ASHGABAT: Reclusive Turkmenistan staged its first foreign opera on Tuesday, nearly 19 years after the Central Asian country’s founding president banned the art form as “incompatible with Turkmen mentality”.

A state theatre in the capital Ashgabat was packed for the staging of 19th century Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera “Pagliacci” (“Clowns”) as part of an international drama festival.

Older spectators leaving the theatre late on a cool Tuesday night voiced a nostalgia for the long-taboo art form while younger spectators enthused over the performance.

Mekan Byashimov, a 54-year-old schoolteacher said he hoped that operas would be staged regularly and that ballet would also make a reappearance on the national stage.

“We used to have good premieres. I went regularly. If we want to call ourselves a cultured nation, we need to restore opera and ballet,” Byashimov said. Aina Shiryayeva, a 20-year-old student watching opera for the first time said she had enjoyed the performance despite not understanding any of the words.

“The music and the artists! Everything was so wonderful. I am delighted. I have seen the opera!” she said. Gas-rich Turkmenistan’s eccentric first leader Sapurmurat Niyazov banned opera as well as foreign ballet in 2001 in what he posited was a move to protect Turkmen culture.

The ban on art forms closely associated with Soviet and Russian imperial rule continued under second president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who came to power after Niyazov’s death in 2006.

The director of Tuesday’s joint Turkmen-Italian performance Daniele de Plano said in an interview that Pagliacci was staged as part of a “cultural exchange programme” between Italy and Turkmenistan.

He said he felt “honoured to be the first director to bring back opera” to Muslim-majority Turkmenistan.

“I really hope this is the beginning of a new path of ties becoming closer between Turkmenistan and opera, particularly Italian opera,” said de Plano.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2019