First Nightingale of Armenian Opera, Shazig ‘Lousnag’ Keuyluyian (1854-1895)
“Lost photos and a lost burial place for the first and unique prima donna of the history of Armenian opera! Is that fair?” exclaims theatre scholar Varsig Grigorian in the opening lines of her essay on Shazig Keuyluyian, nicknamed Lousnag (Little Moon) for her beauty and talent.
She was born into an affluent Armenian family in the Ottoman Empire’s cosmopolitan city of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) in the European district of Pera. She lost her father, Sarkis, during her early childhood, which changed the family’s financial situation, leaving mother and daughter in destitution.
She was barely 16 years old when a great fire burnt down the entire district of Pera (June 5, 1870). A strong wind spread the flames with alarming speed. Embassies and consulates, famous theatres such as the Naoum Theatre, the headquarters of the Armenian Patriarch, many churches, mosques and thousands of houses and stores, were completely destroyed. Thousands were killed and wounded. Having lost whatever little they owned, the Keuyluyians were forced to find shelter in a place called Odalar, a sort of huge camp where impoverished victims were given miserable tiny shacks.
Shazig made and sold embroideries to help the family survive.
The Mirrorspectator.com writes: On a hot summer day, Shazig was singing as usual while embroidering, seated next to the open window of their rundown little home. She sang on her own, completely unaware that her lovely voice filled the street.
Just like in a fairy tale, a 45-year-old gentleman, Bedros Maghakian, famous stage director and theatre manager, continously in search of young talents, happened to pass by. Maghakian was at the time the celebrated stage director of the great “Ottoman Theater” founded in 1870 by Hagop Vartovian (Güllü Agop), who had the monopoly of all theater productions in Constantinople, officially granted to him by the state. It also just happened that during those days, Maghakian was in the process of helping the great composer Dikran Tchouhadjian to gather a group of singers in order to produce his first operetta at Vartovian’s theatre. Trained singers, especially good ones, were hard to find in those early days. Hearing Shazig’s song, he then and there decided to enter the dwelling and tried to convince the frightened young girl to follow him to the theatre. It wasn’t too difficult to convince the mother. Her child would earn a better living than selling embroideries within a much more pleasant and morally secure setting. Moral values were very important those days to convince parents to trust their daughters to the stage. Those values were strictly observed. At last, Shazig was convinced to follow Maghakian who introduced her to the great Maestro Tchouhadjian and his circle, Vartovian, actor/singer Serovpe Benklian and other Armenian artists.
Shazig’s extraordinary beauty and enchanting voice immediately won the hearts of everyone present at her audition and the training began.
Maghakian taught her to read and write (girls of poor families had no opportunity to get a proper education in those days) and among other basic subjects he taught her the techniques of acting. Tchouhadjian personally trained her to read music and understand its nuances and intricacies. Serovpe Benklian, a good base, who would soon become the manager and lead actor/singer of Tchouhadjian’s operas, coached her in arias and the art of role interpretation.
Shazig was a sharp, quick learner and endowed with natural talent. She was a hard worker too. She amazed her teachers by the extraordinary speed of her progress. Soon she began to play small parts in Vartovian’s theatre. It was evident that she was going to turn many heads and steal hearts.
Enter tenor Hovhannes Ajemian! He was the only true professional singer of this entourage to have graduated from a school in Italy. He was also a multilingual intellectual who wrote musical reviews in local papers in different languages. He had joined Tchouhadjian’s team and written the libretto of his first operetta called “Sherif Agha” (Later re-named “Arif’s Tricks” (Arif’in Hilesi) based on Gogol’s The inspector General.
Soon rehearsals began in a most enthusiastic, festive ambiance with the handsome Ajemian in the title role of Arif and the attractive Shazig in the role of his love interest, Meryam. Despite being surrounded by many young admirers in the company, Shazig remained totally dedicated to her work.
Tchouhadjian’s “Arif’s Tricks” composed during 1872 would mark the foundation of musical drama in Constantinople and thereby the entire Near East. “Arif” was finally produced in the early months of 1873.
As a separated young woman, especially a shining star, she was constantly solicited by infatuated admirers. Avoiding all advances, for quite some time, she had devoted herself to art and assiduously continued to perfect her craft. But now, the young woman’s heart was beginning to feel alone.
One fine day, a brilliant young physician, in his early 30s, appears on the scene: Dr. Vichen Ormanian, younger brother of the legendary Bishop Maghakia Ormanian, later Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople from 1896 to 1908. Ormanian had returned to Constantinople after graduating from medical schools in Rome, Paris and London.
