I’m Gohar. Conversations with artists fuel me. I want to know the emotion that incites the work. Where does it all start? How does that seed become the art we see or hear? Last fall, I was able to catch up with professional opera singer Lianna Haroutounian who was performing with the San Francisco Opera.
The minute Floria Tosca got up from her seat and walked towards the edge of the stage, I knew it was time for the most important part of her performance. I was sitting close enough to see the emotions play on her face. But the source of this voice was unexplainable. It had already filled the entire opera house and still kept coming from her lungs. Wrapped in vibrations of sound, I was in ultimate enjoyment mode.
It happened to Baritone Mark Delavan, too. As Scarpia, he was on the other end of the stage. I noticed that the expression of the villain he portrayed had cleared from his face. He was not Scarpia at that moment. He was a member of an audience enjoying Lianna’s voice.
After the performance, I emailed the soprano and asked her for an interview.
On a sunny October afternoon I met Lianna Haroutounian at the Legion of Honor Museum. We sat at the outdoor garden of the museum café, as she wanted to be in the sun.
GB: The response to Tosca was extraordinary! Critics call your American debut triumphant.
LH: Yes, people really loved the performance. I am grateful to San Francisco Opera for giving me a chance to perform for opera loving audiences. And, I enjoyed working with talented performers such as Mark Delavan and Brian Jadge.
GB: Tell me about your background, where did you grow up?
LH: I am from Armenia and grew up in a village called Metsamor that was built for the nuclear power plant employees. My father used to work there.
GB: Growing up, did you always want to become a performer?
LH: I grew up in an opera loving family. My father had a beautiful baritone voice but didn’t pursue a career in singing. He would play his accordion and sing at every family gathering or party. As a kid I loved being in the center of attention, and, having noticed that, my father taught me a few folk songs. The first one was Hingala and I remember him squeezing the bellows of the accordion while I would learn how to play the notes on the keyboard. Years later I took piano classes with a private tutor. I also loved to participate in musical productions at my school. So, I guess, I always wanted to sing but wasn’t sure it would be opera.
GB: When did you first consider a career of an opera singer?
LH: When I was in my early teens, there was an announcement at our school for an audition in Yerevan for gifted singers. My language arts teacher, who occasionally asked me to sing a short song before starting his class, loved my voice and asked my parents to take me to the audition. I sang a couple of my favorite songs, and a few days later we got the news that I was picked for the choir.
In a relatively short time, the choir grew both in the quality of its performances and in the diversity of its classical repertoire. I will always remember fondly how the conductor struggled to have me stand in different rows, but eventually he pulled me out and decided that I should do solo performances, as my voice would overpower the rest of the choir.
After one of our performances a member of the audience approached my parents and said, “…your child has an exceptional voice, you need to seriously think about her future.” He insisted that my parents take me to the Conservatory of Music and have me audition for Karine Baghdassarian, a professor at the Conservatory. We took his advice. She loved my singing and generously offered to do private voice coaching so I could enter the Conservatory of Music after graduating form high school.
I guess that was the day my parents and I realized that it was happening for real. My father was overjoyed. For me it was a dream come true and on top of that, I had a full support of my family.
GB: Tell me about your formal training.
LH: I studied at the Yerevan State Conservatory in S. Danelian’s class where I focused on my technique, harmony and rhythm. Later, I continued my training in France at the Centre de Formation Lyrique de l’Opéra-Bastille, working with Janine Reiss, James Vaughan and Robert Kettelson. I attended several Master Classes with Christa Ludwig, Yvonne Minton, Luigi Alva, Yevgeny Nesterenko and Renata Scotto.
GB: You are considered as one of the most promising sopranos of your generation. What was your first big break?
LH: The big break came after the debut with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden this past summer, stepping in at late notice to sing Elisabetta in Don Carlo under the baton of Antonio Pappano, beside Jonas Kauffman and Ferruccio Furlanetto. I was immediately invited to perform the role of Hélène in Les Vêpres Siciliennes at Covent Garden.
GB: What’s in your repertoire?
LH: I am known to the Opera world as a Verdi singer and I happen to really like Verdi. The quality of my voice is quite suitable for dramatic roles, even though my personality would fit comic opera better. I prefer performing in languages that I am fluent in, such as French, Italian, Russian, Armenian.
GB: Do you have a favorite role?
LH: I can’t say that I have a favorite role. When I sign a contract for a performance I collect as much information and materials about the opera, the composer and the era it describes, as possible. To learn a role in its entirety is quite enriching. I put so much hard work, passion and life into studying each role that for the time being it becomes my favorite. To portray a dramatic heroine onstage, I need to feel the emotional turmoil the character is going through. Verdi roles are especially demanding, as you need to bring to the stage the character’s passions and moods and be able to color your voice in response to composer’s notations for each passage, such as “lovingly,” “passionately” or “sorrowfully,” etc.
GB: Favorite performer?
LH: The most beautiful music for me is my father’s singing. Every time I go back home, he drives me to appointments or meetings and sings old Armenian songs in the car.
GB: Do you sing for yourself when you’re alone, doing chores or, maybe, relaxing?
LH: After so many years of training for an opera singer, the rare moments when I’m in complete peace and harmony within myself, the songs that I hum are the Armenian folk songs that my Father taught me, as I was a young girl.
GB: How do you feel when you hear your own singing?
LH: I’m very critical of my own voice and singing. Once I hear myself I begin over analyzing each note, and how differently I could have sung it and get very irritated. There was one occasion though, when I overheard my husband listening to a performance in his study and for a few minutes I couldn’t guess who the performer was. Only when I walked into his study I realized it was my recording. Believe it or not I actually enjoyed the voice during that short time that I hadn’t guessed it was my singing.
Photo by: Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera