01 August 2013, 13:04
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Master-Servant

Famous throughout Europe, tenor Ruben Elbakian is convinced that the most important function in the art of music is that of composer – the one who actually creates. As for singers, even the quite gifted ones, he considers them servants of the author, summoned only for giving voice to the creations. Even if one accepts this somewhat radical notion of the role of the performer, it is not easy to apply the word “servant” to Ruben himself.

The beginnings
According to family history, when I was only 30 days old, I scared the heck out of my grandmother. She was home alone looking after me. She began to worry when she heard male voices coming from inside the house, and nervously walked around the rooms, looking for thieves. She was surprised when she realized, firstly that I was awake, and then that I was the source of the sounds she heard! Now that I am grown up and a professional singer, my parents tell this story with a special air of pride and mischief. Actually, even from early childhood, my path was filled with “signs.” Individually, they did not have a much meaning, but together they seemed to indicate that I was fated for my life's work. For example, as a boy I saw the film The Great Caruso, with Mario Lanza, and thought for the first time how “cool” it was to be an opera singer. Soon after, I fell in love with Sophia Loren’s character, Aida, in the filmed opera of the same name. Then I bought a Norma record with Maria Callas from the record shop. I fell asleep while listening to it, then woke up in tears. My tears came in spite of the fact that it is hard for me to physically cry – I usually can’t produce tears. The dramatic talent of Loren and the musical talent of Callas have both affected my professional development significantly.

The doll
In addition to those who I admired from afar, there were female geniuses I interacted with more directly in my life - Tatevik Sazandaryan and Gohar Gasparyan. I was not Mrs. Sazandaryan’s pupil, for she only tutored girls, but I was determined to attend every class she gave and learned a great deal from her. Over time we grew so close that we often took walks together, causing our share of malicious gossip. Sometimes she was quite harsh - to this day, I hear her voice scolding: “Will you keep bowing all your life like a caricature?” Luckily, these words were not addressed to me, but they taught me how to behave myself on stage, and in life, for that matter. I was not the only one who learned from her, I am not the only one who can say: “Tatevik Sazandaryan contributed great magic to the performing arts in Armenia, and instilled a musical and artistic culture in our performers; she taught them not just to demonstrate vocal techniques but to create a character.” In the middle of my fourth year at school, after final exams, in the presence of my whole faculty and without my teacher’s consent, Gohar Gasparyan referred me to her husband, Tigran Levonyan. At that time, he was a creative director for the National Opera and Ballet Theatre. This is how it went: “Listen, go to Tiko and tell him I am sending you to him on a trial basis”. Hearing a great singer say something like that meant the world to me! It was very interesting studying with Gohar Gasparyan. She could be silent the whole day and then say just a few words. Later, having attended many master classes taught by famous European singers, I realized to my great surprise that I have rarely heard anything new, that I didn't hear first from dear Koko, which is what her close friends called her. By the way, if I may be permitted to boast, she called me “doll” – a term she reserved for her husband and a very few others close to her. This was her way of praising and conveying her positive disposition towards you. To this day, I can still hear her voice: “Listen, doll, come and see me today, we will study. I have praise for you too.” And the way she cooked! She cooked the way she sang – brilliantly. It is too bad I did not have the chance to say good-bye to her. Sadly, my final concert during my tour took place in Nice just a couple of days after her passing. I dedicated the concert to her memory and demanded that the city office change a prepared and finalized program to include her photograph.

Culinary digression
Without false modesty, I can say my cooking isn’t bad either. One of the major cognac manufacturers in France, the HARDY Company, helped sponsor my second performance before the French Senate. My wife and I were supposed to meet privately with the executives of this company before my performance. We did not want to leave our infant son with the babysitter so I invited them to our own house and decided I would cook myself. My wife exclaimed indignantly, “Do you realize who these people are?!” But I insisted and cooked all of my trademark dishes. After the dinner, my guests were curious to know where I found such a good cook. I blushed and said it was my own cooking. Now we are good friends and often joke that both stomachs and hearts played roles in establishing our relationship.

