Summer 2003 (11.2)
Newsmakers - Celebrating 75 years
Imanov Reminisces about his Opera Career
by Aida Huseinova
Lutfiyar Imanov (1928- ), one of Azerbaijan's great tenors
when it comes to opera, celebrated his 75th birthday on April
17. He has been performing professionally for the past 50 years.
His most distinguished role was that of Koroghlu in Uzeyir Hajibeyov's
opera. Here he is interviewed about some of the highlights of
his music career by Musicologist Aida Huseinova of Baku's Music
Left: Lutfiyar Imanov in
his most famous role as Koroghlu in Uzeyir Hajibeyov's opera.
Right: Lutfiyar Imanov as Faust in Gounod's opera.
Your performances, singing the
lead role in Uzeyir Hajibeyov's opera, Koroghlu, are revered
for being among the greatest accomplishments on Azerbaijan's
operatic stage. That's no small accomplishment, given that you
followed on the heels of the legendary singer Bulbul (1897-1961).
How did you get involved in Hajibeyov's masterpiece in the first
Back during the Soviet period [1920-1991], each of the Republics
used to have a chance to showcase their most illustrious art
works. Every 10 years, beginning in 1938, an event was organized
which was called, "The Decade of Azerbaijani Art and Culture"
when some of the finest music ever created in Baku was staged
in Moscow. It started in Stalin's time. In fact, Stalin himself
attended the premiere of Koroghlu when it was first staged in
1938. Uzeyir Hajibeyov was still living at the time and went
to Moscow for the occasion.
Left: Lutfiyar Imanov, relaxed, at home.
In 1958, when they were
again preparing for "The Decade", the Soviet Ministry
of Culture established a unique criteria for all operatic performances.
They required two casts: one to be performed by established singers
who were well known; and the other of young artists. When it
came to experienced performers, naturally Bulbul was selected
for Koroghlu and Rashid Behbudov for Fikrat Amirov's Sevil. My
name was among the list of potential new candidates for Koroghlu.
I was just 30 years old at the time.
Niyazi, who was the conductor of the Azerbaijan Opera and Ballet
Theater at the time, invited me to the Opera Theater and asked
me to perform something from the Koroghlu. That was my lucky
day because I had already learned Koroghlu's Aria as part of
my graduation exam from Baku's Conservatory.
Soon after the audition, Niyazi
broke the news to me: I would be singing Koroghlu at the Decade!
It was one of the happiest days of my life.
But, of course, it's much more complex than that. My fascination
with Koroghlu began in childhood. At the age of 15 when I started
working as a prompter at the Sabirabad Dramatic Theater, I used
to imagine myself playing some of the legendary heroes described
in those dastans. [Dastans are a genre in Azerbaijani epic literature
which include many songs performed by roving minstrels called
ashugs]. I loved listening to ashugs, singing and improvising
while they accompanied themselves on their traditional stringed
instrument, the saz. I was crazy about our dastans such as Ashug
Garib, Gachag Nabi, and especially Koroghlu.
You know, what I did? I managed to design the head of a horse
from wood, attached it to a stick, and somehow got hold of a
sword, and I would go around singing Koroghlu's Aria for my friends
I adored Uzeyir Hajibeyov's opera and used to listen for hours
to the record of Bulbul singing it. Later, as a student at the
Conservatory [now Music Academy], I learned the entire opera,
never dreaming that I would have the chance to perform it on
Some people wonder how Bulbul felt about my taking on that role
since he had been the first Koroghlu and had made the work so
famous. But the truth is: he supported me. After sitting in on
one of the rehearsals right before "The Decade", he
expressed his feelings: "Lutfiyar must perform this part.
He has the ability to project the national character and heroic
features of this role." He was also quoted as saying that
in one of the local newspapers.
Left: Lutfiyar in the role of Othello in
Giuseppe Verdi's opera with Khuraman Gasimova performing as Desdimona.
Of course, everything
did not go so smoothly. Some people in the music establishment,
and some of the Communist Party officials, started criticizing
Niyazi for choosing me.
They argued that I was too young to carry the huge responsibility
of that role.
Some complained about my appearance: "He's too skinny to
perform the role of a national hero!" they said.
In this regard, I recall one anecdote that happened to me at
At one of the meetings at the Central Committee of the Communist
Party, the subject of the Decade came up. Someone balked at the
idea of my playing the role of Koroghlu. "Lutfiyar Imanov
is crazy!" he declared.
Not long afterwards I was called in for a session. Two people
were present: a Communist Party official and a psychologist who
seemed to be observing my behavior. Actually, the encounter was
quite short. As they were finishing, and I was getting ready
to leave, the official commented: "Why don't you ask us
why we've invited you here?" I replied: "Because I
already know the reason."
