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An Azerbaijani Operetta at the Dorothy Chandler

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A one-night only performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion of The Cloth Peddler by Uzeyir Hajibeyli, the father of modern Azerbaijani music, was something of an American coming-out party both for the composer and for the thriving Republic of Azerbaijan.

Most Americans know little about the history and culture of Azerbaijan, and would be hard pressed to locate the nation on a map. But Azerbaijan - the largest country in the Caucasus region -- has a long and storied history. A majority Muslim nation, but with a fairly diverse minority population, it was ruled at various times by the Persians, the Russian tzars and the Soviet Union.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and a war with Armenia, the country entered a period of swift modernization and, thanks to abundant natural resources, became a hub of energy export and trade. Long considered a progressive Muslim society (it extended the vote to women before the U.S. did), Azerbaijan has become a strong trading and investment partner with not only countries in the Middle East and former Soviet Union, but also the United States, Europe and Israel.

In keeping with its progressive and secular tradition, and under the leadership of Nasimi Aghayev, the energetic young Consul General in Los Angeles and American opera producer Michael Schnack, the Azerbaijani consulate presented The Cloth Peddler, which was first performed in 1913 and has been widely performed both in Azerbaijan and elsewhere ever since.

The operetta is in many ways a familiar tale of love in a traditional society on the cusp of change. Asgar, a rich, successful businessman (solidly performed by James Judd) is looking for a wife, but doesn't want to settle for a traditional arranged marriage. But how is he to meet single women when they are all cloistered in their fathers' houses?

Asgar settles on a plan to disguise himself as a cloth peddler and thus gain entry to the houses of the noble families. In the home of Sultan Bey (the charismatic Steven Snow), Asgar meets his daughter Gulchohra (masterfully sung and acted by Asha Lindsey) and is instantly smitten. Complications, mistaken identities and happy endings ensue, true to the formula of turn-of-the century musical comedies.

What makes The Cloth Peddlar extraordinary is not only the music of Hajibeyli, which is world-class, but the fact that the operetta was among the first ever composed and performed in the Muslim world. The story had many groundbreaking elements, including the struggle against outdated traditions, the fight for women's rights, not to mention the revolutionary concept of romantic love.

The packed house at the Dorothy Chandler was a testament to the groundbreaking, secular character of the operetta, as leading members of the Azerbaijani diaspora community mingled with diplomatic representatives, leaders from all over L.A., including a sizable contingent from the Jewish community, as well as students and theater goers from L.A.'s diverse communities. Kudos all around to the Azerbaijani consulate, the producer and performers and the audience for this cultural expression of diversity and progress.