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Soprano delivers multicultural masterpieces

The Vancouver Sun

by Lloyd Dykk

It’s hard to say what the world of biomedical engineering lost when Isabel Bayrakdarian took up singing instead, but the world of music has reason to be very grateful.

The sensational 27-year-old Canadian soprano wowed an overflow house on Sunday at the Vancouver Recital Society’s Chan Centre series, but then she’s wowed just about everybody in her climb, which has been more meteoric than sudden and is taking her to the world’s most famous opera houses.

She was born and raised in Lebanon in a close-knit Armenian family who moved to Toronto when she was about 14. The move was to give Isabel chances in science that she might not have got in Lebanon (her childhood was spent almost entirely in the midst of civil war). At the same time, she’d always been interested in singing and took her first lesson as late as age 19. She wasted no time, absorbing everything at warp speed. Then, 1997 was an amazing year: She won the Metropolitan Opera auditions and also finished her degree in biomedical engineering, with honours, at the University of Toronto (she faxed in her homework from the Met).

By then, she’d decided on song rather than science (or professional bicycle racing, for that matter- at 14 she’d won a championship in that too), but her career was fast-tracked in 2000 when she won the $5,000 US first prize at Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition in Los Angeles, an especially meaningful competition because its judges include singers like Marilyn Horne, and the others represent the world’s top opera companies.

From her performance on Sunday, it was pretty clear why everyone’s so excited about Bayrakdarian. She’s as fresh as rain. She has an exquisite lyric soprano voice imbued with warm clear amber, her musicality seems flawless and she’s versatility itself. Her program included songs in Spanish, French, Russian and Armenian: Her Armenian went without saying (she still seeks out Armenian church choirs to sing in when she travels), and it would have been hard to fault her mastery of the others.

That she’s a fun-loving tomboy who likes to quote The Simpsons, as it’s been said, is something you had to take on trust from her glamour and poise.

For her opening set of Spanish songs by Enrique Granados, she came on the last word in chic in an apricot-coloured gown that looked like crinkled tissue paper, her dark hair drawn elegantly back. She looked like an idealized Granados maja, or maiden, and, equally ideally, sang like one.

You wondered, after hearing her, why singers neglect these ravishing songs with their lilting, habanera rhythms of Madrid. There were nightingales in her voice, and in the piano, played by Martin Katz with the agogics of Spanish art song, the tiny, spiky embellishments too small to notate on paper but which define the soul of the music.


Three of Debussy’s song-settings of Baudelaire had Bayrakdarian floating sounds vaporously, lightening her tone on important words of the text but also rising to full-throated expression on climaxes, which she graded subtly and scrupulously. Her passage-work and coloratura in Vivaldi’s little motet, In the Tumult of the Angry Sea, were accurate and furious.

She was in black for the second half and looked even more elegant, singing five Tchaikovsky songs, which were unforgettable: total composure, nothing forced despite the huge climax of Whether Day Dawns, which was rhapsodic, or To Forget So Soon, a song of desolation and anguished disbelief, where she was absolutely true to the reaction of a former lover suddenly abandoned.

A singer friend I ran into wondered how she could sustain such long lines.

“I don’t know when she breathes,” he said. “I can follow everything she’s singing with my gut, but I can’t tell when she breathes.”

There was a breath of definite fresh air when she turned, in the last three short sets, to the composers of her native Armenia: a fascinating, 100-per-cent-literate country, the site of Mount Ararat (which is now within Turkey’s border), the first country to adopt Christianity, one of the first countries to develop an alphabet, a country with a history of long and terribleĀ· despoilment, and now a country half-evacuated, but with a continuing history of glorious music.

Armenia’s vengeance could be the sweetest one. Bayrakdarian, sang songs by Alan Hovhaness, Khatchaturian and two gorgeous miniatures by the contemporary composer, Parsegh Ganatchian, whom you’d be encouraged to look up at the record store.

Bravo to the recital society for bringing Isabel Bayrakdarian, a great new voice in music, one no less than equal to Anne-Sophie von Otter or Renee Fleming or any the other great voices it’s brought us already.

Tue Nov 27, 2001