This past October, Yerevan was the host of Francophonie: dozens of state leaders and thousands of guests visited Yerevan and a number of unique cultural events took place. Among them was the Armenian premiere of the brand-new production of Massenet’s famous Manon opera in the Opera and Ballet National Theater. A remarkable project is going to open a new era in the history of the 80-year-old theater with renovations, premieres and tours. About all of that, Regional Post talked to the man behind the new Opera and Ballet Theater – Grammy-2019 nominee, conductor Constantine Orbelian.

Interview : Artavazd Yeghiazaryan    Photo : Tigran Arakelyan


Do you remember your very first visit to this theater?

— It was in the summer of 1970. I was a 17-year-old teenager when I first came to Armenia and finally met my uncle, composer Konstantin Orbelyan. I went to his concert in this very theater, where I met Gohar Gasparyan, Edward Mirzoyan, and many others. And, the weather, too, was great, and I was very delighted. Then I was offered to come and study here, which I did, studying for six months at the Conservatory.


Then there were years of performing in America, after that – working in the USSR and in Russia...

— In 1990, I came to the Soviet Union to play with the State Chamber Orchestra conducted then by Andrey Korsakov. Two months later, he died of heart attack, at 43. Unexpectedly, they offered the position to me. But I didn’t know how to conduct! I met the orchestra and said I had never conducted before. The concertmaster said, “We like you as a musician, we’ll teach you how to conduct. I decided to give it a try.”

Then, the next stop was in Yerevan.


opera singer-artists-man and woman


Constantine Orbelian

Born in San Francisco, Constantine Orbelian made his debut as a piano prodigy with the San Francisco Symphony at the age of 11. After graduating from Juilliard in New York, he embarked on a career as a concert pianist appearing with major symphony orchestras throughout the U.S., U.K., Europe, and Russia.

Orbelian’s appointment in 1991 as Music Director of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra was a breakthrough event: he is the first American ever to have become the music director of an ensemble in Russia. Orbelian and his orchestras have also participated in cultural enrichment programs for young people, both in Russia and the U.S. In 2001, Orbelian was awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, an award given to immigrants, or children of immigrants, who have made outstanding contributions to the United States. He was awarded with the Order of Friendship of Armenia in 2015.

He has been chief conductor of the Kaunas City Symphony Orchestra in Lithuania since 2014. And in 2016, he was appointed the artistic director of Armenian National Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet.

Recently, baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s recording of “Rigoletto,” with Orbelian as the conductor of Kaunas State Symphony Orchestra, has been nominated for Grammy 2019 in the Best Opera Recording category.



You moved here in 2016. How did it happen?

— First, Gegham Grigoryan, the great tenor and artistic director of the theater, was my good friend of many years, whose art and personality I respected greatly. My wife was close to his family in Saint Petersburg. Also, I used to work with his daughter; we had met in Lithuania, and I can say that she’s a superstar, a brilliant opera singer. So, I knew the family. (And, I was deeply saddened by the news of his death). Then, there was a call from the Minister of Culture of that time who suggested that I come to Armenia and meet him and the first lady Rita Sargsyan. We met and talked and discussed and ended up with my taking up the position of the Artistic Director of the theater. Six months later, I became also the general director. By that time, I already knew how the theater worked by then.


Was it much different from what you had expected?

— The problem was that I didn’t know what to expect, because I had never run a theater before. And this theater is a huge establishment with about seven hundred people working, and with huge moving parts. It was very interesting for me to understand how things worked or didn’t work. Slowly, I tried to change the things that needed to be changed.


Head of the State Opera and Ballet Theater of Armenia Constantine Orbelian

Head of the State Opera and Ballet Theater of Armenia Constantine Orbelian


What was to be changed in the first place?

— We have a huge maintenance issue. The roof is leaking, the toilets have problems, finally, there is this so-called Opera nightclub, which occupies thousand meters on the first floor, while we don’t have enough room for rehearsals and don’t have space for the children’s theater. Those things for me are priority. Not only new plays are important, but also heating in the winter – it’s cold in the mezzanine! – and air conditioning in summer. The quality of pianos is bad. I mean, there are so many problems that emerge because of many years of neglect: they come up and they need to be solved.


Do you think that the theater has lost big part of its audience because of that neglect? For many the opera house is just a nice building in the center of Yerevan.

