In the run-up to an extraordinary concert in Beirut, a conversation with soprano Hasmik Papian
INTERVIEW BY SONA HAMALIAN
On April 12, Beirut audiences will have a rare opportunity to enjoy the artistry of soprano Hasmik Papian, as she will appear in a major concert at the Emile Lahoud Hall.
Papian will be accompanied by the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, led by celebrated conductor Harout Fazlian. The concert is organized jointly by the Armenian General Benevolent Union and Hamazkayin Educational and Cultural Society of Lebanon, with proceeds from the event to benefit core programs of both organizations.
Hasmik Papian is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost sopranos. Following her debut with the Armenian National Opera, she signed on with the Opera of Bonn, Germany, in 1993. Her extraordinary performances there quickly earned her critical acclaim, subsequently catapulting her to international stardom.
In the past two decades, Papian has appeared at many of the world’s most prestigious music halls, including the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, San Francisco Opera, La Scala Milan, Liceu Barcelona, Opéra Bastille, Salle Pleyel and Salle Gaveau Paris, London Wigmore Hall, Vienna State Opera and Musikverein, Zurich Opera, Mariinsky Theatre St. Petersburg, and the state operas of Munich, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Dresden, and Berlin, among others.
The soprano has appeared next to notable singers such as Elena Obraztsova, Grace Bumbry, Plácido Domingo, José Cura, Roberto Alagna, Thomas Hampson, Renato Bruson, Leo Nucci, Sherill Milness, and, Nikolai Ghiaurov, as well as with conductors such as James Levine, Ricardo Muti, Georges Prêtre, and Valery Gergiev.
Papian’s sublime virtuosity — noted equally for her vocal prowess, striking technique, and powerful stage presence — has been manifested through a broad repertoire ranging from Norma, Don Giovanni, William Tell, La Traviata, Aida, and Tosca to The Flying Dutchman and The Queen of Spades.
Papian has also performed the works of illustrious Armenian composers such as Komitas Vardapet, Ganachian, Chukhajian, and Mansurian. In 2006 the Audite Musikproduktion label released Nvirum Komitasin (Homage to Komitas), featuring Papian and pianist Vardan Mamikonian.
In addition to International praise, Papian has been honored with a number of distinguished Armenian awards. She received the People’s Artist of Armenia Award; the Order of Saint Sahak and Saint Mesrop from Catholicos Karekin II, for her accomplishments as a cultural ambassador for Armenia; and the Order of Saint Mesrop Mashtots from Catholicos Aram I.
SONA HAMALIAN: Can you describe your feelings as you prepare for your forthcoming concert at the Emile Lahoud Hall?
HASMIK PAPIAN: I am very excited. It is a great honor for me.
S.H.: What will the concert program include?
H.P.: I am going to sing mainly arias from famous Italian operas. Of course I will also include some Armenian pieces.
S.H.: You have performed in Lebanon before, notably at the Baalbeck International Festival. How would you characterize Lebanese audiences?
H.P.: According to my experiences so far, Lebanese audiences are truly exceptional. Concertgoers here are very demanding and also quite knowledgeable. Take the great tradition of the Baalbeck International Festival, where I have had the honor to sing a solo recital: so many famous singers have performed there! So it is a challenge for me to come back to Lebanon.
S.H.: You have been a resident of Vienna for quite some time, yet you have said that you consider living away from the Armenian homeland as something of a prolonged business trip. Today, when you perform in diaspora communities such as Beirut, do you find that your sense of kinship with Armenian audiences is similar to what you feel when performing in Armenia?
H.P.: No, it is different. To sing in the Republic of Armenia is even more challenging for me. Despite having lived and traveled abroad for so many years, I still belong to Armenia. People there have such high expectations when I perform there! No matter how long I have had a successful international career, no one in Yerevan would be lenient if even once my singing were not up to par with what people expect from me.
S.H.: In this age of Facebook and Twitter, where do you see the role of a highly contemplative art form such as opera? Do you feel that opera, and classical music in general, still have considerable relevance to our fast-paced culture?
H.P.: Classical music and opera will certainly continue to exist. They are a counterpoint to the acceleration we are witnessing in our daily life. I believe that the form of presentation will change — and I must say that it has already changed a lot throughout the past 20 years. Contemporary staging has become a standard in many opera theaters worldwide. And I think that’s a good thing, even if sometimes it makes it more difficult for us singers.
S.H.: The fast rate of cultural change obviously presents challenges to cultural structures in Armenian-diaspora communities as well. How do you think organizations such as the AGBU and Hamazkayin can harness the power of Armenian classical music to encourage cultural engagement, especially among the youth?
H.P.: Of course there are many different possibilities. The main thing in my eyes would be not to perpetuate a distorted perspective on our cultural heritage, which is so rich and complex. We shouldn’t regard our classical music too much as folklore or try to transform it into popular music. At first sight such trends might help promote our classical heritage. But in the long run they will alienate our youth from this precious treasure, instead of helping it thrive as a vibrant and relevant component of our cultural vocabulary.
S.H.: Would you say there are at the moment sufficient cultural exchanges between Armenia and the diaspora? Or would you like to see increased collaboration and actual programs that would foster synergy?
H.P.: The most important thing is that people from the diaspora come to Armenia — especially the young people. This will be of great benefit for both sides. There has been a lot of cultural exchange since the iron curtain came down. We should continue on this avenue, which has been paved thanks to the support of AGBU, Hamazkayin, and others.
S.H.: How does inspiration in Vienna differ from inspiration in Yerevan?
H.P.: Of course it’s a great inspiration to stand on the stage of the Vienna State Opera and sing the leading role there, with great colleagues at your side and the Vienna Philharmonic playing for you in the pit… But I try to come to Yerevan as often as possible. It is always inspiring for me to come to my home country. Meeting with my family and the many friends I have there means filling up the batteries. As you quoted me before: I always have one foot in Armenia and the other abroad. In a way, I have never left my country.
S.H.: What are some of your plans following your upcoming concert in Beirut?
H.P.: I have started studying a new part, which is a dream role for every soprano in the world: Richard Wagner’s Isolde. I still have some time before giving my debut performance as Isolde in Germany, but it is a very demanding part and I need to work on it thoroughly.