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The Mother of All Voices: Lili Chookasian's stunning and little-remembered opera career

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The late Lili Chookasian was the rarest of opera talents — a contralto, the lowest female voice. That low voice took her to the heights of the opera world. But 100 years after her birth, Chookasian’s greatest roles might have been mother and teacher.

In the winter of 2009, Lili Chookasian fell inside the garage of her Branford home while going from the car to the house. She was 87 and couldn’t hoist herself up. It was too late at night for anyone to come by, and she couldn’t reach a phone. To warm herself, she started singing.

“We never got the story straight,” says her son, Paul Gavejian. “Did she fall asleep? Did she pull newspaper over her to keep her warm?” What the family does know is a neighbor out for an early-morning walk heard singing and found Chookasian in the garage. “The upshot was, the doctor said she was OK, and she kept going,” he says. “Like the Energizer Bunny!” She was, by all accounts, active and sharp up until her passing in 2012.

The good Samaritan who helped her may not have known it, but that early-morning distress call was also an impromptu concert by one of the greatest operatic voices of the 20th century.

Chookasian’s voice took her around the world. It brought her to the stage with Leonard Bernstein, Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Renata Tebaldi, Herbert von Karajan, Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy and Seiji Ozawa. Upon meeting her for the first time, opera superstar Jessye Norman exclaimed: “I should be on my knees!” The famed Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas described Chookasian’s voice as “gorgeous — gold with streaks of black, like molten lava. One got lost in that sound, no matter what she was singing.” Like moonlight, Chookasian’s dark contralto transformed everything it touched.

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Following her retirement from professional singing in 1986, Chookasian caught up with soprano Teresa Stratas backstage at the Met, where she would often return to see her vocal students perform. The two powerhouses had shared the stage, including in the U.S. premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Last Savage. Stratas once described Chookasian’s voice as “gorgeous — gold with streaks of black, like molten lava.”

An unusual talent

Born in 1921 in Chicago, Chookasian grew up singing in front of imaginary audiences. She was embarrassed to sing for her parents, Armenian immigrants “from the Old Country,” she told me during a 2009 interview at her singing studio at the Yale School of Music, where she taught for more than two decades. She attended a mostly Scandinavian high school and confessed to occasionally wishing she were blonde (“I am now!” she winked at me), but she was not inclined to envy. After singing Katisha in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado, she was recommended to a voice teacher, who thought such a large voice must be a soprano’s. Chookasian’s brother, hearing her practice, was not so sure. “If you call that singing, that’s dreadful,” she recalled him saying. “You’re not a soprano.” (Would she rather have sung soprano? “No, thank you!” she retorted.)

The world has its hands full with sopranos, and lyric mezzo-sopranos abound in the lower range. Chookasian’s voice was something more precious: a natural contralto, the lowest female voice part, which resides between mezzo-soprano and tenor. True operatic contraltos are rare, since it is unusual for women to achieve control and flexibility so low in their voice range. Famous contraltos of the past include English star Kathleen Ferrier and Danbury’s own Marian Anderson. The renowned baritone Richard Lalli, who was Chookasian’s colleague at Yale, observes that some would say contraltos don’t properly exist. “They’re often categorized as mezzo-sopranos,” he says. “They might be mezzo-sopranos who have strong lower notes and maybe lack the highest notes of a regular lyric mezzo-soprano.”

Chookasian, though, had both the lower register and those high notes. Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, one of Chookasian’s former students at Yale and now a professional singer with the Metropolitan Opera, recalls: “Lili told me — and I love that she said this — that every woman needs a high C. When one of the most famous contraltos in the world tells you that, you know that ‘contralto’ doesn’t refer to her range — the number of notes people will pay you to sing. As a contralto, she still had that high range.” Instead, Kamarei explains, the “contralto” designation, sometimes called “alto,” is determined by tessitura. “Tessitura means: where do you like to sing? It’s kind of like swinging a bat — what part of the swing is most comfortable for you? Often a person’s speaking voice is a clue to that.”