— Now, it’s not me saying, but pure statistics: Over the last 17 years the theater has only had eight new productions, four out of which have not been on after the first few performances. And now, in the coming six months we are doing three new operas and three new ballets. And they are big things. Never had Armenia seen anything like Manon we premiered in October: the grandiose stage sets with vehicles and fog and fantastic costumes!


How did you choose the project? Why Manon?

— It started with the Stage Director of the LNO, Andrejs Zagars. We’d been friends with him since I was the artistic director, so one day I just invited him to Yerevan as a guest in the frames of the Khachatourian conducting competition. He looked around, talked to the singers, gave it some thought and then came back again to discuss what we could do together. And, he had just finished the production of the new Manon with our tenor Liparit Avetisyan performing at the Stanislavsky theater in Moscow and had won the Golden Mask for that performance. Next, I had a meeting with the Stanislavsky theater about bringing it to Yerevan. Soon we had four trucks bringing the sets to Yerevan. We were planning to stage it last fall but didn’t manage. It was an extremely complicated production. I was planning to bring 25 troupe members from Moscow, but they couldn’t come. Then, we had the revolution in April. Later, we found out that Manon is the favorite opera of French president Emmanuel Macron. So, we moved the premiere to the Francophonie days.




How expensive it was?

— Much more expensive than I had first thought. Mainly, because we had to invite so many specialists from Moscow which I first didn’t know. And, as the Ministry of Culture wasn’t ready for that either, I had to cover all the expenses by myself, finding sponsors on the side. When we get into it, we get into it.


Besides the big premieres in Yerevan, the theater was also on tour this year...

— At the same time, I met Italian producer Mario Dradi, famous for the legendary Three Tenors project, and he told me about the opportunity to visit Dubai. They requested the “Magic Flute” and “Carmen,” but with some special technical requests, as their stage was previously a concert hall and had some limitations. To have it the way they wanted, I contacted my Italian friends, who made the production of the “Magic Flute” by using projections, and there it went. Again, without the Government’s help.


Constantine Orbelian


Armenian opera on tour – sounds strange to me.

— That’s because Armenian opera hadn’t gone touring for decades! Last time it was in Los Angeles 25 years ago with Gohar Gasparyan. It ended up with the investor going bankrupt and the troupe trying to collect money to come back. It was a real mess. In 2002, Norma was performed in Moscow, with Gegham Grigoryan and Anahit Mkhitaryan. So, this new touring is really a big deal for us, both for the singers and the country. Also, it turned out that this year is the 20th anniversary of Armenian-UAE relations.

The other big thing was our performance in Bolshoi. We went there to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the First Republic with the ballet Gayane. We took our phenomenal Minas Avetisyan design sets, beautiful costumes, and a team of two hundred people with Anna Hakobyan, Lilit Makounts and others. It was very moving and touching, and our dancers were fantastic. We had a huge success. To realize its great importance, you must know that the last time Gayane was in Bolshoi was sixty years ago, and it was performed by the theater’s troupe, not by our dancers. The Armenian ballet had never ever performed on that legendary stage before. That day I once again saw that our culture is our number one export product.


Who is the main audience of the theater?

— In the summer, we have lots of tourists who want to see Gayane, Anush, and Spartak. In the winter, we have more local audience. Unfortunately, we don’t have a wide variety. And, productions are not easy. For example, if we want to have Aida, we need five days to build the stage, and another five days to put it down. That means, this one performance will need ten days. Whereas, I would love to have 3-4 plays a week. For that purpose, we need some new and easily moving productions. Also, we don’t have children’s opera or ballet. But, we have already bought Karen Khachatourian’s children ballet Cipollino from Bolshoi theater, and famous Russian ballet master Genrikh Mayorov is now in Armenia to produce it, which will be followed by Nutcracker. It’s very important to bring kids closer to opera and ballet. All the big theaters have them on Saturday and Sunday mornings, where kids can have fun and understand that this is not something for adults and boring. They must feel home here.


I noticed big photographs in the mezzanine…

— It’s something new. We want to make this place interesting not only on the days of concerts. It’s a place of culture. We’ve hung thirty portraits of our famous composers and will do much more if we get back the club’s space. I already have a deal, and we are going to become a branch of the Tretyakov art gallery, with exhibitions changing every six months. Plus, a conference hall for lectures and meetings, plus a new cafe, and other staff: lots of plans, lots of potential square meters. Opera and Ballet Theater is going to shine as never before.