BORN TO BE A STAR:
Interview with Ellada Chakoyan
Ellada Chakoyan, the Prima Donna of the Yerevan State Opera (Armenia), the leading Soprano in the former Soviet Union, emigrated to the United States in 1989 from the former Soviet Armenia. A world famous soprano, a Distinguished Artist of Armenia, winner of numerous international awards and competitions, she was popular a few decades ago due to her strong vocal skills, artistry and beauty. She starred in many operas, concerts and recitals and was famous at the highest peak of her career.
We are delighted to have an interview with Ellada Chakoyan and ask her about life, music and singing.
When did you first start singing? Was it your childhood dream to become a singer?
I started listening to Classical music in my early childhood while my brother was studying the violin at a school for talented children, where I was taken at age of 5 as well, to study the piano. My parents were not musicians but they loved music and decided to give their children the opportunity to study music and musical instruments.
I also loved singing and listening to singers. I remember singing along with the Armenian opera Diva Gohar Gasparian on a radio by singing all high notes along with her (later she became my mentor and teacher). When my parents were busy I was often listening to recordings and crying. Particularly, one of them. Later I found out that it was Caruso singing Aria Canio from Leoncavallo’s «I Paghliacci».
Where did you study? How did your career start?
I loved singing but I didn’t think of becoming a singer. That happened much later at school. I was dreaming to become a ballerina. The general detector of the Ballet school saw me dancing and told my mama that I have talent for ballet. My parents didn’t let me pursue it because for a child of 6-7 it would be difficult to study two profession. But it is strange how life works … At the end I had to study two profession.
At Tchaikovsky school (that was and is the name of the school for talented children in Armenia) we had a choir and I was the soloist there. The conductor was a famous musician Emma Zaturian. She told my mama: “your daughter has beautiful voice, and when she gets to the Conservatory of Music (the University) let her follow in vocal major as well”. That all happened in Armenia, where I was born and where my family lived at that time. The time when Armenia was one of the Soviet Union’s Republics, during the Soviet Era. After being accepted to the Conservatory I took two Majors — Voice and Piano. That is how I became an opera singer.
Who were your teachers and what is, in your view, the role of a teacher for a future opera singer?
The role of a teacher for a future opera singer or any successful musician starts from the time he or she starts learning music.
I was fortunate to have the best teachers in my life. In Armenia at the music school with Irina Ataian, the teacher whom I loved dearly and through whom I learned to love playing the piano. At the Conservatory with Professor Maestro Robert Andriassian — in Piano, with Professor Gohar Gasparian — in Voice, lwith Maestro Suren Charekian — Operatic repertoire. With Irina Arkhipova — the Russian repertoire in Moscow. In Italy — Voice training with Gina Cinia, Operatic repertoire with Maestro Pastorino and Maestro Beltrami; Antic Italian Music with Maestro Amizano. All of them were very famous and amazing musicians.
Ellada Chakoyan in front of her poster in New York
What was your experience of concert performances like? Could you, please, tell about your repertoire?
Not every opera singer likes or can do Recitals. Specially singing Lead. To carry different feelings behind each short story sometimes in 1-2 minute length or little longer time requires a high musicianship and artistry from the singer…
My repertoire in performances with Symphony Orchestras, Concerts and Recitals includes different types of Classical music, Folk Songs and Contemporary music; Operatic Arias, Classical Operettas, Oratorios and Cantatas, Requiems, Concertos for Voice, Leads, Romances by: I.S. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Handel, Scarlatti, Arutunian, E. Hovanessian, Leads by Shubert, Wolf, Mendelssohn, Rackmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Spendiarian, Mozart; Italian Music from 14 to 18 CC. — Monteverdi, Vinci, Stradellla, Paiziello, Carissimi — among others. Also, music written specially for me and dedicated to me by Armenian composers where I was the first performer.
The public admired the amazingly beautiful and gorgeous costumes that you were wearing during your stage performances. How important are the looks and the image for an opera singer?
During all my live I gave special attention, love and interest for fashion and beauty. I worked in details with designers on my operatic costumes. My Concert and Recital dresses were designed by me and my sister who, despite being a biophysicist, is a very good designer. To look beautiful and updated with fashion was always very important for me and has to be important for any artist.
Could you, please, tell about your experiences at La Scala?
For a few years there was a cultural exchange program in the Soviet Union between the Bolshoi Theatre and La Scala di Milano. Best 5 young opera singers from the Soviet Union were going to Italy and 5 ballet dancers from La Scala coming to Bolshoi for perfection. To get in to «La Scuola Perfezzionamente della Scala di Milano» that program, young opera singers from all of the Soviet Union 15 Republics were participating in a competition in Moscow to be chosen as one of the 5 best singers. I passed that competition twice! First time my tour was cancelled for political reasons by the Soviet security agencies by not allowing me to travel abroad from the Soviet Union. After difficult time of struggling and seeking for truth I was allowed to go, but I had to pass another competition because I lost my term. I took the challenge and I was chosen for the second time. I also was prohibited by the Soviet regime from taking any contracts to stay in La Scala, otherwise my career would be over.
In La Scala we were getting the highest qualification as opera singers. That was the time when I met Gina Cinia – the famous Soprano with whom I was perfecting my voice technique, who opened a different window for my voice, from whom I learned much for my future teaching.
Could you, please, tell about your foreign tours? What was the feedback on your performances?
In the Soviet Union all your foreign and domestic tours were governed by the government organizations. Inside the Soviet Union — by «Soyuz Concert», foreign tours — by «Goss Concert» and «Organization For Foreign Relations «. Before emigrating to the USA I toured with operatic roles, concerts and Recitals in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, South America, Canada and United States. I was getting excellent reviews everywhere, in the Soviet Union and abroad.
