Isabel Bayrakdarian

Isabel Bayrakdarian Is Experiencing a Renaissance


SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian is thrilled to be teaching, singing and performing. She has just released a new CD featuring the music of three composers about King Tigran the Great.

The CD, titled “The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia, Il Tigrane Arias,” features the music of Johann Hasse, Antonio Vivaldi and Christoph Gluck. The Kaunas City Orchestra of Kaunas, Lithuania, led by Russian-American-Armenian conductor Constantine Orbelian, accompanies her.

Armenians forget at times that Tigran the Great, born in 140 BC, created an empire that challenged Rome from the east. He ruled from 95 to 55 BC, and acquired and ruled through military prowess and clever alliances, including marrying the daughter of the king of Pontus, Mithridates VI, named Cleopatra.

It is this Cleopatra who is being celebrated on this new CD.

“The whole thing has been truly serendipitous,” Bayrakdarian said. “Life is brining me full circle. [She is] My Cleopatra, her DNA is still in me! He [Tigranes] is our king of kings.”

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“The Other Cleopatra” marks the first time that she and Orbelian, also the General Director and Artistic Director of the Yerevan opera and Ballet, had worked together, she said during a recent interview.

“In summer of 2017 he invited me to be on the jury of the Aram Khachaturian [International Competition]” in Armenia, she said. “We kept in touch about what kind of interesting project we could do. We were brainstorming ideas while looking over the scenic hills of Sonoma, since we both live in California. He said casually that there are a lot of operas written about King Tigran,” she recalled him saying.

And that started off their artistic journey.

Among composers who have written about Tigran or Tigranes as he is also known, is Alessandro Scarlatti, the score and libretto of whose opera were published but never recorded. And only the second act of a Vivaldi opera dedicated to Tigran was recorded.

The project created a spark, “which completely took over my life. And I didn’t mind it. From inception to research and recording, she said, it took two years, “which is incredibly fast.”

“So many people were at the right time and right place for this to go to the next level,” she added. “The music is wonderful.”

Born to Perform

Bayrakdarian’s conversation is marked by frequent detours to music and opera history, which she clearly savors, as well as a singularly optimistic and mystical outlook, often accompanied by a throaty laugh.

Like Orbelian, she is a multi-hyphenate — Lebanese-Canadian-Armenian-American — who now calls California home, where she is an associate professor of voice at University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB).

Performing is a love for her and one she approached both as an artist and a teacher. When asked what venue is her favorite for performance, she said, “There is no one place or one thing I favor over other. First and foremost, it is about the listener. Every single time I walk on stage, whether it is a huge, prestigious hall or a little church hall, I do not take that honor for granted. It is a gift. I receive a gift from the audience. It is a beautiful communion that happens. It is one of the most humbling experiences.”

She explained that listening to a live performance gives the feeling of veranal, or soaring to the listener.

She also stressed that artists have to give something new to the audience, almost like an education, rather than just a performance.

Bayrakdarian’s list of awards is long. She has won four consecutive Juno Awards for Best Classical Album, and her previous recording, “Mother of Light,” was nominated for a 2018 Juno Award.

Her recordings with orchestra include Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No.3 with John Axelrod conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No.2, with Michael Tilson-Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony, and Respighi’s Il Tramonto with Orchestre Symphonique de Laval.

She has also been on the Grammy-award winning soundtrack of “The Two Towers” from “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy and on the soundtrack of Atom Egoyan’s “Ararat.” Even more left field, she collaborated with the electronica band Delerium, and nabbed garnered yet another Grammy nomination. She can be heard on the BBC’s short film, “Holocaust – A Music Memorial Film from Auschwitz,” as well as her Gemini-nominated film “Long Journey Home,” documenting her first visit to Armenia.

Isabel Bayrakdarian and Constantine Orbelian


She has also won the Marilyn Horne Foundation Competition Award, Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee and the Diamond Jubilee Medals, the Arbor Award from the University of Toronto, the George London Foundation Award, Canada Council’s Virginia Parker Prize, and the Republic Of Armenia “Komitas Medal”. Most recently, she was awarded the “Movses Khorenatsi” medal, the Republic of Armenia’s highest cultural award.

She has performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera and Metropolitan Opera, Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company and halls in New York, Florence, and the Saito Kinen Festival in Matsumoto, Japan.

She holds an Honorary Doctorate from Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, and an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Conservatory of Music.

History and Serendipity

Orbelian sent a long set of research about the Tigran the Great project in Russian to Bayrakdarian, but before she had a chance to translate them, she got the score of the opera “Il Tigrane” by Hasse, a composer, she said, who is not as well known as his contemporaries Handel, or Vivaldi, but who coincidentally is a composer she has always loved.

“I have sung a lot of his repertoire. He is a singer’s composer,” she explained. “He really knew how to write for the voice because he was married to a soprano.”

She added, “I did not know he had written about Tigran the Great,” which made the discovery that much sweeter.

The next step was listening to some of the old music that they had found. Fortunately, the French and Italian departments at UCSB have specialists in baroque Italian translating, and they were able to fact check and copy the manuscript form to notation to “find out what the heck it sounds like,” she added. “Is it actually beautiful?”

But why the interest in Tigran? In the late 17th century, Bayrakdarian explained, the exotic east beckoned musicians and Abate Francesco Silvani wrote a libretto about Tigran. “Everyone was looking for exotic kings to put in operas,” she said. “I don’t know how he came to know about Tigran.”

