Garen Garibyan on the Nor Hachn school's stage

Call for Help Restores Music for Artsakh Children and a Dedicated Music Teacher Twice a Refugee

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Garen Garibyan does not give up. Although he has been forced to leave Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) twice, his opera studio project for children will continue to grow and thrive. His story is a demonstration of courage, and an inspiration.

Singer, actor, and director, Garibyan received his master’s degree at Tallinn Conservatory and lived and worked for many years in the United States. In 1992, thanks to sponsors from all over the world, he founded the Shushi Music School in Artsakh; his Shushi Music School Society, also founded in 1992, thrived until the Azerbaijani aggression in 2020 shut it down. At that time, he, his teaching staff, and students fled to Stepanakert, leaving their homes and the music school with all its instruments and teaching materials behind. There, in Stepanakert, he reopened his school in 2022, only to flee again. In September 2023, they experienced the traumatic expulsion a second time, leaving music school and homeland with only necessary belongings, this time for the Republic of Armenia.

Garibyan and his wife found refuge in Nor Hachn, 25 kilometers north of Yerevan. He was desperate. “After the terrible war and expulsion,” he recalls, “I walked the streets in Yerevan like a madman for a whole month.” Then, he found hope again. In 2022, he had been able to start over again in Stepanakert with the help of contributions coming from Germany. A call for funds had gone out from the Association for the Promotion of an Ecumenical Memorial to Genocide Victims in the Ottoman Empire (FÖGG), co-founded by human rights proponent Tessa Hofmann. The donations covered costs for meals for students, about $150 a day for 100 children. Garibyan appealed to all friends and acquaintances to help meet these costs, explaining, “We have pupils whose fathers never returned from the front, another with three children in the family who study at our school; I know you understand what is at stake here.”

Children sing of the victory of good over evil.

Following their second expulsion in 2023, again it was through Hofmann and her associates in Germany that enough funds were raised to allow him to start a third time. Garibyan wrote to potential donors: “We continue our odyssey, I opened an opera studio at a local music school, gathered the children, and have already started work on a children’s opera, which I could not finish at home in Artsakh. I have already gathered 35 children (from 8 to 14 years old), half of them from Artsakh, many from our school.” In a brief C.V., he noted he had graduated in Europe from the University of Tartu, Estonia, (medical psychology), Tartu Art College, and the Tallinn Conservatory vocal class (baritone). “I have worked in many opera houses around the world and many chamber music concerts, in Europe and in America,” he wrote, then concluded, “For 30 years I had been building our school in Artsakh, and then I had to leave our school to the Azerbaijanis.”

The crowd-fundraising effort in Germany generated enough funds to start up the project again. After learning of the success, he thanked his benefactors, writing, “Now, I have finally found myself, and this time, thanks to your outstretched helping hand, I have come to life again.”

Garen Garibyan directing “The Wolf”

A Struggle between Good and Evil

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In Nor Hachn he was able to set up shop in the local music school, and pick up the opera project from scratch. The children participating needed costumes, Garibyan required a stage equipped with set and props, lighting equipment, a piano, and certain repair work had to be done. Garibyan set to work, purchasing material for costumes, finding seamstresses to fashion them, designing a set, and finding an artist to paint it.

Beyond the material requisites, he had to educate his cast for the opera. The piece he chose to perform is an opera based on a work by the author of the short stories “Gikor” and “The Wolf,” the famous Armenian poet of the 19-20th century Hovhannes Tumanyan. He chose “The Wolf” because it deals with the struggle between good and evil. It takes place in a village high in the mountains of Armenia, and the roles in the opera are performed by all the villagers. The costumes are typical of the period, and special work is required to portray the animal characters.

Training the cast was no small task. The refugee children from Shushi who already had experience, having started with music in kindergarten, knew how to behave on stage, but the local children had no idea of what stage presence meant. They had never engaged in role-playing and had received no instruction in singing. Garibyan, himself a singer, trained voices, rehearsed with soloists and the chorus separately and daily — including Sundays — helped them learn their parts, and taught them to dance. From among the cast of children from different local schools, ranging from the fourth to the seventh grade, he did find some soloists, but soon ran into a problem. He could not find any boys ready to taken on a solo part, and decided to use girls, many of whom had very good voices. At their age, with appropriate costumes and make-up, they could pass for young boys. (One should not forget that in Shakespeare’s day, it was young boys who performed the female parts.) The two leading roles (the negative character of the Wolf, and the positive character of the grandfather) therefore went to two girls.

A traditional greeting for supporter (and author) Muriel Mirak-Weissbach

Preview for Guests from Germany

On Saturday April 20, my husband and I had just arrived for a weeklong visit to Armenia from Germany, where we had participated in the fundraising drive. In the afternoon, we travelled to Nor Hachn on the invitation of Garibyan, who had promised us “a surprise.” There was more than one surprise awaiting us.

First, as we arrived at the school, we were greeted by an honor guard of energetic drummers, lining both sides of the large staircase and beating in perfectly synchronized rhythms; then we encountered a young girl in traditional local dress who offered us bread with butter and salt and juice — a reception, she explained, that is traditional in Artsakh. Escorted into the auditorium, we were able to see for ourselves how seriously, enthusiastically, and professionally the youngsters had worked under Garibyan’s guidance.

It was not a final dress-rehearsal, since the premiere was still months away, but a series of scenes, in full costume and beautifully performed. The soloists displayed exceptionally mature, developed voices, and admirable stage presence. The chorus was also convincing, as were the dancers. Those children playing the parts of animals — the ferocious wolf and others — acted with conviction and vigor. And as the final chorus sang the song of victory, it was clear that these children knew what they were enacting — a victory of good over evil. For Garibyan the project is vital to survival; “without our culture, without music and this project, we would have gone crazy,” he said; “we could not have mastered our destiny.” As for his own role, he said, “No matter what, we will live and fight for truth and justice. I am working with children who have lost faith in the beautiful and the kind, I am trying to help them recover.”

The premiere, scheduled to take place in early June, is sure to be a success. The project also provides enrichment for the village and the local music school, truly a blessing. Provided the funding is available, the group plans to tour the region and the country with “The Wolf.”

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