I am happy that in those distant places with large Armenian populations, the foundation of the Armenian dramatic arts exists, one of the initiators of which is a youth educated from the same source as I. – Vahram Papazian
BEIRUT — Berj Fazlian, who died last week at age 90, was born on December 4, 1926 in Istanbul. He obtained his education at a local drama institute, and by 1944 was participating in local plays. He directed some 10 plays in Istanbul, among which were Ben Johnson’s “Volpone” and Moliere’s “The Miser.”
He conducted his initial experiments in Armenian theater through Armenian plays, but he also attempted to give new ascendance to his art. Istanbul no longer had anything to impart to him. A Turkish lecturer who was friendly toward Fazlian said to him: “Swear to me that you will never leave the theater…This place is not suitable for you. Do not forget that you are Armenian. Why would a leading role be given to an Armenian [here]?” This lesson was sufficient for Fazlian, who left Istanbul in 1951.
He settled in Beirut and formed a family while continuing his theatrical activities. He married the painter Sirvart Krikorian in 1959, and soon they had two children. His son Harout became a famous conductor and artistic director of various symphonic orchestras in a number of Middle Eastern countries.
In Beirut, he founded the Nor Pem (“New Stage”) theater group in 1956, Vahram Papazian (for the Armenian Youth Association) in 1959, and Azad Pem (“Free Stage”) in 1971. They were widely covered in Armenian, Arabic and French-language newspapers. Fazlian was invited to direct the plays of the Rahbani brothers, with the participation of the world-famous Lebanese singer Fayrouz, in the Baalbek festival, as well as in Beirut and Damascus. For 16 years he directed the musical dramas of the Rahbani brothers.
In 1975, he immigrated to Canada and settled in Montreal for several decades before eventually returning to Beirut. In Canada he continued his artistic work, joining the Tekeyan Cultural Association (TCA). In 1976, he founded Montreal’s TCA Hay Pem and directed a work of the famous Canadian author Robert Gurik in Armenian translation as “Baran ge dzakhem.” He participated in the local Theater Festival of Minoritie” and won first prize. In 1989, he founded Montreal’s Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (ADL) “Armenorama” television show.
The Hay Pem theater group held performances abroad, in London, Paris, and various cities of Syria, Egypt and the United States, including New York, Boston and Philadelphia. During the London performance, Fazlian joined the ADL with Vartan Ouzounian as his godfather, and thus formalized his adherence to the political and patriotic views that he had supported for so many years in the past.
He had established friendly relations with Lebanese ADL leaders like Kersam Aharonian and Hrachyea Setrakian in the past. Furthermore, many of the members of Beirut’s Vahram Papazian theater group were ADL members like Zaven Kalousdian, Haroutiun Kntouni, Khachig Tashjian, Haroutiun Toumayan, Vartkes Eurneshlian, Asdghig Basmajian, Toros Sarkisian, Hampartzoum Dadourian, Krikor Degirmenjian, Berj Der Sahagian, Sarkis Minasian, Levon Torosian, Ani Yaghjian and Hagop Vartivarian.
The creation of the Vahram Papazian theater group was significant because until then there was only one permanent drama group in Beirut, Hamazkayin’s Kasbar Ipegian group. Consequently, Armenian Revolutionary Federation members and sympathizers would become its actors and only presented partisan plays. The Vahram Papazian group brought new life and quality to Lebanese-Armenian theatrical life by presenting multifaceted Western Armenian, Eastern Armenian and non-Armenian plays.
As an actor, he participated in some ten plays whose directors included Yusuf Shahin, Henri Antoine Barakat, Antoine Rémy and Niazi Mustafa. He also played the chief role in an English-language film made in Canada called “Next of Kin,” directed by Atom Egoyan.
He directed more than 100 plays in English, Arabic, French and Turkish. Of these the most unforgettable remain Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Molière’s “Les fourberies de Scapin,” “George Dandin ou le Mari confondu,” and “The Miser,” Goldoni’s “The Liar,” Nikolai Gogol’s “Marriage,” and most especially, Georges Schehadé’s “Histoire de Vasco,” which was produced in Lebanon for the first time in the presence of the author. His production of Aysam Mahfuz’s play “Zanzalakht” (“The Chinaberry”) was considered a turning point in the annals of Lebanese theater history.
Fazlian taught drama for many years at Lebanon’s state, Saint Joseph and Al-Kafaat universities.
In 1986, Fazlian was invited by the Soviet Armenia state to direct various productions. On the invitation of Armenian State Television, he directed Yerukhan’s “Tzgnorsi sere” (“The Love of the Fisherman”), a short story. Fazlian in 1985 received an award from Vardges Hamazaspian, president of the Committee for Cultural Relations with Diasporan Armenians, and in 2000, received the St. Mesrob Mashdots Medal from Catholicos Aram I in Beirut.
The TCA Greater New York chapter organized Fazlian’s 80th birthday celebration on April 30, 2006 in New Jersey. This was the first large expression of respect toward this great artist in the US. Krikor Satamian came from Los Angeles to speak – he first appeared on the stage in a Fazlian production, as did Tamar Hovhannisyan, the widow of Mher Mgrdichyan. Gerald Papasian came from Paris. Garine Kocharyan, Dr. Hrant Markarian, Nora Armani, Berj Araz, Missak Boghosian and Hagop Vartivarian were the New York area speakers. Fazlian received the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s Certificate of Honor from its president Berge Setrakian, while Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) presented to him an encyclical from Catholicos of All Armenians Karekin II accompanied by the St. Sahak and St. Mesrop Medal.
Levon Torosian wrote in the daily Zartonk in 1960 in Beirut that “Fazlian is a madman of the theater in the good sense of the word. He is dedicated in an incorruptible way to the sacred cause of the Armenian theater.”
Armen Tarian wrote in the French-Armenian newspaper Haratch from Beirut in 1960 the following: “Fazlian has understood well that the director is not a tool copying and repeating the playwright, but is in his own right a creative artist.”
Dr. Bakhdiar Hovagimian wrote in 1987 in Yerevan as follows: “Has such a thing ever been seen, that a theatrical figure of Armenian background represents Lebanon’s Arab theater in international circles?”
Shake Varsian wrote in Yerevan’s Hayreniki dzayn in 1987, “Berj Fazlian is a master of energetic, effective, and bold concepts, and a theatrical figure who implements them.”
I visited Fazlian for the last time this year on January 5 in a hospital in one of Beirut’s suburbs. I saw him as constantly alert. Only his unique eyes remained from the Berj that I knew. I firmly squeezed the hand of the master, kissed him and slowly left the room.
He died in Beirut on February 15, 2016, at the age of 90. His funeral took place in the cathedral at Antelias on February 18.
(Translated from the Armenian)