longs for love and wants to get married but desires to meet and get to know the bride-to-be before the actual decision to marry is made, contrary to the strict traditions of the time when the marriages were arranged and the husband and wife did not get to see each other until the wedding. To overcome the boundaries of the tradition, he gets a tip from his close friend Suleyman (Wes Mason), who advises him to disguise as a cloth peddler, and get to see and pick a wife for himself. As the disguised Asgar meets Gulchohra, both fall in life instantaneously. Gulchohra`s father Sultan bey (Steven Snow) refuses to wed his daughter with a cloth peddler but agrees when Asgar reveals his identity, which, in turn, unravels a sequence of events, which brings together Gulchohra`s father, a widower Sultan bey and Asgar`s aunt, a widow, Jahan (Martha Howe); Asgar`s friend Suleyman and Gulchohra`s cousin Asya (Ann Elise Schoenecker); and servants Veli (Brian Ming Chu) and Telli (Lauren Curnow), thus finalizing the operetta with a grand wedding of four couples.
The masterpiece has many interpretations and perceptions, but the main message that has lived on for a century now and perceived as such by the American audience is that although our financial status, social standings and age may differ, we as human experience the same emotions, seek for the same destinies, share the same values, and long for the same feelings and affection. And only through dialog and commitment can people come to happy endings. Uzeyir Hajibeyli delivered this message to the viewer in a remarkable way. His work was subsequently supplemented by the outstanding work of the American actors. Michael Schnack made a unique effort of conveying the message to the audience by introducing modern elements into the play, which in turn, made the performance very entertaining.
After the event, the guests were hosted at a special reception to honor the actors. The audience spoke highly of the masterpiece and its first premiere in the United States. Awed guests of the night expressed their gratitude to the Consulate General of Azerbaijan and SOCAR for delivering the Azerbaijani culture to the American viewers. Among the special guests were the delegation of Azerbaijani parliamentarians Asim Mollazade and Sevinj Fataliyeva, Farhad Badalbeyli and other dignitaries. The event was attended by members of the Diplomatic Corps of Los Angeles, city administration, and renowned members of Los Angeles community. Speaking to the audience, Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev thanked the President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev for being at the forefront of promotion of Azerbaijani culture to the world and expressed his gratitude to SOCAR for their lasting support. Azerbaijani members of parliament spoke of the importance of cultural dialog between our nations that this kind of projects deliver. Realization of the project brought sounds of Shusha to Los Angeles. Shusha remains occupied by Armenian forces since May 8, 1992.