Gerald Papasian

Operatic Roadblocks Threaten Tchouhadjian’s Legacy


By Gerald Papasian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN — Dikran Tchouhadjian’s operatic heritage is unquestionably worth adorning the stages of prestigious opera houses. For many reasons, some obvious to all (the Armenian Genocide), many manuscripts have been lost as they were never published. The five works that have survived, now at the Charents Literature and Arts Museum, are his first opera “Arsace Secondo,” known as “Arshak the Second” to Armenians (re-named “Olimpia” by the composer), his first, second and third opera-buffas “Arif’s Cunning,” “Keussé Kehya” [The Beardless Elder], “Leblebiji Hor Hor Agha” (a.k.a. “Gariné”) and his last opera, “Zemiré.”

Four of these works have been saved from oblivion … to some extent!

‘Arsace Secondo’

Written in 1868, it was first produced in 2001 at the San Francisco Opera house, albeit cut down to two hours instead of its three-hours-plus length, and sung in Armenian instead of its original Italian lyrics. It was based on the urtext [faithful to the manuscript] published by the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) of Egypt in 2000 thanks to the efforts of musicologist Haig Avakian and the Dikran Tchouhadjian Institute in Paris. In 2014, American-Armenian composer resident in Canada John Sarkissian contacted us in Paris to review Avakian’s publication and turn it into an even more appropriate performance-ready edition. Avakian’s faithful restoration is a brilliant critical edition, but lacks some additional tunes Tchouhadjian had intended, which were in sketch form (they are all included in Avakian’s publication’s appendix section). Sarkissian has reinstated those musical segments in the opera to complete the necessary gaps. Some of the Italian lyrics also had to be corrected grammatically as well as stress-wise according to 19th century Italian language and libretto canons. Two Italian authorities offered their expertise for the task gratuitously for which we are most thankful. Corrections were also made to avoid some plot discrepancies which the composer and librettist would have realized had the work been produced during their lifetime. Today, we have a complete new edition (online for the moment) which is totally ready for all practical performances.

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It must be mentioned that during the Soviet years, an attempt was made to produce it at the Yerevan Opera House (1945). This version is still a permanent part of the repertoire till today. However, it would be unjust to consider this production a world premiere since for a multitude of obvious (and sometimes not so obvious) political and cultural reasons the opera has undergone unspeakably tremendous musical changes (i.e. more than 80 percent of the music belongs not to Tchouhadjian but to Levon Khoja-Eynatyan, a Soviet-Armenian composer, and the plot, in Armenian, is completely changed by Armen Gulakian from Tovmas Terzian’s original Italian libretto).

We decided to call our institute’s final restoration “Olimpia” as intended later by Tchouhadjian himself, in order not to confuse it especially with the distorted Soviet version.

This original complete first opus, still awaits its untainted world premiere whether at the Yerevan Opera house or elsewhere.

Barsegh Tumanyan in a produciton of “Arshak II” in Armenia

‘Keussé Kehya’

Written in 1875, it was produced in 1968 and 1971 in Beirut, Lebanon, for the first time since its heyday during Tchouhadjian’s lifetime. It was a praiseworthy semi-professional community effort made possible by the local AGBU branch. Adapted into Armenian and called “Zvart,” it enabled the Lebanese Armenians to discover and enjoy this beautiful opéra comique.

The writer Armen Tarian, who adapted the opera into Armenian, had obviously invented most of the dialogue parts and had to more or less double-guess the plot. The organizers had received the scores, especially the vocal scores, from Istanbul at the time, but it seems that they had an incomplete version of the libretto at hand. There exists an Ottoman-Turkish published libretto at Yerevan’s museum, published in 1976, to be cross-checked. Apparently Tarian didn’t have that libretto in his possession, the translation of which would have helped him a lot — unless he did have the original Turkish libretto and decided to write a theatrically more interesting storyline and dialogue.

