In loving memory of
August 1, 1921 - April 9, 2012
Lili's introduction to the American music scene, recorded in 1961 - Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky. The words of a young girl searching for the grave of a soldier with whom she had been in love. Because of the dark, mysterious quality of her voice Lili often sang parts that were equally dark and mysterious. AND usually tragic.
A few years after this recording's release a 15-year-old boy borrowed it from the public library of a small town in Illinois. He fell in love. I was that 15-year-old. Then while visiting my brother's college in Iowa I happened to see a poster advertising a recital by Lili. I had no idea what recitals were. Or how it was that people on records in Illinois were singing in Iowa. Or why this goddess would be at my brother's school. I was in love with the mystique of Lili Chookasian. She was in good company. I also had a thing for that other great mezzo-soprano of the early sixties, Diana Ross.
Fast forward about twenty years to 1985. Imagine my excitement when Doris Yarick-Cross invited Lili to join the faculty of the Yale School of Music. Lili with her husband George moved here to Branford from Tenafly where she had raised her family while singing around the world. During those twenty years Lili had made countless musical friends. Who could resist this woman with a big heart, generous spirit, and infectious laugh.
Major conductors loved her: von Karajan, Bernstein, Ormandy, Leinsdorf - to name a just a few. She worked with legendary singers - Pavarotti and Nilsson, to name just two. Of singing Cavellaria Rusticana with Pavarotti, Lili said, "We were so close when he sang I could count his fillings."
Lili quickly became a legend - someone whom singers of subsequent generations emulated. About eight years ago Lili and I attended a recital by Jessye Norman in Carnegie Hall. When I introduced Lili to the diva afterwards, Jessye said, "Lili Chookasian, I should be on my knees. I learned my Mahler from you." In certain circles Lili was Lady Gaga.
To me she was Erda, mother earth. Once, when I was going thru a rough patch she phoned every day and in her most cheerful, understanding voice would ask how I was doing.
To many she was an aunt or grandmother. Or principessa as in this excerpt from Puccini's Suor Angelica where she admonishes her niece for having given birth to a child out of wedlock. A 1976 live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. The soprano singing the role of her niece at the beginning is Lili's good friend Gilda Cruz-Romo.
Lili, as we all know, was tough, surviving many health challenges, pushing herself up until the very end. For as long as she possibly could she drove to New Haven where she taught at Yale. There she was worshipped by her students - graduate and undergraduate alike - most of whom had never heard her sing, not even on recordings. Her students won major prizes. Many are currently enjoying prestigious careers.
Despite her own success as well as that of her students. Lili never rested on her laurels. Just this past July a former student came to sing a few arias for her and sure enough Lili made a point of studying those arias the night before since they were not from her own mezzo-soprano repertoire. She was ever fascinated by music and determined to share her knowledge and insights with young people. She never stopped trying to unravel the mysteries of singing. Even at the age of 90.
Lili suffered no fools and yet had a tremendous sense of humor. In the summer of 2009, she invited Michael and me to ride to the Norfolk Music Festival with her where she was to be the guest of honor at a gala event. During that ride she told one of our favorite stories. It concerns a particularly challenging Yale undergraduate soprano who came to a lesson one day and announced that, in addition to studying with Lili, she was also working with the best voice teacher in New York City. Or so she thought. Lili responded, "Oh, isn't that nice, now get the hell out of here."
Two other students have sent these short stories.
When I was studying with Lili during my last year at school, I once made the mistake of complaining to her about final exams and papers. "Lili, I'm so stressed out!!" Lili sat me down and said with a grin, "You're stressed? Honey, when I was your age, I had two kids and a husband in the war. That's stress."
And another, which comes from someone who is in the room tonight.
I was a sophomore complaining about how tired I was. She said, "Let me tell you a story." She had been performing some powerhouse role on the Met stage when she felt a huge pain in her chest. She pushed through and finished her scene then staggered offstage to sit down. She refused offers of an ambulance and only saw a doctor after the opera was finished. The doctor promptly told her that she'd had a heart attack onstage.
"So," she said, "I don't want YOU to complain about being too tired to sing!"
So, if we get weepy I'm quite sure she would say, "Oh, stop it. Just stop it." and give a good laugh.
I would like to close with one of her favorite recordings - Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. The Song of the Earth. In this final passage she sings:
I stand here and wait for my friend;
I wait to bid him a last farewell.
I yearn, my friend, at your side
To enjoy the beauty of this evening.
O eternal love - eternal, love-intoxicated world!
She then finishes with six repetitions of the word "ewig."
Eternal... Eternal... Eternal... Eternal...
Go to Recordings of Lili Chookasian