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Leyla Gencer: A Story of Passion

                                MAYBE, EVEN

I am eighteen years old and I'm in Paris.

That morning I had hit the road while the sun was coming up, and already took my place in the line in front of the box office of the Paris Opera. All the people were waiting in line in front of the box office, which was going to open at 10 o'clock. In the cold and darkness of the morning are students, youngsters, an utterly penniless bunch of people. We are all waiting to find a place at the gallery called paradis (paradise), because it is so close to God, at the top of the very top balcony of the Paris Opera.

In front of me, behind me, youngsters are chatting as if they are racing. I can't participate in their chat, because they are talking about opera with a terrific enthusiasm. Someone amongst them somehow asked me: "Where are you from?" The minute I told them "from Turkey," all of a sudden, all of them gathered around me. All of them, in every language, were asking all kinds of questions. In all this chaos were these two words: Leyla Gencer.

The moment when I felt myself the most ignorant, the least intellectual, most untalented, most ugly, most lonely person in the world, being born in the same country with Leyla Gencer, saved me in my eyes that morning. I was not alone anymore. I was incredibly confident and full of hope. Since an artist like Leyla Gencer came from my country… The world was gorgeous, humanity was incredible: Human strength, creativity, strength of work, strength of embracing his/her passion tightly, his/her trust, belief, passion to reach the perfection of perfection was endless…

I learned these and a lot of similar things from the young people in front of the Paris Opera that morning. None of them knew Turkey, but all knew and recognized Leyla Gencer. They convinced me about the power of music, how wonderful the world was, how incredible the humans were, only by talking about her, giving examples about her.

No, I was not thinking of one day writing this book on that foggy Paris morning, nor in the days and nights after that.

When did I realize I wanted to get to know her closer, get to know Leyla Gencer, Leyla Gencer's story, the adventure of following a passion that was lived out of breath, to feel that passion inside me, to walk in the labyrinths of that adventure? What about sharing all these things with other people -- to share by asking, learning, listening, trying to understand, living and writing?

I don't know.

Maybe when I started buying her pirated records from foreign countries, listening to the most famous or unknown operas with her voice.

Maybe when I listened to her first time in Aya Irini in 1972, and was charmed when I saw how she dominated the spectators, even controlled our breathing, from the stage…

Maybe when I went to the Venice Bienali in February 1982 and saw all the streets and squares of the city decorated with "Leyla La Turca" posters and felt surprised…

Maybe when in my country the government's consideration of her, which was nonexistent, the media's unconcern and the intellectuals' silence turned to an outrage, a pain or anger inside me that I could not carry anymore.

Maybe. I do not know.

I am listening to Leyla Gencer in Istanbul, Milan, and Arenzano. I'm listening to the people who know her, who shared something with her. I'm reading the articles that were published about her after her performances all over the world. I'm listening, learning, reading, asking, and researching. And most of all I am becoming bewildered when she says:

"I did not do anything. Everything happened spontaneously. I only sang. Really, everything happened spontaneously." (And she says this so often that it is clear she very much believes it!)

While listening to her, watching her when she goes back and forth between being like a child and being like a queen (okay, I will say without hesitation -- according to some -- like a goddess), she always tries to convince us that "everything happened spontaneously!"

Okay, Leyla Gencer. Okay, I accept it all. Everything happened spontaneously. You only wanted to be thrown up to the skies at the edge of the cliff when you were a kid. Then…

Then, you used only your voice; you only sang, so as not to become mixed up in the emptiness, the nothingness, the nonexistence at edges of the cliffs of the world where you were thrown.

Okay, Leyla Gencer. Okay, I accept it all. But please let me say this: I think you did not test yourself; you tested the cliffs.

                            A CHARMING WORLD.

She was a little child. She was living in her childhood environment:

On the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus, in a large wooden house set in a huge garden. A farm, three kilometers away from the house, an endless land in between the valleys and hills.

At the house or at the farm: Old, old trees, poplars, linden trees, poppy fields, hothouses, vegetable and fruit gardens, camellias, magnolias, honeysuckles, jasmines, rose gardens. All of them were hers. Way down below, the boathouse on the sea, way up on the hill, the hunting house… The feeling of being unbound between the sea and the hills, the feeling of freedom was hers.

The house was reached by passing along cobblestone paths, smells of musk and amber, ponds with fountains, alittle gem of Ottoman architecture, this was her house.

Marble stairs, wooden carvings, and high ceilings. Livingrooms lighted with crystal chandeliers. large kitchens where meals were prepared to feed twenty people at every meal. Marble Turkish baths, rooms with porcelain stoves, silk rugs, tulle and brocade curtains, satin or crocheted covers, silver, mirrors, all were hers.

Little Leyla saw the beauty, the happiness, the guarantees of endless love in the mirror all the time. She was seeing the blessings her mother and father and also "Mademoiselle" reflected.

Her father is Mr. Hasanzade Ibrahim (later he took the family name Ceyrekgil); he is from Safranbolu. He is the son of a wealthy, well-known family. He is very successful in improving the family investments, together with his elder brother, Huseyin Ceyrekgil. Farming, running fisheries and transport businesses, as well as establishing a water plant and turning Cubuklu waters into a business, the Ceyrekgils own the Lale Movie Theater in Beyoglu, commercial buildings and bakeries in Karakoy.

Most of the family is Dervish (Bektashi). Hasanzade is quite a tolerant person. His wife, being a devoted Catholic, is not a bit of a problem for him. He is so open-minded that he says: "When our children are 18 years old, they can choose their own religion."

Leyla inherited her pitch-black eyebrows, her eyes, her jet-black hair, and her "Queen Nefertiti" physique from him, and also her volcano-like personality that does not hide her reactions, ready to erupt at any time, and her tolerance of Dervishes, and good judgment about people.

Her mother, Alexandra Angela Minakouska, is from a Polish aristocratic family. She is very religious. She lights a candle for Mother Mary every night but, being a bride in a Muslim family, she covers her hair with a scarf. She is very much devoted to her principles. She is always a little foreign. She is tough but sensitive. She plays the piano at home and reads a lot. She has a great interest in beauty and delicacy but, most of all, in learning.

When she is in good spirits, she sings Polish songs with a guitar accompaniment. Also, she hosts a never-ending entourage of guests at the house, her husband's family, without complaining. She is the perfect hostess. Later, after her husband died, she converted to Islam and changed her name to Atiye.

From her mother Leyla inherited the manners, attitude and behavior that earned her respect from the people around her. Holding and keeping her posture upright all the time, which made her appear much taller than she actually was, she also inherited from her mother. Again, she inherited her sensitivity in human relations, her passion to learn more, the most, her discipline for working, and devotion to her friends.

Madame Lejeune was Leyla's "Mademoiselle." She is a French countess who came from Russia to Istanbul in 1919. Because she left all her belongings behind and had to earn her living, she moved in with the Ceyrekgil family. Her job was to teach French to the children, since there were other people in the house serving, doing the other jobs.

Madam Lejeune cracked open the doors of French and Italian literature, world classics for Leyla. From then on, gliding through that opening naturally, Leyla would force open every door all the time to look for "beauty" and the "sublime."

Leyla acquired her endless curiosity, her passion for all kinds of arts, taste of theater and passion for music from Mademoiselle.

It was an enchanting world, a lifestyle trying to reconcile a feudal family arrangement with "modern times."...