Alongside tessitura is the question of projecting your voice over an orchestra. The physics of sound mean that higher notes sound louder, and can be heard more easily over an orchestra. “But to be able to cut over an orchestra in your middle range is like an acoustic freak of nature — you have to have a really big voice,” Kamarei says. “Lili is on the Verdi Requiem recording with Birgit Nilsson. Birgit Nilsson is one of the biggest voices of all time, and she’s singing at the top of her range. And the person they hired to sing under the biggest voice of all time was Lili. They knew you’d be able to hear her. It’s important for the chord: if you lose the alto, then you don’t have as rich a musical texture as you could have. It’s one of the reasons Lili shot to the top so quickly.”

In short, although she had a high C — that popular gold standard for a soprano — Chookasian’s natural production in the lower register let her sing each tone as though it were full to the brim. By the 1960s, the expressive power of her voice made her one of the most sought-after opera stars in the world.

A “divie” is born

When I asked her about fame, Chookasian waved her hand with a chuckle. “I feel like a Model T!” she parried. Her motto was: “The soprano is a diva, and the contralto is a divie.” What’s a “divie”? I asked. “Not a diva!” she shot back. During our conversation in 2009, three years before Chookasian died, movement had become difficult for her, but her wit was as nimble as ever. Cushioned in her black velvet armchair, she often leaned forward to wink while speaking. Gold-wire rimless glasses with pink tinted lenses perched on her doughy nose, completing the hardy, amused look of an optimist. Yet her steady gaze could be unnerving: a tough pragmatism was there too. It had kept her singing through two battles with cancer, and it kept her feet on the ground as she shifted from performance to full-time teaching. As she said — showing me how she painstakingly lifted herself from her chair — “you find your ways.”

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In the mid-’70s, Chookasian was the Principessa in Puccini’s Suor Angelica. A 1975 New York Times review said of her performance, “Miss Chookasian uses her imposing voice with the authority of the veteran she is.”

Resilience was a family value to Chookasian. “We’re a working family,” she said. “When you see your parents work, you work.” A singing career is not all paparazzi and roses, and her love for the art helped her through the challenges of the career. “You have to have a passion for it,” she insisted, “because you have to accept rejection, you have to accept little money at the beginning.” In her early days in Chicago, she sang in church choirs on Sundays and in Jewish synagogues on Fridays. On Saturdays she stood in the balcony of a Polish Catholic Church in case a bride wanted a singer. A wedding paid two to three dollars.

The work could be exhausting. During the 1940s, with a husband in the Army overseas and an infant daughter to raise, Chookasian woke at 5 every morning to prepare for the weekday radio show Hymns of All Churches. She also sang oratorio throughout Chicago, including Handel’s Messiah and Verdi’s Requiem, two of her favorite pieces. And she made enough money to sustain herself financially while living with her parents, which appeased her father and made her feel like “the luckiest person in the world.”

When her husband, George Gavejian, returned, Chookasian was an established singer, teaching at Northwestern University. Gavejian became a rug merchant and Chookasian tried to keep her work from interfering with his own. Yet concerts increasingly forced her to travel, leaving her daughter and two sons at home. Her mother-in-law, whom she described as “old-fashioned,” asked when she would “stop singing and take care of the children.” Settling into her armchair, Chookasian placed her hands on her lower belly to re-enact her reply: “just like they were in here and came out,” she moved her hands to her throat, “my voice is in here and has to come out.”

One day, while teaching at Northwestern, Chookasian was called out of class. A conductor from Little Rock, Arkansas, was on the phone, asking her to sing Adalgisa, the temple priestess in Bellini’s Norma. Another singer had given him a recording of Chookasian performing Handel’s Messiah in Salt Lake City, and he was determined to hire her. Chookasian had never sung opera before. “I said, ‘I don’t know Norma, and I’ve never heard of Adalgisa.’ He said, ‘I’m getting your costume ready,’ and I said, ‘Don’t bother, I’ll have two left arms and two left feet on stage!’ ” Three phone calls later, she agreed.

