A conversation with Maestro Constantine Orbelian
By Sona Hamalian
Constantine Orbelian has always set the bar high for himself. When he was still a preteen, the realization of being a piano prodigy had little chance of making him grow complacent. Instead it drove him to hour upon relentless hour of practice. That sense of discipline — the awareness, early on, that nothing, not even profuse talent, could be a substitute for hard work — has propelled Orbelian into stardom. Far more importantly, however, it has led him to endeavors where artistic virtuosity meets a vision of change: a vision of actually enriching people’s lives through music.
Orbelian’s latest such endeavor, as General and Artistic Director of the Yerevan Opera House, is not one thing but rather a dazzling ensemble of projects and programs, which have already begun taking center stage in Yerevan. In the foreground, they’re all about the year 2018, which marks the 85th anniversary of the Yerevan Opera House as well as the 150th anniversary of Armenian opera, which was founded with the operatic masterpiece Arshak II. Beyond these milestones, however, Orbelian’s vision this time around is about making the Yerevan Opera House shine anew — not just as an architectural gem and the beating heart of Armenian opera, but an institution that will actively, dynamically, relevantly, contribute to the ongoing evolution of Armenian culture as a whole.
How? First off, Orbelian is seeking to carry out a top-to-bottom renovation and modernization of the Yerevan Opera House. Two other, and parallel, initiatives he is pursing are a library and a museum that will be established inside the venerable landmark, on the second floor. And then there is the 2017-2018 season of the Yerevan Opera House, with a program that will celebrate the 85th anniversary of the institution and the 150th anniversary of Armenian opera. The new season, which kicked off on October 7 with the Armenia debut of world-renowned soprano Renee Fleming, will feature a string of wonderful performances, including a very special one, namely the world premiere of the original score of Arshak II.
“Constantine Orbelian stands astride two great societies, and finds and promotes synergistic harmony from the best of each,” wrote Fanfare. Born in San Francisco, Orbelian made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony at the age of 11. After graduating from Juilliard, he embarked on a career as a piano virtuoso that included appearances with major symphony orchestras throughout the world. In 1991, he was appointed Music Director of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra, becoming the first American ever to become music director of an ensemble in Russia. For the next 25 years, Orbelian remained a central figure in Russia’s musical life — as Music Director of not only the Moscow Chamber Orchestra but also the Philharmonia of Russia, and as a frequent guest conductor with other illustrious Russian orchestras. In 2004, he was awarded the coveted title Honored Artist of Russia, a title never before bestowed on a non-Russian citizen. In 2014, the recording of Rossini’s virtuoso arias performed by the American tenor Lawrence Brownlee with the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra (Lithuania) under Constantine Orbelian was nominated for a Grammy award. His recording of the Khachaturian Piano Concerto with conductor Neeme Järvi won the Best Concerto Recording of the Year award in the United Kingdom. In 2001, Orbelian was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. In 2012, he was awarded the Order of Friendship by Russia, and, in 2015, the Order of Friendship by the Republic of Armenia. In June 2016, Orbelian was appointed General Director and Artistic Director of the National Opera and Ballet Theater of Armenia (the Yerevan Opera House).
Orbelian never misses a chance to say that the Yerevan Opera House is the only institution of its kind in the entire world: a national treasure that deserves every Armenian’s tender loving care.
Q – What have been some of your key goals since becoming the General Director and Artistic Director of the National Opera and Ballet Theater of Armenia in 2016?
A – Firstly, I have been devoting a lot of time to getting to know how the theater functions, how people prepare for their roles, what rehearsal schedules exist, and, basically, how this large, multifaceted organism works.
As 2018 marks the 85th anniversary of the Yerevan Opera House and the 150th anniversary of Armenian opera, you have been planning to celebrate these milestones with an ambitious series of performances. Chief among these is the world premiere of the original score of Arshak II. What is the significance of performing Arshak II’s original score?
It’s been a fascinating experience to get to know the repertoire which has been the mainstay of the Armenian Opera House for the past 85 years. As we know, in the past, many operas were done to fit the Soviet regime and the regime’s goals at the time. This happened to many Soviet period operas, where librettos were changed and even entire musical episodes were changed or even newly composed by other composers to fit the political agenda of the time. We are exploring the original versions of various operas as well as Dikran Tchouhadjian’s Arshak II in the context of a new Armenian, a free Armenia, and a highly motivated and expressive Armenia. We hope that this will be a milestone in the repertoire of the Theater.
What will be some of the other highlights of the 2017-2018 season of the Yerevan Opera House?
We will be producing some wonderful children’s ballets, such as composer Karen Khachaturian’s Chippolino, which for some unknown reason has never been performed here in Yerevan. This fabulous ballet is a mainstay at the top theaters in the former Soviet Union — the Bolshoi in Moscow and Mikhailovsky in St. Petersburg, the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater, and the State Theater in Kiev. I am also bringing various productions from Moscow, such as the award-winning Massenet Opera Manon in the famed Andrejs Zagars production, from the Stanislavsky Theater. This is a new production that was premiered in December of 2016, and our wonderful tenor Liparit Avitisyan received the Golden Mask Years in Moscow just a few months ago. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a fruitful and positive relationship with not only the Stanislavsky Theater, but many theaters around the world. In addition to the Manon production, we will be doing the wonderful Puccini Triptich (three one-act operas in one evening — Gianni Schicci, Suor Angelica, and Il Tabarro) as well as a number of revivals, namely Donizetti’s Poliuto, which is a gem and rarely done.
Do you plan on offering operatic performances in various regions of Armenia as well? Why do you think it’s important to take opera to some of the far-flung communities of the country?
