A Tale of Two Operas


By Edmond Y. Azadian

With the spectacular and complete disappearance of the iron curtain, millions of people who had been trapped behind it, suddenly were exposed to the rest of the world. There was a deluge of Western cultural trends inundating the former Soviet republics. Armenia, being one of them, proved to be defenseless against invading trends. First the worst trends took hold among the general public starved of European and Western fads, along with mind-controlling religious sects.

The oligarchs, their children and their families traveling abroad learned very quickly which luxury cars to drive, which fashion houses were the hippest and on which plush resorts to waste their money. However, the West’s finer offerings in the arts and literature proved to be harder to absorb.

The cross-fertilization of contrasting cultural trends have left many people confused, and even some experts at that.

In the heyday of Soviet power, Stalin had pontificated that the Soviet Union had everything its people needed and that whatever the Soviets had in any given area, was the best. But with the collapse of the Soviet empire, people realized the empire did not have everything and that whatever it had was certainly not the best. Since habits and long-held perceptions die slowly, people and experts in certain fields feel too insecure to question their long-held beliefs.

These contradictions came into the open when Serge Avedikian, a movie director from France, came up with the new interpretation of the Armenian national opera, “Anoush.” A group of respectable artists and performers addressed an open letter to President Serge Sargisian to ban the performance of the opera in France, which was scheduled for May, “to save Armenia’s honor” and not to desecrate the legacy of poet Hovannes Toumanyan, the author of the lyrics, and the composer, Armen Tigranian.

This reminds us of the Soviet period when books by Gurgen Mahari and Vartkess Petrossyan were subjected to auto de fe, because they did not conform to the ideological straitjacket of some influential leaders or palace critics.

The open letter was succeeded by another article signed by Archbishop Arsen Berberian, a prominent singer in his own right, this time criticizing the sexuality featured in Avedikian’s “Anoush.”

 

At the end of the 100-minute performance, some members of the audience began to applaud, while others began hurling insults at the director, most vocal among them conductor Ara Petrosyan, son of Avak Petrosyan, associated for many decades with the role of “Saro” in the same opera. He later followed with a critical article in the daily Azg.

A popular actor, Stepan Danilyan, reacting to the outpouring of criticism, said, “This is the 21st century. Why does ‘Anoush’ absolutely have to be wearing brogues and smell like manure?”

The new version of “Anoush” triggered a controversy, pitting the so-called traditionalists against the progressives, both still caught in the web of Soviet-era biases.

The judgments of both camps is compromised by the limitations of their knowledge, and the still-lingering belief of having proprietary license on any artistic project. Simply put, “We know best and Diaspora Armenians have to learn from us.”

This state of mind is proven by the fact that in this entire debate, no references have been made to the presentations of “Anoush” at Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theater (MOT) twice, in 1981 and 2001, to critical acclaim. Not only did the local music critics give it kudos, but even other American critics ranked the performances of “Anoush” as “the best of the season,” competing with “Tosca” and “Carmen.” The New York Times critic praised Tigranian’s music and titled his article, “‘Anoush,’ An Armenian Classic.” In 1981, “Anoush” was performed on a professional stage in the Western world for the first time. In 2001, when 20 days later, the MOT produced Anoush again, the London Opera international magazine wrote, “This ‘Anoush’ should not have to wait another 20 years to be seen again.” Further proof of Tigranian’s quality!

A similar controversy occurred in 2001, when San Francisco Opera featured “Arshak II,” by Dikran Tchouhadjian, the first Armenian opera ever written.

Some expats from Armenia, former singers and musicians of parochial caliber, even tried to sue the director of the opera for not including them in the cast, but above all for having opted for the performance of Tchouhadjian’s original rather than the doctored version from the Stalin era. That cost the Armenians the disgust of opera management, and as a result, since then, it has not considered any other Armenian opera, nor is it expected to in the near future.

The lines of battle have been drawn and the antagonistic camps are dead-set against each other. As constricting as the Soviet-era, government-sanctioned cultural definitions and limitations were, so are the West’s “we-know-culture” attitude, shooting down any references outside the European norm.

It would be unfair to pass judgment from a distance without viewing the new performance by Avedikian, who certainly enjoys wide respect as an actor and filmmaker in the French film industry, but with limited musical knowledge, even with less handle on Toumanian’s literary heritage, we have gotten the sense from the Armenian protestors that he was about to sell snake oil to the Armenian opera goers using his reputation as a movie director and France’s cultural aura.

Whatever the outcome is, it is a healthy debate between art aficionados. But as they criticize each other, a little circumspection could be useful. More useful, of course, would be to have full command of the relevant facts. Armenia needs the civilized debate, especially in the fields of art and literature.

No revolution will be helpful, but evolution is necessary.