“They [Gluck, Vivaldi and Hasse] are three very different composers. They offer such a diverse palate of interpretation,” she said. “My curiosity was peaked.”

She added, “The whole project resonated with me on so many different levels. It came together so beautifully,” she said. She praised the musicology librarian at the UCSB for help with the project.

The stylistic diversity, the theme as well as the subject matter came together as just the right fit for her. “I wanted to do something, to add something, not the same repertoire,” she said.

Aside from the different approach of the three composers, each wrote for a specific type of voice; Hasse wrote for a contralto, Vivaldi for a high soprano and Gluck for soprano, which is her forte.

Right Time to Teach

Teaching and performing are very similar, she noted. However, the time has to be right. “One should teach when they are ready to teach. You teach because you want to pass on, you want to genuinely bring [the students’] dreams alive,” Bayrakdarian said. “Only do it when you are so satisfied with your own dreams and want to give naturally.”

She noted that the first time the opportunity to teach came along was 10 years ago. “I was not at the right place to teach then. Time went on and I realized that I have so much and the moment came that I saw this is the time for me to teach.”

For Bayrakdarian, teaching is akin to spiritual nurturing. Being a mother also helps with things like being nurturing and setting limits. (Bayrakdarian has two children, ages 12 and 7.)

Her stage experiences, also, come in handy for her students. “I bring relevant experience to help them. I am happy with their successes. And I teach them solid technique.”

She values individuality, she stressed. “You should have something to say. If you are regurgitating, find out what is it you really, really want to say.”

By learning solid technique, their “instrument is free to express itself.”

“Intrinsically it is so important that you have a unique voice and naturally stand apart,” she said.

She also expressed her happiness with UCSB.

“God has placed me in a perfect place, with the freedom to follow my passion,” she noted. “I am in a creative renaissance. There are a lot of dreams that I want to accomplish.”

“I have a very curious mind. I tend to get bored quickly,” she said. That is the reason for her widely diverse discography, ranging from classical Italian and French operas to Spanish es and Armenian hymns, not to mention pop.

But, she cautioned, “I am not going to do something for the sake of diversity.”

Armenian music, does speak to her on a deep level. “Armenian music, especially if it is sacred music or art songs, has a power to unlock a special part of my soul. There is an immense spiritual strength that comes over me. It’s supremely special to me.”

She added, “There is a confidence in knowing that I own this. It’s me. It’s just knowing who you are and embracing it.”

What comes second after Armenian music is the Spanish repertoire. “It lights another kind of fire within me,” she noted. “I’ve always been drawn to it and feel so at home with it.”

Of course, she often sings in French and Italian, too. “I love the taste of French in my mouth.”

Every project, however, has to make an intrinsic sort of sense to her. “I don’t do a lot of crossover. If I am able to be authentic [I will.] I still need to see Isabel in it.”

She recalled one of the best compliments she got from a relative who had come to see her perform in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” opera as Rosina. “They said ‘That was Isabel on stage.’ The clothes had to fit me” figuratively, she noted.

From Lebanon to Canada

Bayrakdarian was born in Lebanon and moved with her family to Canada when she was 14. The experience was a positive one for her, she recalled. “There were so many opportunities. It was a great, great change for me.”

She got a full scholarship to the University of Toronto and received a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. Her family encouraged her to finish her degree so that she could have a secure future. Fortunately for her, the subject was one that was easy for her.

“We are not just one passion. We are all given so many different talents. Being exposed to different opportunities unlocks them,” she said.

“We all have more than one talent. I could do analytical equations and also sing,” she said. “No one is born with a script. You are the only one who knows what you are here to do. The answer is inside all of us. Do it fearlessly.”

Even now, she said, she is “techy.”

At the same time, she was singing in church, but without any formal vocal training. However, she relished the experience as “communicating with God. Armenian hymns are in krapar. The essence is condensed in each word. I wanted to communicate with God in full words. I wanted to finish the phrase in one breath, so I was doing breath control.”

While studying, she started taking voice lessons to be able to better control the high notes and to sing the phrases seamlessly. “I know that when you have this kind of beautiful singing, you encourage others to communicate with God. Music helps communication channels.”

Little did she think that she would go into the field professionally. It is not an easy one. “If you don’t have a strong backbone, you can get destroyed by people’s opinions, both good and bad.”

Then, she saw her first opera, and she was hooked. “I didn’t know this world existed,” she recalled with wonder.

She entered the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions the same year she graduated from the University of Toronto cum laude and she won.

Bayrakdarian takes the same spiritual, practical and dedicated approach to her children. “I feel I am a guardian to those children. I plant as many seeds in those children as possible. Eventually they will choose what seems should blossom and grow. They have to make that choice,” she said. “We are only given our children for a short time. I am there to guide them to make good choices in life and to be good human beings.”

She called her children “great teachers.”

With the coronavirus lockdown, all promotional concerts and appearance for her new record has been cancelled through July. “Let’s see what September brings,” she said.

She expressed the universal frustration at the virus crisis. “It is truly surreal. Our sense of reality has turned upside down. I am taking it one day at a time. I am still working toward my future projects.

Concerts that are still not cancelled include on September 12, in Saskatoon, Canada, and September 25 in Boston, with the Odyssey Opera, at Jordan Hall.

Moving forward, she said she is working on two projects, one that is more scholarly in nature and another that is connected to her Armenian heritage.

“The Other Cleopatra: Queen of Armenia, Il Tigrane Arias” is available everywhere on the Delos label. To hear snippets of her new CD, visit

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