The Genesis of a new Opera:

Deniz Küstü 

(The Sea-Crossed Fisherman)

Michael Ellison

In Simon Jones’ brilliant condensation of the essence of the novel into libretto, the scenes concentrate alternately between a nerve-wrenching cityscape in Scenes 1 and 3, focused on the experience of street-child turned murderer Zeynel, (dancer Evrim Akyay) and the expansive seascapes of scenes 2 and 4, which concentrate the aspirations of Selim (baritone Gwion Thomas), a fisherman who makes friends with dolphins and mermaids, and somehow invokes the wrath of his fellow fisherman and villagers in Menekşe for his adoration of nature, the sea, and his preference for these—especially his dolphin friends—over human company. 

This work of Yaşar Kemal is so rich, so alive, and the character of Fisher Selim in particular so engaging, with the picture he paints of ecological tragedy with the slaughter of the dolphins so powerful, that it was impossible not to write very alive music in response to it!   So the music can be rivetingly harsh, shockingly dissonant and concentrated, especially in the scenes with Zeynel, but its main essence is sweeping, swirling, almost Romantic; broad and open and heaving, as the Sea-Music that begins the opera, under a Lodos wind.   It is also often playful, as in most of the frenetic scene 3, which is set as a kind of expressionist, Keystone Kops type of cartoon chase with newspaper headlines following Zeynel

through the backstreets of Karaköy and Beyoğlu (and just about

Deniz Küstü is for me both about a superb novel coming to life, and an opera and opera company being born.

We first discussed the idea of turning this into an opera—or as I call it, a piece of ‘Total Musical Theatre” with Yaşar Kemal and Ayşe Semiha Baban a couple of years ago, when Yaşar Bey’s health was still good.    My wife Yasemin (a literature specialist) and I had gone to meet him, and over baklava he both told us his life story, while suggesting, amongst other ideas, that we take a look at Deniz Küstü.   Both of them spoke about Deniz Küstü with some clearly special consideration, in fact.   For my part, I was immediately attracted to the subject because it was set in Istanbul, and this gave me good reasons to use classical Turkish instruments—ney, kemençe and kanun—as an integral part of the soundscape, and that these would help bring the Istanbul seascapes and cityscapes to life.   This is an important starting point, because the contrast between city-and-seascape is crucial to Deniz Küstü in (librettist/dramaturg/director) Simon Jones’s and my interpretation of the novel.   These fundamental energies also relate to the psychological underpinning of Deniz Küstü’s two main characters, Selim and Zeynel, and everything around them.   The clincher was that I also felt the subject of Deniz Küstü was of especial relevance to our time.