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Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga:
The Popular Ottoman-Armenian Operetta

 

By Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin

 

Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

Numbers in parentheses refer to footnotes, which can be found at the end of this article.

Armenian composer Tigran Gevorki Chukhajian (1) was born in Constantinople, Turkey in 1837, and studied music in Milan, Italy. He is considered to be the first opera composer in Turkish history. In his compositions, he brought together elements of European musical techniques with traditional Armenian folk melodies.

Due to the Armenian genocide in Turkey in the early 20th century, many of Chukhajian's works were lost. Others remained, but were missing some segments. An Armenian musicologist named Haig Avakian has dedicated his life not only to collecting and restoring Chukhajian's works, but also to publishing everything he was able to locate. An article in the Armenian Mirror Spectator (2) describes the efforts made by not only Avakian but also other musicologists to locate and preserve as much of Chukhajian's legacy as possible.

The most famous opera of Chukhajian's career as a composer was his third one, Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga (The Chickpea Seller), which he finished writing in November 1875 and brought to the theatrical stage in January 1876. The libretto, which was in Ottoman Turkish, was written by Recor Nalyan, and the production was directed by Serop Bengklian. This 3-act comic operetta is still performed today.

Chukhajian launched the Armenian troupe that premiered Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga in Istanbul. It was originally named Ottoman Theatrical Opera Group, and later renamed to Armenian Theatrical Group of Turkish Operettas. (4) (5)

Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga went on to be translated into countless languages, even making its way to the United States and Canada. A Greek company brought this opera to the big screen in 1911 in Smyrna (now known as Izmir, Turkey). Interestingly, all the music that was used in Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga was borrowed by other composers of the era and reused in many other operettas, throughout the 1880s. This was common practice among European composers of that era.

Following the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century, the orchestral parts and conductor scores for this operetta were missing and for many decades they were considered lost. Through the efforts of the Charents Literature and Arts Museum, an original score was located and restored. In 2018, for the first time since the composer died in 1898, the full-length original version of the opera as intended by its composer was performed. The opera company responsible was the Yerevan opera in Armenia. (2)

Musicologist Judith Cohen has suggested that the melody line for the Greek song "Apo Xeno Topo" (known in Turkish as "Üsküdara Giderik'en") made an appearance in Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga. (3) Versions of the operetta featured in online videos such as those linked from this page do not appear to include this song. However, it is possible that the song did appear in the opera's original score, but that the segment including it was omitted from those productions. As noted above, for most of the 20th century, performances of the opera were missing segments due to incomplete versions of the original score.

A 1975 production of the operetta by the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet is available online. Unfortunately, it does not have subtitles.

The theater program shown on the right is from a performance in Istanbul circa 1910. It was found on the Antiquariat Daša Pahor web site, which was offering an original copy for sale. (6) The program was written in French, Armenian and Ottoman Turkish for the matinée and evening performances.

The image to the right shows the Ottoman theater company with Armenian, Greek, and Turkish cast members visiting Greece in the late 19th century.

In the comic opera's plot, a young man named Armen dreams of creating the first large theater in Constantinople. Before the opening show, the female lead unexpectedly drops out of the production and creates a flurry of activity to replace her. They find a young woman with an enchanting voice, but her father, a chickpea seller, forbids her to join them. He speaks of the "immorality" of the artists. Armen tries to convince her that the theater is a wonderful place, filled with poetry and beautiful music.

 

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Performances in Greece

Comic operas from Europe started to appear in Greece around the 1850's.

Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga opened in the Palaio Faliro (Παλαιό Φάληρο) district of Athens for a premier and full summer season in 1883. Its music included European and Anatolian (7) tunes including Greek, Armenian, Assyrian, and Turkish. During that era, the Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians, and Turks all lived among each other in Anatolia (7), and this was evident in the languages used in the opera. This use of Eastern languages in an opera was innovative in the eyes of the Greek people. Up until this time, the elite communities of mainland Greece, particularly Athens, featured only operas in French and Italian.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo shows a prominent landmark in the beach community of Palaio Faliro — the church of the Assumption of the Virgin .

Although many give credit to Chukhajian for being the first to fuse Anatolian (7) and European musical styles, there are many Greeks who disagree. Many mainland Greeks strongly believe that they should be credited as pioneers in fusing European (non-Greek), Demotika, and Anatolian (7) music. Even though mainland Greece doesn't lie within the borders of present-day Turkey, we were considered Eastern due to the 400+ years of Ottoman occupation.

Regardless of who should be credited with the fusion of musical styles, the Armenian Operetta Company did make many undisputed contributions to performing arts in Greece. The Armenians were like a breath of fresh air with their comic operettas in comparison to the gloomy ancient Greek tragedies that had previously dominated the Greek theatrical stages. (8)

Athens 1922

Ιn Athens, one of the many times this production went to the stage was in 1922 in Syntagma Square at the Dionisia Theater (Θεάτρο Διονύσια) in Athens, Greece, produced by Nikos Paraskevopoulos (Νίκος Παρασκευόπουλος). The talented actors that were featured in this comedy operetta were from Dramali Yeorgious (Δράμαλη Γεώργιου) – Athenian Operetta of Athens (Αθηναική Οπερέττα Αθήνας). Both productions, Constantinople and Athens, featured Oriental dance sections with classical Oriental music.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The photo shows the Dionisia Theater in Athens, where a production of Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga was staged in 1922.