Upon discovering Constantinople’s idol, the young physician, like everyone else, would soon fall head over heels in love. And for the first time Shazig was not indifferent. In fact, her feelings for Ormanian were so strong, so overwhelming that she took the sort of drastic measure only blind love can provoke. She quit her career at the top of her glory!
Tchouhadjian, Maghakian, Benklian and all her stage partners were left speechless. Running away from their pleas as well as society’s condemnations, seeking total privacy and freedom for her new life, Shazig rented a small place in Maltepe, a village south of Constantinople on the shores of the Marmara Sea. There, the new lovers would regularly meet, giving free rein to their passion.
Ormanian’s family, especially his mother and elder brother the bishop, were in shock. They pressured the young physician to immediately stop this “immoral” relationship with a “vulgar stage actress and what is more a divorcée” in the name of the family’s reputation and respectability. They tried to convince him by introducing him to suitable daughters of society families. The tension was such that Ormanian finally consented to his parents and cut off all relations with Shazig. She also felt that being no longer under the limelight, he had slowly fallen out of love.
Shazig was devastated.
Typical of romantic artists of the period, she had led a carefree, exorbitant life, spending her money lavishly and helping generously all who needed assistance.
At this point she was left alone, not daring to go back to the theatre and gradually sank into deep depression. The lack of money also didn’t help. She refused to see anyone, even old stage colleagues who only wanted to be of assistance.
She decided to end it all.
On a cold winter day, sad and gloomy, as the gray tempestuous sea seemed to foreshadow the finality of death, Shazig lit up the stove and made coffee. She then put into the cup the poison she had bought the day before and began to pray. She recalled her days of glory, her debut, her wedding and her only true love, the enormous sacrifice she committed for his sake, her bliss and then her lonely isolation. Her fairy tale life, both joyful and tragic, crossed before her eyes.
Suddenly, she hears soft footsteps in the snow, looks from the window and sees Ormanian …her love! A miracle — he was once again knocking at Shazig’s door!
The physician walked in, silent and gloomy and sat down. She knelt next to him, crying her heart out. Extremely moved, Ormanian picked her up and looking straight into her eyes solemnly declared that nothing could ever separate them anymore.
After spending several months together, meeting each other sporadically, in secret, they finally got married despite vehement objections by the young man’s entire family. She would henceforth be called Mrs. Shazig Ormanian.
Happiness would stimulate the physician even further in his work. Having been appointed director of the Holy Savior Hospital in Constantinople in 1879, he relentlessly explored and published records of his research on the therapeutic and psychic lives of patients, thus becoming the first psychiatrist in Turkish and Armenian reality.
Several enchanting years passed by until … tragedy struck again. Ormanian got sick and died at the age of 45.
Abandoned and penniless, Shazig would spend a few more years in utter misery and loneliness, once again refusing to see anyone and never allowing herself to bother people with her misery to ask for help.
Across the sea from Maltepe, in a hotel on Princes’ Islands (Büyükada) she happened to meet the famous writer Anaïs, who was spending the summer vacation there.
Anaïs was a modern woman with an open mind, full of compassion and understanding. Shazig, by then her hair completely turned white, desperate to talk of her past glorious days, would open her heart to her and emotionally narrate her tragic story. In the end, she begged Anaïs to promise her to write it one day.
The writer kept her promise, publishing her memoirs, adding information she had heard from Tchouhadjian himself, thereby saving the “lovely singing doll” from total oblivion.
Anaïs would be one of the very last persons to see Shazig. Soon after, in 1895, in a lonely room on beautiful Princess’ Islands, Shazig once again chose to lower the final curtain. She ingested chloroform.
No fairy tale miracle happened this time …
A shooting star in the eastern sky, Lousnag’s (Little moon) stage career had barely twinkled for 7 or 8 years since the day she enchanted a passing stranger while singing at her window.
Note, that the writer has not been able to find any information on exactly when Hovhannes Ajemian and Shazig got married nor how long their marriage lasted.
The above article was mainly inspired by the eye-opening and fascinating book The First Actresses, written in Armenian by the remarkably erudite theatre specialist Varsik Grigorian and her actress daughter Hasmik Ter-Karapetian, published in Yerevan in 1993.
Other Armenian-language sources include: Smpad Kessedjian’s unpublished memoirs, Literature and Art Museum (Yerevan, Armenia); Sharasan, The Turkish-Armenian Stage and Its Actors from 1850 to 1908 (Constantinople, 1914); Anaïs, My Recollections (Paris, 1949); Neshan Beshiktashlian, Theatrical Portraits (Beirut, 1968); Garnik Sdepanian, An Outline of the History of Western Armenian Theater, Volume 2 (Yerevan, 1969); and Haig Avakian, Dzidzernag, April-July issue (Egypt, 2006).
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