All roads lead to Armenia: How Toronto-Armenian singer Eileen Herosian found home(land)
March 19, 2020
Eileen Herosian performing at the Aram Khachaturian house-museum in 2018
(Photo courtesy of Eileen Herosian)
In her late 20s, Iran-born, Toronto-based Eileen Herosian felt like she needed a change. After working in a pharmaceutical company for about two years, she decided that she wanted to do something completely different; she wanted to study music—Armenian music...
Most folks in her position would dismiss the thought of switching careers as quickly as it came. Not Eileen, though.
“I decided—you know what? I just have to go for it.”
“It”—in this case—happened to be moving halfway around the world to her ancestral homeland to pursue her first love. “I found my purpose here. I found ways to change my attitude and become motivated here,” she explained at a Yerevan cafe as we chatted about her experiences of studying and living in Armenia.
Since switching gears and moving to her homeland, Eileen has performed with a number of ensembles, sang in front of crowds all around Armenia and Russia, and was even given the opportunity to learn under renowned Romanian opera star Mariana Nicolesco. Currently, Eileen is living out her dream of singing in Yerevan State Chamber Choir, under the tutelage of the legendary Maestro Harutyun Topikyan.
In this h-pem exclusive interview, Herosian discusses the highs and the lows of her journey that has taken her from Iran to Canada, and finally to Armenia, where she proudly calls home today.
Rupen Janbazian: When did you realize that music would be a significant part of your life?
Eileen Herosian: I’ve been lucky enough to always be surrounded by the arts—for as long as I can remember. My dad worked in the Iranian media, so we would get free classes: music, theater, dance.
R.J.: Dance classes in Iran?
E.H.: Underground dance classes, yes. Dance wasn’t allowed in Iran, of course, but we would study ballet and Armenian dance. It was pretty serious—we even got weigh-ins [laughs]. Until I was about 12. That's when we first moved to Canada. I went back to Iran for a few years in high school, then back in Toronto for good, starting in 11th grade.
R.J.: Well, until Armenia. Right?
E.H.: Yes, of course. After graduating from university, I started working in a pharmaceutical company in Toronto. It felt like a good fit, but about two years in, I needed a change. I realized that I wanted to study music. I would always sing on the side—I attended the Royal Conservatory of Canada, sang in the Komitas Choir conducted by David Varjabed, and was part of the [St. Mary Armenian Apostolic] church’s choir.
When I realized that I needed to leave my job, I asked myself: "If I don’t do this singing thing now, I may regret it down the line. I may be 50 one day and think to myself: Why didn’t I just go for it?” I wanted to learn more about Armenian music as well as classical music—I was not going to have a chance to do so in Canada.
I figured I’d travel to Armenia in the summer, take a few classes, get it out of my system and then return to Canada to pursue a career in pharmacy. But things didn’t exactly go that way…
R.J.: Had you been to Armenia before?
E.H.: Yeah, I had visited a few times—for the summer or for a few weeks and months here and there. When I came to Armenia, I met a pianist, who happened to really like my voice. He asked me bluntly: “Why don’t you take the entrance exam [for the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan]? I was caught off guard, but it got me thinking. I knew that my solfeggio—reading music—as well as my rhythm was weak, so I started studying hard right away, but knew deep down inside that I wasn’t good enough to get in. I figured it was fine—I was going to get a taste of everything; I’d take the exam, get the experience, fail, and head back home to Canada.
The exam consisted of two parts: solfeggio and singing. I know I didn’t do too well on the solfeggio, but the person examining me was impressed by my singing. So much so, that she told me I could get into the Conservatory if I promised her I would work extra hard to get on everyone else’s level in terms of solfeggio and writing. I was shocked, to say the least. But I still wasn’t sure about the whole thing…
R.J.: Not sure? Why?
E.H.: I figured I got accepted because I was a spyurkahai (Diasporan-Armenian)—that maybe it had something to do with the fact that I would have to pay more [to study] than a local student would. When I came out of the exam room and told my friends that I got in, they agreed with me—that maybe I didn’t get in based on merit, but because I would be paying more.
That gave me the courage to go to the head of admissions and ask him whether or not I was being accepted only because I was a non-local. “If it’s for money, just tell me right now,” I said!
I asked myself: 'If I don’t do this singing thing now, I may regret it down the line. I may be 50 one day and think to myself: Why didn’t I just go for it?'
R.J.: You asked that bluntly?
E.H.: Well, yeah! I told him I had a life ahead of me and that this was a huge decision for me. He told me, to my surprise, that as a Diasporan-Armenian I wasn’t considered a “foreign student” and that I would be paying the exact same tuition as an Armenian citizen.
After thanking him, I told him that there were things that I would have to consider like how I’d be paying for my tuition and rent and my expenses. He stopped me in my tracks when he offered me a scholarship right on the spot.
R.J.: What exactly did he offer?
