How a phone call can change an Armenian national institution
By Natalie Teperdjian
In 2016, when Constantine Orbelian received the call from Armenia asking him to become Artistic Director of the Yerevan Opera House, no one could have imagined that epic changes were on the horizon. Two years on and under the guidance of Maestro Orbelian, this landmark institution has begun to write a new chapter in its history and embarked on its first international tour in 25 years.
For 85 years the Armenian National Opera and Orchestra has played an iconic role in the Armenian narrative. Historically significant opera, ballet, orchestral, dance and other creative performances have been brought to life, and its building in the heart of Yerevan serves as the epicentre of the city’s vibrant street and even political culture. But despite all this, in the last 17 years the Opera has only produced 8 new opera productions, 4 of which never made it far beyond the opening night. Financial constraints, lack of support and political unrest all contributed to this dearth of productivity. But the arrival of Maestro Orbelian has started to change all this.
In his brief time with the Opera, Orbelian, an internationally acclaimed pianist and conductor, has injected new life into the Opera. “I came here to support a national treasure,” said Orbelian. “We have so much untapped potential within the Opera and across Armenia. Before the end of the year we will have 6 new opera and ballet productions on stage, more than was launched in the last 17 years combined.”
This new vitality has already manifested significant results with the Opera embarking on its first international tour in almost 25 years. Masterfully bringing to life Bizet’s Carmen and Mozart’s The Magic Flute to packed audiences at the beautiful and acoustically excellent Dubai Opera House in the UAE who were witnessing the first ever performance of either in the country. Two hundred performers, Tech crew, a costume team, full orchestra, Opera chorus, children’s chorus, conductor and directors travelled from Yerevan to Dubai. Later this month the Opera will continue its international tour when they open the new Kuwait Opera House located on the compounds of The Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Cultural Center with the new production of the Magic Flute and orchestral selections marking a significant first for both the Opera and Kuwait. The Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Cultural Center, informally known as the Kuwait Opera House, is a prominent cultural center in Kuwait, located on the Gulf Road in the capital Kuwait City. It is the largest cultural center and opera house in the Middle East.
“We are over joyed to be part of these firsts for the UAE and Kuwait,” said Orbelian. “Our invitations to perform in both countries are a true testament to the artistry of the Opera company and marks the important relationships between these countries and Armenia as a whole as they share our vision for the importance of a thriving arts community.”
All this innovation, however, belies the Opera’s minute budget, and its rehearsing and performing in a building that is a visual icon for the city, but needs much repair and work inside. Every great city has a thriving Opera House. From Sydney to Moscow, from Milan to New York a rich tapestry of historically significant and modern musical journeys come alive on the stages of these opera houses. Bringing culture and vibrancy to audiences. Each thrives in large part due to their team of business leaders and supporters who financially back the arts and understand the significance of a thriving arts community for a truly modern nation, which Armenia is still lacking.
Orbelian’s vision for the Opera is infectious, captivating all those who have an audience with this creative giant. He has plans for everything from developing an updated production of the Anush opera to developing an archive library to preserve Armenia’s rich performing arts history. But it is clear that Orbelian cannot continue indefinitely to carry the full weight of the Opera’s journey forward on his own. It’s rare that such perfect moments arise where a historically significant national arts institute is poised at the edge of major change and opportunities exist to play a role.
But that’s exactly where the Armenian National Opera is today. While the curtains will soon close on its first successful international performances in the UAE and Kuwait what comes after is yet to be seen. Whatever the future holds, however, the story is waiting to be enriched by people around the world ready to foster the physical space and human talent pool to ensure Armenia is firmly on the map with the world’s greatest arts centres.