When I pictured writing a biographical essay about Isabel Bayrakdarian, the phrase that popped into my head –no lie—is exactly the one you find on her official bio on her website. She really did “burst onto the international opera scene”. I was hearing about her successes abroad long before I had a chance to hear her voice in person. Hers is a unique path, having abandoned her plans to be an engineer, in favour of a vocal career. It’s not surprising then that she’s an artist of rare intelligence. Her voice may be familiar to you from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack (composed by fellow Canadian Howard Shore), from recordings broadcast on radio or live performances.
While Bayrakdarian continues to roam the world, Toronto is her home. The presence of young children and family at home makes our stages & concert halls more attractive to her, and so we’re lucky to have regular opportunities to hear her. One of my warmest memories of the COC is her Susanna in Marriage of Figaro visibly pregnant (and I went to the last performance of the run). Since then she’s been at the heart of many wonderful productions that I’m able to remember vividly for her part in them: Mélisande, Euridice, Ilia, and Pamina. I think there may be more but these are the ones I remember. In each case she’s central to my recollection of that opera (the first haunting scene of the Debussy; her moving handling of a corpse in the grim tableau in the first scene of the production of Idomeneo; goading her husband to turn around in the last act of the Gluck; and as a stronger than usual Pamina in Diane Paulus’ feminist reading of Magic Flute). In May Bayrakdarian will join a star-studded cast for Robert Carsen’s Dialogues des Carmelites by Francis Poulenc.
And speaking of Poulenc, on March 1st Bayrakdarian joins Amici Chamber ensemble’s celebration of their 25th Anniversary. Friday night’s program is titled “Le bal masque”.
I ask Bayrakdarian 10 questions: five about herself, and five about “Le bal masque”.
1) Which one of your parents do you most look like (what is your nationality / ethnic background)?
I’m the youngest of 6 children. I don’t think any one of us really looks like a carbon copy of either parent. I like to say that we’re 6 different fruits from the same tree! I personally have my mom’s lines with my dad’s coloring. My voice comes 100% from mom, while my practical personality is from my dad. To this day, I’m very handy with fixing all things mechanical, electrical, and structural, and I get great pleasure from building or creating with my hands.
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being an opera singer?
I love the gypsy lifestyle of an opera singer. I have a free spirit. I love my independence. You can’t imagine how much I love travelling and living in different places. Even after 15 years in this business, I feel giddy with excitement when I travel, and feel at home in airports. I love that this profession allows me the independence that comes from choosing my work, be it a new recital repertoire, concert repertoire, or an operatic role. I love that through my work, I can open up the world to my children, so that they also travel and experience different cultures, languages, and cuisines. I also love working with new people all the time, because through new ideas and perspectives, my life is enriched, and by hearing new expressive voices and interpretations, I’m inspired anew.
The same reason for my joy also happens to be the reason for my pain. It’s not always possible or practical for my family to travel with me, and on these occasions being away from my 2 children is such an indescribable pain. Skype-ing actually hurts even more, because when I see them on the screen, all I want to do is hold them, hug them, and kiss them!
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Youtube is great when you want to see and listen to many different interpretations of the same piece, especially by the glorious singers of the past, such as de los Angeles, Schwarzkopf, Tebaldi, Baltsa, and Scotto. However, when I’m not researching or learning new repertoire, I love listening to world music, from Latin America to the Middle East. I can relate to this music and feel comfortable and peaceful in it, because of the mosaic of my background. Being an Armenian born in Lebanon, I was trilingual by the age of 5 (Armenian, Arabic, English) and was exposed to many different types of exotic music from a very young age. When I briefly lived in Spain, I took up Flamenco dancing and from then on the latin fire started burning in me too. My whole musical world opened up to a new level when I met my husband 11 years ago, whose encyclopedic knowledge of music and composers meant that my musical horizon became vast, ever-changing, and exciting.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
When it comes to wishes or skills, my philosophy is as follows: if I believe that whatever I want is attainable, then I actively work on obtaining it through study, action, thought, and/or prayer. I don’t give up until I do. If there is something I can’t change, then I accept it and let go. So, I don’t believe in lamenting or wishing for something. You either work on getting it, or you forget about it and don’t dwell on it.
Having said that, wouldn’t it be lovely if I could magically put names to faces accurately, every single time? Too many fiascos and faux-pas have happened in the past, worthy of Coen Brothers movie scripts, but somehow I always live to laugh about it afterwards.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Without any doubt: cooking! I love to cook; I love making elaborate and delicious meals, but most of all, I love seeing the food I’ve prepared being devoured and enjoyed by the people I love. I have the talent of creating multi-course meals in a very short time, and can come up with many creative dishes with whatever I have at hand. Get-togethers at our house have become must-attend events, which is a great thing, because I love to entertain.
