Sultan Hamid’s opera Theatre in Yildiz Palace was a sight to behold. We were lead to the theatre through an underground passage from the seraglio and were given a small tour before the arrival of the opera company. The theatre was small and compact but beautifully designed with stars painted on the domed ceiling . The balcony boxes were fitted in red velvet as were the seats below. We were given permission to be seated in the upper balconies way at the back where we would not be easily seen unless,of course, someone knew of our presense and strained to catch a glimpse during performace. We were taken back stage and shown where we were to make our entrance after the company had made their exit. This would be my only chance to get a message to Gurel as I would be the first on stage.
I would drop my handkerchief just as Gurel exited the stage with the rest of the cast. This would not be noticed as I had another enclosed within the palm of my hand. Gurel would read the message written on the handkerchief and wait for Rana behind the poplar tree to the right of the main door to the Harem chambers. When the dance had finished Rana would be first off stage leaving the rest of us to cover for her disappearance momentarily. When the Sultan had realised that she was missing I would say that she had made her escape through the garden. While all were out in search of the escaped gypsy Harem girl she and her beloved would be united. The opera ‘ The Barber of Seville’ was scurrulous and just as I had remembered it on the London stage.
The faces of the other girls lit up as Rossini’s opera permeated the tiny theatre. They had never seen or heard anything like it in their lives and probably never would again. Our view was not the best as we were so high up and it took some time to recognise Gurel as there were so many on stage and it was quite dark. During an argument between the count disguised as a drunken soldier and the heroin Rosina’s guardian ‘Bartolo’, a crowd gathered and there was one young man protesting louder than all the others. He was also dancing and looking up at the balconies as he did so.
Rana was shaking with the anticipation. There was no doubt it was he and as his eyes came to rest on her Rana removed her veil for a brief moment and lifted her chin in defiance of protocol. He smiled and whirled off stage behind the character of Figaro as the crowd dispersed and the next aria began. At the end of the performance as the company exited the stageLead by the sultan and his entourage and we moved on behind them I made eye contact with Gurel and dropped the handkerchief. As he picked it up he gazed into my eyes for and I thought I thought for an instant that somehow he had recognised me but he turned away and hurried in the direction of the seraglio where he knew Rana would be waiting. There was a brief interval in which the opera company enjoyed tea and cakes with the sultan in the sale pavillion. During this time we positioned ourselves on the stage and the musicians tuned their instruments.
All went according to plan and our skirts made almost entirely of handkerchiefs were a source of fascination with our audience. They were intrigued with our way of life and with the fact that we all belonged to one man. With our handkerchiefs we remained joined in a circle ducking and weaving our way through the music until Hamid clapped his hands to end the performance whereupon we formed one line and came to the front of the stage. Rana was way at the end of the line off stage behind the curtain and ,with the eunuch distracted by the musicians , managed to make her way back to the Harem undetected. As no-one was allowed to have their backs to the sultan we had to step off the stage still in a line and file through the crowd. We were then to walk around to the back of the pavillion where we would enter the passageway leading back to the harem The sultan would be entertaining the cast with a lavish feast afterward were it not for our little ruse.
As expected he was counting each of us as we moved past him and before long noticed that his favourite was not among us. I was summoned and told him that she had broken away despite my plea that she not take the risk. Guards were sent off in a search party while eunuchs were deployed in the opposite direction. We were escorted back and the guard doubled outside our doors. They did not know that in the room adjoining mine two lovers were preparing for the day when they would no longer need to hide their love and could rejoice in the freedom that would come with the overthrow of an empire. Nor could the guards know that they were in the presence of an interloper from another time who had been forewarned of the upheavals to come.
© Renee Dallow ( Hybiscus Bloom ) 21/5/2014