Music critics call her the leading dramatic soprano of our times. Her performances sell out the world’s most prestigious venues from La Scala to the Met. Her superb vocal has garnered standing ovations from the most capricious audiences from Vienna, Zurich and Moscow to San Francisco, Tokyo and Sydney. Wherever she performs, she mentions her Armenian origin. The maiden name of the renowned opera singer Maria Guleghina is Meytarjian.
Maria Guleghina’s ancestors came from Erzrum and Van. Her grandmother Maria (Mano) Martirosi Gyadukian (born in 1905) and her grandfather Mkrtich Yeghishei Meytarjian (born in 1898) were children when the Armenian Genocide began. They were forced to flee to Javakhq, then part of the Russian Empire.
Maria Guleghina’s grandmother Maria and grandfather Mkrtich.
The family then moved to Odessa, where Maria was born, but she considers her homeland to be Akhaltsikhe in Georgia, where she spent her vacations and holidays during her childhood and adolescent years. At the age of 19 Maria married an Armenian from Javakhq and moved to Akhaltsikhe for good. Thus an emerging opera singer became an Armenian housewife.
“Mornings started with feeding the hens and irrigating the kitchen garden,” says Maria. “My mother-in-law used to say that a woman’s place was not on the stage, but in the kitchen and garden. I found it hard to come to terms with that statement, and one day I just decided I simply had no right to bury my talent. There is a small number of Armenians, isn’t there? Imagine what would happen if every talented Armenian feeds hens instead of working on him or herself.”
Maria with her daughter Natalya.
With her daughter Natalya Maria moved back to Odessa, where she graduated from the vocals department of the Odessa Conservatory. Yevgeni Ivanov, her teacher and mentor, taught her how to work with her voice. Having assessed the infinite possibilities of her vocals as well as her hard-working personality, Ivanov advised her to work on becoming a dramatic soprano. “You will be able to perform anything,” he said. He steered young Maria toward the Opera and Ballet Theatre of Belarus, but the singer was given a cold shoulder because she insisted that operas be sung in their original languages – considered Western propaganda in the Soviet Union. She worked at the Opera House of Minsk for six years, simultaneously scoring mono parts with Luciano Pavarotti at La Scala in Milan.
In 1986 she won the Tchaikovsky International Competition. After that, prizes and awards came pouring in one after another. In 1987 in she decided to leave Belarus due to very limited possibilities to travel. “I took some musical notes, a record of Rachmaninov performed by himself, the records of Talkov and Horovitz, learned “Aida” in Italian in five days and fled,” Maria recalls. She moved to Spain, where she was offered a job at the Oviedo Theater. The young and talented singer caught the attention of the best theaters in Europe and began having regular appearances in the West.
An excerpt from the “Turandot” opera by Puccini staged at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Maria owes all of her achievements to hard work, a love of life, a realistic assessment of her own merits and being thankful for all that God has given her. “The voice is my soul, it’s my life,” says the diva. Her voice has such range and power that studio microphones fail during recordings.
Today Maria Guleghina lives in Luxembourg. Her performances are scheduled at least three years in advance. The great conductors Valery Gergiev, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Riccardo Muti and others consider it an honor to work with her. She has shared the stage with the crème de la crème: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Leo Nucci, Renato Bruson.
Placido Domingo and Maria Guleghina performing “Adriana Lecouvreur,” an opera by Francesco Cilea.
None of this came easy. Maria was born with a serious legs disorder and heart disease. Doctors were not sure she would live and even suggested that her mother should leave the newborn girl at the hospital. But her mother, a doctor and a professor, did the impossible to literally get her daughter up on her feet. Orthopedists prescribed a special type of massage with rough stretches – a very painful procedure that had little Maria’s screams resonating through the streets.
“My voice emerged from this pain. Screaming became the reason my vocal cords developed,” says Maria.
Her parents’ persistence paid off: at the age of four their daughter stood up straight, and a few years later she began dancing. She dreamt of becoming a ballet dancer, but her father was unsupportive of the idea. “My father would rather kill himself than allow me to study at ballet school,” Maria says. “He was convinced that it’s disgraceful for an Armenian girl to kick her legs in the presence of men.” But Aghas Meytarjian was not opposed to vocal lessons, for he himself was an excellent singer. Moreover, he was one of the first to notice his daughter’s talent.
Maria Guleghina on the stage of Yerevan, April, 2015.
Maria was raised in a family with a special respect for Armenian folklore. “I grew up with the melodies of Komitas and the songs of Sayat-Nova. Grandfather Mkrtich and grandmother Mano instilled a great love for Armenian music in me. Generally, I love all things Armenian. I get offended when people don’t see the Armenian in me,” says the singer.
And yet she doesn’t have to consider herself Armenian: she was born in Ukraine to a Jewish mother, she lives in Europe and performs all over the world.
“My heritage is extremely important to me. The blood of two nations subjected to Genocide runs through my veins. I am devoted to my roots and I’m proud of my ancestry,” says Maria.
The “Vocalise” performance at the “Revival” concert of the 24/04 orchestra dedicated to the victims of the Armenian Genocide: remembrance, gratitude, an international struggle and rebirth. Yerevan, April, 2015.
Maria Guleghina admits to having made the mistake of changing her Armenian maiden name for that of her second husband. “If I were wiser, I wouldn’t have done that. So what if it it’s hard for Europeans to pronounce Meytarjian? That’s not my problems. Having become a renowned singer I seriously considered going back to my Armenian name, but my agents talked me out of it. In any case, in my interviews I often mention that my last name is Meytarjian, that my ancestors come from Van and Erzrum.”
The story is verified by the 100 LIVES Research Team.