Gerald Papasian Comes Home to Detroit with ‘Garine’


DETROIT — On the evening of February 11, as a part of their on-going series of regular cultural events for the area Armenian community, the Detroit Chapter of the Tekeyan Cultural Association (TCA) presented an evening with actor/director Gerald Papasian called “Discovery and Revival of a Forgotten Opera,” on his latest project, the story of Dikran Tchouhadjian’s operetta “Garine.”

“Garine” (also known as “Leblebidji Hor Hor Agha”) was a huge hit when it was created in Constantinople in the 1870s. Tchouhadjian’s (1837-98) talent was to intermix Oriental flavors with western ones.

Cairo-born Papasian, now a resident of Paris, has dedicated himself to unearthing and promoting Armenian cultural icons to the world. Frequently he has to be a sleuth, going to great lengths to find scores that have been lost or misplaced. This was how he brought Tchouhadjian’s “Garine” to life again.

Papasian revised “Garine” from the original to be more palatable for modern audiences. In his version Garine is an actress and falls in love with Armen when he returns from studies in Venice to form the performing company of which she is a member. Instead of a poor chickpea vendor, her father is a wealthy man who does not want her to be in the theater.

Gustavo Dudamel must conduct, Lang Lang has immense passion as a pianist, Arshile Gorky lived to paint and Gerald Papasian breathes to act and direct in the theater.

Confirming this fact is Papasian’s proud mother, area resident Nora Azadian, who recognized her son’s talent for dramatics at a very young age. Azadian too has that same theatrical flare, frequently appearing with her trademark selection of artfully wrapped scarves, très chic.

She says, “He drew very well when he was only 7 years old, inheriting the talent that ran in our family. His grandfather drew cartoons as a pastime. Gerald picked up on this and then started doing the background painting for a play. I thought he was going to be a painter like me. All he wanted to do is to be an actor and I always encouraged him to do so.”

Sitting near his mother, Papasian beamed as she reflected on his youthful beginnings in the world of theater.

Margot Davydova, a young activist in the local Tekeyan chapter, introduced the multitalented Papasian. She welcomed guests to an intimate evening that promised to explain the difficult steps the guest speaker went through in order to bring “Garine” to French and American audiences.

Davydova described Papasian as an actor, director, producer, writer, translator and as director of Dikran Tchouhdjian Research Center in Paris, France. She said that he co-produced the highly successful “Sojourn to Ararat,” which played to international audiences and won critical acclaim. He also is a founding member of the Irina Brook Theater Company in Paris.

Smartly dressed in a well-tailored dark suit, a neat ponytail in place, Papasian instantly warmed the hearts of his audience by starting out with “Dear friends, I feel like this is my hometown. I see and welcome all the familiar faces.” There is a panache about the man that adds to his abundant charm.

“To those who frequently ask, ‘Why do you do this?’, I reply, not to make money. If you produce works of art for Armenians you lose money. Do a bahrahantes if you want to make money, not theater — that’s for sure.”

Papasian educated his audience this evening by stating how important Armenians were in the world of theater prior to 1915 in Turkey, with all major productions done by them. “Armenians had monopolized the modern Turkish theater during Sultan Hamid’s time, although in 1875 he had a list of no-no’s that had to be adhered to, including that plays had to be in the Turkish language, and that nothing could enhance Armenian patriotism.”

“We show non-Armenians our dancing, music, paintings and khachkars. I created my Paris group. I wanted to show Armenians also have a funny side. There was a time in Bolis before the massacre when the music was happy, not sad.”

He went back to the years 1981 and 2001 when the opera “Anoush” was going to be performed at the Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit and the words had to be translated into English as per the order of the theater’s founding general director, David DiChiera. Papasian did the translation into English for the 1981 production after a highly successful fundraising effort took place.

In Papasian’s own words, “It took me nine months to translate Armen Tigranian’s ‘Anoush’ opera into English although some Armenians said it was impossible to do so. It became labeled “Best of the Michigan Opera Theater Season” and was a huge success with area audiences.”

The second “Anoush” production Papasian worked on was done in Armenian. By then it was a requirement that an opera had to be performed in the language in which it was written. It was magnificently done.

Papasian’s devotion to unearthing talented works of Armenians and bringing them to the general public, of course requires money, and donations are welcome to help further these very worthwhile endeavors. Papasian had taken it upon himself to discover and promote “Created by an Armenian,” something of which we all should be proud. For this we owe him a debt of gratitude.

What he is doing is of monumental importance. When there are those who would prefer the word “Armenian” disappear forever from the face of the earth, it is obvious why Papasian has received the Movses Khorenatsi Medal in Yerevan, presented to him by the president of Armenia.

He continued, “I believe human beings have a need to share with others. If you see a film or play you like, you tell others so they too can feel the enjoyment. Producers are in show business to bring that joy to all.”

He attended the Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus. Papasian continued his studies in acting, theater and movies in Armenia, the United States and England. He studied acting and producing for five years in Armenia, receiving a master’s degree.

A brief screening of “Garine,” as performed in Paris, was shown here, giving the audience a taste of the operetta as well as an opportunity to see Papasian play the role of Garine’s father. If you glanced over to observe Papasian’s reaction, you could see him grinning, amused at this own on-screen antics. The star of the evening referred to his ability to play the guitar, and has been recently asked to also learn to play the ukulele for another role. Being part of the theater means facing new challenges, and the man called Papasian will surely add this to his already long list of accomplishments.

Just wait for the English version of “Garine.” You won’t want to miss it. It should promise to be a rollicking, fun-filled event, leaving you thankful for opera and a man called Gerald Papasian.