Zara Doloukhanova

Zara Doloukhanova
Painting by Alisa Poret


Zara Doloukhanova was, and still remains the biggest and brightest figure of Art Song in Russia during the 20th century.

Great artist of our time, with the most outstanding personality. Her concerts remained forever in memories of thousands of enthusiastic listeners. Audiences were amazed at her musicality, the quality and sophistication of programs. Her appearance was always perfect. There was an incomparable harmony of music and image. Her ability to work is still outstanding. She is a perfectionist and made an incredible demand upon herself to bring only super perfection on stage. Her programs included the works by many composers of different styles. Zara Doloukhanova sang each work in its original language, which was unheard of in the USSR at the time. Her concerts were festive events.

Zara Doloukhanova was one of the first artists to cross the iron curtain and to sing in western countries. In the late forties only the Bolshoi Ballet, Gilels, Oistrakh and possibly Moiseev's dance group were permitted to perform. Critics raved about her deep understanding of styles and the sophistication of her interpretations. Her name is a legend.

People from all over the world were dedicating their music and poetry to her.

Zara Doloukhanova

Following is a partial list of composers whose works Doloukhanova sang: Marcello, Vivaldi, Carissimi, Bach, Haendel, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt, Grieg, Brahms, Wolf, Richard Strauss, Mozart, Beethoven, Poulenc, De Falla, Ravel, Faure, Debussy, Obradors, Ginastera, Guastavino, Rossini, Puccini, Gounod, Verdi, Saint-Saens, Meyerbeer, Massenet, Bellini, Glinka, Dargomizhski, Rubinstein, Taneyev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Scriabin, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Medtner, Rachmaninov, Gomidas, Doloukhanian, Arutunian, Khachaturian, Shaporin, Miaskovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Sviridov, Shchedrin, Gavrilin, Tariverdiev, Weinberg, Levina, Peiko, Kochurov, Karetnikov.

As the critic Andras Perne wrote in "Magyar Nemzet" in December of 1967 "The concert of Zara Doloukhanova was a rare, outstanding event for the audience. This incredible artist is not bound by limitations of any sort. She possesses full power of her voice and of the audience. She expresses every exact feeling the composer wanted to convey with the music. The intensity of her singing astonished listeners even in the lowest pianissimo dynamic. What she knows about music one can compare only with the mastery of the most outstanding instrumentalists. Doloukhanova's command of her voice is such that, while having a two and a half octaves range, it actually feels like much more, because of the different qualities of sound she can produce.
Technique is never her goal, and everything comes from a musical purpose of expressiveness. The peak of the concert was the performance of Ravel's Habanera, where it became clear that there is no such musical instrument that can be compared with the magic singing of Zara Doloukhanova."

An American critic said after her performance at Carnegie Hall, "Yesterday, deeply excited audience, had an unforgettable pleasure from the expressive mastery of Zara Doloukhanova singing songs and arias in different languages… People, who can really value and understand the beauty of vocal voice, were blessed to hear the Armenian song Krunk. Even just to listen to this song, it was worth going to Carnegie Hall under such terrible weather conditions. It had ecstatic waves of sound. The fantastic art of this woman charmed the listener more and more with a voice of huge diapason, rich with nuances, which she commanded with a divine ease. "

"Her universalism and her incredible vocal and dramatic gifts allowed Zara Doloukhanova to make a very successful interpretation of works of different epochs, national schools, styles and genres, and there was always an intensely musical approach, which among singers doesn't necessarily occur very often. Critics compare her with artists like Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau. Doloukhanova brought in interpretation of opera works the finesse of chamber singing and the perfection of phrasing of an instrumentalist.
The artistic craftsmanship of diction, sound, details, transparent and fine phrasings, always with the warmth of the soul."

