Conductor Constantine Orbelian in action

Four-Time Grammy Nominee Constantine Orbelian Excited to Take Helm of New York City Opera

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NEW YORK— Constantine Orbelian is a man with a plan; he is fully immersed in his plans as the new conductor and music director of New York City Opera (NYCO). He is also happy that he is finally back home in New York.

As with the rest of humanity, all the plans and programs of the past year have been affected by the worldwide COVID pandemic.

Orbelian will conduct his first NYCO production, a newly created version of “Rigoletto” on Sunday, August 29, at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice in Kingston, NY, followed by an encore performance on Friday, September 3 as part of Bryant Park’s annual Picnic Performance series.

Orbelian said that he hoped by the fall and winter, normal concerts would resume.

Orbelian has had a storied career, from a piano prodigy to conductor, taking his talents from his native San Francisco to Moscow, Yerevan, St. Petersburg, Kaunas (Lithuania) and back.

Orbelian recalled that as a student at Juilliard in the 1970s in New York, he would attend NYCO performances, where he heard some of the greats, including Beverly Sills, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo.

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“All the great artists made their debuts there,” he said.

And the price is right: “It is cheaper than the Met [Metropolitan Opera],” he noted.

The company was founded in 1943 and dubbed “The People’s Opera” by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Orbelian noted that the mayor’s father, an Italian immigrant, Achille La Guardia, was an opera singer and therefore the mayor had a personal interest in the arts.

It was chance which led him to the new position.

Conductor Constantine Orbelian

Michael Capasso, the general director of NYCO, had been a friend for several years. He ran into Capasso in Moscow in 2019 where Orbelian was conducting a concert featuring Armenian-Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian (daughter of the late Armenian tenor Gegham Grigorian) and another program featuring Maltese tenor Josef Calleja, who is a frequent performer at the Met.

There, Capasso told him about the open position and suggested he was right for the NYCO.

Orbelian has been the chief conductor of the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra in Lithuania since 2014.

The position is one he loves, he said. “I love Lithuania,” he said, and Kaunas City Symphony, he added, “is very, very, very comfortable and [of a] high-end caliber.”

Orbelian added, “It has become my family.”

With the orchestra, Orbelian has received four Grammy nominations in the last decade for opera and solo vocal recordings, including one of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” with his close friend and frequent collaborator, the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who tragically died of cancer in 2017.

Orbelian has a new record out with Kaunas City Symphony on Delos Music, “Poison D’Amour,” featuring Belarusian mezzo-soprano Oksana Volkova performing arias from, among others, Saint-Saens, Gounod, Bizet, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky.

Conductor Constantine Orbelian with the late Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in concert in Red Square in 2013

New Beginning

Orbelian has bounced between the US and Russia for decades. He was born in San Francisco in 1956 to an Armenian father and a Ukrainian mother who were forced to leave the USSR after World War II.

In 1991, he made history as he became the first American to be appointed music director of an ensemble in Russia when he took the helm at the Moscow Chamber Orchestra. It was a position he held until 2010.

He received the title Honored Artist of Russia in 2004, a title never before bestowed on a non-Russian citizen. In May 2010, Orbelian led the opening Ceremonial Concert for the Cultural Olympics in Sochi Olympic Games in 2014.

Orbelian turns 65 in August and is excited for this latest chapter.

Another new chapter is that his son will get married later this summer in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in addition, he and his wife, violinist Maria Safariants, will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the St. Petersburg Palace Festival, which the two cofounded.

“It’s a very exciting time,” he said. “There is a great renaissance of the arts and people are ready to get out.”

Orbelian praised the NYCO for being of its time, paying attention to the mood of the city, such as the production of the opera “The Central Park Five.”

“Hopefully we can get back on the arts scene. Everyone wants the New York City Opera to thrive. We need this great organization lifted up,” he said.

Already, he said, there are 18 opera productions with many sets and costumes that are ready to go.

There are also plans to move to the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center.

“It is a very convenient venue for the larger operas and acoustically it is fantastic,” he noted. In addition, the stage will make transformations and changes of settings easier.

“The first thing to do is to get our feet back on the ground. Let’s start slow. I am looking forward to doing recitals in the city in different venues,” he said.

Among those is the opera “Isabeau,” by Pietro Mascagni, with a libretto by Luigi Illica.

Another opera on deck for this winter is the world premiere of “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” opening in January at the Edward J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, with the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene.

