A soprano learns to Tango

Ottawa Citizen, Canada
July 19 2008

A soprano learns to Tango
Isabel Bayrakdarian and friends open festival

Steven Mazey
The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, July 19, 2008
CREDIT: Dario Acosta
Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian

She sings at the Met and Carnegie Hall and with orchestras around the
world, but when Armenian-Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian opens
the 15th Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival Friday at
Dominion-Chalmers Church, there will be no Mozart or Mahler, Schubert
or Strauss.

Instead, for her Chamber Festival debut, the three-time Juno winner
will let her hair down and devote an evening to the passionate tangos
featured on her recent disc for CBC Records, Tango Notturno.

Bayrakdarian will be joined by musicians who worked on the CD,
including pianist Serouj Kradjian, who did many of the arrangements
and happens to be her husband and regular recital partner.

Other musicians will include clarinetist Shalom Bard, double bassist
Roberto Occhipinti, cellist Roman Borys (who programmed this year’s
festival with his colleagues from the Gryphon Trio), violinist Marie
Bérard and the Argentine bandoneon virtuoso Fabián Carbone, a star
player of the small, accordion-like squeezebox that’s a staple of

Carbone also did some of the arrangements on the CD. The disc includes
familiar tangos by Astor Piazzolla and Carlos Gardel, and tangos from
around the world, including Danish composer

Jacob Gade’s Jalousie, German composer Kurt Weill’s Youkali and tunes
from Egypt, Armenia and Finland.

Born to Armenian parents in Lebanon in 1974, Bayrakdarian moved to
Canada with her family as a teenager. She sang in church, but studied
bio-medical engineering at the University of Toronto. She decided to
pursue singing after she won prizes in competitions, including Placido
Domingo’s Operalia competition in 2000.

The Citizen reached her recently at her Toronto home, where she had
been taking a month off after a busy fall and spring. She chatted
about her love of tango, what it’s like to share a stage with her
husband (they married in 2004) and what her life has been like with
their latest collaboration, their first child. Their son, Ari, was
born in December and travels with mom and dad on the road.

Q: Those who know you as an opera and classical singer might be
surprised to hear you doing tango. What appeals to you about this

A: I don’t know why, but I’ve always had an affinity for Latin and
Spanish music. My second CD, Azulao, included a lot of that
repertoire, the classical Spanish and Latin things I’ve always
programmed in my recitals. It was a natural evolution to do tango. I
think the Latin sensibility speaks to me, and I find these songs so
real. It’s almost as if I’m speaking directly to someone. They have a
guttural quality. The music has wonderful rhythm that moves your body
and moves your soul. I found it very liberating to sing.

Q. What adjustments do you have to make to your singing style, from
opera and classical repertoire? Not all classical singers can do
lighter music convincingly.

A: I had to find the right approach. Obviously, I can’t sing a Gardel
tune the way I would sing opera. The voice has to be a different
colour. You find ways to do that, and you choose the right keys.

I sing the songs, and if I think something is sounding too operatic, I
change it. Obviously, I can’t feign another voice that’s not me. It
has to be my sound, but the approach has to be different. When a
classical singer goes into crossover material, they have to be careful
in choosing repertoire that still maintains their identity. You don’t
want to sound pop-ish, trying to do what pop singers can do
better. Classical singers need to find the right project, a way of
singing that is still using your true voice, but colouring it

It’s a delicate combination of finding what works. The other day I
heard a jazz song on CBC Radio, and I didn’t know who was singing. I
thought it was genius. Then Jurgen Gothe said it was Thomas Quasthoff,
a German singer who’s known as a lieder specialist. I couldn’t believe
it. He was so convincing and so natural on this English jazz song. I
have great admiration for him.

Q: Your husband arranged many of the songs on this disc and performs
on it. Is this music that he has loved for a long time also?

A: In addition to his classical career, Serouj has been involved in a
lot of fusion projects, including flamenco and tango music. He had
done a lot of tango music in instrumental arrangements.

