Flying with a soprano

It was the fall of 1995, and I was again on a Turkish Airlines plane, about to fly to New York to which I'd been shuttling back and forth for some time.

In my bag were photographs. Putting on my 'experienced flyer' expression even though I was as excited as if it were my first time, I settled into my seat by the window. In my bag this time was a new album of Anatolian Civilizations photographs which I'd put together based on my previous contacts. Photographs that bore witness to the 15,000-year-old history of Anatolia, to the History of Man. My aim was to promote the Anatolian cultural heritage from the Neolithic up to the Ottomans starting from New York.

Almost all the passengers had boarded. But the seat next to me was still vacant when the great soprano with rouge red checks suddenly appeared flanked by two hostesses. “Could it be?” I wondered. The seat next to me had found its occupant!

I immediately stood up to help her sit down. My partner for the ten-hour flight ahead of us was finally clear: I was flying to New York with the renowned Turkish soprano Semiha Berksoy.

Semiha Hanım was flying to America on her own at the age of eighty-seven to open a painting exhibition at the Turkish House in New York, and to give a performance. During the first moments of our flight she read to me from a story titled 'Letter from the Grave' that she'd written for her mother. “Turn this story into a film,” she said, quickly adding, “and we'll win a lot of awards.” As our journey continued, she asked me for pen and paper saying, “I'm going to sketch your portrait.” And so emerged the picture of me with a big smile on my face that still hangs on my wall today, inscribed in the bottom righthand corner, 'Semiha Berksoy, 1995, plane'. “Jean Dubuffet discovered me,” she said, explaining how she happened to take up painting. Then she asked me what was the most important museum of modern art in New York. “MOMA”, I replied. “Okay, take me there,” she said. “I'm going to hold a show there.” But she had no appointment, no CV. “But Semiha Hanım,” I remonstrated, “these things don't work that way! This is a very important museum. They require certain things.” I tried to explain it to her, but she got cross with me. “I was Ataturk's artist,” she said, straightening up in her seat. But there was a twinkle in her eye. And then she told me the story of the Phoenix rising from its own ashes. “I,” she said, “am like the Phoenix. I am constantly being reborn in my art.” She told me what continuous production means for art and being an artist. Producing is the basis for everything, she said. In the final moments as we were approaching New York, Semiha Berksoy wound up her pep talk. “I hit a high C”, she said, “and I defeated death.”

Those words were still echoing in my ears a week later as I was entering a gallery with  my photograph portfolio under my arm. Thank you, Semiha Berksoy. Thank you, Turkish Airlines, for letting me fly with such an extraordinary artist…

Semiha Berksoy died at the age of ninety-nine. She was eighty-eight when she held her show at MOMA.