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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Mar. 6, 2019 3 years ago

Sarasota Opera's unsung heroes rarely see the spotlight, but they're ready for it

What does it take to be an understudy at Sarasota Opera? Just everything you’ve got. Christopher Nazarian wouldn’t have it any other way.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Opera’s principal singers get the lion’s share of glory. Opera’s understudies usually don’t. Unless the principal singer can’t go on, they’re opera’s unsung heroes. Today, we’ll sing a different tune.

Here’s a glimpse at the life of Christopher Nazarian. He’s one of Sarasota Opera’s hardworking understudies — an Australian native with a proud Armenian heritage. This season, he’s understudying the roles of Timur and Zaccaria in Puccini’s “Turandot” and Verdi’s “Nabucco.” While Nazarian is also singing in the choruses of those productions, his understudy roles are his main focus. How hard could it be?

According to Nazarian, as hard as the work of a principal singer, at least before the show goes on. And even in the lofty art of opera, the show must go on. Even if a principal singer can’t.

“I need to to be fully ready if anything happens to the principal singer,” Nazarian explains. “That means a lot more than memorizing lines. I have to understand my character in the context of the whole opera. To do that, I translate the text from Italian to English.”

Sarasota Opera accepted Nazarian last November. He was still in New York City when he got the news. But he didn’t wait to get started. 

He listened to great recordings of his operas, sang his roles — while accompanying himself on piano — and worked with Armen Boyajian, his New York singing coach. But that was just the warmup.

Last January, Nazarian stepped through the doors of the Sarasota Opera House, and his studies kicked into high gear immediately. He worked with coaches on a one-on-one basis. He also learned by observing the principal artists.

“It’s a good way to learn the roles without the pressure of having to sing on stage,” he says.

That said, Sarasota Opera’s understudies do get their turn to shine. They’ll perform their entire opera on the day before opening night.

“The cover run gives us a feel for the work,” Nazarian says. “If any of us need to step in, at least we’ve performed it once.”

Until then, the work goes on. And he loves every minute of it.

“Opera is an exaggerated art form,” Nazarian says. “Every story is life and death. Every emotion is larger than life. Opera draws you into the moment and takes you out of yourself. It makes you think and makes you feel. That’s the reason you go to the theater in the first place.”

For Nazarian, opera is a labor of love.

But there’s still a lot of labor. 

Switching Paths

Nazarian began as a concert pianist. He’d accompany opera singers on piano, and also taught lessons. His classical music career was taking off. But he decided to change his tune.

“Singing looked like a lot more fun,” he says. “The singers got such an intense reaction from the audience. The pianist was just in the background.”

Nazarian wanted to step into the spotlight as a singer.

He studied with Liliya Ovchiyan, an opera singer and voice teacher based in Sydney. She refined Nazarian’s technique and stoked his love of singing. And pointed his new ambition in the right direction. And confirmed what Nazarian’s heart had been telling him.

 “She told me, ‘If you want a performance career, you’ll have more of a chance as an opera singer. You sing in the bass register, and it’s a rarer voice type.’ So I took that on.”

For Nazarian, it boiled down to a choice between piano and voice. He chose voice. But that decision came late. He was 25 years old when he first started voice training. Most professional singers began in their teens. By the time they reached Nazarian’s age, most had a head start on their careers. He was starting a new profession from scratch. It took a lot of love to keep going—but he had more than enough.

For Nazarian, opera singing was more than a career niche. He’d fallen in love with it. Why?

“Opera is an exaggerated art form,” Nazarian says. “Every story is life and death. Every emotion is larger than life. Opera draws you into the moment and takes you out of yourself. It makes you think and makes you feel. That’s the reason you go to the theater in the first place.”

Nazarian’s love affair with opera was strong. It got him through his studies at The Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It took him through further studies in the United States—with help from a grant from the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust. Before long, Nazarian was singing professional roles.

But he jumped at the chance of being an understudy at Sarasota Opera.

The spotlight can come tomorrow. Today, he’s investing in his future.

All it takes is talent, time, passion and hard work.

A lot of it.

A Day in the Life of an Understudy

For an understudy at Sarasota Opera, there’s no such thing as a slow day. Or a short one. Some of Nazarian’s days are 13 hours long. He might spend his daylight hours rehearsing and his evening hours performing. “It’s intense,” he says. “We pack a lot of work in a three-month period.”

Every understudy gets a day off. But free time doesn’t mean downtime. Nazarian will spend his “free” day studying the fine points of his current material, or researching a future project.

If Nazarian has to substitute for a principal artist, he’ll be ready. If not, he’s learned what it takes to be a principal artist.

For Nazarian, Sarasota Opera has been like graduate school.

“It does far more than give you pieces to sing,” he says. “They teach you the foundations of classical music. Maestro Victor DeRenzi is adamant that his artists all learn and apply those principles. Not in an abstract way, but on stage in performance. Even a good music school can’t teach you the ins and outs of an actual production. But this is a professional company, and they train you for the real world.”

Nazarian is still perfecting his craft. But he isn’t in hurry. This is still the overture of his career. And he wants to get it right.

Life is a long song. Nazarian’s symphony is just beginning. And he knows he’s in the right place to get it right.

“At Sarasota Opera, I’m surrounded by like-minded artists,” he says. “As an understudy, I’m learning how to perform my roles to the best of my ability. After working here, I’m ready to sing in any opera house in the world.”

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