Baba the Turk
This Role is from the Opera :
The Rake's Progress
BABA THE TURK
FACTS: Baba the Turk is a celebrity, famous for her long flowing beard. At her first appearance she is described as ‘Very elaborately coiffed, and her face is, below the eyes, heavily veiled in the Eastern fashion.’ The authenticity of her beard has been verified by “Two noted physicians”, says Nick Shadow.
(Where stage directions are quoted, they appear in ‘italics’.
Auden’s libretto is written in strict verse formats, so the capitalisation of each new line is retained in text quotations rather than line breaks.)
CHARACTER EVOLUTION: Baba is first described in very unflattering terms by Tom: “They say that brave warriors who never flinched at the sound of musketry have swooned after a mere glimpse of her.” It is Nick Shadow that persuades Tom that to marry Baba would be the ultimate act of free will, and he thinks it is a great joke that will make him famous.
When Baba hears Tom talking to Anne as they arrive home fresh from her wedding, she is more annoyed at the delay than concerned: “You know I am not in the habit of stepping from my sedan unaided. Nor shall I wait, unmoved, much longer.” Only when the conversation continues does she get upset: “I’m quite perplexed And more, I confess, than a little vexed. Enough is enough!” She demands his attention: “Come here, my love, I hate waiting.” When Anne runs off, she is all sweetness and light again: “I have not run away, dear heart. Baba is still waiting patiently for her gallant.”
Baba is every inch the performer; when she hears the crowd calling her name, she ‘draws herself up with obvious pride’. At their request, ‘With an elegant gesture, she sweeps around to face the Crowd, removes her veil and reveals a full and flowing beard.’ As they admire her, she ‘Blows them a kiss and keeps her arms outstretched with the practised manner of a great artist.’
Tom, however, is not so impressed, especially when his home has become cluttered with Baba’s stuff, consisting of ‘Every conceivable kind of object: stuffed animals and birds, cases of minerals, china, glass, etc.’ Baba herself is oblivious to Tom’s sulking, as she is ‘breathlessly chattering’. Baba is very proud of her collection, even if she can’t remember what came from where: “Vienna was the Chinese fan – or was it the bottle of water from the River Jordan? … I get so confused about all my travels.” She does notice Tom is not eating, eventually: “What’s the matter, why don’t you talk?” Baba tries to sweet-talk him:
Baba: (puts her arms lovingly around Rakewell’s neck) Do not frown, Husband dear …
Rakewell: (pushing her violently away) Sit down!
This throws Baba into a rage, and she knows what the real cause is: “Young, demure, delightful, clever! Is she not? … Then sigh! Then cry! For she Your wife will never be!” Only when Tom shoves a wig over her face does Baba stop ranting, and she remains ‘Silent and motionless in her place for the rest of the scene. (As I was saying, both brothers wore moustaches … Scorned! Neglected!)
All through the auction of her possessions Baba ‘Is still seated motionless at the table, the wig over her head, also covered with cobwebs and dust.’ Only when she is sold and the wig snatched off does she come to life again: ‘She, completely impervious to her surroundings, finishes the word she began in the last scene. … She look quickly around, snatches up a veil that is lying on the table, stands up indignantly and … brushes herself off.’ She is very displeased with what is happening: “Touch a thing, Then beware My reckoning!(Sold! Annoyed! I’ve caught you )
To compound her annoyance, she hears Rakewell and Shadow singing, and dismisses them as “The pigs of plunder!” and also catches sight of Anne: “The milkmaid haunts me.” She decides just to shrug it all off:
Baba: (to Anne, a bit imperiously) My dear!
Anne: His wife!
Baba: His jest – No matter now.
Baba reassures Anne that Tom still loves her, a generous gesture considering the circumstances: “He’s but a shuttle-headed lad: Not quite a gentleman, nor quit Completely vanquished by the bad.” She knows exactly what Nick Shadow is about: “ I can tell who in that pair Is poisoned victim and who snake!” She herself will carry on: “A gifted lady never need have fear. I shall go back and grace the stage, Where manner rules and wealth attends. Can I deny my time its rage?” She encourages Anne to rescue Tom: “The go to him. In love be brave, Be swift be true, Be strong for him and save.” Once Anne has gone, Baba is back in charge ordering Sellem, “You! Summon my carriage!” He parting shot to the crowd shows that the old Baba is very much back: “The next time you see Baba, you shall pay!”
The main characters step forward at the end, out of character, to reinforce the moral message: “Let Baba warn the ladies: You will find out sooner or later That, good or bad, All men are mad: All they say or do is theatre.”
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT: Baba is a gift of a role for a mezzo, even if she is not the most glamorous. Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects is having to be still for so long during the auction scene before bursting into action at the flick of a wig: not a role for any singer who fidgets!
SINGER’S VIEW: On the physical dangers of getting on the wrong side of a tenor!
“Placido is a very gentle Don José, while Neil Shicoff is much more violent and confrontational. He hits out a lot – I even get bruises on my arms when I sing with him, not only as Carmen but also as Baba the Turk.”
in “Diva: the new generation” by Helena Matheopoulos
COMPOSER’S VIEW: “Mother Goose and Baba the Turk were Auden’s contributions, of course, but the plot and the scheme of action were worked out by the two of us together.”
in the introduction to the Sony Classical Recording.
© 2006 Kirsty Young
Internet rights 2006 OperaTalent