BY SONA HAMALIAN
Maestro Constantine Orbelian is a man with a mission. Never one to be interested in incremental improvements or stop-gap measures, he has been on a passionate, exhilarating quest to turn the beloved institution he serves, the Yerevan Opera House, into one of the world’s premier musical centers.
Orbelian’s tenure at the Yerevan Opera House as its Artistic and General Director, since 2016, has marked the beginning of a new era for the iconic national treasure. From the outset, Orbelian not only planned to modernize the 85-year-old theater, but put into motion a number of core initiatives to significantly raise artistic and professional standards, implement cross-cultural projects, and expand and enrich the artistic programming of the Opera by mounting major productions of operatic masterworks.
But while dedication of this order should be expected of any conductor and general director worth his grain, what is truly astounding about Orbelian is that he has personally sponsored — and continues to sponsor — many of these efforts, in effect functioning as a major benefactor of the Yerevan Opera.
Our interview with Maestro Orbelian was conducted in Malta, where he had traveled in his capacity as Chairman of the 2018 Malta International Piano Competition.
SONA HAMALIAN: Ever since assuming your post at the Yerevan Opera House, you have launched, at your own expense, a far-reaching artistic-advancement program to enhance the skills of Yerevan Opera personnel, including musicians, vocalists, and dancers. To this end, you have brought to the Opera a number of globally renowned artists — among them John Fisher, Assistant General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera of New York; Howard Watkins, Assistant Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera; Diane Zola, Artistic Director of the Houston Grand Opera; soprano Barbara Frittoli, star of La Scala, the Vienna State Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera; tenor Axel Everaert, Professor of Voice and Opera at the Conservatoire in Maastricht and Vocal Coach at the Latvian National Opera in Riga; and Svetlana Efimova, Opera Coach of the Bolshoi and Stanislavsky Theaters of Moscow — so that they would coach and provide master classes to Yerevan Opera personnel. What can you say about the impact of these efforts, and do you plan on continuing them?
CONSTANTINE ORBELIAN: I do believe that meeting and working with world-class artists such as the ones you’ve mentioned would be of huge benefit to each young artist fortunate enough to be working with them. Our young singers have extraordinarily beautiful voices and those who were able to get a fine musical/vocal education are making international careers. They include Liparit Avetisyan, Gevork Hagobyan, and Hovhanes Ayvazyan, who are favorites at Russian and European Opera houses. Others, such as the wonderful Hasmik Torosyan, have established themselves as well in Europe. Even more, such as soprano Lianna Haroutiunian, have become superstars in the West. The list goes on and on.
My goal is to bring new productions to the Yerevan Opera House so that our young singers will have an opportunity to perform the operas of Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini in Yerevan, and won’t need to look elsewhere for the invaluable experience of singing the great classics.
I am currently in discussion with our friend and colleague Andrejs Zagars, Stage Director of the Latvian National Opera and Ballet, with regard to bringing his wonderful production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni to Yerevan. We’re also currently preparing Mozart’s masterpiece The Magic Flute, in collaboration with the famous Italian Opera Director Paolo Micciche.
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S.H.: As an 85-year-old institution that hasn’t seen a significant renovation for the past several decades, the Yerevan Opera House has been in need of a major makeover. In this regard, can you tell us what some of your urgent priorities would be?
C.O.: I believe that the last time that the Opera House had a makeover was in 1972. Fifteen years ago, extensive upgrades were made to modernize stage and lighting equipment. If you look at the Opera House today, you’ll see visible differences from last year: the entry foyer has planter boxes and banquets for people to sit and wait for their family and friends before performances, and the mezzanine flooring has been replaced. I’ve also put planter boxes to the sides of the windows. But there is still a huge list of things which need to be taken care of. They include the renovation of the rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, and public lavatories, as well as the backstage working areas for our wonderful costume department and the lovely women who work there. Years ago, we had our own workshops at the Opera House. For some unknown reason, the workshops were closed, and we are now obliged to outsource the sewing of new costumes and scenery to outside vendors.
S.H.: Also since taking up your position at the Yerevan Opera House, you have made an ongoing and energetic effort to elevate its international stature, by working with various embassies in Yerevan and collaborating with musicians and conductors in the United States, Europe, and Russia. What, would you say, are some of the tangible outcomes of these efforts?
