the Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet

The History of Armenian Theatre of Opera and Ballet

Many will testify that the Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet is the heart and soul of Yerevan but very few people know the history of this architectural masterpiece.
In 1927, the Opera Studio was founded on the initiative of A. Ter-Ghevondyan, the director of the Yerevan State Conservatory, and in 1932, the Opera House was established by the decision of the Government of the Armenian SSR. Initially, it operated in the building of the Yerevan Workers’ Drama Theatre (the current building of the Stanislavsky Russian Theatre), and from 1940, in the building designed by Alexander Tamanian.

Architect Tamanian and His Project

In A. Tamanian’s huge legacy, the House of Theatre of Opera and Ballet project was his favorite and most cherished. Simultaneously, no other structure caused him so much trouble and bitterness or require such a strain of mental and physical exhaustion as the building of the Opera House or Zhoghtun, as it was previously called.
In March of 1923, returning to Yerevan, he assumed a number of positions and became one of the construction directors of the republic. In January 1926 the Transcaucasian Central Executive Committee decided to build Zhoghtun in Yerevan with a theater and a number of seats in accordance with the city’s requirements. Project implementation and construction management were assigned to A. Tamanian.
He thought that it was necessary to hold a contest before designing such an important public structure for Zhoghtun. It had to clarify the architectural approaches to the image of the building, style, role of urban development, size, functional organization, and other architectural issues.
Zhoghtun Construction Committee agreed with Tamanian and in May 1926 announced a contest. It was the first major architectural competition held in Soviet Armenia. His program was made by himself – A. Tamanian in Russian.
According to the program, the complex was to include all the necessary spaces for Zhoghtun in the future: a theater for 1200 spectators, a concert hall, auditoriums, a library with a reading room, exhibition halls, group training rooms, and a cafeteria.

The Opera in Yerevan

Aram Khatchaturyan guarding the Opera

The Improvement of The Project

Starting the project and continuously improving it, Tamanian tried to implement a house of Theatre of Opera and Ballet, that meets all the latest requirements, as well as content and architectural solution that would correspond to the capital.
He planned a two-hall building with one common big stage. Tamanian has envisaged two equal halls, which can operate both separately and, if necessary, by joining together. The difference between the halls is that one is winter, closed on all sides (1500 seats), the other is summer (1200 seats). The summer hall had more options.
In the first version, there was no roof, then the roof was added and there were no walls but columns. The idea of a summer hall came from the warm climate of Yerevan. It did not even have a foyer, during the breaks the spectators would go out to the park.

From Suburb into a Centre

The construction site of Zhoghtun was determined by the general plan of Yerevan. It was hard for the people of Yerevan to imagine that this suburban place would become a part of the future Yerevan Public Centre.
In parallel with the design, Tamanian had to solve three issues related to the land plot for the building: alienation of gardens from the owners, transportation of the ”Mamri” irrigation water pipeline, the fate of the ”Gethsemane” Chapel.
The most painful question was one of the Gethsemane Chapel. According to the New Testament, Gethsemane was a place of olive groves, where Christ had offered his last prayers before being crucified. The chapel was given that name probably because it was located in the gardens. It was built in 1679 on the site of an older church destroyed by an earthquake.
The chapel was single-nave, vaulted, small, and dome-shaped. Tamanian decided to move it. Therefore, in 1929 they demolish and number the stones one by one. However, one of the frequently changing construction directors used the stones of the chapel in the construction of a residential house for Zhoghtun workers on Byron Street.

Vigen Zakaryan, the son of builder Vardan Zakaryan, says that his father was only 23 years old, but during his years at the House of Theatre of Opera and Ballet, he was eventually promoted from an ordinary technician and became the deputy head of construction. He remembers his father saying that Alexander Tamanian was very careful about the construction process.
Tamanian often approached Vigen’s father at the construction site and said: “Dear Vardan, let’s go and see if the sand is washed or not.” Tamanian wanted to make sure that the concrete foundation of the opera house was made of solid mortar, he was worried that the building would not suddenly suffer from possible earthquakes.