When Chookasian made her operatic debut as Adalgisa in 1959, she was 38 years old. She had just survived a first bout with breast cancer, from which her own mother had died. As the cancer recurred over the next two years, she would consult eight separate doctors, only one of whom believed she would survive. People around her advised her to stay home, and offered to replace her at gigs. She refused. She decided it was “not gonna get me,” as her son puts it.

“She was a strong person physically,” Lalli says, recalling that Chookasian later famously had a heart attack on the stage of the Met and didn’t pause the performance. “She had heart problems, surgery around 2002, both knees replaced, but she always bounced back.”

While fighting cancer, she also raised her family. She chose to sing within driving range of Chicago so that she wouldn’t be too far from her husband and three children. “She was able to be a house singer in Chicago and later at the Met,” says Chookasian’s former student, soprano Annie Rosen. “That allowed her to have an incredible career without being as itinerant as singers often are. I always had the sense that her family really fulfilled her.”

The Met calls

In the 1960s, though, the world seemed to be spinning faster. The jet airplane and recording technology enabled Chookasian’s voice to travel internationally while she remained close to home. In 1960 at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, the maestro Thomas Schippers heard a tape of Chookasian singing Adalgisa. At the time, he was planning to record Prokofiev’s score for Alexander Nevsky with the New York Philharmonic. This time, the phone call for Chookasian came to the Baltimore Symphony where she now sang regularly and took lessons from iconic soprano Rosa Ponselle. Chookasian often drove between Chicago and Baltimore, but decided to take the train to the New York audition to save money. She boarded the train with only enough for a ticket to Trenton. “I had guts,” she laughed, widening her eyes. “I looked up at the conductor and I said, ‘This ticket is to Trenton but I just have to get to New York. I’m heading for my big break.’ ”

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Dressed as Azucena in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Chookasian shares a light moment with legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti backstage in 1971.

Chookasian auditioned for Schippers in a space next to Carnegie Hall. Composers Gian Carlo Menotti and Samuel Barber were also there. She sang from Verdi’s Il Trovatore until someone suggested they go next door. “They said, ‘Let’s see if Carnegie is empty, this voice is too big for this hall,’ ” she recalled. Menotti was at work on his opera The Last Savage and decided to write the role of The Maharanee for her. That year Chookasian was offered a contract with the Metropolitan Opera. Unwilling to uproot her Chicago-based family, she demurred.

All the while, a silent talent led her toward opera. Colleagues had long noted a peculiarity: when singing oratorio — grand musical works for solo voice, chorus and orchestra — Chookasian was always seen carrying a score under her arm, but she rarely opened it. After some hesitation she explained the mystery to me. She carried musical scores so as not to “act smart alecky” in front of other singers: “if they’re carrying books, I carry a book.” But she did not need it. “I used to have a photographic memory,” she said. “I got tired of looking at black notes on white pages. I loved to memorize as much as possible, because you can’t fully extend yourself to your audience when you’re looking at music.” She recalled occasions when she had brought listeners — and nearly herself — to tears. “This is the beauty of singing,” she mused. “You can feel the response of the audience, and they feel your passion.”

Opera is a natural home for such an artist, and in 1962 Chookasian answered the siren call — which came in the form of a phone call from Sir Rudolph Bing himself, then at the helm of the Met. He personally asked Chookasian to join. She debuted with the Met as La Cieca, an old blind woman accused of influencing a regatta with witchcraft in Ponchiella’s La Gioconda. On opening night, her mentor Ponselle called the Met’s backstage phone to listen.A lifetime later, Chookasian’s eyes twinkled as she described her first performance. “It was a wonderful debut role, and I finished my aria and — oh! — I got applause, and that was nice!” The next year, she moved her family to New York and became a principal soloist with the Met.

