*this text originally appeared in our
2023 fall print issue
On November 6, 2023, we will gather at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto to celebrate the best in Canadian opera. This year we honour baritone Gino Quilico, soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, music librarian Wayne Vogan, and industry change makers, Jaime Martino and Michael Hidetoshi Mori.
Isabel Bayrakdarian: Grace & Radiance
Sylvia L’Écuyer speaks to the Canadian soprano while Bayrakdarian is on a visit to Armenia, land of her ancestors, with her children
SL: Born in Lebanon, where you spent the first 14 years of your life before moving to Canada with your family. You graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor in Biomedical Engineering in the Spring of 1997, a few months later, you won First Prize at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Competition. Two career paths were opened to you: you chose music.
IB: It was not a tough decision. I just wanted to do music! The only thing I’d say could have been at the back of my mind was the stability. There is no job security for singers…
ARE YOU COMING TO THE RUBIES ON NOVEMBER 6?
Join us to celebrate the best in Canadian opera at
The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.
and Canadian Opera Company Concertmaster Marie Bérard,
all in collaboration with pianist Carolyn Maule.
My intuition has always been a beautiful guide for me throughout my life and I remember clearly the question that came up: do you want to be in your forties and say I wish I had? So I just said: Jump! Leap! What have you got to lose? I was jumping into something so new, so different. Music has just been so far in every sense a passion. There was nothing attached to it: no agenda, no hopes, no aspirations, just pure joy. 25 years later singing is still a passion and a joy. The engineering, however, helped me. I always knew that I was smart, and I thought, hey, if that doesn’t work, I can always go back to [biomedical] engineering. It was a pioneering field at the time.
SL: Following your passion, forgoing the traditional opera program, you won First Prize and the Zarzuela Prize at the 2000 Operalia Competition in Los Angeles. That was certainly an important stepping stone to your career, but more importantly you credit the support you got at home.
IB: Richard Bradshaw taking a huge chance on me is the thing I am supremely grateful for. After winning the MET audition, there was a possibility to apply for the MET young artists program, but Richard Bradshaw offered me exactly what I needed: one year of the Canadian Opera Company (COC) Ensemble program. I really, really needed it. I kept thinking: if I fall on my face, let me fall on my face in my hometown with my family around me to pick me up, should that happen! That experience, that young artist program at the COC, followed up with his commitment to have me sing in my hometown almost every single year afterwards meant a lot to me. That is what gave me a sense of belonging and a sense of confidence. I knew where I was coming from, I knew where I belonged.
Ⓒ Michael Cooper / Canadian Opera Company
SL: Indeed, as early as December 1997, you had been featured as a soloist on the CBC Radio Christmas Celebration with the COC orchestra and during the next five years you participated in concerts and Gala events with the company. You also sang your first Zerlina (Don Giovanni, 2000) and Rosina (Barbiere,2001) at the COC.
During those years, CBC was also very supportive; you appeared frequently on the CBC television ‘Opening Night’ program and your concerts were broadcast on the radio. For that support, you have mentioned your gratitude to CBC Senior Music Producer Neil Crory:
IB: He was a big mentor, he helped me curate repertoire custom made for me, repertoire that made me stand out. I owe him so much, I owe CBC so much. You sing somewhere and East to West, everybody gets to hear you! We are so fortunate to have that. I am so grateful to have had my best recordings on the CBC label.
SL: These recordings earned you four Junos (plus one on the Analekta label). Further Juno and Grammy nominations followed in a repertoire ranging from Baroque arias, Mozart, Latin American melodies, Pauline Viardot and Jake Heggie art songs, tangos, and of course Armenian playsongs, lullabies and sacred music.
IB: Sacred music, in particular Armenian Church music goes beyond just singing. It is a path to my spiritual world, a channel that has always provided me with inner peace, clarity of vision, fire, light. It provides a communication in my spiritual life with God. And if the communication takes the form of a melody, I think that God hears you louder, clearer, and more favourably.
SL: In 2016, the CD Mother of Light – Armenian hymns and chant in praise of Mary was issued on the Delos label. Could you tell us how this project was conceived?
