Othello in the Seraglio– The Tragedy of Sumbul the Black Eunuch

Photo courtesy of umass.edu || A new performance piece combines “Othello” and several other works in creating a story told through both song and prose.

Photo courtesy of umass.edu || A new performance piece combines “Othello” and several other works in creating a story told through both song and prose.

 

Marissa Hank ‘20
Assistant Arts Editor

Our journey begins in 17th century Istanbul (Constantinople). In a Turkish coffeehouse, a professional storyteller spins the well-known legend of love and jealousy intensified by the boundaries of free and enslaved, white and black. This tale is known to modern viewers as the story of Othello.

Script writer Robert Labaree, combined “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” by William Shakespeare, “Un capitano moro (A Moorish Captain)” by Cinzio and “The Bastard of the Chief Black Eunuch” by Reşat Ekrem Koçu, to craft an opera about the story of “Othello” unfolding in the Ottoman Empire rather than the Roman Empire. Composer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, inspired by Italian Baroque style of creating operas, arranged 16th and 17th century European and Turkish music sources with Turkish poetry while composing his own music to craft the score for this production. The end result became “Othello in the Seraglio: The Tragedy of Sumbul the Black Eunuch,” which was performed on Oct. 14 at the UMass Fine Arts Center.

The cast consisted of four singers: Sumbul and Saadet who sing in the Turkish style and Suzan and Frenk Mustafa who sing in the Italian Baroque style. Since every character sings in a foreign language, a storyteller moves the plot forward and helps the audience to understand the tale. The role of the storyteller is based on the traditional Ottoman meddah who also shared stories with coffeehouse audiences.

Sumbul’s story begins with an African boy caught up in the trans-Saharan slave trade as a child. To give him more value on the slave market, he is castrated. As an adult, he rises to power as a chief black eunuch and receives freedom. In gratitude for his freedom, Sumbul plans to present the sultan a concubine as a gift. He purchases an Italian girl named Suzan, only to discover that she is expecting a child. In this condition she cannot be given to the sultan. Sumbul falls in love with her and Suzan begins to love Sumbul for his kindness. Even though their love cannot be consummated, they decide to marry.

When the sultan appoints Sumbul to travel to Cyprus, he brings his trusted aide Mustafa and his wife. While in Cyprus, Mustafa, a former Italian slave, approaches Suzan and confesses his love for her. As a loyal and loving wife, Suzan rejects Mustafa’s declaration. Mustafa, offended that she would choose an old, ugly eunuch over himself, plots revenge.

Mustafa plants the thought in Sumbul’s mind that Suzan is having an affair with Rocer, a young European member of the retinue. Jealousy kindles within Sumbul, gradually increasing until it overwhelms him. In a moment of rage, Sumbul loses control and kills Suzan. Later he is informed by Suzan’s faithful maid, Saadet, that his jealousy was unjustified. Sumbul in despair then takes his own life.

One of the ground-breaking aspects of this operatic performance is the inclusion of the audience in the tale. The storyteller breaks the third wall by addressing the audience directly, and welcoming viewers as if they were Arab, Greek or Turkish travelers. He enters the stage by walking down the aisle rather than entering from backstage, setting the scene as though the audience were members of the cast. Throughout the opera, the storyteller walks around the auditorium, at one point using the balcony as his stage. This engagement allows the audience to follow along with the plot because they became part of the story as well.

Overall the combined musical traditions, the infamous plot of vengeance and jealousy and the storyteller’s marvelous role allow this rare theatrical gem to be loved by any audience. “The Tragedy of Sumbul the Black Eunuch” crosses the boundaries of all generations, allowing young and old, Muslim or non-Muslim, Ottoman or contemporary audiences the ability to empathize with every character and immerse themselves into the drama of this timeless tragedy.

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