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Among the many roles she played over her long career with the Metropolitan Opera, Chookasian took many turns as the earthly Auntie in Peter Grimes, beginningin the late 1960s.

A singing voice is generally mature from the age of 30 through one’s mid-40s. Incredibly, Chookasian made her Metropolitan debut at 40, and continued to sing there for 24 years. Taking the stage 290 times, she performed the title role of Menotti’s The Medium, the nosy but good-natured Auntie in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, and the fugitive Begbick in Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. All three composers heard her sing.

Chookasian had reached the big time. Her agent decided the name Lilian Chookasian should be spruced up, so he turned Lilian into a Lily — or Lili, in his native German. The name’s two sprightly syllables seem fitting: like her, they temper gravitas with levity. Richard Woitach, who conducted the newly christened Lili at the Met and died last October, recalled her capacity for both high drama and comedy. He particularly remembered conducting Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, in which Chookasian sang the Witch. In the second act, Woitach slipped in a reference to “baklava” in homage to her Armenian background. “She loved that,” he chuckled.

Chookasian’s good humor also kept her from tangling with divas. Thinking back on her tenure as Humperdinck’s Witch — a “choice part” — she recalled that another singer once asked the director why Chookasian had been cast rather than herself. “What did he answer?” I wanted to know. Chookasian threw her hands over her ears, “I don’t know! I didn’t hear!” To deal with success as a singer, she said, “you have to put on blinders and go forward.” In another interview, she shared what you need to overcome failure: “if you have a passion, that will carry you through.”

Another calling

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Chookasian played both the Witch (seen here) and the Mother in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel.

Chookasian’s passion was not only for performing, but also for teaching, and in 1986 Yale welcomed her to its faculty. The move was timely. Chookasian had a heart attack on stage in 1984, though she hadn’t discovered it until the following night. She was still singing strong, but was glad of the opportunity to step gracefully from the stage. Teaching at Yale also kept her family close, since her children were settled in the area. Chookasian could go shopping on weekends with her daughter Valerie, and received regular visits from her two sons, John and Paul, 11 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

Chookasian had always been a mother first and foremost, and her family now extended to the many Yale undergraduates whose voices — and in several cases, professional singing careers — she nurtured. “She was deeply affected by things that happened to her students,” Lalli recalls. “She was very attached to them, as if they were her own children.”

“She was quite kind,” says her former student Annie Rosen. “I studied with her toward the end of her life, and she was completely sharp. I would sing a quarter note instead of an eighth note, and she would correct me without looking at the sheet music. So it’s not that she let me get away with anything.” In their last conversation, Rosen asked Chookasian for advice on her own fledgling singing career. Chookasian was pithy as usual. “She said, ‘Don’t let anyone mix you up’ — and she pointed at her heart — ‘here.’ And then she said, ‘and always wear a scarf!’ ”

Rebecca Ringle Kamarei agrees. “The amazing thing about Lili is what a normal person she was for being such a superstar. When I think about her lessons, I remember a lot of kindness.” For Kamarei — who has followed her teacher’s footsteps to the Met — that gentleness contained a deeper lesson. “What I realize now is that kindness matters so much, because singing at the international level is not easy. There’s an enormous amount of polish that goes into it, and classical music can be incredibly self-flagellating. You think, ‘Oh, it was so bad, so awful!’ But you can remain humble while still being kind to yourself. I realize now that’s what she was modeling. By being kind to me, she taught me the importance of being kind to myself.”

Chookasian also gave Kamarei some pithy advice: “When you enter the Met, you always go with your right foot first.” Kamarei later discovered that this is an Armenian superstition. “The Kardashians do it too,” she laughs. “When they go on a plane, they go with their right foot first. So every time I go into the Met, I always step with my right foot first. It’s like I’m taking Lili with me into the building.”

