Preparations Underway for World Premiere of Arshak II at San Francisco Opera

General Director Lotfi Mansouri announced that the San Francisco Opera will present the American debut of Armenian composer Tigran Chukhadjian’s Arshak II during the 2001/2002 Season at the War Memorial Opera House.

The opera will be performed for the first time in the composer’s original version and sung in Armenian for six performances–coinciding with the celebrations surrounding the 1700th year anniversary of Armenia’s adoption of Christianity. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a national religion.

"I first heard the rich tradition of Armenian music as a young boy in Persia–where Armenian musicians and artists were also my first exposure to Western classical music–and I am delighted to have the opportunity to bring this unique work by a currently little known composer to Western audiences," said Mansouri. "This opera is full of spectacle–pageantry. Political intrigue and betrayal in the grand operatic tradition of Verdi–of whom Chukhadjian was a contemporary and great admirer." He continued–"I believe that San Francisco audiences will find Arshak II a delightful part of the operatic repertoire and I hope to see this work produced by other companies throughout the world."

In association with this project–San Francisco Opera has formed a Cultural Advisory Committee made up of distinguished scholars who are professional authorities on Armenian history–literature–art and culture. This committee will be available to advise the Company in the process of developing its production of the opera. The members of the committee are: Richard Hovannisian–Professor of Armenian and Near Eastern History–University of California–Los Angeles; Lucy Der Manuelian–Professor of Armenian Art and Architecture–Tufts University; Kevork Bardakjian–Professor of Armenian Studies–University of Michigan; James R. Russell–Professor of Armenian Studies–Harvard University; and Dikran Kouymjian–Professor of Armenian Studies–Fresno State University.

In 1997–Gerard Svazlian–a violinist in the San Francisco Opera Orchestra–began exploring the possibility of a production with Mansouri. Mansouri and the Company proceeded to appoint an Arshak II Liaison Committee chaired by Julie Kulhanjian and Denise LaPointe to interface between the Opera–the Armenian Community and the community at large. They are spearheading efforts to prepare and coordinate a rich and exciting collection of activities for the opening weekend–including a gala and other civic and cultural events. David Balabanian–Arshak II Liaison Committee member commented–"With so many operas to choose from–including works by many well-known composers that are never performed–it is remarkable and wonderful that one of the world’s leading opera companies has chosen to perform Arshak II."


Composed in 1868 to an Italian libertto by the Armenian poet Tovmas R. Terzian (who later published his Italian text along with an Armenian translation)–Arshak II is loosely based on historical events in Armenia during the 4th century surrounding the violent struggles waged by King Arshak for national unification during a period of bitter internal revolts and external hostilities with Persia and Byzantium. The opera was not produced during the composer’s lifetime because of its large artistic deman’s and tension with the Turkish authorities–who were unfavorable toward works exploring subjects of Armenian cultural heritage or history. Fragmen’s of the work were presented in concert in Venice–Paris–Vienna and Constantinople–often in Italian rather than Armenian. It was then forgotten and believed to be lost. After the music was rediscovered in the 1930’s–a completely re-worked opera based loosely on the original materials was prepared by musicologists Alexander Shahverdian and Levon Khodjia-Eynatian in Armenian rather that Italian–using a completely new libertto with various plot and character alterations–authored by the Soviet writer-director Armen Gulakian. This new opera was staged for the first time in Armenia in 1945–and reflected the modernist political viewpoint of the day. The opera gained great popularity in Armenia in the post-war period–and it remains an important part of the repertoire of the Yerevan Opera and Moscow Bolshoi Theaters. San Francisco Opera’s performances will represent the world premiere of the opera in a restoration to its original form as composed by Chukhadjian–with a new performing edition prepared by musicologist Haig Avakian and dramaturgy Gerald Papasian.


Tigran Chukhadjian (1837-1898) was a composer–conductor and teacher–and is the founder of Armenian opera. Born in Constantinople–he received his musical education at the Milan Conservatory. Greatly influenced by Verdi–Chukhadjian spent his creative life in Constantinople and Armenia–where he was a member of the Armenian Musical Society and published the journal–The Armenian Lyre. He also helped found a local symphony and orchestra. In 1868 he completed Arshak II–his most well known opera–with a libretto by Tommaso R. Terzian. His other operas include the comic work Arif (based on Gogol’s comedy The Government Inspector)–Kyose Kyokhva (The Balding Elder)–and Lelebidj (The Pea Seller)–as well as the more serious works Zemire (1880) and Indiana (1897). He also composed a number of orchestral chamber works–and the earliest Armenian piano pieces. Chukhadjian was an important figure in the cultural history of the Near East. He was the first composer to incorporate the special features of Armenian folk music into European musical forms. The Italians called him "il Verdi Armeno," while the Paris press referred to him as "the Eastern Offenbach." He died on February 25–1898 in Smyrna. (From The New Grove Dictionary of Music)

Performances of Arshak II will take place during the 2001/2002 Season–to be announced in December of this year. Mansouri is currently auditioning singers throughout the United States and Europe for the cast of the opera. An announcement will be made at a later date regarding the production team and complete casting. Subscription sales for the 2001/2002 Season commence in mid-January of 2001–with single ticket sales beginning in August of that same year.

This production is sponsored–in part–by the Friends of Arshak II and by George and Flora Dunanians–Hirair and Anna Hovnanian–Louise Manoogian Simone–Rober A. Strauch and Dr. Julie Kulhanjian.


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