In opera, as Isabel Bayrakdarian well knows, characters are always signing deals with the devil: for love, for power, for eternal life. But when it came time for the Armenian-Canadian soprano to make her own real-life bargain, she chose to go the other way, offering a fervent prayer to Jesus in the hope that faith would sustain her beloved mother’s life.
“I spoke to the humanity of Christ,” Bayrakdarian explains in a telephone interview from her home in Santa Barbara, California. “I said, ‘Okay, you had a mother; I have a mother. We both love our mother. So let me make a deal: you take care of my mom, and I’ll sing about your mom.’
“That,” she adds, “was all I could give.”
It was, for a while, enough. Despite the dire predictions of her doctors, Bayrakdarian’s mother survived her near-fatal stroke, living long enough to see the release of her daughter’s most recent recording, 2016’s Mother of Light. The album, which Bayrakdarian will draw on during her upcoming performance with Elektra Women’s Choir, explores the Armenian liturgical tradition—with, naturally enough, a particular focus on hymns dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Mother of Light also gives the lie to the notion that the devil has all the best tunes: its ancient Armenian hymns are achingly melodic, and Bayrakdarian sings them with exceptional grace and immense emotional power.
“Basically, the Armenian language has no filter, because it’s my mother tongue,” says the 42-year-old Glenn Gould School graduate, who was born in Lebanon to Armenian parents. “Anything that goes through that language goes straight from the heart out, from the soul out. It doesn’t even go to the brain; it just goes out. It’s more direct—and the more I’ve sung, the more I’ve taken out this filter, this limiting filter, from my other repertoire.”
Bayrakdarian will perform six songs from Mother of Light with Elektra, along with Prayer, a world premiere commissioned from Bayrakdarian’s pianist husband, Serouj Kradjian. The latter excerpts its text from the Lebanese-American mystic Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet, a spiritual meditation that Bayrakdarian identifies with deeply.
“The best line in it is when somebody says, ‘Teach us how to pray,’ and he says, ‘I cannot teach you how to pray. God listens not to your words, except when he himself utters them through your lips.’ And I love this, because it applies to singing,” she says. “If I come out there singing to show off, to say ‘Listen to me. Listen to my voice,’ you know what? There is no connection with the audience.…But when you’re a conduit, when you allow the music to pass through you and let your soul sing it, that’s when you have a connection to the divine, and you’re able to express it in human form.”
Between the Armenian hymns, Prayer, and Abbie Betinis’s From Behind the Caravan: Songs of Hâfez, which draws on Persian Sufi traditions, Elektra’s 30th-anniversary gala has a strong and diverse spiritual component. But for the choir’s artistic director, Morna Edmundson, the focus is more on making sure that everything on the program is sonically compatible.
“I want people to have their own experience, listening to the music,” she explains by phone from her Surrey home. “I want them to be open to what’s being presented in the music, but I’m not telling them how to feel or what to think or what to believe.…The program does present these different points of view, and each one of them has its own spirituality. But I think it’s more musical than spiritual, just to be honest.”
Still, the works on offer are both celebratory and meditative—a moment of relative calm before Elektra moves on to its next 30 years. Which, Edmundston notes, will be even more woman-centric than before. In May, the choir will celebrate women composers from North America, while in the 2017-18 season and beyond a new commissioning initiative will support female composers on a global level.
“I looked at the number of women composers that we’ve programmed and did a little math, and I went, ‘Oh. Eighteen percent. Isn’t that ironic?’ ” Edmundston says. “But I think ‘The medium is the message’ is a phrase that fits here. We’re not always singing music that is about being women, or that is feminist, or that has a message, but the fact that we’re standing there, having changed the landscape in terms of respect for women’s choirs, is the message. What Elektra is, the fact that it exists, the fact that it’s doing what it’s doing in a very strong way, is as important as the music that we’re singing—but it all goes together.”
Isabel Bayrakdarian joins Elektra Women’s Choir at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Wednesday (March 8).