IB: You know in opera sometimes one makes a pact with the devil; I made a pact with God. It started when my mom became ill. It was very sudden. It was a huge shock to our family. When all hope was taken away from us, I turned to God and in my most sincere prayer I made a deal with Jesus. I said: ‘God, you take care of my mom, I’ll sing about your mom.’
For almost three years during which my mom did not recover at all, that inner voice would not let me sleep: ‘You must do the recording. You must fulfi ll your promise’… And then everything worked out for me. My sister fl ew in from overseas, my other sister from Toronto, my brother who is a deacon in church, contributed in moving the censer for the recording. We all did that together and the week the CD was released, my mom was released from this world, she passed away.
SL: From your fi rst experiences at the COC in the 1990s, your career took you to major American and European houses in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Santa Fe, London, Milan, Paris, Salzburg, Dresden and Munich. I remember with particular delight witnessing your buoyant interpretation of Teresa in Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini at the MET in December 2003.
IB: For you to enjoy what you are doing, you need to love this gypsy lifestyle and to this day I love it.Traveling all over the world, being privileged to see the world through my singing is something I am supremely grateful for. Living in different cultures. It guides how I pick repertoire.
SL: You shared some outstanding memories: the very first time you sang on the MET stage and suddenly realized that it was your first time singing with an orchestra, singing Cleopatra at the COC with Ewa Podleś as Giulio Cesare, hearing the reaction of your 15 year old son when he learned that the voice on the Lord of the Rings soundtrack was yours: “YOU did that??”
Since 2013 however, your presence on opera stages has become scarce, even if you obviously felt totally at home there.
IB: I am a stage animal to this day, but the logistics of it became too complicated. Everyone fi nds their own balance in this profession. For me, the responsibilities of the family were a priority. My mom was basically helping me in taking care of my son, but when my daughter was born, I had no more help from her because she became ill. So the complications prevented me from giving my best and to be fulfilled. It was more a source of stress than a source of joy. But now I am directing opera, producing children’s operas and I feel that I am in it again but in a less stressful situation. I can teach my students the stage craft that I have learned from some of the best in the world; Robert Carsen, Laurent Pelly. I am still in it from a different perspective and that’s fine, that’s OK!
SL: In 2014, you became lecturer at the University of California in Santa Barbara where you have been a full professor since 2020, directing and producing operas, teaching voice, French diction, song and opera literature, and coaching chamber music. Was the transition to teaching organic for you?
IB: I have been thinking a lot about this: the natural transition to teaching, to being a mentor. And I say natural because the timing has to be so right to become a teacher. You can’t teach because you have to, you can’t teach because you can’t sing any more. I can humbly say this: I am a mentor now, in the full sense because life has been so generous to me, it has given me so much, I cannot take any more, my barrel is full. The only way I can be able to accept more is by giving. This beautiful eco-balance that I am in right now—I am so humbled and grateful for it, as well as for the ability to teach and guide young singers into the profession. As opera singers, we are naturally given a podium to say something, to sing something. It starts by touching someone’s soul, because singing is an expression of your soul. It has to come from the heart.
And now I see myself in this mid-stage where the joy both comes from touching the heart and also empowering the new generation, being the spark for them, encouraging them thinking: how can I contribute to the world around me? This is the core of my belief; wherever you go you are supposed to leave things better than when you came to it.
I say to the students it is so important that on your way to your goal, you never forget kindness. This is so important in this business, already competitive. Be kind to each other. You will meet the same people again, in various forms, in different places. You want to have a good network, you want to live the human experience, not only the singer experience. Singing is a beautiful gift of our life, but it is not our life. Our lives are much more important than that. The bigger responsibility is how you live your life.
SL: At this point in your career, you still nourish many dreams and wish to enjoy good health to realize them.
IB: The inner voice is loud again. It is a very new world we are living in. It’s changing so much, things are very uncertain for so many of us. If you want to do something, do it now. The old rules of waiting for a certain time don’t apply. We are running against time in so many ways. I truly live each day to its fullest.