"I am 90 years old. I have lived a long life. I could write a book on everyone. Art is neither learned nor taught. It comes by itself." This is what the first opera artist of the Republic says... In 1934, upon Atatürk's order, she played the leading role in Özsoy, the first ever Turkish opera work, staged at the People's House in Ankara. She has been a close friend to many of the important personalities in Turkey's artistic and political life in recent history. Once, they even called her a communist... She was interrogated at the Security Directorate in Ulus because she had visited Nazim Hikmet in the Cankiri Prison. She had a fighting spirit. In 1940, she played in Wagner's Tosca, translated by Nazim Hikmet. A few months ago, she sang in the opera "The Days Before" at Lincoln Center in New York. She was praised by famous critics in The New York Times. Among the world artists in 2000 chosen by the famous Kunst Museum in Bonn, Semiha Berksoy is mentioned as a "genius".
What was the first thing to introduce you to Europe in your years of childhood and youth?
What introduced me to Europe is my own life. I was born in 1910... in Çengelköy. I am from Istanbul by family. My family were European. They were modern people. One of my grandfathers was a member of the Bektashi order. I come from a Turcoman line. My paternal uncle was one of the first Turkish physiologists who was mentioned in books of science in Europe. My father was a poet in his own way. He was from Uskudar. My mother was from Kasimpasha and was a painter. At the age of five, they sent me to the first kindergarten in Turkey. Teachers from Russia used to come to that school and give lessons. For the first time there, I sang "Figaro's Wedding" by Mozart. After an education in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts, I started working at the City Theatre in 1930 for a salary of 50 liras. I came on stage for the first time in "The Walking Corpse", a play by Tolstoy. I sang a Russian song. My knees were shaking... In 1931, Muhsin Ertugrul was to shoot the first sound movie in Turkey: "Streets of Istanbul". We went to Paris. The French director René
Clair asked me to work there. In Turkey also, there were people who appreciated me. Why should I
have decided to stay in Paris? In 1936, I went to the Opera Section of the Berlin Academy of Music. For two years, I sang opera in Berlin. I came first in the Strauss Festival in 1939. They said "she has a unique voice". Then, I wanted to return to Ankara because the State Opera and Ballet was opening..:
What is it that links you to Europe today?
It is science, art and culture that link me to Europe. I retired in 1972 but I have continued with art. I have one foot in Europe and another in Turkey. Last autumn, my paintings were exhibited in Aya Irini. A documentary by Kutlu Ataman on my life was shown during the Istanbul Biennial. On the 50th anniversary of suffrage for Turkish women, I was awarded the Shield of Great Opera Artist. I designed the Opera Revolution Room in Yildiz Palace. I set up the Opera Foundation. In December, I played "The Days Before" in Portugal. They have asked me to go on stage in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York next year.
Do you feel European?
I am a world artist. I think that I represent not only Turkey but also the whole world. I belong to Turkey. My cause is to do with Turkey. I want to bring out the importance of art in Turkey. I was born here. This is my country. I want to be appreciated by my own people before all else. Let it be known who is a real artist and who is not. I have an optimistic and fighting character. Turkey is not like Iran, Iraq or Syria. We are Europeans. We have been so ever since the Ottoman times... Mehmet the Conqueror had his portrait made by Bellini... We are definitely not Asian. We are the country closest to Europe.
Art is by birth. It comes by itself. I am interested in every branch of art. I started to take an interest in art when I coloured picture prints my mother bought me with crayons. I wrote my first short story when I was a second-year student at the school in Kadirga. In that school, we used to receive Koran lessons twice a week. The Koran teacher liked my voice and the way I read out and he always asked me to read it out. Art teaches. It goes forward. In science, there is no art but reason. In art, there is both feeling and science and culture. I have not imitated anyone. I have not asked anyone for anything. There do exist people who do so, but real art is not through favours.
Opera includes all arts. I am an alto soprano, that is a high soprano. My voice is suitable for singing Wagner operas at a high pitch. The voice comes from genes. In Turkey, operettas used to be played but no opera because nobody had thought about it until Atatürk, who ensured that the art of opera was introduced in Turkey. I decided to become an opera artist when I studied at the Municipal School of Theatre under Muhsin Ertugrul's direction. The sound used to attract me. You need a big voice for opera, a voice that will cover the orchestra. In 1950, I was appointed to the opera house. I was the chief artist of the opera house. Because of the groundless accusations of being a communist that were made against me, I was not given the official staff position of lead player until the personnel law was passed in 1972. They wanted to put me in less important parts at the opera house, so I resigned and went over to the theatre.
In 2000, there will be my jubilee as Turkey's first opera artist. I will celebrate my 70th year in art and my 90th birthday together.
Interview by Selda Paydak