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Obituary: Lili Chookasian, contralto, faculty member

April 11, 2012

Lili Chookasian, a renowned contralto who sang at the Metropolitan Opera and taught at the Yale School of Music, died peacefully in her sleep on April 10, 2012.

Chookasian was born in Chicago, on August 1, 1921 and celebrated her 90th birthday last summer. In her career, she appeared with many of the world’s major conductors, symphony orchestras, and recording and opera companies.

After retiring from the stage in 1986, Chookasian joined the voice faculty of the Yale School of Music. In 2002 she was awarded the Sanford Medal, the School of Music’s highest honor. She was named Professor Emerita of the School of Music in 2010.

Robert Blocker, Dean of the School, wrote: “Lili was a source of joy and inspiration to all of us and to countless generations of students. Her career can only be described as magnificent, as she was one of America’s greatest singers.  Her life exemplified extraordinary gifts of love, compassion, and grace for her family, friends, and colleagues. We were enlarged by her presence, and we celebrate the gifts she freely gave to each of us and to our School.”

Wrote Brian Kellow in Opera News: “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.”

Kellow continues: “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 began her career in the 1940s as a featured soloist on the Popular Hymns of All Churches radio program. She came to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960’s when her concert, oratorio, and recital performances drew critical acclaim. When she decided to expand her career, the milestones came quickly. In 1959, she made her first operatic appearance with the Arkansas State Opera in the role of Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma. In 1960, her second operatic role was as Amneris in Verdi’s Aida with the Baltimore Lyric Opera, where Chookasian was studying with Rosa Ponselle, the legendary dramatic soprano of the Metropolitan Opera. After  Ponselle shared a tape of her performances with Thomas Schippers of the New York Philharmonic, Chookasian soon joined Schippers and the Philharmonic in their 1960 recording of Prokoviev’s Alexander Nevsky.

In 1960, she was offered a contract with the Metropolitan Opera but turned it down, citing  family considerations and her desire to be at home with her children in Chicago. In late 1961, Chookasian was approached again by the Met, this time by Sir Rudolph Bing personally. Chookasian accepted the offer, making her Met and New York City debut on March 9, 1962 in the role of La Cieca in Ponchelli’s La Giaconda. The critics enthusiastically predicted “a splendid career for the young lady from Chicago.” Her career with the Met lasted 25 years.

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. She had a recurrence of cancer in 1961, but it was easily excised, and this time she had a quick recovery.

Teresa Stratas 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?”

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.

Chookasian, who was married for 45 years to the late George Gavejian, is survived by three children, eleven grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

A funeral service will be held Friday morning at 11:00 in St. Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral in New York City, with burial to follow in Center Cemetery, Branford, Connecticut.

The family requests that donations, in lieu of flowers, be made to either Connecticut Hospice (100 Double Beach Rd., Branford, CT 06405) or St. Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral (630 2nd Ave., New York, NY 10016).

The above biography is adapted from the obituary provided by the funeral home and from this essay written by Brian Kellow for Opera News.

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