Shake Makarian in Iran

Shake Makarian: Opera, Piano and Ikebana in Iran


YEREVAN — Lyrical soprano and pianist Shake Makarian (born in 1931 in Kerman, Iran) occupies a place in the history of Iranian opera and classical music. She is the daughter of Araks Makarian (1907-2010), an active figure in the Iranian-Armenian community and the first professional make-up artist in Iran.

Shake Makarian began her musical career studying piano at Tehran Conservatory. In 1951 she went to Italy to study piano and vocals at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory of Rome. Returning to Iran in 1957, Makarian performed as a singer and pianist with Tehran Symphony Orchestra and gave recitals for the Tehran Philharmonic Society, Goethe Institute, Youth Palace and appeared in several TV and radio programs, as well as actively participated in Armenian community events. She also had concerts in Italy, Greece and the US, performing opera arias and Armenian songs.

In 1971, Makarian graduated from Tehran University with a degree in musicology. She made her opera debut in Italy, in the city of Barga, during the International Festival in 1973, and sang at the Tehran Opera’s Roudaki Hall until 1978. She has taught classical vocals and piano in Tehran for about 35 years.

My meeting with Shake Makarian took place in the Yerevan apartment of the singer and her sister, pianist Ruzanna Makarian-Hovanesian.

Dear Mrs. Makarian, it is with great pleasure that I read your mother’s memoir, Ashes of Memories, published in 1998 in Boston. It is a highly recommended book for those interested in the Armenian diaspora and Iranian-Armenian community history.

My mother, Araks Makarian, wrote that book at the age of 82-83; she wrote it from memory, without having notes. She lived 103 years and six months. She was a very brilliant person, very strong, knew languages, attended Armenian and French schools, always participated in artistic and national events. After the death of her father, she went to Paris alone, studied make-up artistry and opened the first make-up salon in Iran. In general, there were many cultural figures in our family. My paternal grandfather emigrated to Persia from the ancient Armenian town of Agulis (now in Azerbaijan) at the end of the 19th century and founded the country’s second Armenian-language newspaper called Astgh Arevelian (Eastern Star). Satenik Asryan, my great-aunt, was also known for her public and cultural activities in the life of the Armenian community in Tehran.

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How would you describe being an opera singer in Iran?

It was terribly difficult. The usual theatrical intrigues were not lacking, but the opera stage is an extraordinary place where you forget all those difficulties.

Weren’t you asked to change your last name as a singer?

No, maybe because I did not have a world reputation. For example, the husband of the Iranian shah’s sister, who was the Minister of Education of Iran, asked composer and conductor Loris Tjeknavorian to use only his first name. However, when writing about me in the press, they did not emphasize my being Armenian, but if necessary, they remembered.

Shake Makarian

In those years, was it accepted for Iranians to go to Europe for classical art education?

Yes, many went. I first went to Italy to study piano with my sister, but my voice was discovered and I started taking vocal classes. I was lucky to go on stage with the singers of the Italian opera. Once I learned that the famous Italian baritone Giuseppe Taddei was going to perform in Puccini’s opera “Gianni Schicchi.” I asked them to give me one of the small roles. They were surprised that I was asking for such a small role, and I said it is an honor for me to go on stage with Taddei, I want to learn from him.

In addition to studying at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory, I attended the Siena Summer Music Academy and participated in the Barga International Festival in Tuscany, where we spent a month preparing for performances. The first performance I starred in was the staging of Benjamin Britten’s “Let’s Create an Opera.” On the last day of the festival, we went to Barga Church with the participants to sing some songs. There was one very old harpsichord to accompany the Haydn and Bach. And since it was very bad acoustic and I did not have an accompanist either, I said I would sing Armenian church songs. They were very happy. I started walking around the empty church to see where the acoustics were best and started singing the songs of our liturgy. In that city we were known as foreigners, participants of courses, so the next day the locals told me: “How interesting your Persian songs were!” I had to explain to everyone that the Persians are Muslims, my songs are Armenian.

I learned from your mother’s memoir that you met Aram Khachaturian in Rome.