Without a moment's hesitation, I continued. "Someone has
told you that I'm a crazy guy. So you've decided to check it
out for yourself. Now you see that I appear quite normal, don't
you? But the truth is: I really am crazy!"
"How's that?" the official asked in the confusion.
"If a young artist dares to sing the part of Koroghlu after
the great Bulbul, doesn't that make him crazy?"
Besides, if you have read the dastan about Koroghlu, you know
that the word "crazy" ("dali") has its own
specific meaning in Azerbaijani literature. "Koroghlu had
7,777 crazy people devoted to him". The dastan emphasizes
the desperate love and devotion of those people to Koroghlu.
That's me, too, because I adore Koroghlu. Indeed, I am among
those 7777 'crazy' people!" They appreciated the humor.
We laughed together and I left. And I kept the part.
What's the most difficult part about performing Koroghlu?
For me, the role of Koroghlu is one of the most sophisticated
and complicated operatic characters to perform, both from a literary
point of view as well as musically. The opera demands such an
enormous spectrum of feelings and emotions!
You know what Koroghlu has helped me to understand? Life is so
complex. Specific circumstances reveal personal qualities that
we could never have realized were deep inside.
You even had to ride a horse on stage.
Right. Actually, horseback riding came easily for me as I grew
up in a village and had ridden horses since childhood. As for
opera, the horses were usually brought from race-track a couple
of hours before the performance.
Your role as Koroghlu launched you into a career that gave
you a chance to perform many lead roles in famous operatic works.
What are some of the secrets to professionalism that enabled
you to play these great roles?
There are many factors. First of all, I always practiced a lot.
Practicing helped me to strengthen my voice and gain a great
sense of freedom. Touring other countries exposed me to various
traditions of vocal performance. Both had a significant impact
on my professional development.
In 1965-66, I spent a year as a trainee at the famous Bolshoi
Theater in Moscow. I really took advantage of the opportunity
to be there: all day long I was busy. I would practice, meet
with colleagues, visit the departments responsible of scenery,
backdrops and costumes, attend rehearsals and performances.
Even after I returned to Baku, I stayed involved with the Bolshoi.
Although it led to some very difficult problems in schedules.
Once, during the intermission while I was performing Vagif in
Ramiz Mustafayev's opera, I received an urgent call from Moscow.
"Lutfiyar, we desperately need your help. Can you sing Carmen
tomorrow night? Our main soloist is ill." One day's notice!
Can you imagine? At first, I refused but they continued to beg
me so I decided to risk it.
At 5:00 a.m. the next morning, I headed to the airport, hoping
to get a seat on the plane. That wasn't easy. Marshal Vasilevski
[a well-known Russian-Soviet military leader] had died and his
funeral was being held in Moscow. So many local military personnel
were heading to the capital. I begged the Airport Director to
let me board the plane, but "no luck".
He told me: "You see what's going on, Lutfiyar. Try to contact
the pilots. Maybe they'll help you." He was right. The pilots
gladly accommodated me and I joined them in the cockpit and I
could watch everything that was going on.
Your next long-term international experience occurred a decade
later, in 1975-76 when you had spent six months in Milan, as
a trainee in the world-reputed La Scala Theater. What have you
gained from your Italian experience?
I was supposed to go to train in Italy in 1963. But Niyazi wasn't
very happy that I would be away for such a long time as I would
be missing 12 performances. So he convinced me to give it up.
But I could never forget the words of my voice professor, Alexander
Milovanov: "There are two best vocal schools in the world
- Russian and Italian."
I already had been exposed to the Russian tradition. That's why
I kept dreaming about going to Italy. Remember those were the
days of the Soviet Union when it wasn't so easy to go abroad.
In 1974 I received a second invitation to visit La Scala. Niyazi
was still objecting, so I decided to approach Heydar Aliyev,
the First Secretary of Azerbaijan's Communist Party, at the time.
He immediately gave his approval although he set one significant
restriction: I had to return by November so I could perform at
Hajibeyov's 90th Jubilee, which was taking place both in Baku
and Moscow. So I did.
There in Italy, I improved my Italian language, polished some
of my roles in Italian operas and set about learning some Italian
folk songs. Let me say one more thing in regard to my Moscow
and Milan experiences. There is a significant difference between
Western and Azerbaijani styles of singing. The mugham tradition
in Azerbaijani music can be incorporated into our national opera
repertoire and sound so beautiful and absolutely appropriate.
However, mugham is totally out of place in Western music. I was
so eager to acquire training in both of these great traditions.
You've toured so much throughout the world. What are some
of your most vivid memories?
I did tour a lot. I performed in so many concerts, visiting dozens
of countries such as France, Italy, Norway, Japan, India, Cuba,
Bulgaria and Turkey. I have so many stories. Let me tell you
one that took place in Naples, Italy. It was a hot, summer day
and our group was being escorted by a young lady from the Mayor's
office. We stopped in a small shop to look for some souvenirs.
