When I brought up the subject of Spain with soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian in a recent telephone conversation, her response was immediate and tinged with nostalgia. “When I think of Spain,” she replied, “I immediately smile. I feel warm sunshine on my face. I feel nothing but happiness, joy, freedom. My time spent in Madrid was a very special time in my life – full of fun, adventure and romance. I loved it.”
Bayrakdarian’s obsession with Spain – Madrid in particular – is deep-seated. It seems to be in her blood. In fact, she has a passion for all things Spanish – its music, its dance, its language, its food; its culture;… Locals have told her that she even looks like a Madrileña.
This all bodes well for Bayrakdarian when later this month she takes on – for the first time – the demanding role of Salud in Manuel De Falla’s dramatic two-act Spanish opera, La vida breve (The Short Life) presented by Toronto’s VOICEBOX/Opera in Concert.
It was Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director of VOICEBOX/Opera in Concert, who invited Bayrakdarian to try out the role of Salud “I did not know the opera, but all of my experiences with Opera in Concert have been so positive, that I said ‘yes’. I did Thomas’ Mignon with them several years ago; and then I did Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites before doing it in Chicago and then later on with the Canadian Opera Company. And even earlier, while a student, I sang in the OIC Chorus!
Bayrakdarian, of course, is well-known as the Lebanese-born soprano of Armenian heritage who launched her professional career in Toronto with the Canadian Opera Company. From there, she went on to win numerous awards, including the top prize at Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition in 2000. Debuts with the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the San Francisco Opera, La Scala, the Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Salzburg Festival, and others, quickly followed.
During the years between 2000 and 2003, Bayrakdarian was performing a lot in Europe and spending only about ten percent of her time in her home base of Toronto. Madrid (Spain’s capitol and largest city)became her second home. It was also in Madrid that Bayrakdarian met her future husband, Serouj Kradjian, a successful pianist, accompanist, composer and arranger with a dynamic career of his own. And whenever she had a break between engagements, she would go to Madrid to be with him.
Not being one to sit around and do nothing, Bayrakdarian used her spare time to explore the city and its cuisine, to study the Spanish language, and to dance. “Yes, flamenco dance is fantastic! Almost every night I took flamenco lessons. The rhythm, the power, the intensity, the ebb and flow… You feel that you could conquer anything. It is so sexy to perform.. I still have my dress and shoes…with the nails embedded in the heel and toe to reinforce the percussiveness of the dance. It’s wonderful.” Would she ever dance flamenco on stage? “Let’s put it this way,” she laughs, “I was born in Lebanon , so what do I know? I know a lot about belly dancing. Would I ever try it on stage? Never.”
As for Spanish vocal music in general, Bayrakdarian feels an instinctive kinship with it. “I did not grow up with Spanish music,” she says, “but I know that the first time that I started to look at and study Spanish repertoire, it simply felt so right for me. I felt that I could take the same risks as I do when singing Armenian music. Plus there is a sentimentality to Spanish music that I identify with.”
For much of her stage career, Bayrakdarian has stuck largely – although not exclusively – to the music of Rossini, Handel, and Mozart. Salud – the protagonist in De Falla’s La vida breve – is a heavier, more dramatic role, but with maturity and experience, Bayrakdarian has learned how to pace herself. “You have to let the audience feel the emotion while keeping your own emotions in check.” she says. “In this case I am glad that I am doing the De Falla with piano accompaniment first – to test the waters – before embarking on a performance with orchestra. I think had I done it ten years ago, it would not have been a good idea But now I’m really enjoying myself.
“For me,” Bayrakdarian continues, “having children definitely changed the tessitura of my voice. As a bird, I no longer like sitting on top of the tree so much. I like the middle branches more. Of course I still love to soar above the trees and to come back down – as I do with my baroque and bel canto roles – but I don’t feel comfortable anymore with the higher tessitura. It’s just too much work.”
As a soprano, life was good to Bayrakdarian. “Yes, what a glorious journey I’ve had singing my Susannas and my ‘ina’ roles (i.e., Despina, Zerlina, Norina). I’m very blessed and very grateful to have accomplished so much from such a young age. But for the next chapter in my career, it will be written from the point of view of where my voice feels the best. Beside, labels don’t matter If you sound good. And if you sound good, who’s to say it’s not right for you.”
In many ways, Bayrakdarian’s return to Toronto is like going back in time. “When I started to study voice in Toronto,” she explains, “there was a huge controversy over whether or not I should be trained as a soprano or as a mezzo. For me, however, I’ve always liked this middle register. Salud is a role which can be sung by mezzos; and it can be sung by sopranos. A lot of it rests in the middle register, but it has quite dramatic high notes. It has a high C that has to be sung out. But the main part lies in the middle.
So in the future,” she says, “you will hear me sing repertoire that will probably be different than what I have sung so far and what I have always been identified with. For example I will not do any more Mozart. It is not something that I’m interested in doing right now. No, it is repertoire like Salud and Carmen – roles that are done by mezzos and sopranos – that intrigue me. I’m not going to sound like a mezzo; but I’m also not going to sound like other sopranos who try to do it.
As for La vida breve? “Oh my goodness! There are moments in the opera that bring to mind a Hollywood movie script: a woman stands on top of the cliffs, the wind whipping her hair and her skirt. She’s standing strong in the wind, tears flowing down her cheeks, defiant in her love for her beloved despite the fact that he has cheated on her…” Heady stuff for sure.
As she has many personal obligations both in Toronto and California, Bayrakdarian’s season is devoted mainly to recital and concert work – as opera requires too much time away from home. She and her husband, Serouj, have an active, young family including a 2-year-old daughter (Leah) and a 7-year-old son (Ari). As well, her mother – the Matriarch of the Bayrakdarian family – suffered a severe stroke and has been in a coma since January 2013 and requires constant care. To add even more to her schedule, Bayrakdarian was recently appointed a part-time teaching position at UCSB (University of California Santa Barbara).
As for the future, Georges Bizet’s Carmen is foremost in her mind. “Yes, Carmen is something I want to do and would love to do – but it has to be done my way. It would be fantastic, I assure you, because it would be driven by my belief in the music. It fits me perfectly. And I don’t have to be any one else but me.
La vida breve will be given only one performance: on Sunday, November 30 at 2:30 pm at the St. Lawrence Centre. Details here.