A young opera singer has lost his greatest champions to Covid. This performance helped him heal
Vartan Gabrielian, bass-baritone of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio, continued to sing with the encouragement of his father and a priest from their local church. Both men died of Covid towards the end of 2020, devastating the singer. A few months after their passing, Gabrielian found solace in an interpretation of Mozart Requiem. Here is his story.
—As told to Connor Garel
“I grew up in an Armenian church on the border of Scarborough and North York. I had a lot of energy as a teenager, and spending time with the church community was one way my parents kept me out of trouble. My dad worked as an aerospace electrical engineer and my mom took jobs that allowed her to be home when we were, so she sometimes worked as a seamstress or in a school cafeteria.
“I was a typical kid who played basketball, football and rugby. I have two siblings – my sister is a teacher at TDSB and my brother runs an Armenian restaurant called Mayrik on Bayview Avenue – but I was the one who was always in trouble, like an Armenian Dennis the Menace On a typical Friday night, my friends and I would meet at the community center and argue and fight for fun, only to be kicked out by an elder.
“At the time, I didn’t think voice, opera or classical music lessons were very cool, but I used to sing in church during services. I was really passionate about it. Singing was the one thing I did that always made people happy, and it validated me and made me happy too. One day, when I was about 11 years old, a new priest, Meghrig Parikian, joined the church. He was a musician and composer who had studied at Juilliard and the Mannes School of Music in New York. Before being transferred to my church in Toronto, he was a choirmaster and director of the Birds Nest, an orphanage in Lebanon.
“One day Parikian heard my voice and immediately asked a choir director to teach me a solo. It was an antiphonal Armenian chant similar to a Gregorian chant, where one soloist sings and the other responds. Performing the chant was nerve-wracking but worth it. Soon after, Parikian became my mentor. He was one of the first people to see me as more than just a troublemaker. He asked my father to find me a voice teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music. I come from a family where extracurricular activities were considered a luxury, so Parikian even offered to pay for my lessons.
“Every Saturday, my father took me to see Robert Loewen, an opera singing teacher who is still at the conservatory. Parikian and my father alternately paid for my lessons and always made sure I attended. It was like having two fathers – one biological and one spiritual – and managers. They helped me realize that singing was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
“I believe my calling is to comfort others and bring them joy through my voice. Music is such an international language. I sing in multiple languages including English, French, Latin, Spanish , Russian, German and Armenian. If I do my job well and play with vulnerability, the audience will feel something. There is something visceral going on, regardless of the language or genre of the song.
“After high school, I studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia on a full scholarship, and made my North American professional debut in 2018 in Verdi’s Rigoletto with the Opera de Montreal. The following year I joined the Canadian Opera Company as a member of the ensemble, and made my Toronto debut with them singing the role of Lovec in Rusalka.
“The pandemic happened just as my career was taking off. As opera artists, we’re usually booked two to three years in advance, and I’ve had a number of important gigs that would have opened a lot of doors for me. But things didn’t turn out that way. Productions were postponed, then postponed again, then cancelled. There came a point in the early months of the pandemic when I stopped learning my lines, as I knew the performances would never happen. It was really discouraging.
“Then towards the end of 2020 my father and Parikian both got infected with Covid in quick succession. My father was home sick for a week before being admitted to hospital. There was no room in intensive care, so he was in the regular ward for a few days. His lungs worsened and nurses transferred him to intensive care and put him on a ventilator. The last time he contacted us was when he called my sister to tell her they were putting him on a ventilator and the nurses told him that would help and he would talk to us at all soon. We never spoke again.
“Parikan was serving in an Armenian orphanage in Lebanon when he fell ill in January 2021. When we did Facetimer, I knew something was seriously wrong, but hoped he would pull through. About a week after he was admitted to hospital, he died. His death and that of my father were a month apart. I didn’t know what to do after that. The two men who had supported me the most were gone. I was thinking, Now what? Who am I singing for?
“A few months after losing them, I was offered to work with Against the Grain Theatre. They played Mozart Requiem, which is one of the most influential and studied pieces in his repertoire. A requiem is a part of the mass that is performed in remembrance of the dead; this production would honor all those who have experienced hardships and lost loved ones during the pandemic.
“Requiem is usually sung with the score in hand, but artistic director Joel Ivany asked us to perform it from memory. Indoor gathering restrictions also meant we had a two-week rehearsal window. The entire rehearsal and filming process would take place over four or five days at the Four Seasons Center.
“Mozart fell seriously ill while writing his Requiem and never finished it. My father and Parikan died just as suddenly, so I drew parallels. Performing the requiem became a way for me to console the pain that I had not yet fully accepted. Mentally and emotionally, I dedicated the show to honoring their memory and treated it as a way to commemorate my loved ones, without whom I would not have started singing.
“While filming the performance, I focused on giving the most honest and sincere performance possible; finding a way to connect with the audience even though I was singing in an empty opera house. was missing, but it was such a personal experience that it didn’t matter. I felt my fathers with me.
“Against the Current and the Canadian Opera Company published the Requiem online and streaming until May. At the end of the requiem, the singers dedicate the show to someone we have lost. We write their names on cards and hang them on the backs of seats in the empty opera house. For me, it’s a beautiful sincere moment that has been part of my grieving process. The one thing I hope people take away from Requiem is that they’re not alone. The love we have for each other and for humanity will get us through this. It is natural to mourn. But I am no longer sad. I am honored to have had these men in my life. I love and miss them both very much.”