Five More Questions concerning participation in Amici Chamber Ensemble’s special 25th anniversary concert “Le bal masqué”:
1) How does singing this sort of repertoire (Ernest Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, Francis Poulenc’s Le bal masqué, and Xavier Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras) challenge you?
In this program, all the vocal repertoire is performed back-to-back in the second half. These 3 pieces are very different from each other, stylistically and vocally. The Chausson is a classic example of the French Chanson, the Poulenc is a witty presentation that involves play on words with surreal and unexpected surprises, and the Montsalvatge is an exotic and politically loaded commentary on the American occupation of Antilles. Since I perform recitals quite often, where you have to assume different characters in short successions, I don’t mind the shift in gear when performing these pieces. As a matter of fact, the development and evolution from the romantic to the exotic is a natural and comfortable progression, both dramatically and vocally.
2) What do you love about these works?
First and foremost, all three pieces are a great fit for my voice. I can be both expressive and a risk-taker in this repertoire. Second, the music of each work is so satisfying to sing. The Chanson Perpetuelle is a romantic piece that just takes your breath away. I don’t think there’s any other piece written for voice/string quartet/piano that’s as effective and powerful and genius as this piece. Then you have a piece like Poulenc’s La bal Masque, which is written for a mini orchestra without a conductor. It intersperses whimsical, silly music and surreal poems with unexpected arcs of gorgeous melodies. The last group, Montsalvatge’s Canciones negras, is usually performed either in the piano/voice version or the full orchestra version. For this concert, my husband Serouj Kradjian arranged this cycle specifically for the group of musicians playing in the concert. So I feel extremely privileged to have top-rate soloists all assembled and accompanying me in these pieces.
3) Do you have a favourite moment in these works?
- In Chanson Perpetuelle, when the initial love affair is being described, I could swear that the text reads like a page from a steamy Harlequin novel. Definitely not for children! And the music underneath is so sexy, that you can hear the carnal and violent desire of both lovers, the climax/consummation, and the satisfied calm afterward. Even if I was vocalizing there instead of singing words, I’m sure the audience could follow the story: FYI, this is the text:Le premier soir qu’il vint ici Mon âme fut à sa merci. De fierté je n’eus plus souci. Mes regards étaient pleins d’aveux. Il me prit dans ses bras nerveux Et me baisa près des cheveux. J’en eus un grand frémissement; Et puis, je ne sais plus comment Il est devenu mon amant
- In Poulenc, I think the first piece will be a treat to whoever is fluent in French because there’s so much play on words. But my favourite place is in “Malvina”, where after describing the banality and absurdity of Madame Malvina’s life throughout the song, Poulenc surprises us by glorifying her death, and therefore gives us the most romantic – almost operatic- phrase in the entire piece, which is gorgeous to sing. In this song, he also gives many hints of phrases and lines from his opera the Dialogue of Carmelites.
- There is one piece in Montsalvatge’s cycle “5 Canciones Negras” which is very dear to my heart, and that is the lullaby. The slave mother is singing to her child, who has “eyes which look out to the sea” meaning the child has blue eyes, as he’s been fathered by the American “master of the house”. The mother tells him that he’s not a slave anymore, and that if he goes to sleep, the master of the house (i.e his father) will gift him a jacket with buttons, like an American “groom”. Even though it’s a bittersweet lullaby, you can feel the absolute love of the mother towards her child and her protectiveness towards him.
4) How do you relate to the works assembled in the Bal Masque program as a modern singer?
Bal Masque is described as a profane cantata. We usually associate cantatas with religious music (think Bach) so it’s already a sign that what we’re about to hear is not ordinary or expected. In addition, this piece is rarely sung by a female voice, and has been traditionally sung by a baritone. I’m assuming that in Poulenc’s time, it was deemed more appropriate if scathing portraits of unpleasant women were delivered by a man instead of a woman. However, if you refer to the root of the original poem, Max Jacob’s “Laboratoire Central” from which Bal Masque was excerpted, you see that it’s got so many surreal elements, and surrealism in art is the presentation of recognizable objects/elements in bizarre context. So, when the singer is swearing on their beard, “par ma barbre”, who’s to say that she doesn’t have a beard, on her face or anywhere else for that matter???
5) Is there a teacher, singer, actor or an influence that you especially admire?
From my earliest days, I’ve admired both Placido Domingo and Marilyn Horne for their seemingly endless energy, honest and direct artistry, zest for life, unquenchable thirst for learning new roles and exploring new horizons, and most of all, for being very down to earth, practical, and positive human beings. I’ve discovered that the truly great singers are actually great human beings too, and through these role models I have gotten the ultimate proof that music refines the soul.
Friday March 1st, Isabel Bayrakdarian joins the Amici Ensemble in their program “Le bal masque”:
- Beethoven’s Septet for Strings and Woodwinds in E-flat Major, Op. 20;
- Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle, Op. 37;
- Francis Poulenc’s Le bal masqué, FP 60;
- Montsalvatge’s Cinco canciones negras (arr. Serouj Kradjian).