Arax Chekidjian: Syria's first opera singer

Arax ChekidjianBy Sylvia Bourdjian-Matta


Azad-Hye special


Classical music is universal. It can be heard or played in all ages for different ages similar to classical literature. Arax Chekidjian-Bilemdjian was the first in Aleppo to introduce international operatic music. She combines an impressive technique with great dramatic gifts and charm. Her remarkable musical and dramatic talents led her to become a diva.


She is raised in a family of music lovers. At an early age, she shows interest towards music. After graduating from secondary school in Lebanon, she receives her musical education in Romanos Melikian Conservatory in Yerevan. In 1978 she attended Gomidas National Conservatory in Yerevan to study Vocal singing under the direction of Prof. Datevig Sazandarian,  who made her what she is today.


In 1985 she found her own vocal school from where many well-known singers were graduated; Talar Degrmenjian, Susan Haddad and Razek Francois Bitar (first Syrian Countertenor, currently living in Italy). In 1991 she represented Syria participating in an international music contest in North Korea winning the title of Best Soprano Singer and returned home with a gold medal.


Lately she?s been travelling between Aleppo and Beirut. During one of her recent stays I met her in her residence and had this lovely chat.


What has led you to get involved in professional singing in the 70s Syria, where such a genre was not very popular and where people were more conservative?
Indeed, during that time we were living in a socially different setting. It needed courage from a young girl to take such a step. I have attended the Immaculate Conception School run by the Armenian Catholic nuns. Sister Felicit? (well known for her skills) taught us music and I learnt how to sing Ave Maria. My education and the way I was raised were also different. At home I used to hear classical music always, my mother and my older brother were big fans of this genre. I also played piano. All those aspects played an important role in my development. When I sang, I heard myself and realized that I have a voice different than others, and from a young age I tried to persuade my parents to allow me to learn singing but that was quite difficult venture. They opposed the idea of studying music abroad, although they were certain I was talented; of course if I chose medicine then they would have agreed. When I became 18 and still determined in my decision, I was finally permitted to study music in Armenia.


Who was your role model? With whom you would have liked to be resembled?
Ooooh? of course Kohar Kasbarian. At home we always listened to her. I dreamt of becoming like her, she was our ideal. I liked also Maria Callas but for me Kasbarian was different. In my family when we wanted to praise someone?s voice we used to say ?She sings like Kohar Kasbarian!?


Lately we have missed you on our stages; your last concert was couple of years ago. What are the reasons? Do you feel the audience?s taste have been changed or the chances are less to perform again or just for personal reasons?

I returned back to Aleppo in 1983 and my 1st performance was in 1985. I invited my professor [Datevig Sazandarian] who wanted to attend my first recital back home. The audience was not yet ready at that time to listen and appreciate classical music as they usually have more sympathy towards Armenian folk and popular music. Once or twice per year Armenian communities invited classical performers from Yerevan; I remember once Arpine Pehlivanian was here. Later Hasmig Hatsakordzian was invited too. Our communities don?t encourage this genre normally, but in 1985 people came not only to listen me but to Datevig Sazandarian. I modestly say through me classical music was introduced and popularized in Aleppo.


Tickets are sold when an Armenian dance ensemble performs, but when classical concerts are organized then the theatres are empty. Regrettably, our communities refrain from organizing such events considering them non-profitable. We live in a society that does not value the classical genre and any professional in this field will stay behind and fade in the running course.

Before a concert, I take into consideration the taste of the audience in general to prepare my repertoire. I remember when Hasmig Hatsakordzian was in Aleppo. Before the concert, I advised her to stay away from heavy notes and to include some which are known to the audience. She thought I am misleading her, but after the concert she admitted she should have considered my suggestion. Sadly, our audience is very passive and un-receptive. I have performed in Lebanon several times and there people are more open, attentive and most importantly appreciative. My recitals in Beirut were a huge success. I recall now an incident. My niece was getting married in Beirut. She asked me to sing Ave Maria during the church ceremony which I did with pleasure; First, because it was for my niece and secondly because the acoustic at the church was great. The people got connected so well that for a moment we all forgot we were in a church! It was very lovely.


I have to say art is in decline in our society. I am sure everybody is noticing it. Classical performers are not appreciated. The same applies to painting artists. If you observe any art exhibition, you will notice there is no interest from people to come and see. So how do you expect the artist to create if he feels unappreciated? It?s a pity. Anyway, I have a project for a concert next year, but I am looking for some new ideas; a repertoire that satisfies me and pleases my audience. People do not like anymore seeing a singer standing next to a piano; they get bored easily. They need to get entertained after a hard day of work. I want to present my songs in a modern way; a good example is Alessandro Safina who successfully attracted audiences of all ages through his style.


You used to teach special vocal courses in Damascus National Conservatory, are you still teaching there?
I did that for a year when Solhi Al-Wadi was the director there. I used to travel between Damascus and Aleppo every week and have my classes there. We also had a concert for my students, but I stopped, because it was very tiring and difficult for me being away from my family and from my students in Aleppo.


What teaching methods do you use?
I owe my success as a teacher to my tutor Datevig Sazandarian herself and I was lucky to study in her school, which was well known in the whole Soviet Union. It was her school that made my voice mature to what it has become today. The secret lies in breathing through the diaphragm and not using the vocal cords as a means to sing, because they can get damaged. When my students visit other conservatories and they start to sing, people refer them as Arax?s students. Hearing these comments is a proof that I have achieved fame also through my students. My trademark is that graduates from my school have a big, strong and well trained voice, at the same time smooth like velvet.


What is your opinion when people say that you still follow the traditional way of teaching, where elsewhere modern vocal systems are used?
This is a very good question. I can not understand who created the terms old and new school. When my students participate in international contests they prove the strength of my teaching methods through their voice?s toughness and depth. A good example is Razek Francois Bitar, who lives in Italy and proved that my so-called ?traditional? or ?old? technique work better than the modern ones. Once the modern system proves itself better than mine, then I will admit my teaching manner as ancient. My students are bright and successful and when they are in Europe they astonish people with their vocal abilities.


What is your dream? What do you want to achieve for Arax?
When I think of my life?s achievements I am glad with the results. I am Syria?s 1st opera singer, have a wonderful family and an understanding husband, raised 2 daughters and most importantly established the first vocal school in Syria. What more can I ask for?


Well, I would like to have the chance to be more exposed internationally and even nationally, but given the circumstances I am happy with what I am.



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  1. Good on you cousin. Mum and I wish you the best all the way from Australia. I remember back years ago in Lebanon how determined you were to follow your dream.


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