In the 1960s, Aram Khachaturian had a wonderful concert at the Audience Hall in Vatican. It was very surprising to see that the Armenians of different cities of Italy came to that concert. One day the Armenians gathered in a cafe to meet with Khachaturian. They told me to take my notes just for case. And there was an opportunity to sing, so I sang Komitas’ Garun a (It is Spring), and Aram Khachaturian’s wife, Nina Makarova, accompanied me. Khachaturian asked me where I learned to sing. “First in Iran, then in Rome,” I replied. “Do you have a conservatory in Iran?” Khachaturian wondered. “We do.” “Do you have a concert hall, a symphony orchestra?” Khachaturian asked again. “We have, and your piano concerto was played by Raffi Petrosyan, and Ruben Gregorian conducted it. But, sorry, master, why are you surprised?” Aram Khachaturian said: “Once in Moscow I met with a general of the Shah of Iran, who said to me, ‘Unfortunately, we do not have a concert hall or an orchestra, otherwise we would have invited you.’ Now I do not know who to believe.” And I said: “It has to do with politics.” On that word, Aram Khachaturian said: “Hey girl, go take your sit!” (laughs).

Indeed, even now many people hardly believe that in the middle of the last century Tehran had centers of classical art. Has the history of the Iranian Opera House been written?

I doubt it. Very few have preserved something, because after the Islamic Revolution our recordings and photos were destroyed. Now some young people are interested, they have started collecting posters, program books and pictures. Maybe they want to create something like a museum. By the way, Maritsa Sanosian, Hakint Vardanian, Hila Gharakhanian, Alenush Melkonian, Sargis Ghookasian, my cousin Ruben Aghabekian and Vahe Adamian sang at the Iranian opera at different times. And in general there are many interesting things to write. Operas were presented at the Roudaki Concert Hall in Tehran, both in the original languages, in Italian, Czech, and sometimes in translations into Persian. By the way, I also played my favorite role in Smetana’s opera, “The Bartered Bride,” presented in the Czech language. Iranian composers also wrote operas, and an Austrian composer named David wrote an opera in Persian. Sometimes Iranian television filmed opera performances, for example, “Madame Butterfly,” where I played the role of Suzuki.

The most important thing was that at Tehran University I wrote my thesis on musicology in Persian about Komitas. It was the first time that a thesis about Komitas was written in that language. It was published in a separate book 10-15 years ago. I brought copies to Yerevan and presented over to the library of the National Conservatory for the use of Iranian students.

And after 1978 you only taught piano.

Yes, although there were rare concerts in the community. I left the stage at the best time of my career, because I have never liked when old singers come on stage, and people say: ah, you should have seen him/her younger in time!

From left, Ruzanna Makarian-Hovanesian, Artsvi Bakchinyan and Shake Makarian (Photo by Suzy Sahakian)

And how did you get close to Charles Aznavour’s family?

While in Paris, my mother met an Armenian family, who were very close to Charles’s mother, Knar, and sister, Aida. Through this family we also got acquainted with the Aznavourians. One year, they invited my mother and my sister Ruzanna to their home in the south of France. Aznavour’s father sang well and played the tar, and since my mother also sang well, one day a song contest was organized. There were many guests in that summer house, 30-40 people sat down to dinner every day. Once Charles, my mother and Ruzanna spoke Armenian around the table, and a French woman present said: “You cannot do it this way, you speak a language that we do not understand.” Charles said. “This is an Armenian house; we speak our mother tongue in our house.”

When Charles came to Tehran, we met every day. He was a very down-to-earth person. Charles once said that he was going to the summer house of a very rich Armenian family for a cocktail party organized in his honor, in the Armenian neighborhood of Vanak in the northern part of Tehran. He left, but in 15 minutes he came back to us and said: “Everyone wanted to show me their properties, I have nothing to do there.”

Apart from song and piano, you have performed in another field.

Ikebana! A Persian woman studied at the Sogetsu School of Ikebana in Japan and returned to Tehran to offer classes. This course lasts for eight or ten years, everyone is surprised that putting a flower in a vase can take so long. I specialized not only in ikebana, but also was awarded the high title of ikebana teaching, being the first Armenian woman to receive that order.

Thank you, Mrs. Shake, for an interesting conversation. I hope that one day your activity in Iran will be appreciated.

Yes, they already appreciate it. In 2016, at the initiative of the Ministry of Education of Iran and the House of Music, an evening in honor of six famous classical singers, including me, took place in Iran. We were awarded an order. There was another Armenian among those six, singer Shake Harutiunian.

I think it is encouraging that in a country where a soloist woman singer does not have the right to go on stage, singers are honored today. I wish you to be in the homeland more often and reach the age of your mother in a healthy state! 

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