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”.
The capital Ashgabat’s state theatre was packed out by residents of the city of a million to see 19th-century Italian composer Ruggero Leoncavallo’s famous opera, “Pagliacci” (Clowns) as part of an “international culture festival”.
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Spectators arriving at the country’s main theatre on Tuesday evening voiced a yearning for the long-taboo art form and hurried to take their seats.
Anna Krasnova, 59, said she was “thrilled” opera had returned to the isolated former Soviet republic.
“For nearly two decades, we have been missing a whole layer of culture. I have waited such a long time for this day,” Krasnova told AFP news agency as she entered the theatre.
The director of the joint Turkmen-Italian performance, Daniele de Plano, told AFP during an interview that Pagliacci was being shown 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.
Gas-rich Turkmenistan’s erratic 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 the second president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who came to power after Niyazov’s death in 2006.
There is no sign so far that ballet will be reintroduced.
Strongman Berdymukhamedov has maintained many of the repressive policies of his late predecessor, whom he once served as a personal dentist.
Both men are honoured by golden statues in Ashgabat, testifying to leadership cults that draw regular comparisons with North Korea.