“The language of music is international”

This Fall American conductor Christopher Ocasek conducted Jules Massenet’s “Manon” at the Yerevan State Opera and Ballet Theater, as part of the Organization of La Francophonie Summit in Armenia. Christopher Ocasek arrived in Yerevan on the Maestro Constantine Orbelian's special invitation. We talked to Christopher Ocasek on the previous and upcoming cooperation with the Yerevan State Opera and Ballet Theater and his impressions on the country of Armenia.


Interview: Amalie Khachatryan


Performance of “Manon” in Yerevan had an astonishing success, audience could not stop applauding...

— It’s always an honor for the performers when an audience recognizes the artistry and effort put into a production through a standing ovation. I found it a testament to the performers’ quality and dedication of performance. We can’t forget, as well, to thank the audience for joining and supporting the singers and orchestra for this very special occasion – the final bows are also our way of saying thank you to them.


What were your expectations before coming to Armenia and were they fulfilled?

— Armenia is known worldwide for its rich culture. What I found when I arrived were musicians open and willing to collaborate with an outsider like me! They were willing to work, consider things from a different point of view, and make beautiful music collectively. I can’t ask for more than that.


You have collaborated with many opera companies in Europe, the USA, Asia throughout your international career. What can you say about working with the Armenian orchestra?

— I have a very special relationship with the orchestra at the Yerevan Opera that I really can’t compare with other places I’ve worked. It’s hard to put my finger on, but when we’re making music, it’s as if we’re a group of close friends making chamber music together. We’re always learning from each other, listening and reacting to one another carefully, and for this special type of communication, I have tremendous respect. What I can say is that these types of unique relationships between conductor and orchestra take time to come to full fruition and we’ve only just begun our work together. If I have the privilege of being invited back to Yerevan to continue my work with the orchestra and singers, I hope to continue on this path on which we’ve already accomplished so much.


Did you have difficulties while working at the Opera and Ballet Theatre?

— An opera house to me is like a big family. In fact, I often feel most at home in the complexities of this (sometimes crazy) world. Of course, there are challenges that every opera house faces, Yerevan being no exception. But what I believe with great conviction is that an opera house is reflective of the community in which it lives. If Armenians can support the opera house, it can in turn give back exponentially more to the people, it can represent its people on the national and international stage; a reciprocal relationship if you will. In simpler terms, great art needs people to thrive. This includes those simply seeing an opera or ballet for the first time to tried and true patrons who are at every performance to philanthropists and guests attending fundraising dinners to the very loud and proud support of private companies and governmental institutions. There is a huge change happening at the Yerevan Opera and Ballet Theatre and a remarkable potential waiting to be tapped into, about which I think much of the Armenian community in Yerevan and abroad hasn’t yet heard.

So, you asked me about the difficulties. Speaking from an international viewpoint, I’d say the greatest difficulty facing the Opera and Ballet is its desperate need for heroes. Armenia stands out for its traditions of “Anoush,” “Gayane,” “Arshak II,” for example, but the potential could and should viably extend to international recognition of all its repertoire given the immense amount of talent inside those walls. But, I believe, the Opera and Ballet Theatre isn’t in a place to do that yet because they are in dire need of the means to make it happen. From lack of instruments, to burned out stage lights, to a leaking roof, to virtually no visiting artist or artistic budget, to a desperate need to modernize and reach the level a national theater must be on to loudly and proudly represent its culture and country, the Opera and Ballet need heroes to come forward and ask how they can help.

Most importantly, opera and ballet need donations, they need phone calls and financial backing from philanthropists who believe in making a difference, they need continued support and involvement of the Ministry of Culture, and they need Armenians coming out in droves to support their talented and passionate brothers and sisters on that stage each week. I spoke about family earlier. Well, for me a family celebrates together when times are good and holds each other up when times aren’t so good. Now is a time when this family needs support, and that support must come from their family near and far.





Is it difficult to collaborate with orchestras from different nationalities and cultures, always traveling because of your international career?

— Traveling is a very normal part of my job. That part is a given. I actually look at my collaboration with different nationalities and cultures as a pure pleasure. Earlier in the year, I was in Beijing, Madrid, Washington, Miami, Vienna, among other places, and in each city I’m pleasantly reminded of just how international the language of music, of personal expression, of passionately communicating can be. Sure, we have our laughs in Yerevan when I come out trying a new phrase in Armenian (to varying degrees of success I might add), but that’s the surface. The real collaboration happens when the downbeat comes, and from there we’re all for one moment one culture.


Are there any specific national characteristics in the way different orchestras play? If yes, what are they the specific of the Armenian orchestra?

— I was told once that when pairing a wine with food it’s always best to choose a wine from the same region as where you’re eating. Applied to music, this would mean that German music is best performed in Germany, French music in France, and so on. While I think there is absolutely a relationship between a culture’s spoken language and its musical language, and while I do believe there are traditions or style that one consciously or even subconsciously “absorbs” after being in a culture long enough, I don’t subscribe to the belief that only Italian music can be properly played by Italians, for example (although I’ve heard some absolutely striking Verdi in Milan!). My observations have been that when an orchestra, ballet troupe, or singers feel connected to something, they often perform it better – and in working with orchestras, I try to build those connections into the music from the first rehearsal, especially when it’s new or quite foreign repertoire to the orchestra.

Music is, after all, a form of emotion transcribed on to a page, so we must always attach a narrative and emotional logic to what we perform. It’s this connection that I think is natural for, say, Armenians playing or singing “Anoush.” First of all, the language is inherent, but there is a sound in the ear of many Armenians that doesn’t need to be taught or explained – it’s already been “absorbed” and can therefore create a remarkably real and emotional performance when done right!


You have shared on Instagram the photos of Aram Khachaturyan’s museum that you visited during your stay in Yerevan. Where else you have been during the two-month visit in Yerevan that impressed you?

— I very much enjoyed my visit to this museum, as well as a few other museums in the city I was able to see. I wish I had more time to travel while I'm in Armenia, but the truth is I’m almost always working! I had the recent opportunity to visit Garni and Geghard, which were stunning!


You will visit Armenia in November as well. What should we expect from you next time?

— For starters, you should expect “Carmen” and “Manon,” which I’m very happy to return to conduct! That aside, my hope would be that those listening to these performances, hear the remarkable and ever-improving refinement of playing and singing, which has already come so far, but also this deep connection and passion I was talking about earlier. I must say, there is a wonderful team of conductors, coaches, pianists who all deserve immense credit for their role in the opera house, so I can certainly not take credit for all that they do and have done. All that I can bring is my experience and perspective to the projects for which I am responsible and work in an honest and respectful fashion to, hopefully, inspire the players and singers to perform at their world-class best. For that, it’s my honor to give everything I can to make it the best I can. My thanks must go to everyone in Yerevan, including the general director, for allowing me to share my viewpoints in Armenia, to the orchestra, the dancers, and to the singers for their incredible dedication to passionate performance. There is truly something magical in Yerevan and I hope in the future to be part of bringing it to greater prominence on the national and international stage.