Lili Chookasian was an American contralto of Armenian origin, who appeared with many of the world's major symphony orchestras and opera houses. She began her career in the 1940s as a concert singer but did not draw wider acclaim until she began singing opera in her late thirties. She arose as one of the world's leading contraltos during the 1960s and 1970s, and notably had a long and celebrated career at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City from 1962 through 1986. She was admired for her sonorous, focused tone as well as her excellent musicianship. She often chose, against tradition, to sing oratorios from memory.
Chookasian was born in Chicago, the youngest of three children to immigrants from Armenia. Her family had immigrated to the United States shortly after the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which claimed the lives of two of Chookasian's grandparents and several members of her extended family.
Chookasian first became involved with music through singing at local churches and in musical programs at her high school, notably appearing as Buttercup in her school's production of H.M.S. Pinafore. After high school she began studying singing seriously with Philip Manuel with whom she took lessons for almost twenty years.
In her late teens she started earning money singing for churches and on the radio. Chookasian began performing professionally as an oratorio and concert singer in the 1940s, mostly in Chicago but also occasionally out of town.
The biggest triumph of her early concert career was in January 1955 when she was chosen by Bruno Walter as the contralto soloist for Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection" with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. During this time she was also on the voice faculty at Northwestern University.
It wasn't until 1959, at the age of 38, that Chookasian made her first opera appearance, making her debut as Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma with the Arkansas State Opera (ASO). Edward McGuire, founder and stage director of the ASO, offered her the part after soprano Barbara Stevenson, who sang Norma, recommended her. Stevenson gave McGuire a recording of a Messiah that she had sung with Chookasian in Salt Lake City and, after hearing the recording, McGuire knew he wanted Chookasian to sing the part.
Chookasian's debut performance was a resounding success and a recording of that performance was given to conductor Thomas Schippers by McGuire at the Festival of Two Worlds the following summer. McGuire recalls, "He was astonished by Lili's voice, but he had nothing in mind for her at the time." However, two years later Schippers wanted "that extraordinary Adalgisa from Arkansas" for a concert performance of Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky with the New York Philharmonic. However, he could not remember her name and was unable to track her down until a chance meeting with Sheldon Soffer tipped him off that she was working with the Baltimore Opera Company under Rosa Ponselle. Chookasian had spent the last year studying under Ponselle and had created her second opera role on stage with the company, Azucena in Verdi's Il trovatore in 1960. Schippers contacted Chookasian to come up for an audition, and after hearing her, she was immediately engaged to sing the role of Amelfa Timoferevna (in Alexander Nevsky) for her New York Philharmonic debut in early 1961.
Shortly after her NYP debut, Chookasian was offered a contract with the Metropolitan Opera by Rudolf Bing but turned it down because she was afraid it would take too much time away from her family. In the summer of 1961 she repeated the role of Amelfa Timoferevna for European debut at the Festival dei Due Mondi, again under the baton of Schippers. She also made her European opera debut at the festival under Schippers as Herodias in Salome. She sang Herodias again just a month later at the Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi and also gave a lauded performance of Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, accompanied by Charles Wadsworth at the Teatro Caio Melisso that summer. The following November she headed back to Baltimore to sing her first Amneris in Verdi's Aida.
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