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World's first tamburitza opera

Tamburitzas in an opera? Some people may find this unusual or say that it cannot be done, but composer Gregor Zagorc and his excellent team have managed to prove them wrong, surprising the audience with a beautiful opera. Ambrož and Katarina, a saga of forbidden love, is the world's first opera written for a tamburitza orchestra.

The opera Ambrož and Katarina was written by composer Gregor Zagorc, conductor of the Dobreč Tamburitza Orchestra. He got the idea in 2015 when his orchestra first started playing opera music. They discovered that tamburitzas worked very well as an accompaniment to opera singing and that the two complemented each other wonderfully. Composer Zagorc then started toying with the idea of composing a tamburitza opera.

He learned that no such opera had ever been written, all being only transcriptions, adaptations of existing works composed for the symphonic orchestra, which made him even more motivated to take on the project of writing the world's first tamburitza opera.

  • Gregor Zagorc

    The author of the tamburitza opera Ambrož and Katarina is composer and conductor of the Dobreč Tamburitza Orchestra Gregor Zagorc. Photo: Rok Mihevc

He also wanted to find a good libretto and incorporate Bela krajina in the narrative so that people in Slovenia and abroad could get to know the region better.

Writer and musicologist Nina Novak Oiseau took up the challenge of writing the text. The libretto and opera are based on historical facts, as between 1660 and 1850 the castle in which the story is set was home to the Gusič family.

The author found inspiration in a local legend, which formed the basis for the story's dramatisation and literalisation. "The language is rich and very archaic at times. It's the first opera based on the folk traditions of Bela krajina. It could also be called an ethno-opera," said the author of the libretto, Nina Novak Oiseau.

  • Gregor Zagorc in Nina Novak Oiseau

    Nina Novak Oiseau and Gregor Zagorc. Photo: Rok Mihevc

In writing the opera that includes all the traditional characteristics, composer Zagorc focused on ethno-music from Bela krajina and the harmonies of the late Romantic period In addition to tamburitzas, he also incorporated the woodwind and percussion sections, which, he said, certain parts of the orchestral piece needed for dramatic effect.

The forbidden love of Ambrož and Katarina

The story is set in 17th century Bela krajina, specifically in the Gradac Castle by the River Lahinja.

The main plot of the story is based on the forbidden love between the farmer Ambrož and the Count's daughter Katarina, and the Count's promise of her hand in marriage to the rich and self-centred Vid Panjan.

Katarina does not share his affections but longs only for the poetry-loving, gentle and sincere Ambrož. The story also touches upon the topics of war, greed, honesty, self-interest and personal strife.

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The opera Ambrož and Katarina represents an important contribution to documenting and preserving Bela krajina's cultural heritage and folklore. It portrays the local traditions of "Jurjevanje" (St. George's Day Celebration), "Kresovanje" (bonfire celebration) and "Koledovanje" (carolling), and abounds in national costumes, dancing and folk songs. The characters' names and surnames also reflect popular choices in Bela krajina at the time.

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Being part of music history

The international cast of Ambrož and Katarina consists of renowned professional opera soloists. As the roles required younger singers, Gregor Zagorc entrusted the two leading roles to Sara Žuvela and Gregor Ravnik. In addition to the Dobreč Tamburitza Orchestra, the opera features the Dragatuš folklore group, the Lan music group, the Metlika Primary School Teachers' Choir and the Črnomelj Music School, with Eva Hribernik as director, Bojana Cvejić Zagorc as set and costume designer and Tadej Fink as choreographer. It was produced by the Semič Cultural Centre.

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The opera Ambrož and Katarina premiered on 29 December 2019 in Semič, followed by three sold-out repeat performances in January.

"The response has been very positive. With all three of the region's municipalities participating, it's actually the biggest project in Bela krajina. In addition to congratulating us, wishing us well and giving us positive feedback, I often heard the audience say that they were proud to be from Bela krajina,"

said composer Zagorc after a successful premiere, adding that he had mixed feelings and strong emotions after finally realising the project in which he was heavily invested, both as composer and conductor. "It's a good thing that people are talking about the opera and that there is already a waiting list for April performances in Semič, even though the exact dates have yet to be revealed. Besides performing all over Slovenia, we would love to play at the Slovene National Theatre in Ljubljana; we are also discussing touring all former Yugoslavian republics as well as other countries," said the composer.

  • Skladatelj in dirigent Gregor Zagorc

    Gregor Zagorc Photo: Rok Mihevc

Gregor Zagorc hopes the opera project will be a hit, saying that it is not often one gets to witness historical events in music but that this is a unique opportunity for all of us to be a part of one.

Author: Danila Golob

Date: 15. January 2020

Time to read: 5 min