Melbourne Festival today announced one of the highlights from this year’s line-up: Layla and Majnun, a dance-opera created by American choreographer Mark Morris and legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble. The production – which will be the largest version of this modern classic ever seen in the West – will have an exclusive Melbourne season in October.

Layla and Majnun. Photograph © Susana Millman

The visually beautiful production is based on an opera by the early 20th-century Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli. Inspired by a story which first appeared in oral versions in the fifth century, it is as famous in the Middle East as Romeo and Juliet is in the West. It tells a tale of an impossible young love that leads to the lovers’ untimely deaths. Morris has described it as “an enlightening tragedy – a visually, musically and choreographically unified and self-contained concert piece”.

The work is performed by musicians from the celebrated Silkroad Ensemble together with 16 dancers from the Mark Morris Dance Group. At the heart of the work are Azerbaijani mugham vocalists, Alim Qasimov and his daughter and protégée Fargana Qasimova, whose vocal commands have earned them rockstar status, and a UNESCO Music Prize. The two singers sit on cushions on a platform at the centre of the stage, with the other musicians surrounding them in a semi-circle.

Backed by a stage and costume design by the late Howard Hodgkin, one of Britain’s greatest contemporary artists, the stunning set features a backdrop of his famous painting Love and Death, which is referenced by the performers’ flowing gowns and tunics in coral and blue.

Layla and Majnun. Photograph © Susana Millman

Reviewing Layla and Majnun, The New York Times said: “Mr Morris does not so much tell the Layla-Majnun story as refract it, ritualize it, multiply it. The emphasis is all on emotion. Sometimes one couple from the group represents the hero and heroine; sometimes we see four Laylas and four Majnuns; sometimes one couple is offset by an ensemble that also at times suggests society, the lovers’ parents, the male and female hearts.”

Melbourne Festival’s Artistic Director Jonathan Holloway said: “This work made its debut over one hundred years ago as the Middle East’s first opera. Today, this traditional tale has been reworked by the finest artists of our generation for audiences of the 21st century in a special co-commission with Melbourne Festival. Specially invited by one of the world’s greatest cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, to interpret the Silkroad Ensemble’s new chamber arrangement through movement, Mark Morris has delivered a complete feast for the eyes and ears in this re-imagining of Layla and Majnun.”

Since founding Mark Morris Dance Group in 1980, the award-winning choreographer, who is renowned for his musicality, has created over 150 works including 22 ballets and 20 operas. The New Yorker has described him as “an innovator and a conservative, a satirist and a romantic”, while The New York Times said of him: “No choreographer alive has built up a stronger reputation for musicality than Mark Morris.”

The production has won numerous 5-star reviews with The Financial Times calling it “a remarkable achievement”, while The Washington Post praised it as “a dance-opera of profound grace and yearning.”

Melbourne International Arts Festival and Arts Centre Melbourne present Layla and Majnun, October 10 – 13


The full Melbourne Festival program will be announced on July 25