Later, in Los Angeles in 2003, the AGBU and the Lark Musical Society produced “Keussé Kehya” (“Zvart”) based on scores obtained from Lebanon, though using a different libretto. Only the producers of the L.A. version would know how close their libretto is to the original. A first look at their Armenian version of that production’s lyrics suggests that the L.A. performance follows more closely the original Turkish lyrics. They must have acquired the Turkish publication from the Yerevan museum. The difference between the storylines of the Lebanese production and the L.A. one could be that in L.A., they have also respected the Turkish edition for the dialogues and plot. We won’t be certain until someone translates the Ottoman language libretto which uses the Ottoman (modified Arabic) alphabet. Perhaps AGBU/Lark can enlighten us on this point.

As far as the music is concerned, some months ago Sarkissian discovered yet another version of the opera at the Yerevan museum. It is an entirely different and a much more vivid and rousing orchestration than the previous productions of both Lebanon and Los Angeles. It is also obvious that it’s Tchouhadjian’s last opus of this piece. A few melodies are discarded and new ones inserted instead. Unfortunately, this orchestra score’s manuscript excludes the vocal parts. Sarkissian is working on reinserting the vocal lines by comparing the whole thing with yet other orchestral or vocal materials to create a final performance ready version, this time for a full operatic orchestra.

Gerald Papasian, left, in a scene from “Garine,” the Armenian translation of “Leblebeji” in 2017

‘Leblebiji Hor Hor Agha’

This was written in 1875 and has since enjoyed a rich performance history. The orchestral parts and conductor scores were missing, though, and considered lost. All performances were orchestrated by other composers until our institute was able to find Tchouhadjian’s original orchestration in Paris and restore it. The digital form of the complete original opera was edited and compiled, yet again gratuitously, by a French musician. Along with a more updated adaptation of the libretto the final score was then lent to the Yerevan opera that produced it in 2018 for the first time since Tchouhadjian’s death in its full original version as intended by the composer.


Tchouhadjian’s last opera written in 1890 has, like “Keussé Kehya,” a relatively limited performance history in the last 90 years. In the late 1960s, Yerevan’s radio made an attempt to “improve” it, as they call it in Armenia, and broadcast highlights, once again with countless changes in the music. In 2008 a community semi-professional Armenian language performance was offered to the Los Angeles Armenians by the AGBU/Lark. Again, this work needs full-scale research work to restore it to its original Italian version. A French opéra comique and a Turkish operetta version precede “Zemiré”’s last Italian opus, which should be analyzed and cross checked before a final performance ready version is shaped.


“Arif” is the one opéra comique never performed since 1946 in Turkey (last recorded date of a performance).

A few years ago, I was contacted by the Hagop Baronian operetta theater in Yerevan, asking me if I had the scores. I told them that they were at the museum in Yerevan, 5 minutes’ walk from their theater. In the meantime, John Sarkissian, unaware and independent of the intentions of the Baronian Theater, had begun working to restore “Arif”’s manuscript score. There is also an incomplete autograph (by Tchouhadjian’s hand) vocal score and two other handwritten vocal scores copied in the 1920s.

Hearing recently about the Baronian theater project, Sarkissian handed over his restoration of the orchestral score to the organizers, noting however that there were no singing parts of soloists and chorus included in the manuscript. That had yet to be reinstated according to the available vocal scores. The big problem is that much of the choral writing in those vocal scores is written in draft form, in treble clef only, making it rather impossible to specify who’s singing; sopranos, alts, tenors or basses! The translation of the full libretto could solve this problem at least in part, but the museum doesn’t have it.

In short, all they have at the Baronian theater at this point is an Armenian translation of the song’s lyrics (rather easy to translate since they are written in Latin alphabet Turkish under the notes) but no dialogues.  No one knows who is on the stage or what is happening. A speculative and musically unrelated “libretto” based solely on the abovementioned Armenian translation of the musical numbers was prepared, commissioned to a writer who is not a musician. Alas, it is useless.