E.H.: “If I offered you a scholarship—a full ride—would you stay?” he asked. I broke down and started crying. I couldn’t believe it. A full scholarship to study music—Armenian music—and in Armenia! I wasn’t expecting that and it all sort of hit me like a ton of bricks.
I told him I’d have to return to Canada and discuss it with my father. My dad was very supportive. He told me he’d support me [financially] for the first year, but asked what I’d do for the following years. I told him not to worry, that I would figure it out. And the rest is history!
R.J.: So, you moved right away?
E.H.: After getting my dad’s blessing, I packed my stuff and sat on the plane—one-way to Yerevan. I was 28 and it definitely was the scariest thing I had ever done. In the really beginning, I had nobody here [in Armenia]. No family, no friends. It was difficult.
I went into the Conservatory thinking that things are like post-secondary institutions in Canada—like it was at the University of Toronto, where I studied Chemistry: organized, well-managed. I was wrong. It was really chaotic and difficult for me to adjust. A different culture, work-ethic. A lot of the textbooks were in Russian, which I did not know, so I had to find and use English textbooks online. Even the way they examined you was different.
Those four years were pretty interesting. Coming in, I was about 8-10 years older than other first-year students.
R.J.: How was it interacting with 19-20 year-olds as your peers?
E.H.: It was fine. We got along OK. And soon enough, I found that I wasn’t alone—that there were others starting out their studies who were closer to my age. With musicians, many of them start on one instrument or field and then switch it up or want to learn something new. Like, for example, a pianist who wanted to start singing, would get accepted much later in life, only after mastering the piano.
R.J.: Were you the only non-local student or were there others also studying at the Conservatory?
E.H.: There were others. An Australian-Armenian studying viola; two Egyptian-Armenians playing oud and guitar. In the beginning, my friends were exclusively spyurkahai. But, throughout the years, many of them left—they went back to their home countries; some left halfway through and didn’t stick to it. But I did.
By year two, I had to start working, so I went back to a familiar field: I started working in a lab setting again, but this time, in Armenia. So, I was working during the day and studying at night. I wouldn’t be able to go to the Conservatory, except for vocal and solfeggio classes.
Though that first job did not go too well, I did learn a lot there. I realized how different the work culture is in Armenia, compared to a country like Canada. I went on to work another job—at a pharmaceutical company—and it was much worse there. Just an unprofessional atmosphere.
It wasn’t until my third and current job that I found something I really like—it’s a much better working environment. My boss is from the UK and he brings that—for lack of a better term—“Western” culture into the workplace: things like motivation, inspiration, organization. These are the things that are, unfortunately, lacking in Armenia. They don’t receive simple things like positive reinforcement.
In the beginning, when I first moved here, I was exposed to these negative sides of Armenia, and a part of me hated the country for it. Sometimes I think to myself and I’m surprised I stayed.
R.J.: During those tough times, what was a motivating factor that allowed you to overcome and stay in Armenia?
E.H.: It might be cliché, but I stayed here for—and because of—music.
R.J.: I don’t think that’s cliché. It’s why you came here to begin with, no?
E.H.: Well, yes. But also, within the music industry here, I wasn’t exposed to any of the negative things I saw in the workplace. People were actually nice; they wanted what was best for me. There isn’t a whole lot of money to be made in the music industry here—especially in classical or traditional music. So, it’s more about creating something and working together. When you do actually make a living out of this, you are ready to “share the wealth.” I’ve been exposed to some of the nicest people I’ve ever met in Armenia’s world of music.
Not to sound smug, but those involved in the industry also have more exposure to the rest of the world, which makes them more accepting. They have interactions with spyurkahais, they are exposed to different cultures and people. These are the people that kept me going. I also had to change the way I thought and my attitude.
R.J.: How did you change your way of thinking?
E.H.: I have to give a bit of a back story here…
The first choir I joined was Oshakan’s St. Mesrop Mashtots Church choir. It was led by Arno Barkhudaryan, who, unbeknownst to me, was very ill at the time. During my time with the choir, we got several opportunities to perform abroad, mostly in Russia. We performed at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory’s grand hall. My first experiences performing in front of a large audience came through my time in that choir. Barkhudaryan believed in me: He gave me solos, he gave me opportunities. Unfortunately, he is now paralyzed after a problematic surgery. I will never forget, or not appreciate, those two years I sang in that choir.
I then started singing with a teacher named Gayaneh Grigoryan who helped me a lot, and then with the legendary Anna Mayilyan, which was a dream for me. [Mayilyan] has taught me so much and it’s been a real honor to work with her, to sing with her. We have given several concerts together and it was a great experience for me when I performed in a duet concert with her.
