A stab at greatness: Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian

The Toronto Star
March 25, 2004 Thursday Ontario Edition

A stab at greatness

Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian is tops among the best crop of singers
Canada has ever produced Makes Toronto Symphony Orchestra debut amid
ever-widening acclaim, writes William Littler

Noticing that her interviewer was eying her coffee cup, the scientist
in Isabel Bayrakdarian spoke up quickly:

“This has soy milk in it. You get to like soy. I don’t know if you
ever get to love it.”

Dairy products? The cup bearer shook her head, her dark eyes flashing
as she added, with a wicked smile, “And coffee leaches the calcium
from your body!”

Tempted as he was to pull his chair away from Columbia Artists’
boardroom table and submit his body for detoxification, your humble
servant decided instead to change the subject.

It was too early in the morning to confront, across a table, an
honours graduate in biomedical engineering from the University of

It was almost too early to confront her more recent identity as
Canada’s fastest-rising young soprano, the one she will exhibit in
her debut performance with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra next
Wednesday at Roy Thomson Hall (repeat performances take place April 1
and 3, with an added April 4 performance at North York’s George
Weston Recital Hall).

After all, she had just spent the previous evening across 57th St. on
the stage of Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, joining three other
singers (mezzo-soprano Norine Burgess, tenor Michael Schade and
baritone Russell Braun), accompanied by pianists Carolyn Maule and
Serouj Kradjian, warbling her way through an all-Canadian
presentation of Brahms’ Liebeslieder Waltzes, Op. 52, and Schumann’s
Spanish Liebeslieder.

Yes, I said all-Canadian.

With all four singers under contract, her manager at Columbia
Artists, Elizabeth Crittenden, had sold Carnegie Hall on the maple
leaf package and at the concert’s end, a cheering audience applauded
the decision.

The concert was emblematic of Canada’s current crop of vocal talent,
perhaps the most remarkable the country has yet produced.

Canadians are singing now on almost all the world’s major stages,
including those on Manhattan’s 57th St.

Indeed, three of the four Liebeslieder singers had already appeared
under Carnegie auspices. Bayrakdarian had not only sung her own
recital there, she had begun a complementary career at the nearby
Metropolitan Opera House, initially in a year ago as Catherine in
Willliam Bolcom’s A View From The Bridge, more recently as Teresa in
Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini. Not bad for someone who only took up
singing to improve her vocal skills in church.

Born in Lebanon, one of six children of Armenian parents, Isabel
moved with her family at age 14 to Toronto, where singing in an
Armenian church choir became a big part of her life. It still is. Her
debut CD for CBC Records, titled Joyous Light, celebrates several
centuries of Armenian liturgical music.

“I love the haunting quality of this music,” she explained, between
sips of coffee. “There is a bitter-sweetness and you can put so much
of yourself into its interpretation. I can go into an Armenian church
anywhere in the world, join the choir and start singing. It always
feels like home.”

It was during her vocal studies at home in Toronto with Jean McPhail
at the Royal Conservatory, carried on in tandem with her academic
studies at the University of Toronto, that the possibility of a
career in singing gradually emerged for the young chorister.

“We all need idols and when I grew up there was no Armenian operatic
singer I could look up to, although I later learned that Lucine Amara
was Armenian. So it took time for me to realize I could have a
career. All my biographies now say Canadian-Armenian soprano. I’m
Armenian by heritage but I belong to Canada.”

Canada and the world, actually. The journey from membership in the
Canadian Opera Ensemble (she made her debut in major roles as Rosina
in a production of Rossini’s The Barber Of Seville in February, 1999)
to stardom in New York, Paris and Salzburg has taken only a brief few

“My path to opera was not planned.” she smiled. “And my path through
it will be as spontaneous as I can make it. Someone asked me recently
what I will be doing in January, 2009. I just will not commit that
far. Two or three years ahead yes, but my god, five?”

Bayrakdarian’s reason for caution is obvious. With so few roles under
her belt, she is still experimenting with what works for her. “Tosca
is a great role,” she explained, “but not for my voice. And I’m not
an ‘ina’ (as in Donizetti’s Norina or Mozart’s Despina), the kind of
(soubrette) voice that sings until the age of 40, when they start
looking for younger versions of you.

“It is a blessing that my voice has developed at the extremes and
gained much more depth in the middle. I find that if you lead a
healthy lifestyle, the voice is healthy. Use food as a fuel, not as a
way of dealing with emotional problems. I love what Birgit Nilsson
said: ‘Sad birds don’t sing.'”

An obviously happy bird at this stage of her career, Bayrakdarian was
effectively launched on the international stage by winning Placido
Domingo’s Operalia Competition in 2000. Her combination of vocal
freshness, physical beauty and an outgoing personality have continued
to dazzle the experts as well as the general public.

Offstage, she loves fast cars, holds a scuba-diving licence and can
mix a drink with the skill that put her through the Bartending School
of Ontario.

No, I’m not joking. “Just a little wine is enough to make me whooo,”
the soprano laughed. “But with my bartender’s licence I can be a
great host. I guess it’s the chemist in me.”

It’s the singer in her that she is concentrating on these days, with
the international scope of her career making her a connoisseur of

“Every day I count my blessings that I do what I do,” she insisted.
“And having a partner who is also in music and experiences all this
with you completely changes you (Serouj Kradjian not only makes music
with his fellow alumnus of Toronto’s Armenian community, he happens
to be her fiance).

“I love the travel. But I can’t wait for my Toronto Symphony
Orchestra debut. It’s singing at home. I love the idea of being able
to drive to work. It’s as close to a normal job as I’ll ever have.”

Does she miss the biomedical engineering? “I don’t regret spending
those years in science at all. But I am a different person now. Music
brings out the best in you. It refreshes the soul. I feel it has made
me a better person.”

Who: Isabel Bayrakdarian
Where: Roy Thomson Hall,
60 Simcoe St.
When: Mar. 31, Apr. 1, 3
Apr. 4 @ Weston Recital Hall
Tickets: $31 – $98 @ 416-872-4255 (416-870-8000 for Weston Recital Hall)

GRAPHIC: “My path to opera was not planned. And my path through it
will be as spontaneous as I can make it,” says Toronto-based soprano
Isabel Bayrakdarian, seen here as Pamina for the Cincinnati Opera.