It was the day before the Dec. 4 benefit concert by world-famous opera star Isabel Bayrakdarian and her pianist husband Serouj Kradjian at the Ford Performing Art Center for St. Sarkis Armenian Church.
Several interviews had been set up for the international stars in the local media and I was the last to have access to them. I sat waiting with excited anticipation in the elegant ambience of the Director’s Room at the Ritz Carlton as Ani Kasparian, my fellow committee member, kept me updated via cell phone of the couple’s eminent arrival on this whirlwind visit.
The hotel staff could not have been more attentive and willing to please. Everything about the setting was grand and beautiful, apropos, what one would expect for two performers who have been ensconced in some of the world’s finest hoteleries.
Quite soon a smiling, hair down, all-black clad young woman entered demonstrating her ability to make an entrance into any room with aplomb just as she does on stage, in full command. She was followed by her husband of five years, the prolific concert pianist. My eye for detail did not fail to notice that her jeans were not of the ordinary variety, more like a velour with the back pockets sporting sparkling detail. Definitely stylish, and the boots didn’t hurt her image either. Kisses were put on hold, no time for germs. We became just a roomful of fellow Armenians, but I had a mission.
She was used to being interviewed. For me it was the first time face to face, asking questions of people reaching this caliber of success. I settled down and quite soon discovered the interviewees were, just as I had been told, “very down to earth people.”
Bayrakdarian: “I am happy to be here for a beautiful cause.”
Conversation flowed freely with both offering insight into their lives and careers. The ice got broken quickly and laughter ensued when I noted that although they resided in Toronto, unlike some I knew Canadians did not live in igloos.
I began my interview with Kradjian. Bayrakdarian had informed the organizing committee that he was to get equal billing with her. It may have been a smart wifely move but Kradjian has earned that right. He has his own immense star power as a pianist.
He began his studies at age five and by age seven had won a national competition for young musicians. At 14, he earned a scholarship to study in Vienna, later earning a B.A. at the University of Toronto in piano performance. His extensive training continued in Germany and Spain. He speaks six languages and his wife is a close runner up.
Kradjian is a musicologist and a professionally trained concert performer with a master’s degree. He has appeared in major concert venues across the world. He is a master of the keyboard. A set of songs he reconstructed and arranged by beloved Armenian composer Gomidas Vartabed is described as “classy and strikingly effective,” while Bayrakdarian’s singing of them was “ravishing.” Their award-winning CD of these hauntingly beautiful arrangements includes prayers, love songs, and folk songs.
Combined, the couple has collected many awards and prizes, including a Grammy and several Junos.
Her formal voice training began at age 17, causing her to do a balancing act while earning an honors degree in biochemical engineering at the same time—a difficult task. Her voice coach urged her to try out for the Metropolitan Opera in 1997, where she won the National Council Award. In 2000, she won the Placido Domingo Competition with her career thereafter skyrocketing. No struggle existed as to what career path she would follow.
Kradjian was quick to dispel the myth that Gomidas was always a depressed individual. “He was a man with a great sense of joy for life, very cheerful, and in reading about him I discovered many jokes in his letters. He possessed a wonderful sense of humor until the events of the genocide,” he said.
They were aware of the Gomidas statue in downtown Detroit. His music is included in their concerts. They are dedicated to making known to the world the hauntingly beautiful music of Gomidas and other Armenian songs, as well. Their rendition of “Groong” and “Dle Yaman” come from their hearts and has a strong effect no matter what language you speak.
“Folk songs are the music of the common people,” said Bayrakdarian. “What difference does it make if the language is different?” For her, there is no acting. She takes on the role of the part she is playing. She has the required knowledge of the many languages in which opera is sung.
I asked the man with the beautiful blue eyes how he met the lovely Isabel Bayrakdarian. “I had known about her and asked her to join me in a project I was working on, and thereafter we married.”
Is she a diva? Tactfully he responded, “In her own way.”
“Can Isabel cook?” With his hands and laughter, he said, “She is a marvelous cook.” His wife is now standing and sipping water and waving her hands about, leaving no doubt to the answer although they both admitted he was a picky eater.
Their two-year-old son Ari has added a joyful new dimension to their lives. He often travels with them and when asked if they had a nanny, Bayrakdarian still standing quickly responded, “Only his mom or mine!” Kradjian has determined that Ari has a preference for Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. “Who does he look like?” I asked. Again, Ari’s father smiled and pointed to himself, to which I responded, “You, but without the beard?”
Bayrakdarian and Kradjian were born in Lebanon and their arrival in Canada found them adapting quickly. As our conversation unfolded, Bayrakdarian explained that two of her brothers are doctors and her great-grandmother came from a long line of mid-wives.
When asked if her family had a musical tradition, she replied, “No, my mother was the director of the church choir in Lebanon, so Armenian Church music was my first musical experience. I love Armenian Church music, it makes one’s soul soar effortlessly.” Attending church was an important part of their upbringing. And now being parents to Ari, they make sure he is in church on Sundays.
“I am lucky to do what I am best at,” said Bayrakdarian. “I do not like to limit myself. I don’t want to reach a stage in my life where I regretted not attempting to do what I wanted and then find it is too late. Like others, I have had obstacles to overcome but you do it. I don’t know the concept of fear. The fact that as Armenians we have survived, that our language has gone on for hundreds of years is a testament to the strength of our church. The church always made me feel at home.”
“My Armenian uniqueness sets me apart from the rest. Our culture and art is so rich it empowers you. My compass is Armenian Church music You need a spark to get people’s attention. I try to apply how I sing Armenian music to everything I do. I am a risk taker. I always include Armenian music when I perform. It is identity showing.”
She continued, “Family and faith come first in our lives. It is instrumental on being grounded. I have a family member present at every performance and I always look for them in the audience from the stage.”
Me: “Who has inspired you?” Bayrakdarian: “Marilyn Horne. She has been generous, always willing to offer sound advice for me, a dear friend.”
Me: “Is there a difference between European and American audiences?” She said, “Europeans have hundreds of years of culture and are not afraid to show their displeasure. They can be nasty, Americans are more polite.”
I said to Kradjian, “I know your wife’s trip to the Republic of Armenia was very emotional as she sang in the churches and ancient ruins there. Does she have any aspirations to visit historic Armenia? Kradjian’s look told me otherwise as he responded, “Michele Legran, whose mother is Armenian, said, ‘I have problems visiting a country that has committed genocide.’”” That response said it all.
The Bayrakdarian-Kradjian concert on Dec. 4 can only be described as a superb success. They brought down the house of over 800 people and took two curtain calls to a standing ovation. There were many non-Armenians in the audience, but it was the Hyes there who celebrated the God-given talent this Armenian couple possesses. It is their Armenian heritage, their Armenian spirit, their Armenian survival that we all applaud.
And may God continue to shower his blessings on this exemplary family.
I couldn’t admire them more. They are absolutely down to earth and Hyegagan. Their story is kind of like a fairy tale, and who but the Armenians could need this boost?