LILI CHOOKASIAN: REVERED AMERICAN CONTRALTO WHOSE CLOSE ASSOCIATION
WITH THE METROPOLITAN OPERA SPANNED NEARLY 25 YEARS AND 300
PERFORMANCES

The Times
April 26, 2012 Thursday

London Operatic voices of truly heroic scale are seldom encountered
thesedays. For three decades opera's most prominent exponent of
mainstreamcontralto roles was Lili Chookasian, possessor of a
lusciouslydark, deep, thrillingly ample instrument. Enhanced by
impeccablemusicianship and a vivid personality, Chookasian's voice
made hera longtime favourite at the Metropolitan Opera and an
enormouslyacclaimed performer with major orchestras. A
first-generation American, she was the daughter of a couple who
hademigrated from Armenia six years before she was born in Chicago
(herpride in her Armenian heritage was passionate and lifelong).
Havingdone a good deal of singing in high school, Chookasian studied
withPhilip Manuel and established herself in her twenties as a
concertand oratorio singer. Such an outstanding voice did not go
unnoticed bythe Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with whom Chookasian made
an indelibleimpression in Mahler's Symphony No 2 under Bruno Walter in
1955. Her marriage and growing family kept Chookasian away from opera
until1959 when, aged 38, she made her stage debut as Adalgisa in Norma
atArkansas State Opera. Shortly thereafter she began coaching with
thecelebrated Rosa Ponselle, who arranged for her to sing first
Azucena inIl trovatore and then Amneris in Aïda at the Baltimore
Opera. She madea stunning New York Philharmonic debut in 1961 singing
in Prokofiev'sAlexander Nevksy. Conducting was Thomas Schippers, who
brought herto Italy that summer to perform the same work at the
Spoleto Festival. Chookasian's first invitation to appear at the Met
came at a time whenshe was unwilling to be parted from her family for
an extended period. Once a Met engagement became more manageable for
her, she made herdebut in 1962 as La Cieca in La Gioconda. That
success initiated an association with the company that endured for24
seasons in 28 roles, encompassing most principal and supportingparts
available to a contralto in the standard repertoire. Tobe expected
were the mothers, grandmothers, maids and nurses (forexample, in La
sonnambula, Cavalleria rusticana, Hansel and Gretel,Les contes
d'Hoffmann, Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov and Jenufa). Substantially
more rewarding roles included Wagner's Erda (Ringcycle), the three
contralto roles in Puccini's Il Trittico, Madelon inAndrea Chenier,
and Leocadia Begbick in Rise and Fall of the City ofMahagonny. Of the
dramatic Verdi roles in Chookasian's stage repertoire(she was a superb
interpreter of all three), she sang Ulrica 14 timeswith the Met, but
Azucena came her way on just four occasions thereand Amneris only
once. She sang Death in Stravinsky's The Nightingale(Met premiere),
was gloriously hearty as Auntie in Peter Grimes, andshone in such
comic parts as Mistress Quickly in Falstaff and theMaharanee in
Menotti's The Last Savage (US premiere).Her 290th andfinal Met
performance (indeed, her last appearance onstage in opera)was as
Gertrude in Romeo et Juliette on February 17, 1986. Chookasian was
also successful at New York City Opera and the leadingcompanies of
Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, Houston, Cincinnati,and Montreal.
She returned to Baltimore Opera in 1976 as the Queenin the world
premiere of Thomas Pasatieri's Ines de Castro. With a busy family
life, plus her commitments with American operacompanies and
orchestras, it was inevitable that Europe would playa secondary role
in Chookasian's activities. Besides Spoleto,she appeared at the
Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, as well asthe Zurich Opernhaus.
Particularly meaningful for her was theopportunity to perform in
Yerevan, where she was heard in Aïda andDikran Tchouhadjian's opera
Arshak II. A supremely eloquent concert artist, Chookasian sang all
the music onewould expect of her voice type, with particular success
in the VerdiRequiem, Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, and major works of
Mahler. Shewas heard with the leading orchestras of New York,
Philadelphia,Cleveland, London, and Vienna, among many others. In
Chookasian's commercial discography the highlight is surely herdeeply
moving performance in Alexander Nevsky with Schippers andthe New York
Philharmonic. She sings under Leinsdorf in the VerdiRequiem and
Menotti's rarely heard cantata The Death of the Bishop ofBrindisi. Her
interpretation of Das Lied von der Erde is documentedin performances
led by Susskind and Ormandy (with the latter she alsorecorded
Beethoven's Symphony No 9). She participates in Bernstein'srecordings
of both Mahler's Symphony No 8 and Vaughan Williams'sSerenade to
Music. No doubt Chookasian took particular pleasure inrecording two
works by the Armenian-American composer Richard Yardumian- Come
Creator Spirit (subtitled "A New Mass in English") and SymphonyNo 2.
Several "pirated" performances demonstrate the excellence
ofChookasian's Wagner and Verdi roles (including a magnificent
Amnerisin Montreal in 1965) and her Met portrayals in Der fliegende
Hollander,Eugene Onegin and The Last Savage. Having taught at
Northwestern University earlier in her career,Chookasian joined the
voice faculty at Yale University in 1985. Seventeen years later Yale's
School of Music presented her with itshighest honour, the Sanford
Medal. She was made Professor Emeritain 2010. Chookasian was
remarkably courageous, having triumphed over seriousillness: her
initial bout of breast cancer occurred in 1956, hersecond five years
later. She was married to George Gavejian from 1941 until his death in
1987,and is survived by two sons and a daughter. Lili Chookasian,
operatic contralto, was born on August 1, 1921. Shedied on April 10,
2012, aged 90



From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress