Conductor Constantine Orbelian

Pashinyan Meets with Artists Protesting Sacking of Opera Chief

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YEREVAN (RFE/RL, Opera Wire) — Amid continuing angry protests against the sacking of the acclaimed Armenian-American director of Armenia’s national opera theater, the government pledged to at least delay the appointment of his successor on Monday.

Constantine Orbelian, a San Francisco-born conductor and pianist, was named as artistic director of the Alexander Spendiarian National Opera and Ballet Theater in Yerevan in 2016 and became its director general as well a year later. He is widely credited with breathing a new life into one of the country’s most important cultural institutions chronically underfunded by successive post-Soviet governments.

Acting Culture Minister Nazeni Gharibian dismissed Orbelian as chief executive on Thursday, March 28, saying that he is not legally allowed to combine the two leadership positions. She also argued that the 62-year-old US citizen is not fluent in Armenian.

Orbelian rejected the decision as illegal and said he will challenge it in court. Most actors and musicians of the state-run theater also condemned his dismissal, demanding that Gharibian be sacked instead.

In an unprecedented protest, many of them walked on stage just before a ballet performance on Sunday to voice their indignation in front of hundreds of spectators. They threatened to go on strike if Orbelian is not reinstated. The audience responded with applause.

Scores of other artists, among them the directors of other state-run theaters, voiced support for the protesting staff by signing an open letter to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.

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Dozens of opera and ballet staffers rallied outside the main government building in Yerevan on Monday, leading Pashinyan to meet with their representatives.

Pashinyan defended the legality of Orbelian’s dismissal at the meeting. He also pointed to the latter’s frequent trips abroad and, citing the Armenian Finance Ministry, alleged financial irregularities committed by the theater administration in 2017.

Pashinyan at the same time made clear that he is open to hearing the artists’ counterarguments. In that regard, he announced that the theater will be run by one of Orbelian’s deputies for the time being.

“Keep working as usual,” the premier told them. “I will wait for your arguments and we will jointly make decisions.”

Gharibian said on Friday that she has already appointed a new opera director and will introduce him or her to the theater staff on Monday. The acting minister did not attend Pashinyan’s meeting with the protesters’ representatives even though she was seen entering the prime minister’s office.

The protest leaders seemed satisfied with the meeting. One of them, conductor Harutiun Arzumanian, said they will study written justifications for Orbelian’s sacking and respond to Pashinyan in writing.

“The prime minister said if it turns out that even one of the submitted [government] arguments is false the official who submitted them will be immediately fired,” Arzumanian told reporters.

Orbelian, a three-time Grammy Award nominated conductor, is also a Principal conductor of the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra in Lithuania.

This was not the first time that Orbelian had been singled out. In November of last year, Orbelian was targeted by then-Culture Minister Lilit Makunts who wrote a post on the Ministry’s Face Book page accusing the executive personnel of the Yerevan Opera House of holding political-agitation meetings at the theater, and warned them that talking about or discussing politics of any kind is strictly forbidden by law.

Lithuanian/Armenian soprano Asmik Grigorian told OperaWire, “I can’t believe it could happen. I know how much Constantine (Orbelian) did for the theatre, and it finally started to work and live the way it should. They never gave a chance to my father (Gegham Grigoryan) to bring his ideas to life there, but Constantine has got the ball rolling. And the biggest fear is that there’s literally no one to replace him.”

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