When your wife is a singer, you start looking for projects for
voice. We thought of doing a recording of tangos, something that would
show the universality of this genre. We found CDs of instrumental
music, we found CDs of Piazzolla songs, but nothing out there with
pieces from around the world, like this one.

We did research, and Serouj remembered some pieces. We were both born
in Lebanon, and he remembered an Arabic tango by Farid El-Atrache,
that he remembered his parents and grandparents singing. We found an
Armenian tango, by Arno Babadjanian.

And there’s Satumaa, a Finnish piece that is almost like a national
anthem in Finland. Most people wouldn’t associate Finland with
tango. The research was rewarding, and we ended up with more than we
could record. We included some of the familiar gems that people know
but also lesser-known tunes.

Q. What are the tangos like for you to sing, technically?

A: These songs might sound easy, but that’s deceptive. They can be
very challenging technically. In Kurt Weill’s Youkali, music that I
really love, the range is very difficult, from an operatic sound to an
extreme tired voice quality that you need. There’s a huge drop, from
very high to extremely low and a very different register of voice. You
can do those jumps, but you have to be on top of your technique.

This is a project that five years ago, I would not have been able to
do. It takes a different maturity of person, voice, technique, to put
the technique aside and trust that instinctively the voice is going to
do the right mechanism and create those sounds without damaging the
voice, so that you can then go and sing an opera like Cunning Little
Vixen, which I’m doing in Japan in August with Seiji Ozawa.

Q. What is it like to work so closely with your husband. Aside from
his work arranging and performing on the CD, he also accompanies you
regularly in your recitals. Does your relationship make it easier or
more difficult, if you disagree about something musically?

A. Serouj has a busy career on his own, including his membership in
the Amici Chamber Ensemble. But we create time that doesn’t interfere
with his projects or mine, because we enjoy working together. My
recitals now are almost exclusively with Serouj at the piano. There’s
an extreme ease when I’m with him. The amount of pressure I feel just
before I go onstage with Serouj is much less than when I’m going out
for a concert or opera.

In performance together, we’re attuned to each other’s feelings. We
can predict what the other will do. And there’s a trust. In a recital,
he knows if I’m not quite in top form, even if it’s not something the
audience would notice, and he’ll do whatever it takes to make sure
that I shine. That’s love.

For the CD, as we prepared the songs before going to the studio, he
had ideas as an arranger, but I also had my own ideas. We are both
Tauruses, and both very stubborn. I would raise an idea with him the
same way I would with another musician if I felt strongly. But we have
to be careful how we do it, because we have to go home with each
other. Eventually we would come to a solution and would laugh about it
at the end, so there are no hard feelings.

Q. Do you have other projects in the works with him?

A. We’ve been working for a long time on performing music by the
Armenian composer Gomidas. We’ve recorded the music with Serouj’s
arrangements for chamber orchestra with the Armenian Philharmonic, and
we’re going to be touring that across North America in November,
including concerts at Carnegie Hall and Roy Thomson Hall. I’m very
excited about that.

Q. Your singing career takes you all over the world. Is that
particularly challenging with a baby?

A. I’ve been working almost non-stop since he was born. I did two new
operas, including Don Pasquale in Colorado and Pelléas et Mélisande in
Toronto, along with recitals and recording. I’ve taken the past month
off, and it’s been great, wonderful to be home and to enjoy home as a
family now.

My son seems to like to travel. Before, when I would travel, I would
be by myself. Now, I’m never alone, because there’s the baby, a
caregiver, who’s usually my mom, and Serouj comes when he can. So all
of a sudden, in a foreign city somewhere, we have a full household,
and it’s really enjoyable. After Ottawa, our whole family will be
going to Japan for the rest of the summer for Cunning Little
Vixen. It’s going to be fun.

The Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival opens Friday at
Dominion-Chalmers Church. The tango concert is a "Premium" concert,
requiring passholders to purchase an additional ticket. For
information, visit or 613-755-1111.