An Armenian Who Changed The Destiny Of The Opera Oedipe: David Ohanesian

Through the centuries, the spiritual connection between Armenians and Romanians has been very close as far as the Romanian musical culture is concerned. It's enough to remember Carol Mikuli, Mihail Jora, Matei Socor, Emanoil Ciomac, Sergiu Malagamba, Nicolae Buicliu, Garabet Avakian, Paul Ciuntu, Nicolae Missir and the brilliant singers Garbis Zobian, Aram Savagian, Lisette Manisalian-Georgescu, Eduard Tumagianian or Anda Călugăreanu. However, the dominating figure of the Armenian minority in contemporary Romania remains, in my opinion, the baritone David Ohanesian, the singer who, after 30 years of masterful interpretation of the title character in George Enescu's opera Oedipe, managed to change not only the hierarchy of 20th century masterpieces, but the composer's destiny itself. Although the work had been successfully premiered in Paris (1936) and then re-staged in Brussels (1956), the consuming part of this unhappy hero (which had been refused before the premiere by Feodor Chaliapin) only found its true interpreter with the baritone David Ohanesian. The artist dominated it from 1958 until the end of his lyrical career on numerous Romanian and international stages and toured Europe extensively with the Romanian Opera, singing in Paris, Sofia, Moscow, Athens, Stockholm, Lausanne, Wiesbaden, Berlin, Warsaw. As admitted by all experts on Enescu, David Ohanesian's work on stage asserted not only an exceptional period, but a great Romanian composer, who in his final year (1955) was unfortunately labeled only as a violinist of genius! "I'm glad I was born to sing George Enescu's masterpiece," he declared to the Bucharest newspaper Ora / The Hour of 15 July 1993, after he had fought a score of enormous technical and dramatic difficulty. "If you want a comparison, after having sung this part for 30 years, the third act seems just as hard as singing Rigoletto twice from beginning to end. It's written on such a sensitive cord, that at one point you can go mad on stage," he confessed the Magazin international of 14 October 1993. Who was David Ohanesian in Romanian lyrical art? A huge artist, a gladiator of the human voice, a singer of impressive physical endurance, a baritone who at the peak of his career sang in 80 performances per season! And those weren't just any parts he interpreted, they were highly demanding characters in operas like Rigoletto, Boris Godunov, Aida, Carmen, Faust, Mazeppa, Cavalleria rusticana, Tosca, Tannhäuser, Othello, Don Carlos, Lohengrin, Aleko, etc. He was a complete singer, who used his high and low registers beyond human limits, and at the same time an actor of exceptional tragic power, which often took him on the film screen (Misterele Bucurestilor / The Mysteries of Bucharest, Colierul de turcoaze / The Necklace of Turquoise Stones, În fiecare zi mi-e dor de tine / I miss you every day) and on the TV screen (Oedipe). The dark timbre of his baritone voice singled him out in parts that demanded such native vocal tones, like Scarpia in Tosca, Borin in Boris Godunov and particularly Escamillo in Carmen, a part that remains unforgettable. A singular voice of the lyrical art, I'd almost say that David Ohanesian was born with Enescu's score in his blood, because this hero of the antiquity, cursed by fate with the most horrible of human shortcomings, demanded a voice unlike any other baritone of the ordinary lyrical repertoire. Ohanesian was Oedipus, the way Enescu was able to imagine and hear him, when he penned the eye-gouging scene, an act of self-mutilation that buries the music under a beast's howl. There are many vocal parts in Oedipe's musical discourse that Enescu had imagined for a specific voice, intuited maybe but not discovered in his lifetime, a voice that we who come after the musician have identified with David Ohanesian. This was the great revelation of the post-Enescu generation, who witnessed how the destiny of this score was changed through the meeting with the singer-actor, who seemed to have been born for a single legendary hero of his entire artistic career. It can be said that David Ohanesian had three careers along three different stages: one with the Romanian Opera in Cluj (1950-1958), one with the Romanian Opera in Bucharest (1958-1977) and a third one with the Hamburg State Opera (1968-1978). The latter meant 60 Mercedes drives from Hamburg to Bucharest per season. "I could make a ten-square-meter rug out of all the plane and train tickets, because all this time I never left the stage of the Bucharest Opera," he confessed in Iosif Sava's book Patima muzicii / Music as a Vice. It's true: the Armenian only felt at home in Bucharest. When he first went to Erevan, the local press and television did an interview of him that left them dumbfounded: the singer couldn't speak a word of Armenian. He made his first appearance as Tonio and Silvio in Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci (2 December 1950). He sang eighteen works, including four premieres. He came to the Romanian Opera in Bucharest at 30 for the premiere of Enescu's Oedipe (22 September 1958). He interpreted 26 parts, including 11 new operas. So David Ohanesian's repertoire consisted of a mere 40 scores. The eternal return of his artistic career was the masterpiece Oedipe, in which he sang 120 times at home and in the tours of Bucharest's prime lyrical stage in USSR, Bulgaria, Greece, Germany, France and Switzerland (1958-1975).

by Viorel Cosma (b. 1927)