Legendary operetta ‘The Luxurious Life’ returns to Turkish State Theatre after 86 years

To mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1933, its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, commissioned an operetta to be performed at the famous Dârülbedayi, now known as the Istanbul City Theatre.

The operetta, “The Luxurious Life” (Lüküs Hayat), is now back on stage, performed by Turkey’s State Theatre in Ankara for the first time in 86 years. The play premiered to a full house this week, and is playing every week between Tuesday and Sunday until the end of the season.

Penned by Cemal Reşit Rey, the composer who wrote the famous Tenth Year Anthem, and his brother, liberettist Ekrem Reşit Rey, the operetta became one of the most popular and successful in Turkish history, with an unbroken run on stage from 1933 to 1946.

But it had a secret that was not revealed until many years later: the words of one of its most famous songs, “An Apartment in Şişli”, were written by the legendary communist poet Nazim Hikmet. At the time, the communist party was proscribed and Hikmet was not in the state’s good graces, so the lyrics were credited to Ekrem Reşit Rey.

This remained secret until 1985, when actor Zihni Göktay revealed during an interview that he had heard the story from Cemal Reşit Rey himself.

With the deadline for the premiere approaching, the composer and his brother found themselves struggling to complete the lyrics on time and were obliged to go to Dârülbedayi director Muhsin Ertuğrul for help.

Ertuğrul suggested the brothers approach Hikmet, who at the time was staying in the Great London Hotel, not far from the theatre. The poet agreed to write the song, but thanks to his political beliefs this was not made public until Göktay’s interview.

So, the play has a political history and its plot bears some parallels to the current state of Turkish society. But its colourful set designs and cheerful songs were a welcome respite from the political tensions in Ankara, if only for a few hours.

With leading names including Levent Çelmen and Rengin Samurçay among the 60 actors, as well as 40 dancers and an orchestra of 20, the operetta makes fitting use of the capital’s largest and most advanced stage.

Cutting edge technology in the theatre has helped bring “The Luxurious Life” up to date, but parts of the work have also been readapted for the modern day.

The main character, Rıza, hatches a plot with his friend Fıstık and wife Zeynep to steal gems from a waterside townhouse, leading to a comedic chain of events as the thieves find themselves in the midst of a masked ball where the poor are pitted against the rich and the hired help take the stage alongside the extravagant guests of the ball.

Above all, the operetta’s portrayal of a world where people are willing to offload all their values for the sake of money is especially apt for our age.

A line dripping with irony that drew a large round of applause came from the master thief Rıza, who told his colleague that people in their line of work “do not steal from orphans, widows, the poor or the state”.

The presence of the former president, Ahmet Necdet Sezer, and his wife Semra Sezer at the premiere – among the audience, rather than in a private box – was likewise greeted with a large round of applause when director Murat Atak thanked the couple for attending.

More than this, the masterful performances on stage, accompanied by conductor Melahat Ismayilova’s orchestra, made sure “The Luxurious Life” was a performance fit for the most distinguished audience.

 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.