A new address
I was admitted to conservatory following a god-forsaken period that I refer to as “vermicelli times”. Those times! I remember we would buy big bags of pistachios and roast them, pack them in small plastic bags, seal them with candle wax and turn them over to a newspaper vendor, who sold them from his booth near our house. That is how we made a living. We would fall asleep fully dressed in our unheated house. In spite of the hardship, this was the period when I took my first steps as a performer. As it turned out, the muse never rests, even in the most difficult of times. That said, I must admit it is much more pleasant to sing on a full stomach!
I was often told that it is wiser to build one’s career abroad. But that was a tough decision. Back then, a famous French singer, Elena Vasilieva, came to Yerevan to hold master classes. After hearing me sing she said: “You belong in Europe.” Perhaps these words of hers were the last straw and I decamped for Europe. However, I never truly left Armenia, only my address changed. I did not take much luggage with me because I was sure I would soon return. I performed with the Paris Chamber Orchestra at a charity concert dedicated to the tenth anniversary of the Earthquake of 1988. I entered a private conservatory to acquire a residency permit. In another coincidental twist of fate, I received the necessary documents the very day my visa expired. In only one year, I was awarded a gold medal at a conservatory contest.

Lyrical digression
I will tell you about this in detail. A popular French journalist, Armine Azizyan, was invited to my concert. She was told that an “interesting” tenor from Armenia was performing. Later, I found out that she was less than thrilled about coming. She had met famous politicians and artists like Charles Aznavour and Robert Hossein and didn't look forward to meeting a novice opera singer. But once she heard me sing, she said to her girlfriend: “He will be mine”. She “conquered” my heart during the very first interview, and we now have a son together.

The voice of the world
Jacques Delon, who at the time was a leader of the French-Turkish group in the Senate, was the first to offer me an opportunity to sing at Luxembourg Palace. The performance took place after the French Senate recognized the Armenian genocide. I began with the song “Victoria, Victoria…” Next day, the newspapers wrote that Elbakian sang about the victory of his people. In 2004, a group from Minsk (Belorus) was present during my second performance in the French Senate, at the invitation of the Senate Chairman. The time for autographs came. I asked for their names. These were Georgian, Azerbaijani…but unfortunately, as strange as it sounds, I did not see a single Armenian delegate, although they had been invited. Nevertheless, I remembered Delon’s words with pride: “Technically, you are becoming an ambassador of Armenia. Your voice is capable of ending the struggle between the two nations, even if it is only for a little while.” I believe that art exists outside of concepts like nationality. I sang “Krunk” by Komitas and the French cried without understanding a single word. And, once in Yerevan after one of my concerts, German guests approached me and asked me to introduce them to Mr. Komitas. I was shocked. And later I realized that time and nationality mean nothing for geniuses.

Come on, dear!
After a seven-year absence spent in Europe, I performed on the stage of my native National Opera and Ballet Theatre. The concert took place under the patronage of the First Lady, Bella Kocharian. Neapolitan songs were in the program – those that were included on the album I recently released – Chansons Napolitaines. So great were my feelings of national pride that it was a great challenge for me to perform in Armenia after such a long absence. I assume that would be the case for any Armenian performer. And to make thing worse, I saw a gigantic poster on the Opera building that made me a little uncomfortable. In addition, I was exhausted after two months of work in a recording studio. In other words, I was even considering cancelling the performance. But this was a charity concert. The collected amount would finance the purchase of musical instruments through Spivakov’s Fund for musically gifted underprivileged children. And all the tickets were sold. I decided to sing, whatever happened. Before coming out on stage, my accompanist of many years, Anna Mandalian, said to me: “Come on, dear! Today you have to sing even if you die on stage”. And I came on stage. I think it was apparent to the audience who heard my voice on television, on discs, that I was not in top form, but I was greeted with a storm of applause. And I am very grateful to her for that. Soon I am to go to Paris. To work and anticipate a return home…

Yerevan Magazine, Fall, N2, 2008

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