These experiences taught me so much, but I also realized at the time that I needed to change. See, I’m from Iran, I’ve lived many years in Canada, I’ve been exposed to parskahais [Iranian-Armenians] and spyurkahais from all over—Lebanon, Syria, etc.—who lived in Toronto. I know how they think, I know what they’re like. Armenia sums it all up for me. This is everyone’s country—all Armenians, regardless of where they are from. We only have one country and we have to work hard to preserve it and allow it to thrive. Is the culture or people’s attitudes different here? Sure. Do they sometimes clash with mine? Of course. But that doesn’t make me upset anymore.
I found my purpose here. I found ways to change my attitude and become motivated here. Just because you’re a spyurkahai doesn’t mean you’re going to get the red carpet treatment. And you shouldn’t expect it, either. You have to understand where the people in Armenia are coming from. You have to realize that while their thinking may be different than yours, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
At the end of the day, there shouldn’t exist a “them vs. us” mentality. We just have to do a better job understanding each other. We are the same people. These are the missing links. I was not supposed to be born in Iran, you weren’t supposed to be born in Canada, but this is a direct result of what happened to us, to our people. We shouldn’t allow what happened to us get in the way of us understanding each other, of understanding our culture and making it thrive.
R.J.: I’m sure that this way of thinking has also helped you in your current choir. Tell us about how you got involved with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir (YSCC), which is headed by the great Harutyun Topikyan. How was it “fitting in” to a state-funded choir as a relative outsider?
E.H.: I can say that I am at a place where I feel comfortable enough—where I know enough about the culture in Armenia—to fit in without any major problems. If I were getting into the YSCC seven years ago, it would be a completely different story. As I said, I’ve changed my mentality a lot over the years; I’ve learned how things work here.
Upon graduating from the Conservatory, I tried out for several other choirs. Some rejected me, others were just not all that satisfying. I was certain I was not going to get into YCSS, which was full of professional musicians and a longtime favorite of mine. Right before being accepted, I joined another choir— the Nairyan Vocal Ensemble, which is the only a cappella choir in the region that also “sings” in sign language. Nairyan had a concert within a few weeks of me being accepted, so I had to learn about 30 songs, along with their signs, in preparation for the concert. Around that time, I got word from Anna Mayilyan that there was an opportunity for me to sing at an event in California, accompanied by kanon and duduk. I figured I shouldn’t miss the opportunity. Unfortunately, that gig fell through, and in the meantime, I missed a whole week of Nairyan practices and was not able to perform with them either.
This was a low point for me. It was also a time when I decided that I would try out for the YSCC. I was pretty much ready to return to Canada if I didn’t get in—that I had to excel if I was going to stay in the industry. So, I asked for a shot.
Check out an exclusive clip of one of the Yerevan State Chamber Choir's rehearsals in the video section below!
R.J.: I think it’s safe to assume it went well…
E.H.: You don’t know the half of it! I went into the practice space and it happened to be one of the singers' birthdays, so of course, there was a bottle of Armenian brandy on the table. I thought to myself: “Thank God.” The other singers offered me a shot before Mr. Topikyan arrived, which was just wonderful. I didn’t know these people, but I was drinking with them, making kenatses (toasts). I felt calm and relaxed when Maestro came in. He asked me who I was, what I was doing there, then asked me to sing. After singing, I got a huge applause from the other singers. It was then that I thought to myself, where else can you get this sort of support system, this much encouragement, for a complete stranger.
Mr. Topikyan told me to come in for a probationary period of a month. During that time, I did my best to learn everything from A to Z. I would pretty much memorize everything, even things that we wouldn’t be forced to learn by heart. He saw that I could handle it and was impressed. So, he kept me.
The folks in the choir have become my closest friends here. They have accepted me as one of their own. I have learned so much and I continue to learn from each member of the choir.
R.J.: I think that’s a good message for folks—especially those who would like to come to Armenia to visit, study, and work.
E.H.: I want to be realistic and not say “Come to Armenia: the land of opportunity. All will be great!” I want folks to understand that being Armenian is much more than just coming to Armenia and having a good time.
Armenia has opened the door to new opportunities for me. For example, I could never imagine that I would be given the opportunity to take part in a masterclass taught by Mariana Nicolesco in Braila, Romania, a city famous for world-renowned soprano Hariclea Darclee. This was only possible because of Anna Mayilyan, whom I would have never met if it wasn't for Armenia.
I think everyone who can, should come here and live here for at least a year, so they can what it's really like. I understand that this can be difficult for people with families and responsibilities, but those who can, should try it. I am certain they will not regret it. I understand that we are all from different places—we are all the children of immigrants who didn’t have a country to call their own. We now do and that country happens to be called Armenia.
You may not end up moving here or living here full-time, but give it a chance. See it firsthand and make it your own—in your own way. You won't regret it...
Hear Eileen and the Yerevan State Chamber Choir perform a medley of Komitas songs at the Mkhitar Sebastatsi Educational Complex of Yerevan. The performance was livestreamed on h-pem on July 27, 2019.
Yerevan State Chamber Choir - Rehearsal (July 25, 2019)
Yerevan State Chamber Choir - Rehearsal (July 25, 2019)