Winter 1997 (5.4)
Azerbaijani Woman on Stage
by Fuad Akhundov
On April 13,
1912, Baku was in shock. For the first time in the Muslim world,
a 15-year-old girl appeared publicly on stage in European dress,
without covering herself with a veil. Shovkat Mammadova (1912-
1981) had just returned from studying opera in Milan and was
performing at the Taghiyev Theater. The audience loved her charming
operatic melodies, but they couldn't deal with her appearance.
Shovkat chose this one symbolic act to challenge a society fettered
by religious traditions.
this time, women's roles in operas had always been sung by men
dressed as women and singing in high tenor voices. And the female
members of the audience always had to sit in separate sections
screened off by dark netting so that they could not been seen
That night, the audience reacted to Shovkat in both astonishment
and outrage. Some of the more progressive members admired her
youthful courage; others, rigid in their beliefs, were angered
Meanwhile, backstage at the Taghiyev Theater, Uzeyir
was peering out from behind the curtain and sensing the audience's
hostile reaction. He tried to motion to Shovkat to flee the stage.
He knew the seriousness of the threats coming from the "gochis"
(Baku mafia). It wasn't the first time that he had organized
events challenging society's norms.
Left: Shovkat, 15, at her
debut on April 13, 1912. She was the first woman to perform on
stage in Baku without wearing a veil.
Above: As teacher at the
Academy of Music in Baku (1970s)
But Shovkat remained poised and determined. She courageously
performed until the end of her program. Many years later she
would boast with pride that she had completed her performance
despite how much the crowd had tried to intimidate her.
Realizing that the entrance to the theater had been blocked by
the "gochis," Uzeyir Hajibeyov and his friends quickly
pushed Shovkat out the back door with instructions to a driver
awaiting with horse and carriage to speed away as fast as they
could "so that the sparks would fly from the horses' hooves."
And so they did.
For the next several days, Shovkat remained hidden in the oil
fields away from those fanatics. Soon afterwards, she left Baku
to return to Georgia. Eight years later, she would reappear in
Baku as an accomplished, educated opera performer and musician,
who would dedicate the rest of her life to helping establish
formal music instruction in Azerbaijan. That evening had left
an indelible impression on her just as it did in the annals of
year  marks the 100th anniversary of Shovkat's birth. The
story of her life illustrates an important era in the history
of Azeri music. Thanks to the courage that Mammadova and others
demonstrated in challenging powerful taboos, Azerbaijan became
the first country in the Muslim world where women performed on
stage and where they could pursue studies in artistic disciplines
such as opera and ballet.
Mammadova was born on April 18, 1897, in Tiflis (now Tbilisi,
in present day Georgia ). Since early childhood, she was known
for her musical gifts. Her father, a shoemaker, had a wealthy
client who was particularly impressed with Shovkat's voice and
who decided to introduce her into Tiflis high society. In March
1910, the 13-year-old girl was invited to perform at a reception
hosted by Vorontsov-Dashkov, the vice-regent of the Caucasus.
She succeeded in impressing everyone.
Shortly afterwards, she came to Baku where she met Sona Taghiyeva,
the wife of a famous oil-baron and philanthropist. The Taghiyevas
were so excited about her talent that they offered to fund music
lessons in Milan with Doti Ambrozio. And so, Shovkat headed off
Eight months later, however, the financial aid was stopped unexpectedly,
and Mammadova was barely able to scrape together enough money
to return home. She never did understand the reason why her patrons
had discontinued their support, and she was too proud to ask.
It was during this uncertain period that she met Uzeyir Hajibeyov,
already well-respected in the music community as the composer
of the first Azerbaijani opera. He suggested that she perform
some of her favorite pieces following a performance of his own
musical comedy, "Ar va Arvad" (Husband and Wife). The
evening would be organized as a benefit in her honor. All proceeds
would go towards her musical education in Italy. Potentially,
the ticket sales from that single night could pay for several
years' worth of tuition. If the night proceeded as planned, her
dream to return for education would come true.
But Shovkat never did get to collect the ticket money that evening.
The "gochis " got to it first. And her return to Italy
was delayed for 15 years. Such was the background of that fateful
night. However, even though the young singer was forced to flee
the theater, the intellectual community considered the scenario
a significant victory and a milestone in the cultural history
in Tiflis, she studied at a local music school for three years.
Then in 1915, at the age of 18, she enrolled in the Music Conservatory
of Kiev and married Jakob M. Lubarsky, an engineer who had a
strong interest in music and theater. The two had met earlier
in Milan, and Lubarsky soon became one of Mammadova's closest
friends and supporters.