I especially liked one of the little music boxes with a dancing
ballerina on it. So I asked the price. It was so exorbitant that
I didn't even try to negotiate. So we continued our walk down
by the sea and I began to sing, "OSole Mio".
After finishing, I heard thunderous applause. We looked around
and saw a large crowd had gathered so I continued my spontaneous
"recital" and performed two more songs in Italian songs
and three in Azeri.
You can't imagine what happened afterwards! The Italians clapped
and cheered; some offered flowers and wanted to take my photo.
Finally, the man from the shop who had the little box, pushed
through the crowd, and gave me a big hug. With tears in his eyes,
he said: "Please, accept this box as my gift. You've touched
me so deeply!"
I've heard that wherever you performed, you always tried to
include works from that country.
It's true. It's my way of respecting the host country. Usually,
it took about a month to prepare for a specific tour. I would
learn some of the local repertoire, memorize the lyrics, work
on pronunciation and accent. I learned to sing in English, Japanese,
Italian, German, Arabic, Indian and a few other languages as
I really tried my best to blend in with the people. Sometimes,
it seems I succeeded only too well. One amusing story took place
in India in 1960. We were supposed to give a concert at a huge
stadium in Penjab. We were heading through the back door when
I suddenly realized that I had left my coat on the bus. So I
went back to get it. In the meantime, the other performers entered
the stadium and the police officers were not allowing anyone
else to go in. I tried to convince the officer that I was a Russian
artist (that's how we were known in those days); but, in vain.
"You're Indian", he insisted, "Don't cheat!"
It's true that my skin is a bit dark, but I never thought it
would put me in such a difficult situation. Luckily, the head
of our delegation appeared and vouched for my identity.
But the funniest thing happened later on. During the first part
of the concert, I was to perform an Indian song while dressed
in their national costume; in the second part, I would sing in
Azeri. When I began the first song, I spotted the police officer,
sitting on the first row, gesturing to me. After finishing the
song, he approached me, saying: "I knew that you were a
liar. You're an Indian!"
Then one of my colleagues replied: "Please, just wait until
the second part: you'll see what kind of Indian he is."
You've had such a long and successful career. What advice
would you offer to young vocalists just getting started?
My first advice is to study hard, study continuously and indefatigably.
Training your voice is of utmost importance, of course. You know
how much I used to practice?! I still practice. The truth is
that very few of us have the initial skills to perform this music;
we acquire this ability through hard work.
Every vocalist should listen to a great amount of music. When
I was young, I used to play the records of Shalyapin, Caruzo
and others, over and over again. I always tried to learn everything
I could from Azerbaijan's great singers, such as Bulbul, Aghababa
Bunyadzade and Rauf Atakishiyev. I sincerely regret that our
young artists rarely seize opportunities these days to take advice
from us elders.
Music is not the only thing that opera singers need to work on.
I used to spend endless hours watching, attending the drama theater
and operetta. And finally, music has to be the driving force
in your life. When I was studying those early years in Baku,
my life was so difficult. I had so many problems. I had to work
hard for my living expenses and to help my family back in Sabirabad.
I even used to sing prior to the movies at the Araz cinema, I
sang in a choir and so many other places. It left me extremely
tired but I never gave up. In my opinion, the result has proven
well worth it all.
Lutfiyar Imanov graduated from the Music College named after
Asaf Zeynalli and the Azerbaijan Art Institute. From 1958-1990,
he was a soloist with the Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theater.
In 1960-1988, he taught at the Azerbaijan Art Institute, and
from 1988-1990 and 1996-2000 at Baku Music Academy. During the
interim between 1991-95, he taught and performed in Izmir, Istanbul,
Ankara, Bursa and Eskisheher, Turkey. He was named Professor
(1986), People's Artist of Azerbaijan (1967) and People's Artist
of the USSR (1977). He was Chairman of the Azerbaijan's Theatrical
Society (1986-91) and Director of the Azerbaijan State Opera
and Ballet Theater (1988).
He has played the lead male roles in numerous Azerbaijani, Italian
and Russian operas in addition to Koroghlu: Alyar in "Nargiz"
(Muslim Magomayev); Vagif in "Vagif" (Ramiz Mustafayev);
Isgandar in "Olular" (Corpses) (Vasif Adigozal); Ayaz
in "Azad" (Jahangir Jahangirov); Bahadur in "Bahadur
and Sona" (Suleyman Alasgarov); Hermann in "Queen of
Spades" (Tchaikovsky); Duke in "Rigoletto", Radames
in "Aida"; Manrico in "Il Trovatore" (all
by Verdi); Don Jose in "Carmen" (Bizet); Faust in "Faust"
(Gounod); and Cavaradossi in "Tosca" (Puccini).
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AI 11.2 (Summer 2003)
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