Bayrakdarian’s star blazing, Canada
April 8 2004

Bayrakdarian’s star blazing

By David F. Dawes

CANADIAN soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian has been considered a ‘rising
star’ for the past few years. But judging from the response of
various audiences and critics, it is now more accurate to state that
she has arrived as a true star, establishing herself as a presence to
be reckoned with on the world stage.

Her latest CD, Azulao, won recognition April 4 as best classical
vocal album at the 33rd annual Juno Award ceremony. A collection of
Spanish and Latin American music, the album is Bayrakdarian’s second
solo CD for CBC Records. Her first was Joyous Light, featuring an
exquisite set of Armenian hymns. In addition to high-profile opera
roles and recitals which have been garnering high praise from
critics, she has made her mark in TV appearances — and on film
soundtracks, such as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

It’s an interesting turn of events for someone who originally
attended university with the intention of becoming an engineer.
Having been raised in the choral tradition of the Armenian church,
she was instead inspired to pursue music.

Bayrakdarian won the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions in 1997,
and went on to win first prize at the Placido Domingo ‘Operalia’
competition in 2000; she also received the Queen Elizabeth II Golden
Jubilee medal. In the past several years, she has played major roles
in operas such as The Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, The Merry
Widow and A View from the Bridge. She has appeared internationally,
most notably at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy. She also
performed Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5 on CBC TV, and
Rachmaninov’s Vocalise on Bravo Arts Television.

Critics have been charmed, frequently using the word ‘luminous’ to
describe her. Urjo Kareda, in the Globe and Mail, found her singing
“instinctively dramatic and expressive,” asserting that Bayrakdarian
“is able to inhabit whatever music she sings.” After her 2002
Carnegie Hall recital, Matthew Gurewitsch of Opera Now described her
as “an exotic, dark-eyed beauty blessed with a gracious platform
manner,” adding: “What Teresa Berganza was to her generation,
Bayrakdarian should prove to be for ours.”

A 2001 Vancouver appearance prompted the often-acerbic Lloyd Dykk to
proclaim the soprano “a great new voice in music, one no less than
equal to Anne-Sophie von Otter or Renee Fleming.” Referring to her
appearance in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore, Hamilton critic Hugh
Fraser enthused: “Don’t, whatever you do, miss soprano Isabel
Bayrakdarian as Adina . . . Come, marvel and then forever hold your
peace. At least you were there once.”

In an interview with La Scena Musicale, the singer indicated that she
puts a lot of thought into the characters she plays. Regarding
Zerlina, in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Bayrakdarian said: “She is not a
victim, I will never portray my characters as victims, because in
life I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor and I aim for honesty in every
way on stage. Sure, Zerlina has people around her who physically and
emotionally toss her around, but she’s not accepting it and doesn’t
get stuck in self-pity.”

Regarding Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, she said: “There are
some roles that you identify so much with that it almost ceases to
become acting and pretending, where the vocal writing suits your
voice perfectly and it becomes almost like speaking. It becomes me in
a way on the stage, it’s just pure pleasure.”

She also indicated that, in her view, opera is still a vital creative
medium with much to offer contemporary audiences. “We are a
generation that is used to multimedia and I think directors are
responding to that, possibly a bit more in Europe than in North
America. But the main thing is that you have an honest, committed
performance. It’s the same with any kind of live performance. Why is
it that people get so carried away in concerts as opposed to
listening to a CD, whether it’s a pop-group or something else? In the
live performance there’s the adrenaline and that extra magic that I
think people will always crave. I hope!”

It is evident that Bayrakdarian has a faith rooted deeply in her
Armenian Orthodox background. She is featured on the soundtrack of
Atom Egoyan’s film, Ararat, performing a traditional Good Friday
piece. Canadian composer Christos Hatzis was so inspired by her
singing that he wrote an Easter oratorio especially for her, based on
Armenian hymns. Light from the Cross, commissioned by the Eastern
Prelacy of the Armenian Apostolic Church of America, was performed
several times in 2002 and 2003, and has yet to be recorded.

Hatzis writes that the singer’s childhood experience singing in
church directly influenced the composition in several ways.

“When conductor Mario Bernardi asked me to get involved with this
project and gave me printed arrangements of some of these hymns as
well as a CD of similar hymns recorded by Isabel, I realized that
there were quite a few discrepancies between Isabel’s renderings and
the actual notation of these melodies. Hers was a ‘liquid,’ flowing
rendering with a myriad of small vocal modulations and ornamentations
that defied notation. Knowing that she grew up with these hymns —
and therefore with the oral tradition that has preserved them to this
day — I preferred to follow her far richer renditions rather than
the notated versions of the same hymns.

“I had Isabel record the hymns for me unaccompanied . . . and then
used these recordings as the basis of my own composition, creating an
orchestral ‘presence’ around her actual pre-recorded voice. I
composed the work using a computer, and it was a great inspiration to
hear her voice constantly as I was sculpting the music around the
minutest inflections of her recorded rendering.”

Speaking recently to CBC radio about the liturgical music on Joyous
Light, Bayrakdarian said: “It’s almost as if you’re listening to a
conversation with heaven . . . It comes from the soul.” The
scripture-based lyrics, she added, “are my conversation with God.”
She said she felt privileged “to sing them with the gift he’s given

That gift is in top form, judging from a recent concert appearance.
The Vancouver Recital Society presented Bayrakdarian March 19,
accompanied by pianist Serouj Kradjian. In addition to several
selections by Mozart, Vivaldi and Rossini, she performed music by two
obscure composers: Johann Adolph Hasse from the 18th century, and the
20th century’s Xavier Montsalvatge

She showed consummate musical ability, negotiating both bravura and
delicate passages with admirable ease. She also demonstrated an
acting ability reminiscent of the legendary Maria Callas —
expressing courage, intense sorrow, flirtatiousness, whimsicality and
unbridled joy with equal skill. The packed house gave her a
well-earned standing ovation.

Clearly, Bayrakdarian has a promising career ahead of her — and
evidently has a healthy perspective on it. Asked about the impact of
her success on her everyday life, she told La Scena Musicale:

“It’s good to be ambitious, but there’s a limit. It’s important to
understand how the business works, while at the same time not
becoming too immersed in it because, then you are not concentrating
on your art. You have to ask yourself if you are comfortable with the
attention you get, being in the spotlight. I’m from the Armenian
community and there you also have a kind of spotlight on you. I’ve
learned what I can accept to be known publicly and what I want to
keep private.”

In addition to a May-June stint with the Los Angeles Opera, in The
Marriage of Figaro, Bayrakdarian is also preparing her next
recording. It will be another CBC Records production, featuring
operatic portrayals of the legendary Cleopatra, by Handel and several
other composers.