By Ted AYALA
Is it a coincidence that the rise of opera coincided with that of nationalism?
There was no musical genre more praised, more beloved in the 19th century than opera. Even across international borders, with the sundry political and linguistic divisions they embodied, opera spoke to audiences far and wide, from the elite classes down to the workers and peasants on the bottom, in a way virtually unmatched by other kinds of music. It was in opera where some of the most far-reaching and lasting innovations in musical language – think of Wagner’s push towards a chromatic frontier that augured already in the 1850s the coming dawn of the 20th century – took place.
It was this genre, with its worldwide audience, that gave ethnicities oppressed or simply ignored by the larger kingdoms and empires that then dominated Europe the opportunity to impress themselves upon the global consciousness.
In 1868 Germans could still only dream of the unification of their people. But in Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” they had music in which the German communities could celebrate their collective culture before unification became a reality. In that same period, the Czechs could only grumble with resentment of having to live under Austro-Hungarian control. But Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride” not only was a joyful shout of Czech exuberance, but also became a de facto calling card of Czech culture on the international opera circuit.
Nor did these operas remain beloved merely by their home audiences. Like all great works, they transcended the boundaries of time and place, eternally alive.
The first opera by Armenian composer Armen Tigranian is such a work, said Lark Musical Society founder and artistic director Vatsche Barsoumian.
Tigranian’s “Anoush,” which is an adaptation of a poem by Hovhannes Tomanyan, was first performed in 1912. It has since become Armenia’s national opera, enjoying frequent performances in that country. The opera’s ethos, according to Barsoumian, embodies the finest qualities of the Armenian national character. But the music, he continued, is “universal.”
“The values it carries, especially those of honor, speak to Armenians, of course,” he said. “But it also speaks to everyone else.”
Barsoumian will be conducting the last two performances of the Lark Musical Society’s production of “Anoush” this upcoming weekend at Pasadena’s Ambassador Auditorium. He decided to stage the work in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Armenian Genocide.
For him, the opera isn’t merely a story of doomed love.
“There are subtle references to what was about to happen to the Armenian people,” he explained. “In many ways, ‘Anoush’ represents the story of the loss of our mountains, of our lands, of our families.”
Andy Torosyan, chair of Lark Musical Society’s board of directors, agreed.
The opera’s foreshadowing of the tragedy of 1915 was one of the reasons he felt it urgent to produce in Southern California. He was also dogged by memories of how difficult it was to come to know the work in the United States. Since coming to this country at the age of 7, Torosyan said that “Anoush” was a work he would often hear about in his boyhood, but always remained outside of his grasp. Performances of the opera – aside from an English language version with cuts produced in Detroit in 1981 – were exceedingly rare.
“It’s important to bring a piece of our history to the diaspora in America,” he said. “Now young people can see and hear what the older generation talked about with such passion.”
He also felt that the opera speaks to audiences, Armenian and international, for other reasons.
“It’s very raw in the sense that you see life as it was then before the urbanization of the world,” said Torosyan. “It feels very real. In this era there is a lot of stress towards individualism. It has spread so far that it’s cool to not have responsibilities. But ‘Anoush’ shows the beauty of community life. It’s a work that appeals to people who are seeking answers out of life. In a sense this opera shows how the human story began, before the age of big cities.
“The music plays on the string of your heart,” he added. “It makes you happy.”
Audiences last week shared Torosyan’s sentiment, greeting the work with resounding acclaim.
“Not just our singers, but even our crew, are all in love with this opera,” Barsoumian said. “Even those Armenians who had dismissed this work previously now see how worthwhile this endeavor is. [Lark’s] production is not just of an Armenian opera, but an opera worthy of the world stage.”
Lark Musical Society’s last two performances of Tigranyan’s “Anoush” will take place at the Pasadena Ambassador Auditorium (131 S. Saint John Avenue, Pasadena) on May 30 and May 31, starting at 7 p.m. on both nights. To obtain tickets and more information, visit www.itsmyseat.com/Lark/ or go to www.lark2015.com. You can also call Lark’s offices at (818) 500-9997.