Branford was an important part of the career-family balancing act in the later period of Chookasian’s life. “The fact that Branford is a diverse community was important to her,” her son Paul says. “She loved the soft-shell crabs at Lenny’s, she’d go to the parades.” She became involved in the musical life of Branford and New Haven as well. She was on the board of the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, producing concert series there and raising funds. She was a judge for Metropolitan Opera auditions in New Haven and an advocate for the contestants, whose careers she followed. Lalli recalls her singing in 1988 with the Shubert Opera Ensemble in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, alongside much younger singers. “She was very generous that way,” he recalls. “She used to tell the story of singing that opera with Pavarotti. She said, ‘We were so close I could count his cavities!’ ”

Throughout her life, Chookasian wore the mantle of fame lightly. Legendary soprano Renata Tebaldi availed herself of Chookasian’s good pitch by standing close to her. Pavarotti had been a friend, whom she described as “a very gentle soul.” Rattling off musical luminaries with whom she’d worked, she instructed me, “just put ‘ETC’ after that.” And yet, after an especially long conversation, she paused in some confusion and remarked, “I didn’t realize I was going to let so much out. I really hate talking about myself. I really hate it. What’s the point? Once you’re done, you’re done.”

Therein, I think, lies the source of Chookasian’s strength and energy. Just how did this woman sustain a world-class operatic career while raising a large family? I suspect she would emphasize self-knowledge. She was never anxious to outdo others; as she said, “if I have things, I’m not looking at somebody else.” For similar reasons, she was not afraid to turn down the offer of a lifetime. One such offer came from Herbert von Karajan, who in 1967 had invited her to move to Austria and sing permanently with the Vienna Philharmonic. She confessed to being “crazy about him,” and recalled with a gasp the $300 worth of truffles he ordered for the cast of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Chookasian relished the truffles but declined the invitation, preferring to remain near her family.

“Connecticut allowed her to raise her children and be in proximity to the Met,” Kamarei says. “She was this world-renowned diva who had sung at Bayreuth and everywhere,” Kamarei continues, referring to the prestigious festival in honor of Richard Wagner in Bayreuth, Germany. “She chose to live in Connecticut for quality-of-life reasons — not just for her, but also for her children. She could have moved to Vienna, but then they would have been American kids growing up in Vienna and she didn’t want that for them.

“I think she was a naturally kind person, and the proof of that is in her kids.” Kamarei adds. “Her kids are so loving, and they have nothing but positive things to say, not only about their memories of hearing her sing, but about her career. What that means is that they never felt like she was choosing between her career and them. If you know anything about the music industry, you know that’s a huge achievement.”

A new mother herself, Kamarei has begun reflecting on how music and life are intertwined. Each voice part has its own personality, she says. “The mezzo’s is spiritual transcendence. Lili had this priestess vibe. She could make time stop. When you’re singing in the low range, you need to pull people toward you, help them slow down their heartbeat. It’s a very motherly thing. I think this is why her colleague at the Met, Loretta di Franco, likes to say: ‘That woman was all of our mother.’ ” 

* * *

Lili Chookasian died in 2012 at the age of 90, two years after being named professor emerita of the Yale School of Music. I had not stayed in contact with her, but her words still played across my mind. After learning of her death, I listened to every recording I could find, immersing myself in her sound. There is something singularly thrilling in Chookasian’s tone and its resonant authority. The soul of a mother glows in every note, blood and bone. Thinking of her, I’m reminded of a remark by the German operatic bass René Pape. Asked what advice he had for young singers, Pape replied: “Singing must above all be fun. If that is not the case, something is wrong. The profession is deeply serious, but one should not take oneself too seriously.”

Chookasian’s word for it was passion. “You need to get involved. In everything you do, be.” And shedid, with every breath. In the balcony of a Polish church, recording with Leonard Bernstein, in front of Igor Stravinsky, or sitting on the ground in her Connecticut garage — it’s all music. 

Marissa Grunes is a literary scholar and erstwhile Connectican whose writing on the arts, science and Antarctica has appeared in The Paris Review Online, Atlas Obscura, Nautilus and other publications.

This article appears in the August 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.