Until this issue is resolved, it is not possible to recuperate the score correctly.

Fortunately, I had obtained an original libretto from the Princeton University Library, published in 1874 in Constantinople in Ottoman Turkish (written in the modified Arabic alphabet). I recently gave it to the Museum of Literature and Art in Yerevan. But no one has tried to translate it and see what the plot is. We at the Tchouhadjian Institute have stated many times that in order to create an Armenian version, one must first translate the Turkish libretto. But we’re told that there’s no need. “The lyrics of the songs are sufficient to make us guess the storyline,” they say. Obviously that’s a most erroneous reasoning. Songs never really unfold the story in an operetta. They are usually abstract, all-encompassing themes such as love songs, soldier’s choruses, drinking songs etc. It’s the dialogues between songs that move forward the plot.

Musically there are many problems that have yet to be resolved; “Arif,” like all of Tchouhadjian’s works, needs serious editorial work.

Nowadays, there are some musicians who enjoy showing off their superiority by “accusing” Tchouhadjian of not knowing how to orchestrate. This is because they ignore the shorthand techniques of that period which takes a specialist in the field to decipher and digitalize it in a recognizable form for today’s musicians.

Tchouhadjian is a professional, a high-quality authority in classical composition and a master of orchestration. It is senseless to haphazardly decide which instrument plays what, simply based on personal taste and call it “improvements.” One needs to examine and crosscheck the score, the orchestra materials and the different versions (which are also stored in the museum), and only then, “correct” them to offer a performance ready final version.

It should be noted that in the museum there is another version of a handwritten libretto in Turkish, this time written in Armenian alphabet! Yet it is such a rough handwriting that it’s almost unintelligible. Only a cryptographer can decipher and eventually translate it. Nevertheless, Sarkissian, being familiar with both Arabic and Armenian alphabets, says that this libretto must be a different version than the Arabic alphabet Turkish one. It may be the first version of the opera, called “Sherif Agha” in the beginning (1972).

According to the performance history of “Arif,” it was first presented at Hagop Vartovian’s  Gedik Pasha theatre in 1872, revised by Tchouhadjian in 1873 and performed by his own newly-created company in 1874. Both librettos were written by Tchouhadjian’s brilliant tenor of the time, Hovhannes Ajemian, although this second revised version (at least in the modified Arabic alphabet Turkish publication) bears the name of Hovsep Yazejian on the title page as “author.” We believe that it may mean “editor” in this case.

The conclusion to all of this is that there is a dire need for further research; to compare different musical and text versions, to try to make the most accurate guesses, to fill in gaps and make professional and refined decisions so as to restore the original piece and turn it into a performance ready opera. Once that is done, and only then, should a decision be made whether to create an Armenian adaptation.

In short, “Arif” is not ready to be put on stage, unless a translator is found.

What we found out was that the Literature and Art Museum of Armenia where these endangered manuscripts are kept has no Ottoman Turkish language specialist to translate the libretti of “Arif” as well “Keussé Kehya.” Personally, Sarkissian and I tried to solicit the help of some Turkish-speaking people in Yerevan but they obviously asked for money. A lot! As Sarkissian and I, along with our non-Armenian experts, have been working for so many years at no charge on the Tchouhadjian archives, we feel that this kind of work badly needs endowments.

Dikran Tchouhadjian’s works ought to be funded by such institutions as, for example, the AGBU, the Gulbenkian Foundation, Armenia’s Ministry of Culture or even by the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger Center. Individuals cannot make such demands. Perhaps it has to come from the government of Armenia itself.

(Gerald Papasian is an award winning actor and stage director. He has translated and published many articles and works from Armenian into English and French. Papasian founded the Dikran Tchouhadjian International Institute, and he continues to work on the restoration of Tchouhadjian’s operas by gathering manuscripts long considered lost. Papasian has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Armenia in 2011, in recognition of his propagation of Armenian heritage internationally for over 30 years.)

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