Gerald Papasian, left, with conductor Constantine Orbelian

Gerald Papasian Speaks Out on the Orbelian Controversy


PARIS — The controversy about the dismissal of three-time Grammy award nominee conductor Constantine Orbelian as managing or executive director of the Alexander Spendiaryan National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet continues to grow. This week noted director, musicologist and actor Gerald Papasian gave an interview presenting his views on the topic. Papasian has a unique perspective, one of both an insider and outsider, and knows Orbelian personally, as he has worked with him professionally.

The Egyptian-born Papasian studied acting and directing in a five-year master’s program in Soviet Armenia, including a stint as intern assistant directing at the National Opera of Armenia. Later he produced a number of operas in the United States, France, Great Britain, and Armenia. Today he is involved in the work of the National Opera, having directed the opera buffa “Garine” by Dikran Tchouhadjian there last year.

Orbelian was appointed as artistic director of the Spendiaryan Opera and Ballet in 2016 and given the additional position of executive or managing director in February 2017. He was given a three-year contract which, according to Orbelian, expires on August 3, 2020.

Papasian declared that though on the surface the situation appeared to be just a clash of individuals, Orbelian versus Armenia’s Acting Minister of Culture Nazeni Gharibyan, larger issues are involved. One factor is financial. The government apparently is trying to save money by cutting expenditures in every domain, including the cultural one. Gharibyan earlier tried to shut down some drama theaters in Armenia and asked the Opera and Ballet Theater to cut some 25 positions (which it did). Orbelian is indirectly also accused of contributing to the debt of the opera.

A second issue is that Orbelian does not speak Armenian, which is supposedly unacceptable constitutionally for a state opera director. A third matter is that he travels abroad constantly.

The fourth aspect is organizational. In the Soviet period, Papasian explained, the managerial or administrative director was often given greater powers to control the artistic director, and often would be a sort of politician, as member of the Communist Party. He could hire or fire the artistic director. In certain instances, the same person held both offices (e.g. Gohar Gasparyan’s husband Tigran Levonyan, Hovhannes Chekijian and Edgar Hovhannisyan, all at the Opera).

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The Soviet-era laws or rules have been changed in countries like Russia and Georgia but remain on the books in Armenia. When Orbelian was invited to come to Armenia from the United States to the opera, it was understood that he would be given full authority to control the executive and artistic dimensions of the opera without interference.

Organizational Background

Papasian explained that the organizational issues that Orbelian is now facing first emerged in the case of the Hamazgayin Sos Sargsyan Theater, founded in 1991 and turned into a state theater in 2003. The actors of that company opposed filmmaker Vigen Chaldranyan, who was appointed to the two positions of managing director and artist director simultaneously by Minister of Culture Armen Amiryan.

This appointment, Papasian said, was “Soviet-style,” meaning forced by the ministry without taking into consideration the company’s needs. After two years of unsuccessful efforts at working together, the frustrated actors asked Chaldranyan to resign, but he refused. The matter went to the level of the ministry, by now run by Gharibyan. The latter ruled that the same person cannot be both managing director and artistic director and gave Chaldranyan the choice of which office to hold, unlike what was to happen in Orbelian’s case.

Astutely, Chaldranyan chose to remain as managing director because of the greater power of this office in Armenia, and brought in a friend of his as artistic director. However, his efforts failed because the theater company went on strike and Chaldranyan was forced to resign completely.

After this, Gharibyan was planning to close down or merge six or seven other theaters but when the news was leaked, a controversy emerged, Papasian said, and she had to stop.

Tension with Orbelian

Pressure initially was brought to bear on Orbelian after Gharibyan’s predecessor, Lilit Makunts, came to office. She famously wrote posts on the Ministry of Culture’s Facebook page in the fall of 2018 noting that the staff and executive personnel of the Opera are banned from discussing politics and holding meetings at the building. The post, so soon after the bloodless Velvet Revolution, surprised many and drew much unfavorable attention.

With the government’s decision to dismantle the Ministry of Culture, Makunts left her post as minister and soon became a member of parliament. Deputy Minister Gharibyan was left temporarily as acting minister. Gharibyan’s next move was to dismiss Orbelian from his position as executive director. He remains artistic director, but Papasian said “this means very little.” As artistic director, he will not have the right or capacity to make any deals with outside operas. He can only take care of the opera house itself, under the orders of a new managing director.

