By Alin K. Gregorian
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Gerald Papasian lives to act, direct and entertain. He has been in movies, television shows and more often, plays and light operas. He has done it for man years around the world.
Now, this Egypt-born, multitalented and multicultural artist, is putting his focus on bringing world attention to Dikran Tchouhadjian (Tchouhajian), the first composer of operas in the Ottoman Empire, who has been relegated to the forgotten pile.
The Paris-based Papasian, who founded the Dikran Tchouhadjian International Institute there, is spending two months as an artist-in-residence at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, as part of the Armenian Studies Department, lecturing on Armenian theater and opera in the 19th century, under Ottoman rule, in essence, lecturing on Tchouhadjian. While there, he is also continuing his research on him.
Papasian produced the integral version of Tchouhadjian’s opera “Gariné” in France, which was performed in Paris, London and New York. He has received noteworthy directorial credits in Detroit that include the Western World Premier of the Opera “Anoush” at the Michigan Opera Theatre, in 1981 and 2001. “Anoush” was considered the “best production of the season” by the American press. His restored version of Tchouhadjian’s opera “Arshak II” was performed by the San Francisco Opera House in 2001 as a world premiere 133 years after its creation.
Papasian next tackled Tchouhadjian’s lighter opera buffa “Leblebeji Horhor Agha,” literally Horhor the Chickpea Vendor, also known as “Gariné” in Armenian.
Papasian wants not only to bring these operas to a wider global audience but also make sure that they are intact. For Papasian, the continued polishing of the Tchouhadjian operas until they reach their original luster is a labor of love.
“The quality of his music is of universal interest,” he said. “There is a sense of injustice or frustration because of how much he was kept in the dark. He is unjustly unknown. That is the fate of a lot of our Armenian artists,” Papasian said this week.
On Sunday, March 6, at 3 p.m., Papasian will bring the filmed version of “Gariné” to the AGBU Center in Watertown. The program will include, in addition to the showing of the opera, a traditional chicken dinner and a presentation by Papasian on his research for a new version of “Gariné.”
“The Independent classified it as Critic’s Choice of the week when it came out. I attribute this to the universal genius of Tchouhadjian because with all the magic of stage direction and performance,” Papasian said.
Papasian added that it isn’t just the world at large that has neglected Tchouhadjian, but the country of Armenia as well, as sometimes Constantinople-born writers can be regarded as inferior.
While this opera was performed in Armenia, he said, professionals in Armenia felt entitled to “improve” the score by making changes.
“In the case of ‘Gariné,’ it is a light opera and not that serious and one can be quite free with it,” he said.
Papasian produced a highly successful version of “Gariné” in Paris and London, but always, he said, one or two were missing. They are now all collected.
He noted that he discovered long lost manuscripts in Paris belonging to the opera. Now he has the “complete, complete, complete integral version.”
In the case of “Arshak II,” he said, it is a more serious opera and for two years, he worked with Haik Avakian, a Tchouhadjian expert in Yerevan, between 1998 and 2000, to complete it. The end result was published in book form in Egypt by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) Egypt chapter running up to around 2,500 pages, including the score and the libretto by Tomasso Tersian (Terzian), a “very famous, erudite poet” of the era.
Papasian lamented the exorbitant cost of putting on an opera, one which so often the Armenian community cannot oblige.
“My ultimate aim is to encourage, inspire non-Armenian companies to produce these works,” he said, “at such a level that is top quality in London, Paris or New York.”
Papasian has been in front of the camera and one the stage, as well as behind the camera and off state.
“As a director I have a particular interest in a certain style, certain authors,” he said. “As an actor, I would not necessarily choose roles but accept any interesting part offered.”
For Papasian, the play’s the thing.
“Theater gives you the opportunity to express yourself from beginning to end. Every night is a new adventure. Theater is what it is all about,” he said. “Filmmaking is a very technical job. Actors wait for hours to do work.”
Papasian was born in Egypt into a family deeply involved with the world of music and art. His grandfather, Jules Papasian, was a well-known tuner and piano builder (Papasian Pianos). He was also a music impresario. Papasian studied piano beginning at age 4 with his great-aunt Nevart Damadian, a graduate of the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris and a renowned piano teacher.
His mother, Nora, is a noted painter, now living with her husband, Edmond Azadian, in Michigan. She is heavily involved with the Tekeyan Cultural Association Detroit chapter.
Papasian studied acting and directing in Armenia, landing internships at the State Fine and Dramatic Arts Institute in Soviet Armenia. Internship during his studies included assistant directing at the National Opera of Armenia and later in Leningrad (St. Petersburg).
After graduating from Armenia, his US debut as a stage director was the Western Premiere of the Opera “Anoush” in 1981 at the Michigan Opera Theatre in his own English singing translation (Wayne State University Press, 1981).
Papasian is a citizen of the world, at ease performing in English, French, Armenian or Arabic. “French was the language of minorities in Egypt. I learned it by ear and it has been a great help for me.”
Papasian left Egypt at age 13 to study first at the Melkonian Educational Institute in Cyprus and then in Armenia. “For the next 10 years, I came back for holidays,” he said. After that, he lived first in Michigan, later in Los Angles before finally making his home in France.
He joked that in France, he has been exceed9ingly lucky to land as many parts in television, movies and theater, since “France was not eagerly awaiting Gerald Papasian to go there.”
He added, “I cannot complain.”
While in the US this year, he has worked with the Tekeyan Cultural Association New York/New Jersey Chapter to put on “All Rise, the Court Is in Session,” the play about Soghomon Tehlirian assassination of Talaat Pasha in Berlin.
Papasian has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Armenia in 2011, in recognition of his propagation of the Armenian heritage internationally for over 30 years.
To attend the program on March 6, contact Aram Arkun at 617-924-4420.