Singing opera was the last thing on Vartan Gabrielian’s mind, growing up as an energetic Armenian kid in North York.
He was a rowdy one, his parents keeping him in church to keep him in line. But little did he know destiny would find him there.
“I was seven years old when I first met Father Meghrig Parikian,” Gabrielian told Global News one afternoon. Parikian was a new priest who joined the church and heard Vartan — an altar boy at the time — sing.
“I didn’t notice that he had noticed my voice,” said Gabrielian. “But all I knew is that one evening, he said, be here at this time and you’re going to work with a choral director.”
Father Parikian saw him as more than just a troublemaker, Gabrielian told Global News, and Parikian soon became his mentor. He believed in Vartan’s talent so much that Parikian convinced Vartan’s dad to put him in vocal lessons.
“Hands down they were my biggest supporters,” said Gabrielian. “That blind, faithful trust in a young person is I think all that’s needed to propel [you], and that’s what [Parikian and my Dad] gave me.”
It wasn’t long before Gabrielian’s career took off.
After studying at a prestigious music school in Philadelphia, Curtis Institute of Music, on a full scholarship, Gabrielian made his professional debut in 2018 with opera company, Opéra de Montréal.
Later, he joined the Canadian Opera Company as an ensemble member where he would make his Toronto debut in Rusalka.
But then the pandemic hit, stealing away the productions that would have opened doors. Then at the end of 2020, COVID-19 stole two of his biggest supporters.
“My dad just kind of started getting worse and going backwards,” said Gabrielian, remembering when his father got infected with the virus back in November 2020. “We could see that he was still fighting, but unfortunately that wasn’t enough, and COVID won that one.”
One month after his father passed, Vartan’s mentor, Parikian, also died from COVID. With both of his biggest champions now gone, Vartan was at a loss.
“Who am I doing this for now?” he told Global News.
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Then came an opportunity that would change everything.
A few months after losing his Dad and mentor, Gabrielian was asked to perform in a co-production put on by Against the Grain Theatre and the Canadian Opera Company — one that couldn’t have been more timely.
The production? Mozart’s Requiem. The word, ‘requiem,’ literally meaning an act or token of remembrance.
“Requiem is done in memory of those who have left us,” explained Gabrielian. “What’s special about it is that this specific production was supposed to be done in memory and in remembrance of everybody that we lost during COVID.”
For Gabrielian, the performance was not only a chance to heal and commemorate the fathers who helped give him his voice. It was, he said, an opportunity “to live through honouring whom we’ve lost.”
He hopes the performance of Requiem will inspire people to look after those who lost loved ones during the pandemic, and will make those grieving feel less alone.
It’s a reminder, he says, that as we look towards the future, to remember the ones left behind — and that we are not soloists, but in this together.
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