Anna Sargsyan– In front of the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet building you can see two sculptures of outstanding people: they are Aleksander Spendiaryan – music composer, conductor, founder of Armenian national symphonic music and Hovhannes Tumanyan – Armenian poet, writer, and translator.
You may ask why their statues are in front of the opera building. The answer is that the first opera performance named “Almast” was written by the composer Spendiaryan (it is also the reason that the building is named in honor of him).
In his turn, Tumanyan is the author of the poem ”Anush” which was later used in the famous opera of the same name composed by Armen Tigranian.
Anna Sargsyan, the granddaughter of sculptor Ara Sargsyan, says that when Ara Sargsyan lived in Paris, he received a letter from Martiros Saryan. The master suggested Ara move to Yerevan to develop monumental sculpture in Armenia.
In 1938, her grandfather participated in the All-Union Competition for the Creation of a Statue of Hovhannes Tumanyan. He made two versions: plaster and wood, which differed from each other in terms of composition.
In the first version, Tumanyan was standing, in the second, sitting in an armchair. It was planned that there would be bas-reliefs on the pedestal, based on Tumanyan’s works, but that idea did not materialize. Spendiarov is also depicted sitting. There are notes on his knees, and his left hand seems to respond to the music.
Her grandfather tried to portray the composer in a moment of creative inspiration. Ara Sargsyan worked together with Ghukas Chubaryan on that statue. By the way, back in 1928, he also made Spendiaryan’s posthumous mask.
The chandelier of the Opera

The Story Of the Central Chandelier

In 1980, the 60th anniversary of the Armenian SSR was to be celebrated. About a year before that, the building of the National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet began to be renovated. A competition was announced to make a new chandelier. About 200 architects and painters took part in the competition.
No project was recognized as a winner in the first round of the competition. The projects of about 30 participants who passed the second round were not approved either. Finally, eight months before the date, the third round of the competition was announced.
Then Leon Karsyan decided to try himself. He presented the illuminated model of the chandelier, which was approved and declared the winner.
The chandelier was moved to the hall in parts and placed on the ceiling with the help of special equipment. In the process, some technical problems arose: the torch barely escaped falling.
The large central chandelier of the hall has a diameter of about 8 meters, a height of about 6 meters, and weighs 5 tons. Real gold was used in the process of preparing it.
The big chandelier of the opera house is washed once every 3-4 years, the small chandeliers around it once a year. The process of washing the chandelier is supervised by the chief engineer of the theater Artavazd Amirkhanyan. 6-7 employees take part in the washing process. No special materials are used during washing.

A Spectator About the Theatre

Retired Emma Davtyan says that they did not attend the Theatre of Opera and Ballet in their everyday clothes. Even if they knew they were going to sit on the steps, they still wore evening dresses. People had holiday clothes that they only wore when they went to the Opera. The same goes for shoes. She had high-heeled shoes specifically for going to the Opera.
Narek Avetisyan, the son of famous painter Minas Avetisyan, says that in the 1960s, 2-3 years after Minas returned from Leningrad, the famous choreographer Yevgeny Changa invited him to the Opera House to design the performances.
Minas became a revelation for the theater with his innovative approach. Among his works are the designs of “Antuni” ballet oratorio, “Bolero”, “Sako from Lori”, “Cinderella”, “Almast” ballet, and, of course, “Gayane” ballet.
Aram Khachaturian wished that Minas would design the “Gayane” ballet. However, in the beginning, there were disagreements between them, Aram Ilyich said that the colors are too much and bright, to which Minas replied that in fact, he does not go far from the composer’s music. Khachaturian later admitted that Minas’ design was completely in tune with the music he created.
There are hundreds of stories and memories related to the historical event of building the Armenian National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet after A. Spendiaryan. Each story gives its unique flour to the Opera House and makes us walk parallel with the history every day when we pass by that building.

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In case you were wondering how to go to reach The Opera, you may take The metro of Yerevan, or just walk down Abovyan Street.