Culture Ministry’s Ousting of Legendary Maestro Sparks Outrage in Yerevan

Locals protest the controversial dismissal of Constantine Orbelian

Artists of the Armenian national opera theater protest outside the main government building in Yerevan on April 1, 2019 (Photo: Photolure)

YEREVAN—Theater actors and directors staged a protest in Yerevan’s Republic Square last week to voice their opposition to the sacking of Maestro Constantine Orbelian. The Grammy-nominated San Francisco native was controversially removed from his position as National Opera theater director by acting Minister of Culture Nazeni Gharibyan last month.

Constantine Orbelian

Orbelian, who has been running the Alexander Spendiaryan Opera house since 2016 has been described as a visionary artist, widely credited with “single-handedly bringing about the rebirth of a cherished national treasure.” The maestro was nominated for the prestigious Grammy award in 2017.

The minister justified the dismissal, arguing that the director was not fluent in Armenian, while also hinting at allegations of misuse of government funds. Orbelian, for his part, declared the sacking to be illegal and vowed to challenge it in the courts. The conductor insisted that any financial irregularities uncovered by inspectors from the Ministry of Finance were from the previous administration.

“I must be involved in the theater. I must fulfill my obligation. I don’t want to give it all up and go. I’m not mad at anyone, but I know something isn’t right. Let it be resolved legally,” declared the conductor at a press conference held on April 4.

Prominent names in Armenia’s artistic community, including performers, directors and musicians as well as the general public have voiced their support for the 62 year-old maestro. Some even called for the minister’s resignation. In an interview with Opera Wire, Lithuanian Armenian soprano Asmik Grigorian expressed her dismay. “I know how much Constantine (Orbelian) did for the theater, and it finally started to work and live the way it should,” she told reporters, adding that her “biggest fear is that there’s literally no one to replace him.”

The accusation prompted an unprecedented act of protest by the theater’s artists. Performers marched back onto the stage after the curtains fell on their ballet performance to voice their opposition to the ministry’s actions before a crowd numbering in the hundreds, which cheered in response, RFE/RL reports.

Orbelian’s run-ins with the Ministry of Culture go back to last November, when then-newly appointed minister Lilit Makunts publicly accused the maestro on Facebook of using his position to impose political and psychological pressure on the theater’s employees, a claim which the employees deny. Makunts has since vacated her post as minister and currently serves as head of the governing My Step Alliance parliamentary faction.

Prime Minister Pashinyan announced the dissolution of the Ministry of Culture along with the Ministry of Diaspora earlier this year. Despite this, the Prime Minister tacitly supported the acting minister’s decision but agreed to meet with protesters.

The protesting artists agreed to submit formal arguments against the maestro’s firing, which Pashinyan vowed to take seriously. The Prime Minister announced that one of Orbelian’s deputies would run the Opera until the matter is settled, seemingly countering a claim by Acting Minister Gharibyan that a replacement had already been selected.

A petition calling for the Prime Minister and the acting Minister of Culture to revise their decision to terminate the famed composer has been circulating on Armenian social media circles. It has received almost five thousand signatures so far.

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Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-born entrepreneur and occasional journalist who likes to ramble on about socioeconomic and political issues in Armenia. He lives in Yerevan with his family. He also holds a masters degree in International Relations.

8 Comments

  1. Raffi,
    Good reporting. Obviously it smells as it not clear if he was sacked for his political views/activities or misappropriation of funds.
    The other question I have is. If the Ministry of Culture was dissolved why is there an acting minister?

    Vart Adjemian

  2. Very disappointing how world known maestro and professional is being bullied, framed and banned for using Russian language, not being able to speak Armenian fluently and not supporting any political views . Art, Music, Education, Sport must be out of any politics! Period. The fact that every single member of the theater team is on Mr. Orbelian’s side means a lot. Very sad and too bad Armenia.

    • I hope not for bad things to follow. This is not a good sign to deprive Armenia from talented people. Reminds me what was being done before the Armenian Gen-ocide began. I don’t feel a good smell here.

  3. Newly elected, so called “popular government” is sacking people left and right. Is thgis some sort of revenge against all the people left behind previous government?

  4. As prime Minister Pashinyan mentioned during his meeting that according to the constitution, 1 person cannot hold 2 jobs. Orbelian was both ACTING MANAGER and MAESTRO. It had nothing to do with his language. In 2017 he was away for 193 days.

    • Such a fallacious argument… This is simply a classic witch hunting.
      He could have been asked to choose between one or the other position.

      Why then Pashinyan turn a blind eye on his closest collaborator, head of NSS and also head of FIFA in Armenia?

  5. I hope not for bad things to follow. This is not a good sign to deprive Armenia from talented people. Reminds me what was being done before the Armenian Gen-ocide began. I don’t feel a good smell here.

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