Leyla Gencer: A Story of Passion
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
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
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.
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."...