In Kiev, her most important professional acquaintance was her
mentor, Reinhold M. Gliere, an accomplished Russian composer.
Mammadova was the first to introduce him to Azeri folk music
and invite him to visit Azerbaijan. Gliere decided to go and
meet with numerous professional mugam performers of the Karabakh
region. It had a profound effect on him. Later, he went on to
write the powerful opera, "Shah sanam " (a girl's name)
based on the musical motifs he had grown to love. The opera premiered
in Baku on May 4, 1934, and was dedicated to Mammadova, who along
with Bul-bul, Azerbaijan's most famous male vocalist at the time,
performed the principal arias.
Recitals and Operas
in 1921, Mammadova's stage career took her to Paris, Milan, Moscow,
Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and Tbilisi. She performed arias in
"La Traviata" (Verdi), "Barber of Seville"
(Rossini), "Rigoletto" (Verdi), "Lakme" (Delibes),
"Les Huguenots" ( Meyerbeer), "Hoffmann's Tales"
(Offenbach), the "Snow Maiden" (Rimsky-Korsakov) and
"Nargiz" by Azerbaijani Muslim Magomayev.
In 1925, Mammadova was invited to Paris to take part in the World
Exhibition of Decorative Arts. Her selection of native Caucasian
songs created such a stir among musicologists and ethnographers
that they invited her to Sorbonne University and asked her to
record songs for their folklore courses. She chose familiar Azeri
songs such as "Kuchalare Su Saparam" (I'll Splash the
Water in the Streets), "San Ki Bela Deyildin" (You
Weren't Like This) and "Yeri Ha Yeri" (Keep Moving).
In 1927, Mammadova returned to Italy to continue her studies.
Even though she was considered to be a professional opera singer
by then, she felt there was still so much more to learn. In 1930
she returned to the Opera Theater in Baku.
Shovkat Mammadova was known as a splendid performer, she played
other roles that were even more important in laying the foundation
for composed music in Azerbaijan. In 1923, she founded the Musical
Notes Publishing House in Baku the first of its kind. Her goal
was "to publish and issue popular melodies and tunes not
only of the Turkish people but from the entire Muslim world."
In 1923, she
also founded the Theatrical College in Baku which was later transformed
into the Theatrical Institute and is now called the Arts University.
Her extensive experience in theater gave her ample material for
writing the book, "The Development of Azerbaijani Musical
Mammadova was awarded the title of "The People's Artist
of the USSR" in 1938 during the Ten-Day Festival of Azerbaijan
Culture in Moscow. This was the highest award bestowed upon artists
in the former Soviet Union. Uzeyir Hajibeyov and Bul-bul were
also among the musicians honored on that occasion for their extraordinary
work with Hajibeyov's masterpiece, the opera "Koroglu"
(Blind Man's Son). Eighteen years had passed since the establishment
of the Soviet system, and these three superb musicians were the
first from Azerbaijan ever to receive this award.
After 1939, Shovkat Mammadova became the Director of the Opera
& Ballet Theater in Baku where she also was one of the theater's
primary soloists. A year later, "The Maiden's Tower,"
a ballet by Afrasiyab Badalbeyli, was performed another first
for the Muslim world.
During World War II, Mammadova actively organized musical programs
for soldiers at the front. In 1942, she performed in Tabriz (the
capital of the province known as Eastern Azerbaijan in Iran).
midst of all these performances and responsibilities, Mammadova
found time to concentrate on what she loved most teaching. Though
she was still capable of performing on stage, she decided to
dedicate herself completely to her students. And so she became
the Chair of the Vocal Department at the Music Conservatory in
Baku where she emphasized both the operatic traditions of Italy
as well as Azerbaijan.
Many of her students went on to become honored as "People's
Artist of the USSR" including Vagif Karimov, Firangiz Allahverdiyeva,
Julia Yakubovich and Ludmila Platonova.
Above all, Shovkat Mammadova is remembered as being a sensitive,
tactful, wise and dedicated teacher. Even when she was unable
to go to the conservatory, she continued teaching at home. During
the night of June 11, 1981, at the age of 84, she died quietly
in her sleep. Unaware of her passing, students arrived the next
morning for their regular lessons.
the history enthusiast who wrote this article, specializes in
the biographies and architecture of early 20th century oil barons
daughter of Shovkat Mammadova, contributed greatly to this article
by sharing personal anecdotes about her mother, providing photos
from the family archives and supplying samples of her mother's
(5.4) Winter 1997
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All Rights Reserved.
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