Worlds collide in a coffeehouse opera this weekend that weaves a tale inspired by William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello” with a Turkish twist and an infusion of Italian baroque music.

“Othello in the Seraglio: The Tragedy of Sümbül the Black Eunuch” was written by Grammy-nominated Boston composer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and offers a multicultural listening experience in which both European and Turkish voices and early music instruments are incorporated.

“It is fused with the art of the 17th-century Ottoman coffeehouse, and in the storytelling we created this entirely new medium,” said Sanlikol, a vocalist and instrumentalist who will perform in the title role alongside a group of 12 musicians and singers as part of the 35th season of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival this Sunday.

The opera tells the story of Sümbül, a black slave in the 17th-century Ottoman court who rises to power and riches, only to come to a tragic end, according to the synopsis. This ageless story of love and jealousy is “intensified by the crossing of boundaries between the free and the enslaved, white and black, Muslim and non-Muslim, East and West.” 

The music offers hints of African rhythms and percussion whenever the storyteller or vocalists recall a past trauma when Sümbül — the Ottoman Othello — starts losing his control, Sanlikol explained.  

“I hope this kind of piece will help everyone look back and recognize everywhere in the world humanity has its good and its bad all at the same time,” said Sanlikol, who aims to share the tribulations of existence through his music.

In each of the five scenes of the opera, Sanlikol dipped into the historical repertoire of the period to create an architecture of balance that combines the centuries-old melodic motifs with his new music.

“We have duets and quartets with singers from the European tradition and singers from the Turkish tradition singing at counterpoint, or in the case of a quartet, like singing a chorale, with two Turkish singers and two European singers in four parts,” said Sanlikol, who studied with Gloucester’s Herb Pomeroy for a year at Berklee College of Music.

The idea for the opera came about five years ago, when late one night the composer was zapping through television channels and across Kenneth Branagh’s rendition of “Othello,” starring Laurence Fishburne. Sanlikol, who is originally from Cyprus and came to Boston from Turkey at age 19, thought about reversing the plot of “Othello” from a Venetian Cyprus to an Ottoman Cyprus.

“Suddenly, I remembered about the real life character of Sümbül, the famous 17th-century chief black eunuch of the Ottoman court,” recalled Sanlikol. “Right there and then I knew I had something very special — reimagining Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ as an Ottoman eunuch. 

“I would never think of touching Shakespeare or any master like him, but in this case, I knew that I was truly adding a dramatic dimension that was going to be new and very ‘Ottoman.’” 

Sanlikol joins Italian Baroque and Turkish sources with his own compositions to weave a tapestry of the human experience. 

“I realized that there is great subtlety and richness of the music where I came from,” he said. “I devoted 10 years, day and night, of internalization of Turkish music. How could I have created ‘Othello’ without going through that period?”

The opera channels the spirit of “The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice” by William Shakespeare, “Un Capitano Moro” (A Moorish Captain) by Giovanbattista Giraldi Cinzio, and “Kızlarağası’nın Piçi” (The Bastard of the Chief Black Eunuch) by Reşad Ekrem Koçu.

“I am trying to at least hint that this is neither quite like ‘Othello’ nor like Mozart’s ‘Abduction from the Seraglio.’ I want to present a more sophisticated meaning. It’s a far more informed view of the Middle East and Islam. It’s neither painting a sweet picture nor a dark picture. It’s an informed portrayal,” said Sanlikol, who was a fellow in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. “At the end of the day, it is fiction. It is drama.”

The script of “Othello in the Seraglio: The Tragedy of Sümbül the Black Eunuch” was written by Robert Labaree, a New England Conservatory music historian, and is directed by Brian Fairley.

Sanlikol said that the show this weekend will mark the opera’s 14th performance.

There were sold-out performances this past March at the American Repertory Theater in Boston.

“Somehow people from all backgrounds can connect with it at some level,” Sanlikol said. 


What: “Othello in the Seraglio: The Tragedy of Sümbül the Black Eunuch”

When: Sunday, June 12 at 5 p.m.

Where: Shalin Liu Performance Center, 37 Main St., Rockport

Information: The audience is invited to stay for a post-concert talk with composer Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and writer Robert Labaree. For tickets and information, visit or call 978-546-7391. This is part of the 35th season of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.

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