The challenge of bringing ‘Carmen’ from Yerevan to Dubai

Constantine Orbelian of the Armenian National Theatre of Opera and Ballet tells us what it takes to perform around the world

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When stage lovers attend the opulent production Carmen tonight at Dubai Opera, the lavishness and seamless nature of the set will disguise the painstaking work it took to set up.

The fact that the bustling square in Seville and the mountain backdrop all look clean and detailed is a minor miracle considering that they came out of the back of a truck that travelled from the back lot of Yerevan’s Armenian National Theatre of Opera and Ballet to Dubai Opera, an epic six-week trip that included 15 border crossings.

Meeting the load earlier in the week in Dubai was Constantine Orbelian, the company’s general and artistic director. With more than three decades of experience performing with and conducting some of the world’s greatest orchestras and ensembles, he is well accustomed to the laborious set-up procedure.

But there is added excitement and nerves this time around, as tonight's performance is momentous. In addition to it being the first-ever staging of Carmen in the emirate, the show marks the UAE debut performance of the company from Yerevan, which will also be staging Mozart's The Magic Flute from September 13 to 15.

"It is all done in stages," he told The National on Tuesday. "Tomorrow, the orchestra and chorus section arrive. On Wednesday, we have two big rehearsals, and on Thursday, we begin with Carmen. While all of this seems like there is not enough time, we have been planning this Dubai show for eight months."

It is that equal mixture of energy and careful planning that made Orbelian’s stint as the head of the Armenian National Theatre of Opera and Ballet a success.

Ever since Orbelian, 62, was enlisted for the top job last year, he has revitalised the 85-year-old historic opera house. Before his arrival the company produced just eight operas in 17 years, now it has six new productions coming up, in addition to international touring commitments in Europe and the region.

Orbelian credits the hard work ethos to the jewels at his disposal. “The country has a great music and opera tradition, and Armenian singers are famous around the world,” he says. “They are constantly singing in Russia and Europe and there are a few also playing in San Francisco. The soloists performing in Dubai will then travel to New York to sing at The Metropolitan Opera. These are all high-end and high-class singers who are loved all over the world.”


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There is also a personal element to his zeal. He was born in the United States to an Armenian father and Russian mother, and was named after his paternal uncle, the great Armenian composer Konstantin Orbelyan. A piano prodigy, he began performing for the San Francisco Symphony at age 11, but he was always aware of his cultural background. In addition to his trailblazing work in Armenia, the head of the Armenian National Theatre of Opera and Ballet displayed that same personal passion when appointed music director of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra in 1991, a shock announcement in what was then the Soviet Union, as he was the first American ever to become music director of a Russian music ensemble.

Orbelian is not too fussed with the distinction. He explains that his appointment was down to the political currents of the time. “I was definitely surprised of course,” he says. “I played with them as a piano soloist first in December in 1990, and six weeks later their conductor died of a heart attack. The orchestra signed a petition with the ministry of culture of the Soviet Union and asked me to be their conductor. It was the time of [reformist and last Soviet leader] Gorbachev. It was a time of change and by accepting me as the director, it was a sign that the country was really trying to go international.”

Although the Armenian National Theatre of Opera and Ballet is an established presence in its home country and Dubai Opera has only just celebrated its second anniversary, Orbelian draws a similarity with the two intuitions in that they are united in their goal to inspire a new generation with a love of the arts. He says a future step for both companies is to develop child-friendly productions. "We are currently working on children's ballets of stories like Sinbad and The Wizard of Oz. This is something the former Soviet Union did well in that each major city had its own children's theatre," Orbelian says.

“That’s a great thing, in that we can help build a new generation that is comfortable and not scared of the theatre.”

Carmen by the Armenian National Theatre of Opera and Ballet is at Dubai Opera from tonight until Saturday. The Magic Flute will be performed from September 13 to 15,