C.O.: Since I have been General Director for a little more than a year (I actually assumed the position in February 2017), I am only beginning to focus on international collaborative efforts in earnest. In the meantime, however, we have made some considerable strides. I have been working with the French Embassy recently to bring the wonderful Massenet Opera Manon to Yerevan for the first time ever. We have been deep in rehearsal and are planning our premiere during the Francofonie Month of October.
I have been in touch with the Russian Embassy and Cultural Institute as well, in the hopes of getting a Russian Opera (Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin or The Queen of Spades) from one of the wonderful theaters in Russia.
The new Italian Ambassador, Vincenzo del Monaco, happens to love opera, so we are making plans with him to bring famous Italian singers and ballet dancers to Yerevan.
As you can imagine, staging an opera from scratch takes time, and there needs to be a timetable which each and every opera must follow.
We are now producing a new production of Bizet’s Carmen with our wonderful in-house director, Naire Stepanyan. This is a four-to-five-month process.
Finally, in addition to our current productions, we will be producing concerts to celebrate the anniversaries of internationally renowned composers such as Leonard Bernstein. We will be working with the American Embassy to present the first such concert in the fall of 2018, to mark the centenary of Bernstein’s birth. I am particularly excited about this event, as the Yerevan Opera House was the first venue in the former USSR to produce West Side Story, in 1962.
S.H.: In your ongoing objective to maintain a tradition of robust and diverse programming at the Yerevan Opera House, you have endeavored to personally sponsor world-class productions at the Opera. For instance, you have announced plans to bring to the Yerevan Opera House a production of the children’s ballet Cippolino. Can you talk about this work, and why it’s important to offer such productions to audiences in Yerevan?
C.O.: It’s vital to bring new repertoire to the Opera and Ballet, not only for the audiences, but for the singers, musicians in the orchestra, the members of the chorus, and, of course, the ballet dancers. I was able to negotiate the purchase of the marvelous production of Karen Khachaturian’s ballet Cippolino from the Bolshoi Theater. The production is already at our theater. The choreographer, Genrikh Mayaorov, made a visit to Yerevan last month to meet our great dancers and was very impressed with what he saw — as are the vocal coaches who come and visit and work with our singers.
S.H.: At the risk of stating the obvious, would you say it’s crucial for the repertoire of a company such as the Yerevan Opera House to include works of such high caliber such as Massenet’s Manon?
C.O.: Armenia has not seen a production on the order of this excellent Manon, which I was able to bring from the Stanislavsky Theater in Moscow. I had four 13-meter trucks bring the sets and costumes from Moscow a couple of months ago. I had an entire group of costume designers, lighting designers, stage coordinators, assistant directors, and, of course, the Director Andrejs Zagars for a month in Armenia working with our singers, chorus, and dancers. It’s a huge challenge for our artists, and they are doing a fabulous job. Our dress rehearsals on April 13 and 14 were very exciting events. Everyone who was there was thrilled with the results.
S.H.: As you’ve mentioned, you are currently working on the production of two operas, The Magic Flute and Carmen. In September of this year, you will — likewise personally — sponsor the Yerevan Opera’s performance of these operatic masterpieces in the United Arab Emirates. These massive productions will be presented as part of celebrations marking the 20thanniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and the Republic of Armenia. What can you say about the cultural, and specifically musical, ties between Armenia and the United Arab Emirates?
C.O.: We are very happy to have been invited to take our singers to the amazing Dubai Opera Theater in September of 2018. In fact, this is the first time in many years that our Opera has been invited to perform abroad. It’s a very expensive project, as you can imagine. And although Dubai Opera is underwriting our travel, hotel, and other expenses, I have to produce a new production of Carmen and a new production of The Magic Flute. Producing these operas is extremely costly, and our theater doesn’t have the ability to fund new projects. In fact, the state-allocated funds given to the Opera House this year were reduced by 10%, and then there were administrative penalties imposed on the theater for supposed violations back in 2012 and 2013, long before I was ever involved with the theater. So I have no option but to search for additional funding for new productions, and, as importantly, for the maintenance of the theater. I have been moderately successful and mostly need to look at my own resources to do what I need to do NOW. Yes, we can try to wait and see when funds will come in, from various efforts I have begun, but I would like to make a difference as soon as possible — for the sake of the artists of the theater, and for the sake of our wonderful Armenian Opera and Ballet-loving public.