By Artsvi Bakhchinyan
Research always yields many surprises. While researching Diaspora Armenian film professionals and the history of Armenian presence in China, and contacting the American-born director-actor Edwin Gerard, I found out he is the grandson of the Armenian-Egyptian singer/actress Valentina Amirayan, familiar to me, who turned out to be the wife of another Armenian national media figure who lived in China, Haig Assadourian.
We asked Edwin Gerard to send information about his grandmother — articles, newspaper clippings (some of them with illegible dates of publication, however, whose accuracy is indisputable), and the result was a portrait of Valentina Amirayan, (née Maria Hortensia Ophelia Nedda Arnaud, 1901, Constantinople – 1971, Los Angeles).
Valentina is unique in the history of Armenian Diasporan culture in that only one of her parents was Armenian (from her mother’s side); yet Valentina contributed greatly to promoting Armenian art throughout the world. Her father was Italian, Nicolai Michele Arnaud, of Sardo-Piemontese origin, reportedly born of a noble family. Her mother was a Constantinople Armenian, Akabi Hamamdjian. Valentina and her parents moved to Cairo. The first documentary evidence of her presence in the Egyptian capital is from ca. 1920.
Here Valentina married Stepan Zarmayr Amirayan, a native of Smyrna. They had a daughter, Alida, born in Cairo in 1921.
Valentina was a student of Professor Cantoni, composer and founder of the Musical Lyceum of Cairo. Throughout the 1920s, she participated in numerous concerts performed by his students, featuring works by her teacher along with favorite Armenian works. Still young and musically gifted, she appeared in many theatrical events in the Armenian community of Cairo. She was especially acclaimed in Tigranyan’s opera “Anoush.” As the journalist O. M. (code-named) wrote: “Mrs. Amirayan was the main figure of performance, who shone in her part from beginning to end and was the grace of the opera with her charming singing and beautiful acting. Particularly impressive was Mrs. Amirayan’s song where she was telling on Dervish’s curse” (The staging of “Anoush,” Arev Armenian daily, Cairo, May 29, 1925). The same newspaper also spoke about a performance she gave in Alexandria: “As about the actors, it must be said Mrs. Amirayan’s role brought her much acclaim. Her sweet voice and gentle movements communicated the pain and suffering of poor Anoush” (“The production of Anush in Alexandria, Arev, May 18, 1925).