Could the Russian ballet companies have been inspired by these types of European-Oriental fusion productions? For purposes of this article, Greece is considered "Oriental", not "European". Due to it being part of the Ottoman Empire for hundreds of years, its culture was more Eastern than European.

The images to the right show both sides of a flyer that promoted the 1922 presentation of Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga in Athens.

Some of the actors mentioned on it are of Anatolian (7) Greek heritage. The traveling company from Constantinople staged this production at least 3 times in the years that followed its first performance in the late 1800s.

The performances in Greece featured Greek actors.

This flyer promotes a production of Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga in Piraeus, Greece, at the Pigkal theater (Πιγκάλ Κέντρον Λελούδα, Πειραίας). The performers for this production were the Greek theater company, Thiasos Titikas Sofiadou of Athens (Θιάσος Τιτίκας Σοφιάδου).

Although the flyer says this was a Turkish production with Turkish dance, this article shows that it's not exactly a Turkish production — it's an Anatolian (7) production with roots in the multiple cultures that lived in Turkey at the time, including Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, and Turks. The choreographer for this production was Anatolian (7) Greek Sotiris Grigoriadis.

This flyer promotes a performance at the Pantheon Theatre in Patra, Greece (Πάνθεον Θέατρο). It does not credit the theater company.

The text says "magical song and nostalgic music of Turkish Opera". As noted in the above commentary, technically this operetta is not "Turkish", it's Ottoman Armenian.

This photo shows the interior of the theater in Patra that is mentioned in the above pink flyer.

Many believe that Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga first arrived in Greece in the late 1800's, in Athens. However, its first appearance on a Greek theatrical stage was on the Greek island of Zakynthos, the pearl and flower of the East. (9)

 

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Karine: the Armenian Motion Picture

In 1969, the operetta came to the silver screen in the Soviet Union under the title Karine. (Some spell it Gariné or Karineh.) At the time, Armenia was part of the USSR, so online movie databases refer to it as a Soviet production. Although the original operetta by Chukhajian featured a libretto by Recor Nalyan in the Ottoman Turkish language, the motion picture Karine was produced in the Armenian language.

According to a commenter identified as "yergahan" on the youtube page for the movie version, there are some differences between the original stage operetta and the story featured in the Soviet-Armenian motion picture. The original operetta Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga set its plot in a harem with all Ottoman Turkish characters. The Soviet motion picture changed the name of the character originally named "Fatima" to "Karine". In general, the Soviet Union made the plot more Armenian and eliminated some of the Oriental segments such as those featuring belly dancing.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: The image to the right is the poster that was used to advertise the film Karine when it was released in the Soviet Union. For more information about the film, see the entry for it in the Internet Movie Database (IMDB).

 

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Footnotes

  1. The composer Tigran Gevorki Chukhajian's name is written in Greek as Ντικραν Tσουχατζιαν, in Armenian as Տիգրան Չուխաճեան, and in Turkish as Dikran Çuhacıyan. Other frequently-used spellings in the Roman alphabet are Chuckhajian and Tchouhadjian.
  2. Papasian, Gerald. "Operatic Roadblocks Threaten Tchouhadjian's Legacy". Armenian Mirror-Spectator. Retrieved November 3, 2020.
  3. Cohen, Judith. Liner notes for the compact disc Dans mon chemin j'ai rencontre, 1997.
  4. Damatian, Jacques. Armenika, October-December 2016, issue 91. Retrieved October 31, 2020.
  5. The opera company's original name was known in Greek as Othomaniki Theatriki Omada Operas (Οθωμανική Θεατρική Ομάδα Όπερας), and its later name as Armeniniki Theatriki Omada tis Tourkikis Operetes (Αρμενική Θεατρική Ομάδα της Τουρκικής Οπερέτας).
  6. Antiquariat Daša Pahor is a web site that sells original copies of rare historic books, maps, theater programs, and other documents. The page selling the program for Leblebici Hor-Hor Aga featured above was retrieved on November 3, 2020.
  7. Literally, "Anatolia" means "the East". Greeks use it to refer to the eastern part of the areas populated by Hellenic people, particularly the land mass of Asia Minor where modern-day Turkey resides.
  8. Music in Greek Theater in the Second Half of the 19th
    Century
    . Retrieved November 1, 2020.
  9. https://docplayer.gr/74455809-She-iagramma-v-ergasias.html, retrieved November 1, 2020.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Panayiota, the author of this article, models a traditional costume representing the folk culture of the island of Mitilini (also known as Lesvos). She is holding a ceramic handmade drum known as a toubi, which is indigenous to this island.

 

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About the Author

This page was contributed by Panayiota Bakis Mohieddin, who is happy to share her culture and music she grew up with! Here's how Panayiota describes her background:

I always love engaging with intelligent like-minded people, especially artists. I love sharing anything and everything about my Hellenic culture and upbringing, especially music and dance. A conversation with me will bring you back to America's favorite Greek-American movie by Nia Vardalos called My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I love investigating Greek culture, history, music, and dance. Speaking of investigating, I think I missed my calling, I probably should have been an investigator. Instead, I use those skills to dig and dig and dig tirelessly, often times falling asleep on my laptop... just to find the truth. But, most importantly, accurate truth. For me personally, and other respectable folklorists, my culture and accuracy are very important. Each generation of ethnic born artists has a duty to do the best it can to pass down our traditions as was taught to us. We have been given this artistic gift to be the gatekeepers of our heritage and culture.

Panayiota

 

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