Rebel music. The dangerous act of bringing the opera to Iran

The man who brought opera to Iran.

Since after the revolution the opera was not welcomed in Iran but Ara Karapetian, conductor, choir master and vocal coach, managed to perform a kind of miracle realizing his dream and the dream of many other Iranian artists. Since he was a child Ara always loved music and was fascinated by classical music. He began to experiment his voice as a teenager. He was part of a band and of a youth choir.
Given his talent, everyone advised him to pursue the singing career and to deepen the studies but his parents didn’t agree so he had to enroll in university. The university experience did not last long and so, after a year he left.

Ara Karapetyan

A.K.:In Iran the culture is that you have to be a doctor or an engineer because artists are always poor.
I enrolled in the engineering course at the university but after a year I said to myself:
– What am I doing? I like music!-
And so I left engineering for music.”

At the very beginning Ara decided to move to United States to pursue an acting career. It happened that he got deeply in the world of opera and he fell in love with it. This changed his view and so his professional path. In 2005 the only way to learn opera in Iran was studying privately with an opera teacher. At that time, at the Austrian embassy in Iran, the Austrian Cultural Forum held an audition for opera singers. It was a good opportunity to singers and musicians. Ara did the audition and was one of the 6 selected singers among the 300 participants. . He was trained for 3 years. First he started to assist and then to teach and he did many concerts as a soloist.

In this chat Ara recounts his wonderful but risky experience, that of creating and performing an opera show in Tehran, the capital of Iran.

A.K.: “My first conductor was an Indian teacher who lived in Austria. He would come to Iran 3 times per year to teach us orchestra conducting. Suddenly, for some reasons, he couldn’t come therefore he was replaced with Christian Shultz. He came in 2010 and we started to form an opera studio. Something that you couldn’t find in Iran. Even now it’s not available. There is no opera degree there. Especially for women. Men can sing women not at all. Opera is not welcome in Iran.”

They started doing opera by practicing Mozart – The Magic Flute. After 3 years things changed. Sanctions and restrictions arrived so that Christian Shultz was no longer able to enter the country.
At that point Ara started to take hold of the project. First looked for the people, then he decided to take care of the entire production. Also as a teacher he had about 150 students there, that later the embassy reduced to 80. Most of them were women and very talented. He had to take care also about the lessons. No matter what he decided to take this big challenge.
He was able to manage everything. He started from scratch, with no money and no means. He asked who wanted to join him in this and finally he managed to create a unique and unrepeatable experience. Doing this also meant translating the work from German into Farsi, then submitting it to all the government checks to obtain authorization to perform.

Ara Karapetyan

A.K.: “It was a big event. I don’t even know how I did it! If you would ask me to do it now I will probably say “I can’t do it. At that time I was so energetic, so positive. It was a big goal but most of all it was important for me allowing women to sing. This was my first dream. I wanted to sing but I wanted women to sing. Because it was forbidden.”

Together with the singers and a 200 musicians’ orchestra Ara gave birth to the opera. The Magic Flute by Mozart was on stage and the theater was packed. The third day of their performance it was the same day of the World Cup football match in which Iran was playing. One thousand people were enjoying the amazing performance. During the break 3 people of internal security of the government went to the backstage.

A.K.: “I thought they would arrest me. I was pretty sure about that. Indeed I said to anybody, to singers and to my friends, that all would be fine. I told them to not worry and go to their dressing rooms. I reassured everyone that I would take care of it.

So the internal security guys came toward me.  I was wearing makeup because was performing.  One of them looked at me and asked me:

-Who is the responsible here?-

I am – I replied.

What is this? – He asked.

This is opera.- I said.

It is very interesting. There is no people on the street. You brought all here watching this. No one is on the streets. They are not watching the World Cup. Is this a very important thing for people?-

Of course. It is music- I said.

Oh. Interesting. Give me a call. I ‘d like to talk to you, later.-

Ok. Thank You!- I replied.”

After that opera experience many people tried to continue for some time doing it. Some other projects were born but, unfortunately, all had got in trouble.

Ara Karapetyan

A.K.: “Mine was the only project in which we sung from the beginning to the end of the opera. Without any censure to any sentence. We did everything. But after us, whoever wanted to do it, would do it for 2 days, without women, and then someone would go and say:

Cut this!-”

Ara says that deep down nobody wanted this project to go on stage. Even his friends who were in the music business. They probably might have been jealous. However it seems that some friends of him reported him to the government. This project had people checking continuously and Ara had to explain anything, anytime. But how did Ara get women to sing without getting into trouble? Well it seems that by law in Iran a woman cannot sing while instead 5 women together can sing.
We can say is that during the performance of The Magic Flute the audience saw and heard 5 women singing on stage. So everything was done according to the law. For about 7 months Ara focused on doing this taking care by himself of every aspect of the whole production.He remembers that he was very excited. It meant a lot to him helping people, making this project going on, giving women the chance of singing. He also had plans for the future. Then came so much difficulties, and once again things changed.

A.K.: “After that show I was offered to fund an opera house. I was sent to different people… It was kind of ping pong game. I had to talk with ministers of music, assistants of minister, then with senior officials… At the end I got frustrated. Then I decided to leave. I went in Austria and focused on my singing.”

In Vienna he did over 200 performances.
Then he received the American permanent resident card and moved to United States, where he studied his masters. Today he lives in California but he remained attached to Austria. He goes visiting Vienna often. Ara misses Tehran and he suffers from what is recently happening there. The elimination of those who share thoughts and news not aligned with the system is something that is as fashionable in the West as it is in the East. The difference is in the method of elimination. Although not of Islamic faith in Italy there have always been cases of censorship that kill people psychologically, socially and even physically. Compared to Italy in the middle east they are more obvious and they too operate without shame. The response of the youngest to this regime is courageous and strong. Young guys are dying fighting for their rights. Read a poem or singing a song which expresses concepts that do not align with the government entails a punishment. Even posting something on your private social media account is something that is actionable by government. If those who are defined as offenders are abroad, as soon as they come back to Iran they will be arrested.

A.K.: “The situation in Iran is like we are in a big depression. What is happening now in Iran is a big trauma for us. You see young guys dying for freedom. Being far you can’t do anything. They also cannot do anything. It is a complicated situation where the government doesn’t care. Whoever comes against them is killed right away. That is what they do. Something important that impressed me is the women movement. All people is now becoming one. Before it wasn’t like this. All different cultures in Iran now are closer one to each other. Maybe will take some time and a lot of people is going to die however something is going to change. Sooner or later. They (the government ed.) need to go but they won’t go easily that’s the problem. Saying these words I could not even able to go back in Iran! Tehran is a big city. Mixed, crowded city. You find mountains in the North. There are many beautiful places there. I love my country, I love my city. Not right now… But, I mean… If things would change I would be very happy to go back!”

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