Isabel Bayrakdarian performs pieces of Armenian music through the centuries at VPAC Thursday night. (Bo Huang)
Isabel Bayrakdarian had no intention of becoming an opera singer when she was a child and received no classical training until she was a college student who merely wanted to improve her singing in church. She had other priorities as a child. She had to survive.
Bayrakdarian was born in Lebanon in the midst of the country’s civil war during the 1970s and thus had no opportunity to study opera or classical music.
“Opera was nonexistent. We didn’t even have an opera house,” she relates. “The concert hall was one of the first things that was bombed.”
Her family, which is of Armenian descent, emigrated to Canada, and this Thursday (Oct. 22) she appears at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) at California State University, Northridge for a performance dedicated to Armenian music throughout the ages. This is part of this year’s Soaring Original Series at VPAC – affectionately referred to as “divas” by Thor Steingraber – the program’s executive director, which also includes performances by talents such as Lea Salonga (April 1) and culminates with the ultimate diva musical, “Dreamgirls” (May 6-8).
“There are qualities that we find in really exceptional female vocalists that is in part their singing, in part their interpretative abilities and stage persona that moves us so much,” Steingraber says. “I was eager to introduce Isabel to our audience in the valley.”
While Bayrakdarian may have the vocal ability to earn the title of diva, and her family’s escape from a civil war certainly has the dramatic flair that one would expect, she is clearly not a diva in its colloquial sense. Nothing about her personality suggests how the term is often used to describe female performers who, if not for their artistic ability, would be considered to be demanding basketcases. If it were not for receiving classical training in order to improve her singing in a church choir, Bayrakdarian would have gone into a career like medicine or engineering like her siblings, and in fact she did earn a degree in biomedical engineering before becoming a professional singer.
Bayrakdarian credits her studious nature with her status as an immigrant.
“It’s the mentality of somebody who has gone through such difficult circumstances, politically speaking, and seeing how much your parents sacrifice. I should be self-sufficient as quickly as possible,” she says.
She considered music to be a source of pleasure instead of a source of income, and even after nearly two decades of professional work, she still does.
“It still is a hobby,” she insists. “It feels like something too good to be called a job.”
These are not the words of a diva who is tortured by her art.
There are artists who speak of creating art as agony, and those who see it as a means of joy. Bayrakdarian is obviously the latter. She speaks of music as a spiritual experience that all people have in common.
While her performance at VPAC focuses specifically on Armenian music throughout the centuries, beginning with hymns composed by monks during the 13th century and continuing through 20th-century Armenian classical compositions, Bayrakdarian insists that there is a universality to all types of music based the shared ancestry of humanity, even without a common culture.
“Folk music speaks universally, no matter the language. You don’t know why you love it, but that’s because of our wise soul. It recognizes it. As long as it’s music that was sung by the people, maybe not here and not now, but I still relate to it.”
It is this quality that should make Bayrakdarian’s performance universal. VPAC Executive Director Steingraber has specifically targeted the large Armenian community in Los Angeles, in connection with CSUN Armenian groups.
“I’m looking forward to opening our doors to them. I think it’s important that CSUN’s Armenian community is supporting us. My audience is not monolithic by any means.”
It is the type of show designed to appeal to people as diverse as classical musicians and biomedical engineers. After all, Isabel Bayrakdarian shows that they can be one and the same.
For tickets and more information, visit valleyperformingartscenter.org.
Marvin Vasquez contributed to this story.