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Musical memory; Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian finds a well of inspiration in her Armenian heritage.

In 1989, a shy Armenian girl of 15 arrived in Toronto from Lebanon--via New York and Montreal--to begin a new life with her family. Little did she know that she was embarking on a life-changing journey that would take her from the protective anonymity of youth to stardom on the stages of some of the world's greatest opera houses. Today, Isabel Bayrakdarian is a glamorous, confident young woman, the mother of a new baby boy and with an enviable career as one of Canada's most active and successful opera stars. While much in demand in Canada, she is also highly sought after in the United States, Europe and Japan. This season alone she has appeared in two major productions with the Canadian Opera Company--as Susanna in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Melisande in Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande. In addition to a recital tour (including Carnegie Hall) and a series of concerts in the San Francisco Bay area with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Bayrakdarian sang Norina in Donizetti's Don Pasquale with Opera Colorado in Denver, and in Le nozze di Figaro again with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. The soprano's season officially ends this summer at the Saito Kinen Festival in Japan, where she stars in Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen under the baton of Seiji Ozawa.

Although Bayrakdarian was born and raised in Lebanon, in the red-roofed resort town of Zahle nestled in the eastern foothills around Mount Sannine, she remains a proud Armenian. "The thing about Armenians is that they are very, very strong," she says. "After the Armenian Genocide of 1915 [in which it's estimated that up to 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of their Ottoman rulers], there was an almost instinctive need to preserve our heritage and our language." Many survivors, including Bayrakdarian's own grandparents, found sanctuary in Lebanon, "but in order to preserve what little we had left of our heritage, we were always a subculture in Lebanon. So even though my brothers, sisters and I were all born in Lebanon, we never considered ourselves Lebanese. We were first and foremost Armenian."

Ironically, only in the spring of 2004, 15 years after Bayrakdarian and her family had settled in Canada, did she make her first pilgrimage to her ancestral homeland, a trip preserved in the moving documentary. A Long Journey Home: Isabel Bayrakdarian (Stormy Nights Productions DVD). "In the beginning, I said,'OK, I'm not going to be emotional about this. I'm simply going to take in everything as a normal tourist would." But that facade fell apart when she went to the 4th-century Monastery of Geghard (Monastery of the Spear), which is partially carved out of a solid cliff face, and experienced a profound reaction. "I really felt stripped of all my protective coverings. At first, I felt completely vulnerable, but then I felt soothed and comforted by that nakedness and vulnerability. It was then that I made a connection to Armenia on a very primal and subconscious level.

"This after all, was my ancestral homeland. My history was here, my religion, my language, my identity, my culture, my sensibilities. Before then, the trip was simply an exciting and wonderful adventure to find connections to my past and to Armenian history, But there, in that church, I floated above it all and I saw it all before me."

The name Bayrekderian comes from the Arabic word for "flag bearer." This coming season. Bayrakdarian will be waving the Armenian flag proudly when she launches her latest CD project, which focuses on the music of one of Armenia's most revered composers, Gomidas Vartabed. This priest, composer, choir leader, singer, ethnomusicologist and pedagogue, who lived from 1869 to 1935, is regarded by many as the founder of modern Armenian classical music.


"Armenians have many wonderful composers," Bayrakdarian explains, "but they all came after the Genocide. Much of what existed before was lot. Before the Genocide, Reverend Gomidas went out and collected nearly 3.000 of the folk songs sung by villagers throughout the country. without his work, we would have no connection with what we had before. The songs are so varied, telling of simple lives, of joyful occasions of sad occations. This is music of the people that has both western and eastern elements." Bayrakdarian grew up with a lot natural to sing them. What surprises her, though, is the audience response she gets when she programs them in recitals. "I sang some of these songs at Carnegie Hall in March, and while I expected the Armenians in the audience to appreciate them, I also discovered that the highlight for most cities and non-Armenians were these songs by Gomidas. I believe in the beauty of these songs. They are truly worth listening to and worthy to program along with songs by such greats as Brahms, Debussy or Schubert."

Sometimes, she adds, some of his songs are even operatic. Interestingly, Gomidas saw Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande when it was first performed in Paris, and Debussy was a great of his music. When he heard "Andoum" ("Homeless"), he said that if Gomidas had only written this one song, history would still regard him as a great composer.


Wider audiences will now have the chance to hear his song through the new disc, likely to be released on Nonesuch. Bayrakdarian recorder it in the Armenian capital of Yerevan with new orchestrations by her husband, pianist Serouj Kradjina, and a full promotional tour is planned. Concert dates have already been second in San Francisco, New York, Vancour (Orpheum, Oct. 7) and Toronto (Roy Thomson Hall, Oct. 17).

As for the resert of Bayrakdarian's schedule, she is as busy as ever, with engagements booked up to 2012. Next season, in addition to her return to the Metropolism Opera as Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni, she will be focusing more on Europe. "I felt I needed to secure North America before exploring Europe, so next season in going to be very interesting." In addition to a European recital tour, she'll make her debut in Barcelona in Monteverdi's L'incoronazions di Poppea, and will add some new Mozart roles. "In Paris, I'll sing first in a new production of Idomenco with Anna Netrobko as Eletta." Expectations are that she will be back with the Canadian OperaCompany in the 2009/10 season.

Bayrakdarian got her Canadian citizenship in 1992, and, like many of her colleagues on the international scene (including Michael Schade, Russell Braun, Ben Heppner, Adrianne Pieczonka and Brett Polegato), has chosen to make her base in Toronto. "Armenians are so used to packing up and going somewhere, making roots, and then quickly leaving and going to where they need to survive. That's kind of in our genes now. But as someone who has had many opportunities to go to various places, each time I come back to Toronto, I feel that I am at home."

Today, Bayrakdarian is clearly living the Canadian Dream and is thankful for the opportunities the country has offered her. "I consider myself extremely fortunate, because there is no way I would ever be in this business had I not come to Canada. Before coming to this country, I had never seen an opera. In Lebanon, we didn't have an opera company or a conservatory. We didn't have an orchestra or anything, just church choirs.


"But in Canada, my timing in the big scheme of things was perfect. All of a sudden, I was faced with countless opportunities, all of which I felt were doable as long as I had the tenacity and determination. I am a Taurus, after all. I believe that if you have focus and you are determined, you can succeed at anything."

While determination and hard work played an important role in the equation of her success--apart from her musical studies and accomplishments, she also holds an honors degree in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Toronto--Bayrakdarian quickly acknowledges her three guardian angels: Jean MacPhail, her first voice teacher; Smart Hamilton, her frequent coach and accompanist; and the late Richard Bradshaw, whom she regards as her musical father- "He was always a father figure in the sense that he always looked out for me. Whenever I had rehearsals at the COC he would pop in, and, of course, you had to sing your best. You had to impress him to reaffirm that his initial gut feeling about you was right. In many ways, that inspired me and motivated me to achieve even more. I will always consider myself his protegee. He discovered me, and I always wanted to let him know how much I appreciated it, how much it meant to me and that I wasn't going to disappoint him."

Next year, 2009, marks the 20th anniversary of Bayrakdarian's arrival in Canada--and she has come a long way. "But as for the journey of where I was then and where I am now?" Bayrakdarian reflects. "I was really a very different person back then. That 15-year-old girl? I don't recognize her. I don't recognize the timidity, the shyness, the lack of confidence that was once me. In many ways, it was music that brought out the real Isabel. I like myself so much more now than I did 15 or 20 years ago, and I feel that I'm blessed. I don't even call myself lucky. It's not luck; it's being blessed--blessed by the Divine. I hope that I never take it for granted."
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Author:Crory, Neil
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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