Layla and Majnun is as famous in the Middle East as Romeo and Juliet is in the West – and predates it by centuries. Inspired by a story which first appeared in oral versions in the fifth century, it tells a tragic tale of unfulfilled yearning. In love from childhood, Layla and Majnun are not allowed to be together. Instead, Layla is married off, while Majnun becomes a hermit. Only death unites them.

The classic tale has been told and retold in poems, paintings, plays, musical compositions and on screen. In 1908, Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli wrote an opera based on it. Considered to be the first opera of the Middle Eastern world, it had its premiere in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, and quickly became a classic.

Layla and Majnun, Melbourne FestivalLayla and Majnun. Photo © Mat Hayward

A chamber version of Hajibeyli’s opera, performed by musicians from the Silkroad Ensemble, founded by legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and 16 dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group, is coming to the Melbourne International Arts Festival this month.

Hajibeyli’s opera uses an Azerbaijani style of sung storytelling known as mugham, which is characterised by passages of structured improvisation and ornamentation. Revered Azerbaijani mugham vocalists Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana Qasimova are central to the production, sitting on cushions in the centre of the stage, with the musicians around them in a semi-circle. The dancers move between them, giving the work a flowing energy.

Designed by British contemporary artist Howard Hodgkin (who died in March 2017), the set features a backdrop of his famous painting Love and Death, which is referenced in the performers’ flowing gowns and tunics.

Performed in the US in 2016 to five-star reviews, The New York Times said: “Mr Morris does not so much tell the Layla-Majnun story as refract it, ritualise it, multiply it. The emphasis is all on emotion.”

Layla and Majnun, Melbourne FestivalLayla and Majnun. Photo © Mat Hayward

One of America’s leading choreographers, known for his innate musicality, Morris has worked with Yo-Yo Ma for three decades.

“Like every project it was the music, specifically,” he says of the appeal of Layla and Majnun. “I always work from music and this particular version of this opera was gorgeous and beautiful and surprising to me; I hadn’t heard anything quite like it. So, it was super intriguing to me. But I responded to every aspect – every bit of the music, and the history, and the regional culture, and the historical ramifications.”

Even so, it was a decade before Morris, who first heard it in a concert, agreed to the collaboration. “[Yo-Yo Ma said] ‘you’re the person to turn this into a theatre production’ and I agreed that I was but …there wasn’t enough variety in it,” he says. “I said I would love it if it was modified a little bit and a number of years later they arrived at a version of it that I couldn’t resist. I wasn’t playing hard-to-get, I just didn’t think that it would work [initially]. Anyway, it worked out beautifully.”

The Silkroad Ensemble version has been arranged by Alim Qasimov, Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, and condensed to 80 minutes. The musicians perform on Asian instruments as well as Western strings, with a percussionist. Morris has incorporated some elements of Azerbaijani dance in his vocabulary including rhythmic footwork, specific hand movements and Sufi whirling.

Layla and Majnun, Melbourne FestivalLayla and Majnun. Photo © Mat Hayward

Since improvisation is part of the mugham style, the dancers need to be able to respond to the singers. Morris uses four couples as Layla and Majnun – one for each section, with all of them in the final scene. “I wanted one couple at a time to know the Azerbaijani text well enough to be able to adjust to the singers. So it’s very, very live communication every night,” he says.

“It’s not ‘free form’, we know what’s coming next but the amount of time spent on it, and the amount of ornamentation, varies quite a bit. They’re choosing it as they sing it. But then the rest of it, with more Western instruments, sounds more like a European arrangement. So it’s a weird mix. But we didn’t make it ‘East meets West’ because that’s something I don’t like to do,” says Morris.

“But everyone is listening for chord changes and for modulations and rhythm changes. My company always exclusively works with live musicians so it’s no big surprise. It all works out every night and every show is different. It keeps us very alert, let me put it that way.”

Layla and Majnun plays at Arts Centre Melbourne, October 10 – 13