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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 2, No. 10

La Belle Histoire d'Isabel

by Wah Keung Chan / July 1, 1997

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bayrakdarian-c.jpg (11206 bytes)Toronto soprano Isabel Bayrakdarianís win at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions last February propelled the 22-year old to national attention. Within weeks of her victory she was interviewed on CBC Stereoís Saturday Afternoon at the Opera by Howard Dyck and was later profiled in a Toronto Star article. Bayrakdarianís Met Audition achievement was all the more remarkable in that she was not a full-time voice student at the time. She graduated this spring from the University of Toronto with an honours bachelor degree in bio-medical engineering. In early June Isabel headed for the Glimmerglass Opera company in upstate New York as a member of their Young American Artists Program. She will make her professional operatic debut there on July 5 in the "small but pivotal" role of Diana in Gluckís Iphigťnie en Tauride.

One day before she left for Glimmerglass I spoke with Ms. Bayrakdarian about her interesting double career. "Music was always part of my life. Both here in Toronto and in Lebanon Iíve been active in drama, recitals and singing in choir. I used to play the flute too. Armenian culture is musical. By being in the church choir, I was immersed in the Armenian liturgy which is harmonically very rich, almost like oratorio. Although it was written in the ninth and tenth-centuries, it was rewritten into four part harmony in modern times by extremely good clerical composers. I can relate to the musicís story of tragedy and oppression. Coming from Lebanon with all its problems to Canada at age fourteen gives you a real incentive to succeed. Since I was also a good math and science student, I decided to study engineering. My high school teachers and friends were surprised because they thought I would become a musician.

"The university engineering program required about fifty hours of study per week, which didnít leave any time for music, but in the second semester of my first year I finally had the courage to look for a voice teacher. I went to the Royal Conservatory of Music and got a list of ten voice teachers who were accepting students. I just went down the list and phoned them. It never occured to me to check their credentials. Mostly I got busy signals but for some reason I called Jean MacPhail twice and arranged for an audition. Jean has been my only teacher ever since. She encouraged me to continue my engineering studies. At age eighteen my body and vocal cords were still maturing, so I really had no thoughts of becoming a professional singer. We started with bimonthly half-hour lessons, gradually worked up to weekly half-hour lessons, and later when I was stronger to one hour per week. I gave my first solo voice recital in my third undergraduate year. At that time, I was working in industry during a sixteen month work-term as part of my engineering program, and I finally had more time to devote to singing. By the time I won the "22-year-and under" category in the Canadian Music Competition, I knew I wanted to sing professionally, but of course I had to finish the engineering degree."

There is an amusing story that Isabel entered the Metropolitan Auditions without telling her coach, Canadian opera doyen Stuart Hamilton. Isabel is glad to set the record straight. "There was no need to be secretive. Both Stuart and my teacher were very supportive. They helped me prepare for the auditions. Some people were surprised I won on the first try. They thought it would take a few more attempts." The months from December 1996 to February 1997 were a triumphal progress for Bayrakdarian. The Armenian Prelacy selected her (by tape audition) for their annual Carnegie Hall debut recital for young musicians of Armenian origin. Also in December she passed to the finals of the Met Auditions and the second round of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Auditions. Glimmerglass Operaís then- Director of Artistic Administration, Felicity Jackson, was one of the Met Audition regional judges. She invited Isabel to join their Young American Artists program.

Six weeks later Bayrakdarian was in New York for the Met Audition finals. She found it amusing to wear her engineerís Iron Ring on the Metropolitan Opera stage: "I think Iím the first engineer to win a Met audition," she laughs. All the Met winners stayed two more weeks in New York to prepare for the Winnersí Recital, "treated like princesses," she recalls. At about the same time Isabel was accepted into the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble. "It was awkward for me because the Met also has a Young Artist Program but I liked the COCís approach, so I decided to accept." Isabel had only two days back home in Toronto before she had to return to New York for her Carnegie Hall recital. "Then I had to return to my engineering studies. I had already missed a month of school, one-third of a semester. I was in the Honours program, so I still had to finish my thesis. Fortunately the engineering faculty supported me one-hundred percent." Her graduation from the University of Toronto was very special. "They created a special annual award for students demonstrating both academic and musical excellence and I was the first recipient. My fellow students gave me a standing ovation after I sang Mozartís Alleluia."

Isabel already possesses the professional attitudes of a more experienced singer. Stuart Hamilton, her Carnegie Hall recital accompanist, was astounded by how she "took over" the stage. Nor is Bayrakdarian worried by her upcoming debut at Glimmerglass. "I was thrown on stage when I was three or four years old so Iím accustomed to the pressure. But at Glimmerglass I make a flying entrance on wires, which should be fun! My voice is still developing. It will grow in volume and range as my body matures. I wonít consider heavy roles until my voice is ready. For now lyric roles suit my voice. Diana is the perfect size role for my voice. I look forward to singing more Rossini, a real technical and interpretive challenge. Rossini is witty and cheerful, and not as trivial as people think."

Does Isabel regret changing careers in mid-stream? "Not at all. Singing is more satisfying to me than engineering. I feel I was born to be on the stage." Her engineering studies will come handy in her new vocation. "There is so much mental preparation before you go on stage. Fortunately Iím a fast study and I memorize easily. Once Iím on stage everything dissolves into a different world where my only concern is to bring the audience into the music."

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