He had high praise for “Finzi-Continis,” which is based on the 1970 film by Italian director Vittorio de Sica and co-written by Giorgio Bassani, who wrote the novel on which  the film was based. The story is about an aristocratic Italian-Jewish family in Italy when the Fascists come to power.

With Canadian-Armenian soprano (and frequent collaborator) Isabel Bayrakdarian

“It is really wonderful, and the company is very strong,” Orbelian added.

Orbelian noted that he is on the audition committee for the Premier Opera Foundation Awards, through which he can find and discover a lot of young, talented performers.

He wants to combine the strengths of the opera company and recitals with special projects involving Armenia. There is no reason, he said, a special program could not be performed featuring works by Romanos Melikian (the first artistic director of the Yerevan Opera and Ballet Theater) and Komitas.

“I want to forge relationships with opera houses around the world,” he said.

The pandemic has created a huge problem for performers who have lost their livelihoods.

“I feel so bad for the artists who have been unplugged,” during the lockdown, Orbelian said. “There are so many musicians in New York City.”

He hopes to use his platform to give deserving Armenian soloists a stage in New York.

“My dream is to produce ‘Anoush’ here, utilizing technology so that it is very traditional in feel but not hard to take to Boston, LA or elsewhere in the US.”

He stressed, “That’s where my heart lies.”

He noted that there are plenty of excellent Armenian stars he would love to bring to the NYCO stage, including Asmik Grigorian, who he said, “is becoming a superstar” in the opera world.

Armenian Turbulence

He had been appointed the artistic director and director general of the Yerevan Opera Theatre in 2016 by the regime of Serzh Sargsyan, with the specific involvement of the latter’s wife Rita, who was a musician.

“Once the revolution took place, they [the new regime] targeted me and attacked me,” he said.

Orbelian does not like to dwell on the difficult times that he went through in Armenia though he sounds hurt and baffled by his illegal firing. He filed a lawsuit against Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Acting Culture Minister Nazeni Gharibyan and was eventually reinstated as the head of the Yerevan Opera Theatre in January 2020. He returned to Armenia where he stayed until March 18, 2020, at which time he left before all travel came to a halt.

Instead, he speaks wistfully of what had been accomplished there during his tenure and how stopping that momentum would affect so many artisans, musicians and others.

He had been asked to resign by then Culture Minister Lilit Makunts, since, as she said, Orbelian’s appointment as  both artistic director and director of the theater, was “illegal.” He still expresses shock since clearly he had not created his contract and position but the state had.

A shocked Orbelian continued to focus on his schedule, taking the troupe to the Bolshoi in 2018 with the Aram Khachaturian ballet “Gayane” marking the centennial of the First Armenian Republic.

In addition, Orbelian had already signed a contract to take the ensemble to Dubai and later Kuwait.

“They had not toured for 20 years,” he said. That tour, he said, “was a huge success.”

He was able to complete the tours and as funds were scarce, paid for the new productions himself.

Next, he helped stage Karen Khachaturian’s ballet “Cipollino,” which was “just fabulous” with “beautiful costumes and fantastic choreography.”

The hard work paid off. “The theater never worked so intensely, and we were all sold out,” he said.

“It gave so many people work, and we made everything in Armenia,” he said. Aside from the staff, dancers and musicians at the theater, maybe another 100 were working on sets and costumes and now, again, they are unemployed.

During his time in Armenia, he was present for some of the major events there, including the Aurora Foundation concert, as well as the Francophonie Summit there in 2018, which concluded with a gala concert attended by many world leaders.

There were many demonstrations for his reinstatement.

Now, all he wants is a safe Armenia. “I want things to get back to normal in Armenia, especially, and everywhere so that people in our profession can calmly work and do our best in pursuing opera and ballet without worrying about” war and attacks.

“It is such a disaster. What can I say? I want everything to come back to the way it was,” he said. “We were really on a roll. My goal was to make Yerevan the greatest opera house in the region.”

The opera house, he said, “is the gem of our culture.”

“I want to do whatever I can for these people [at the opera in Armenia] because they deserve it,” he said. “It is just so sad — so, so, so tragic,” what has happened in Armenia.

Many performances by Orbelian are on YouTube, including ones with Asmik Grigorian and Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Netrebko as well as “Cipollino” in Armenia.

To learn more about the NYCO, visit www.NYCOpera.com.

 

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