After emigrating to America I had my debut at the Lincoln Centre in New York. “From the first notes one could hear the presence of a major singer with complete technical control including mezza di voce, authority of delivery, opulence of tone and even sex appeal. In fact, much of her singing reminded one of the young Callas“ – wrote Bill Zakariassen in New York «Daily News» after my debut in Lincoln Centre. I worked with Shoffer Gold and Sara Tornay Managements and continued touring in the USA and around the world.
Ellada Chakoyan as Norma («Norma», V.Bellini)
What Awards and Prizes were you awarded?
A “ Distinguished Artist of Armenia “ (Armenia),
A special Distinction award from Milan’s Department of Culture “For Recognition and Gratitude“ (Italy) ,
A special Award from the Verdi Conservatory of Milan “For Excellence in Italian Opera Interpretation“- «Rilasciato a Ellada Chakoyan quale e eccelente interprete di musice di grandi autori Italiani» (Italy),
A special Award from the Yanocheck Festival “For Best Performance“ (Czechoslovakia),
A Medal of Honor from «Lyceum Internationale di Milano» (Italy).
A Winner of Maria Callas International Voice Competition in Athens (Greece), among several others.
Could you tell about your role in Rimsky Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel?
Queen of Shemakha in Golden Cockerel of Rimsky-Korsakov is one of the most difficult roles in the Russian repertoire for a dramatic coloratura because she sings and acts nonstop for 45 min in the second act. That opera was the last opera written by Rimsky-Korsakov and hadn’t been staged in the Soviet Union since the time of the Russian Revolution. The Erevan Opera in Armenia in 1986 was the first to stage it.
The production was conducted by Aram Katanian and me — Ellada Chakoyan in title role as the Queen of Shemakha. The production was recorded live by Moscow Ostankino Central TV Station. Just recently when the American Art TV Channel aired «The Golden Cockerel» with me as the Queen of Shemakha, I found out that the recording was not lost and that the DVD of our production is on Amazon for sale.
Ellada Chakoyan during a Recital in Teatro de Carlos, Montevideo
What recordings do you have today?
I left for America before the Soviet Union collapsed. Unfortunately, my all recordings, most of my life works were destroyed in Armenia in time I emigrated to the USA. That was the genocide of my Carriera! Two Full Films » Ellada Chakoyan Is Singing «, all Radio recordings, Archive recordings, Compact Discs recorded in the Soviet Union, TV shows, Interviews… I was not allowed to take with me any of them. Few of my radio recordings were saved by my admirers and the «Golden Cockerel» opera that I found later.
This all happened because I left Armenia in time when Soviet Rules were in power.
In America I recorded several CDs: «Collage»- Concert for Her — with Michael Baiyan, «Ave Maria» with Leonarda Production and «Armenian Sacred Music» with Millennium Production. Among audio recording are also the Recital from Lincoln Centre at «Alice Tully Hall» New York, and other Recitals. Video live recordings: Recital at «Theatro Colon» Buenos Aires, Italian Antic Music at «Merkin Hall» New York, at New York «Carnegie Hall» with chamber orchestra and several others.
Who are your favourite composers and what are your favourite arias?
I have always loved I. S. Bach. At school teachers even doubted me as Bach’s granddaughter because I played Bach very well.
I love all composers. I cannot tell which composer I love most, as every composer is different. The one I am performing at the moment. You cannot sing or play well and be able to reach the hearts of the audience if you don’t love what you do. I love singing operas by Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini, Puccini, Rimsky-Korsakov, Wally, Catalani, Tchaikovsky, Tigranian, Mozart, I. S. Bach, H. Wolf, Beethoven, Shubert, Mendelssohn, Comitias, I. Straus and others.
What music do you enjoy listening? What songs do you sing in the family circle?
In the family circle we sing Armenian and Russian songs. I enjoy listening to different genres of music — blues, jazz, French chanson, American Country music and others.
Ellada Chakoyan in Los Angeles, USA
Who are the contemporary opera singers that you admire or enjoy listening to?
We have very good singers around the world but I love Maria Callas for her passion and honesty in what she sings. My teacher at La Scala Gina Cinia was one of the three operatic singers who made the history — Maria Caniglia, Gina Cinia and Maria Callas. They brought a new approach of dramatic intensity to soprano singing. And that was and is very close to my heart and soul.
Ellada Chakoyan as Violeta («La Traviata», G. Verdi)
What are the qualities one should possess to become a successful opera singer or a musician?
Talent, education and hard work! You need these to become a successful singer or artist and not only an artist. Any profession requires hard work and knowledge.
«Bell canto» (beautiful singing) technique together with good vocals, musicality, individuality, musicianship and constant work.
What, in your view, can help young opera singers to establish themselves?
In my view, it is very important to participate in voice competitions when young singers are competing against each other to reveal the best in them. In my career I won numerous International competitions and Awards, which helped me in recognition and Name establishment as a Classical Singer.
Ellada Chakoyan with Maestro Placido Domingo
How important is the role of a voice teacher?
I would like to mention that not every successful singer can become a good voice teacher. To be a good one you need also to be born and have talent for that as for every profession.
It’s crucial to remember that there are no identical trots. Every person and voice is different. And the teacher has to recognize that.
Voice teacher can build or desroy the voice!
What advice would you give to those dreaming of becoming an opera star or a musician?
To be very careful to choose the right teacher! And —
Practise, practise and practise!
We thank Ellada Chakoyan for the inspiring interview and for sharing her thoughts with our readers. More information can be found on Ellada Chakoyan’s personal website at www.elladachakoyan.com