Layla and Majnunis as famous in the Middle East as Romeo and Julietis 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 Festival Layla 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...