CultureGenocide 100

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian hopes to give voice to her Armenian ancestors

By David Ng
The Los Angeles Times

In a profession dominated by Italian and German repertoire, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian has had the privilege of performing in two languages that are not normally associated with the standard operatic canon: Armenian and the Elvish tongue known as Sindarin.

The latter language she sang in the 2002 Peter Jackson blockbuster “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” based on the J.R.R. Tolkien novel. The soprano performed the ethereally mournful song “Evenstar,” heard as the elf Arwen envisions a desolate future without her beloved Aragorn.

Singing in her native Armenian can pose its own challenges because her concerts often attract fellow Armenians.

“They won’t let me get away with anything,” she said.

On Thursday, Bayrakdarian will perform an all-Armenian concert at the Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge. The concert, which includes pieces ranging from ancient hymns to 20th century songs, comes on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide in what is now Turkey.

“I don’t consider myself political, but I am an artistic activist,” said the soprano, whose grandparents survived the 1915 genocide.

“I grew up hearing their stories. To this day, I feel their pain, because their pain wasn’t resolved. … Keeping the songs alive gives voice to my grandparents and to all the Armenians who were silenced.”

The San Fernando Valley is believed to be home to the world’s largest Armenian diaspora.

“Not only is there a significant Armenian population in the Valley, but there’s a large Armenian student body at Cal State Northridge,” said Thor Steingraber, executive director of the Valley Performing Arts Center, which is on the university’s campus.

The concert includes folk songs collected and saved by the Armenian priest and musicologist known as Father Komitas.

“I grew up singing some of them,” Bayrakdarian said. “One of them [‘Oror,’ or ‘Lullaby’] is something I sing to my children. … It puts them to sleep!”

The soprano has a young son and daughter with her husband, pianist Serouj Kradjian, who will accompany her on Thursday and who arranged some of the music on the program.

Bayrakdarian, 41, divides her time between Fresno and Santa Barbara, where she teaches music at UC Santa Barbara. Born in Lebanon, she grew up as the youngest of six siblings in a family where they spoke Armenian at home, Arabic in the community and English at school.

As a teen, she moved to Canada with her family and pursued biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto, where she graduated in 1997. But music beckoned her.

“I needed an outlet so I started singing on the side, taking lessons. Initially, I just wanted to be able to sing better in church,” she recalled.

“I wasn’t in a music program, so the only chance I had to really perform was in competitions. And then I started winning them.”

In 2000, Bayrakdarian took first place at Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition, which was held that year in Los Angeles. She later had to choose between a job at an engineering firm or a tiny role in a production of “Iphigénie en Tauride.”

“It was a no-brainer. I didn’t want to be 40 and regret not going this route,” she said. To this day, her engineering background still proves useful.

“It has come in so handy. For a long time, I was cramming new roles. To be able to memorize and keep the information — that comes from the discipline of engineering.”

Not long after she launched her international career, she was called to London to sing for “The Lord of the Rings.” Composer Howard Shore wanted her to sing in a ghostly voice using no vibrato normally associated with opera.

“I was like, ‘Are you sure? You don’t want me to use the operatic voice I’ve trained for years?’ ” she recalled.

Speaking multiple languages proved useful on the movie. “I could draw on Arabic vowels. There were so many things I could tap into to make it authentic,” she said.

“Learning languages is so important — not just in today’s world, but in life.”

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