January 22, 2019

‘Cloth Peddler’ comes to U.S.

On Sept. 7, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion downtown, the curtain went up on the Muslim world’s first operetta, “The Cloth Peddler” (“Arshin Mal Alan”) a comic work by Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov.

The event actually marked at least two firsts. It was the first full production of the 1913 work in the United States. And it was the first time a Muslim nation had invited essentially a city’s entire Jewish community as guests to an opera.

The Consul General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles produced the operetta, and the State Oil Co. of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) funded the elaborate, full-scale production. Azerbaijan, once part of the Soviet Union, sits on the northern border of Iran. Like Iran, it is a majority Shiite Muslim nation. Unlike Iran, it has established trade and political ties with the State of Israel. 

The consulate saw the event as a chance to further the country’s image as a culturally innovative, tolerant nation, and as part of that effort, brought cast members to perform scenes from the operetta to area public schools. It also took out several advertisements in the Jewish Journal, inviting members of the Jewish community to attend the performance, which was free and open to the public.

“Azerbaijan is Israel’s second largest supplier of natural gas,” a line at the bottom of the advertisements read.

The response, said Consul General Nasimi Aghayev, was excellent, though he couldn’t provide exact numbers of Jewish guests among the capacity audience.

“The Cloth Peddler” tells the story of a young, wealthy unmarried man in a traditional society who yearns to marry, but who wants to flout convention by meeting his bride first. He disguises himself as a poor cloth peddler and falls in love with the daughter of a rich merchant. She falls for him, too, and defies her father in choosing him.

It’s a universal story of modernity confronting tradition, and if the words had been written in Yiddish rather than Azerbaijani, it would have been essentially the same story. The operetta was first staged in 1913, about 20 years after Sholom Aleichem published the “Tevye the Milkman” stories, which share similar themes.

Producer and director Michael Schnack adapted the performance not just for today’s audiences, but also the place: When the girls dream of the perfect suitor, silhouette images of California surfers and bodybuilders appeared on the backdrop. The performers spoke in vernacular English, then lapsed into the Azerbaijani songs, whose subtitled were projected on a screen. The original score tacked nimbly between European classical and Azerbaijani folk traditions — the latter prompting the audience to clap along, horah-like, in lighter moments.

Of the cast, Asha Lindsay, as Gulchora, was the standout, a piercing, emotional soprano. James Judd, as Asgar, carried both the romantic and comic burdens of the peddler’s role.

“We are proud to share this aspect of our heritage,” Aghayev said after the performance.