10 April 2012
Lili Chookasian, 90, Exhilarating American Contralto Who Found Acclaim on Concert and Opera Stages, Has Died
Chicago, Illinois, August 1, 1921 – April 9, 2012
Lili Chookasian, an American contralto who became a prominent presence on postwar concert and opera stages, has died.
Physically, Lili Chookasian was a woman of small stature, but the sound that emerged from that body was enormous — dark, with a power and cut that were exhilarating and, when she sang Menotti's The Medium or Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera, quite terrifying. Chookasian was a genuine contralto. She possessed the kind of gutsy, dramatic sound that has always been rare and has — with a few exceptions, such as Ewa Podleś, practically disappeared today. Chookasian performed in an era when contraltos were not normally given opportunities to sing expansive coloratura, as Podleś later would be. She specialized in the great concert contralto repertoire — Mahler's Second Symphony, Das Lied von der Erde and Kindertotenlieder, Verdi's Requiem, Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky — and secondary contralto roles in opera, such as Ulrica, La Cieca in La Gioconda, Madelon in Andrea Chénier.
Chookasian was born of Armenian parentage, and her ethnicity remained a strong part of her life, always. Her grandparents had perished in the 1915 Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Young Turk Party of the Ottoman Empire. Chookasian was born in Chicago in 1921 and grew up speaking Armenian at home. She sang in the Armenian Church and in her teens found a voice teacher, Philip Manuel, with whom she remained for nearly two decades. In 1941, she married George Gavejian, and she spent the rest of the decade-plus singing extensively in Chicago. (She performed in church with future pop star Kay Armen, who became a close friend.) She also taught at Northwestern University. In 1955, she made a breakthrough when she was engaged by Bruno Walter to sing Mahler's Resurrection Symphony with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Walter accompanied her at her audition, and Chookasian later told OPERA NEWS's Sonya Haddad, "It was almost a mystical experience to sing with him at the piano, and then with the orchestra. I felt honored and humbled." Maestro Peter Herman Adler brought her to the attention of Rosa Ponselle, who coached her extensively in the roles of Amneris and Azucena. Bit by bit, Chookasian strengthened the already impressive solid core to her voice.
In 1956, she suffered her first bout with cancer. She received a terminal diagnosis but opted for a radical mastectomy and fought her way back to health. In 1959, she made her long-delayed opera debut when she sang Adalgisa opposite the Norma of Barbara Stevenson at out-of-the-way Arkansas State Opera. The conductor was future artist manager Sheldon Soffer, and two years later he recommended Chookasian to Thomas Schippers, who was in search of a soloist for his upcoming performances of Alexander Nevsky with the New York Philharmonic. It took some time, but Schippers located Chookasian in Baltimore, where she was singing, and invited her to audition. It was essentially a courtesy, as he had all but decided to give the role to another artist, who reportedly burst into tears the moment Chookasian finished her audition, knowing that Schippers would engage her on the spot — which he did.
In 1961, after her successful debut with the Philharmonic and a European debut as Herodias at Gian Carlo Menotti's Festival of Two Worlds, Chookasian was offered a Met contract, but she declined it because she feared it would leave her little time with her family. (By now, she and Gavejian had a daughter, Valerie, and two sons, John and Paul.) She had a recurrence of cancer that year, but it was easily excised, and this time she had a quick recovery. When a Met contract was offered again, in 1962, she accepted, making her company debut as La Cieca in La Gioconda, with Zinka Milanov, Franco Corelli and Nell Rankin. Around this time, she became more closely linked with Menotti: she made her New York City Opera debut in 1963 in The Medium and recorded the composer's Death of the Bishop of Brindisi in 1964. Also that year, she sang in the Met world premiere of Menotti's The Last Savage, in a cast that included George London, Roberta Peters and Teresa Stratas. Stratas later recalled Chookasian as a favorite colleague whose voice was "gorgeous — gold with streaks of black, like molten lava. One got lost in that sound, no matter what she was singing."
Many of Chookasian's colleagues treasured her not only for her talent but for her warmth and sense of humor. Eileen Farrell, who sang Santuzza to Chookasian's Mamma Lucia at the Met, remembered that during "Voi lo sapete," when Santuzza pours out her heart about Turiddu's maltreatment of her, Chookasian would often lean across the table and whisper, "You're kidding…. He said that?"
By the mid-1980s, Chookasian could still perform at a uncommonly high level; in the summer of 1984, she sang a Verdi Requiem at New Jersey's Waterloo Festival that was remarkable for both her powerful sound and her superb diction. From 1985, she began teaching at Yale University's School of Music, where she worked hard to build the core of her pupils' voices. She lamented that most voice teachers didn't have a grasp of chest voice, which she considered essential for low-voiced singers. "Can you imagine doing Ulrica without chest register? Or Dame Quickly? Erda?" she asked OPERA NEWS in 2003. "You will not be heard!" In 2002, Yale awarded her the Samuel Simon Sanford Medal.
In the 1990s, Chookasian was escorted backstage at Carnegie Hall to meet Jessye Norman, who had just sung a performance. When Norman opened the door of her dressing room and saw Chookasian standing before her, she gasped, "I should be on my knees!" It was a sentiment that few of Chookasian's colleagues and students would have disagreed with.