Helen Ispirian

Helen Ispirian: ‘I Feel Strong Connections with Armenian Culture’

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YEREVAN / BERLIN — Helen Ispirian is a singer, actress and filmmaker. Born in Ulm (Baden-Württemberg, Germany), she studied singing, drama and dance in the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna, as well as music pedagogy at Berlin University of the Arts. She worked in theaters in Germany (Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Schweinfurt, Berlin) and took part in several projects abroad (Vienna, German Theatre Almaty, Meyerhold-Centre Moscow). It was also in Moscow, where Helen founded her chanson-folk band GASTARBAiTERKA – Helen & Guys. They have performed in clubs and festivals in Ural and Siberia as well as at the Moscow International Film Festival.

Helen also has acted in some films and worked briefly at a company making documentaries, before she directed two films.

Currently, Helen lives again in Berlin, where she performs with her female ensemble OrgaVoce (Soprano, Mezzosoprano, Organ) early and contemporary music and sings in professional choirs. She also is working as a voice teacher and is conducting two amateur choirs.

Helen, first we met in Yerevan in 2001. At that time, you were Kurkjian, but for long time you are Ispirian, which is not your husband’s surname. Why then change your last name?

In 2008, when I learned that my father’s name by birth was not Manuel Kurkjian, but Rafael Ispirian and that his birthplace Alexandrette, as written in his passport, was not the place where he was really born, I became so curious that I started to explore my father’s family story and at the same time the tragic happenings in world history, which influenced that story. During that time, I decided to change my name back to the name Ispirian — first only as an artist, but in 2019 I have followed formally the procedure to change it in my passport.

Being half Armenian, half German, how would you describe your connections with your father’s country?

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Although I don’t have relatives in Armenia itself, but in Lebanon, England and Canada and in the cemetery in Jerusalem, I feel strong connections to the Armenian culture. In my childhood I was not so conscious about it, but when I was invited the first time to an art project to Yerevan, I was very happy for the experience and exchange with Armenian artists and people. Since I started to learn more about my family’s story, I got still more involved.

And how does your ethnicity impact your acting?

Well, I do not that much acting anymore, but more music, a field, where it doesn’t depend so much on how you’re looking. I felt that casting directors didn’t know what to do with me — I don’t look like a typical German, but not typical foreign either. I have played various roles, but I cannot say I have a very successful acting career. There are not many female parts in films and even in theatres it’s getting harder to find jobs. So, I was tired of asking to play roles and decided to create my own projects. It was never my plan to become a director; I just had the urgent need to tell stories. And somehow, my stories and projects always reflect a multicultural, multidisciplinary environment, no matter it’s film or music.

The second time you were in Armenia in 2011 for speaking about your documentary film project in Golden Apricot Film Festival. In what phase it is?

My documentary film “Homeport” unfortunately has been frozen for very long. That’s a pity, because it started so well and so many professionals on a high level were interested in it and supported me. But I couldn’t find a reasonable budget for it and I spent so much time on that. Anyway, as time was running, in 2013 I managed with a super low private budget and some help of great people, like George Hintlian from the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem, Jordan Airlines and my camerawoman Mareike Müller to do some shooting in Israel and Lebanon. I even found some family members in Beirut. Still, I couldn’t find money and time to finish the film. For my short film, I spent several months after the shooting only for editing and postproduction. I cannot afford this now for a long film, but I hope, one day, I will.

You sing German, Russian and French songs. From time to time you ask me questions on some Armenian songs too, singing and teaching them.

Recently we performed a Komitas song Alagyaz with OrgaVoce and I also taught one piece to my amateur choirs. As I don’t speak and read Armenian, it takes more time and for concerts with Armenian music, and it also needs a context. If I could choose, I’d like to sing more Armenian music. Last year I was invited by the Armenian community to sing Krunk by Komitas at the official memorial celebrations in Berlin.

For Diaspora Armenians it is unusual to live in Russia – how was that experience?

It was a great time. I came as a student to Moscow and started my band. Then I decided to stay longer. In Germany I’m not so much seen as an Armenian, because German is my mother tongue and people don’t know much about Armenia. In Russia, they do and usually Russians would appreciate my double ethnic origins. And it was also nice to meet Germans or Armenians in Russia.

My impression is that wherever you live, in Germany or Russia, you are always in touch with Armenian art professionals.

Yes, that’s true — just right now I was so lucky to get pictures by the Armenian artist Zara Manucharyan, which we used for our poster to announce the next concerts with OrgaVoce.

Last year you presented your first film “Hear Us Sweet Freedom!” at KIN female directors’ international festival in Yerevan winning the first prize. I was impressed by the daring experimental approach to the crazy covid times you have in your kind of anti-utopic musical film.

Thank you very much, it was a big surprise that my film won — that’s such a great honor. In fact, the film is an ensemble work — the right story at the right time with lots of heart from great international artists, like Timothy Sedgwick (director of photography, Germany), Evangelia Papadopoulos (choreographer, Greece), Karolina Juodelyte (organist/actress, Lithuania) and many others. Recently, the film was presented in New York City at the Socially Relevant Film Festival and can be watched online for a limited time, too.

In March you were part of OrgaVoce concerts, dedicated to all Ukrainian, Armenian, Russian and all the other mothers in this world who suffer unbelievably. I am sure it was thanks to you that Armenian mothers also were remembered. As we see, the civilized world almost did not care about the war in Artsakh, unlike that of in Ukraine.

Yes, that’s right. As I’m doing most of the organization and PR for OrgaVoce, I posted the dedication as you mentioned it. We are performing Stabat Mater by Pergolesi. And it seemed to me an appropriate occasion to remember apart from the holy mother all mothers, who are in horrific pain. Of course, Armenians or those, who are connected to this people, are suffering again from the ignorance of the world. The unbelievable attention and solidarity, which the world is giving exclusively to Ukraine, intensify the Armenians feelings that they are left alone and forgotten in their David and Goliath-fight. Where has the world been in 2020 and why doesn’t it pay attention even now to the aggression of Aliyev and Erdogan — why they don’t care about Armenians? I guess, it is not only because Ukraine is bigger, but because it is much closer to Germany than Armenia is, and this war has huge effects on our personal lives. But the main reasons are the mass media and politics. After two years of permanent covid-news, we have round the clock reports now about the war in Ukraine. It’s much more comfortable to paint black and white. As about Armenia, people don’t know much and it unfortunately has no geopolitical significance for Europe…

 

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