We actually have been performing Tigranian’s Anoush in the provinces around Armenia this last June. It was a very fulfilling experience and we hope to continue doing this. We have a smaller version of the sets, which can easily be transported and set up in a short time. Our goal is to bring opera around the country as we are the only Armenian Opera house in the world that performs these Armenian masterpieces. Bringing ballets such as Gayane and Spartacus is more difficult of course, but hopefully we’ll find a way to do that as well.
Also within the context of the 2018 anniversary year, you have expressed your intention to carry out an extensive renovation of the Yerevan Opera House, as well as the establishment of a museum and a library inside the building. First, about the modernization component: what would it entail?
We have actually started some of our renovations — like the parquet floors on the second-floor mezzanine. We have also begun the immense task of looking through the Theater archives to prepare everything we have in house for our museum, which I am going to create in the next year. The structure was built in 1933, and there are many upgrades which need to be attended to. I won’t list them all now, but, I am sue that in the next few months people will see the difference.
What would be some of the major activities and benefits of the future museum and library inside the Yerevan Opera House?
Of course I need to keep reminding people that this is the only Armenian Opera House in the world for all of us. We need to make this a gem that we will be proud of. We have that capability. As we know, everything takes time. Everything takes patience and a huge amount of work. One of my objectives in life has always been to make things look easy…. the renovations at the Opera House may be one of my biggest and most difficult challenges, but I am convinced that everything will work out as planned.
Toward these plans, where do you see the role of donors and sponsors in helping secure the continued vibrancy of the Yerevan Opera House?
Individual philanthropists, corporate sponsors, and foundations can play a vital role in making sure that the Yerevan Opera House continues to thrive in the present and well into the future. There is a broad range of mechanisms through which support can be provided. They include sponsoring a concert, several concerts, or an entire season of performances; underwriting performances in various regions of Armenia or abroad; and sponsoring master classes for the ongoing professional and artistic growth of our musicians. As importantly, support can be provided for the construction and furnishing of our planned museum and library. In this respect, major donors can have the library or museum named after them, in recognition of their generosity. Imagine how marvelous it would be for an individual philanthropist or an entire family of donors to have their names associated with a great cultural establishment, for perpetuity! One thing we need to remember is that our culture is our strongest and most visible asset. If our cultural institutions thrive, our culture will thrive and our people will thrive.
Since assuming your post at the Yerevan Opera House, you have launched a rigorous program of master classes at the institution, taught by renowned musicians from around the world. Do you intend on continuing this program?
I have been very fortunate that I have worked with the greatest opera singers in the world and have been involved with hearing these amazing artists at the greatest Opera Houses in the world. Since becoming involved with the Opera House in Yerevan, I have had the most response from my colleagues when asked to come and work with our singers here. I have had John Fisher, who is Deputy Director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, come and work with our singers twice. Other musicians who have worked with our singers include Howard Watkins, the top pianist/coach at the Metropolitan Opera; Anna Marschwinska, chief pianist/coach at Warsaw Opera; Diane Zola, Artistic Administrator at Houston Grand Opera; famous singers such as Barbara Frittoli, the star of La Scala, Vienna State Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera; as well as our famed singers such as Barseg Tumanyan, who is an incredible performer and teacher. My plans are to bring the top people in the world to Armenia and to expose our singers to the best there is.
More than a year after becoming the General Director and Artistic Director of the Yerevan Opera House, what do you think are some of the personally and professionally rewarding aspects of living and working in Armenia?
First of all, I never expected that I would be working in Yerevan and living here — just as I never expected that I would move to Moscow in 1990 and become head of the Chamber Orchestra of the USSR. One never knows what new horizons life will offer. After the Artistic Director of the Theater, the incredible tenor Gegham Grigoryan, passed away in March of 2016, the First Lady of Armenia Rita Sargisyan asked me to become Artistic Director of the Theater. I would have never expected such a turn of events. Then I was asked to become Director of the Theater as well — something which I would have never expected either. It has been difficult and there has been quite a learning curve during this last year. Getting to know 700 people at the theater is a daunting task.
What is your general experience with opera audiences in Armenia?
I find that audiences here love music and the Armenian repertoire is especially important for them. When we program Gayane, Spartacus, Anoush, Sayat Nova, Davit Bek, or other Armenian operas or ballets, the halls are full and audiences enthusiastic.
How do you think today’s younger audiences can be drawn to classical music in general, and opera in particular?
Of course we need to “bring up” our audiences, beginning with children’s ballets and operas, and then to produce well-known operas with interesting, provocative, and engaging productions.
Do you think it’s a good idea to commission new operatic compositions — works that would reflect the present, in terms of artistic sensibilities and subject matter alike?
I do believe that it’s extremely important to have a premiere of a newly composed ballet or opera every season. If we don’t produce operas by our wonderful Armenian composers and give them a chance, who will? Unfortunately, the old (Soviet) system of the Composer’s Union, which would purchase works from composers, is long gone. Waiting for a commission from a third party is hit-and-miss at best. Hopefully there will be some wonderful new productions of new Armenian works in the future.
Where do you see the Yerevan Opera House five years from now?
It will be a glorious, musically brilliant gem here in the South Caucasus region. We have every opportunity to make this happen. All it takes is good will, dedication, and lots of hard work.
What is it, ultimately, that gets Constantine Orbelian’s creative juices flowing on a typical morning, with that first sip of coffee?
Difficult question… Every day brings new ideas, some of them pipe dreams and others more closely based on reality. I want to make every day count and every day a positive experience for myself and the people around me.