Papasian suggested that if there is no other choice than to continue the current system, at least Orbelian should hold the managing director position and hire an artistic director of his choice, thus remaining in control of the situation to exercise his unique talents. Papasian emphasized that “a personality like Orbelian with all his international celebrity and fame, and international ties all the way to the Metropolitan Opera, to mention one out of hundreds, is very important to Armenia as publicity. He has to be the executive or managing director to be able to talk with the Metropolitan people and make agreements. As such, he had brought in a lot of celebrities in the last two years to Armenia and put Armenian’s opera house on the international map. That is the most important thing for us today.” He noted that Orbelian has introduced more premieres in Armenia in two years than has been done in the past 17 years.

Papasian pointed out that financially, Orbelian has spent money out of his own pocket for his travels and for the Opera, unlike his predecessors. The Opera has a 92-million-dram debt which was inherited from the past, not created by Orbelian, Papasian said, adding, “Most probably, his predecessors have stolen everything all day long, all the time over the last 20 years.”

As far as language goes, there are many other examples throughout the world of famous directors of operas who did not speak the national language. A Japanese director of the Bastille Opera House of Paris spoke with his artists in English, for example. Papasian said, “Directors are not supposed to learn the country’s language like ambassadors. Orbelian does speak Russian and everybody understands him, so there is no problem. He speaks ‘music’ rather than Armenian, and that should be enough.”

Orbelian’s travels should not be considered a negative, but a positive, Papasian said. It is normal for someone of his stature to travel and keep relations with the outside world. Instead he could have capable deputy directors, Papasian suggested, or another method of facilitating his work. He must have had contracts in place for the next five years throughout the world when he was offered the Armenian position.

A fifth factor must be considered in addition to the abovementioned broader issues, and that is the personal one. Papasian surmised that there is a minority group connected with the Opera House which wants to expel Orbelian to control the opera itself. What role it played in creating the initial pressure on Orbelian is unclear, but Papasian says that it at present is supporting the ministry’s actions. Orbelian himself has noted that Gharibyan had a candidate in mind to replace him. The minority group is introducing additional political undertones in connection with Orbelian having been appointed during the prior regime.

Generally, Papasian said, “No big name director in the world accepts having a boss. There are many examples of important artistic personalities who are both executive and artistic director in the West.” Orbelian in particular, Papasian declared, “is a brilliant concert master and a brilliant musician. He is very well known all over the world. Consequently, letters have poured in from noted artists ranging from China to the Metropolitan Opera in New York in support of him, and this is not good for our image. In Armenia, the entire theatrical community, with all the other theaters’ directors, is standing with Orbelian.” The latter also fear that if this situation continues, a dictatorial environment will be created in the arts, and, Papasian said, they are right.

The Way Out

“In short,” Papasian concluded, “it is obvious to everyone that all the above mentioned ‘faults’ Orbelian is being accused of, i.e. the Armenian language issue, the maestro’s travels, etc., are unfounded and mere pretexts to get control of the opera house. I’m sure this will be obvious for Pashinyan as well. Already, based on the support of the entire opera house staff and all Armenian theater directors, the decision to hire a replacement for managing director has been postponed by Pashinyan. That’s a first positive step. In the future, perhaps someone may be appointed who would be more apt to conduct cultural affairs for the government, or a seasoned adviser be selected for the minister of culture.  There are intellectuals in Armenia, very intelligent and wise and learned, who know international rules and are talking about it. Some of them are saying the right things about how things are done in America, France, Britain and Japan, and the funny thing is that I, who have lived and worked outside, say that they are absolutely right, as if they’ve lived there themselves.”

Perhaps there is also a silver lining to the present controversy, Papasian added, as it calls attention to the rigid rules and regulations inherited from Soviet times. Either these rules should be changed, he said, or flexibility and exceptions should be allowed in the case of important artists. Furthermore, after the Velvet Revolution, people opposing government decisions are at least capable now to openly protest and voice their opinion. This would have been unheard of during the previous regime, or would have been forcibly repressed. The blessing in disguise would be if this incident finally triggers the much-needed change of laws for culture in Armenia

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