Camomiles, painting by Zara Doloukhanova
Camomiles, painting by Zara Doloukhanova

She comes from a musical family. Her mother was an excellent singer but never had a professional career. As a child Zara was sent to a music school to learn to play the piano and the violin. At fifteen she realized she wanted to be a singer. Her brief time as a vocal student was not successful. Soon she married the composer and pianist Alexander Doloukhanian. They started to work together. Alexander Doloukhanian was highly competent in vocal literature and loved to work with singers. In addition, he was an erudite, a musician of great talent. At that time Alexander Doloukhanian was perfecting and completing his education, and as a young composer was under the guidance of Nikolai Miaskovsky. Later Doloukhanova mentioned that with Alexander Doloukhanian she became familiar with the chefs D'oeuvre of classical music.

During the WW2 Doloukhanova started to work in Opera Theatre in Yerevan. They were preparing Meyerbeer's "The Huguenots". At the first rehearsal (she was singing the Page aria) conductor Mikhail Tavrizhian suddenly realized that he had witnessed the birth of a great chamber singer. Doloukhanova soon left the theatre and never had regrets about it. In opera she felt too dependent on conductor, partners, etc. Sometimes she didn't like the concept of staging, of musical interpretation, she felt she would not self-express as an individual, and someone else's taste would take over. Chamber singing gave her freedom for exploring individual approach. She realized that this was her vocation.

When thinking about this rarest, uniquely universal approach of Zara Doloukhanova as a singer and an actress, one can never tire to be amazed by her repertoire that embraced all styles and genres of vocal music of the last three centuries.

Zara Doloukhanova

Never has there been a program (or an outfit) repeated on the same stage. The audience that has been raised by Zara Doloukhanova learned to appreciate not just a virtuoso vocalist, not just a gifted dramatic artist, but also a highly intelligent personality with a broad spectrum of aesthetic interests and a refined taste in arts.

The unique gift of attracting other human beings is most probably a trait of the talented few. However this gift must always be accompanied by kindness and attentiveness to people's concerns. Zara Doloukhanova has always been remarkably receptive to the needs of every individual as much as to the audience as a whole.
A great talent in all respects, she is a very generous and kind person and many of those who breathed in her aura have experienced the remarkable energy coming from her.

She premiered, among many others, Puccini's Suor Angelica, which had never been performed in Soviet Union. The conductor was Gennady Rozhdestvensky. Those who were lucky enough to attend the performance will never forget it. When Zara Doloukhanova appeared on the evening of the premiere, she had a special magic, charm, and appeal. Her image in that role was unbelievably beautiful, composed, benevolent, irradiating warmth. Her singing was impressive and dramatic.
At the end the audience did not clap until after a few moments of silence.

We also lived through quite a few amusing incidents in our careers. One story comes to my mind.

Once we had a concert on November 7th, which was a biggest state holiday in USSR, (Anniversary of the Revolution and birth of Soviet Union). Serious attention was always given to the content of the events on that day. There were many demonstrations and special concerts. Our concert was not in Moscow, but in another city and was presented as official event to commemorate the holiday. We proceeded with the program that we had been doing on this concert tour. The composers were programmed in chronological order, the last was Ravel, and the piece was Kaddish. In the last minute, we were told that all titles had to be announced in Russian. I wasn't especially prepared for translating, so I said what was close in meaning. Kaddish was announced as a Jewish Funeral Prayer. It was a total shock to the administration. I still think it is a miracle that we didn't go through some type of follow-up.

Today, people cannot imagine what it meant to finish a concert on November 7th, in an antisemitic environment with a Jewish Funeral Prayer.

Zara Doloukhanova

Only after we had worked together for almost fifteen years, I fully realized how influential was my artistic and human relationship with Zara Doloukhanova in all aspects of my work and on my personality. My work with my student pianists (I have a very international class) is based, in big part, on the principles that I discovered while working with her. I am asking my students to sing a melody for the purpose to form that melody in time and by its inner tendencies, and as a result find their own interpretation. Sometimes, working on Mozart Sonatas I even ask them to compose words to match the flow and logic of melodies. To apply that manner on a work with a pianist happens to produce good results.

It is helpful for some time not to be involved with texture or technicalities but to rather develop a clear idea of the musical thought, which will be then expressed with a fuller meaning. Usually, teachers-pianists are working on these issues at the same time (sound, technique, music).

As a result of the many years of working with Zara Doloukhanova, and deeply understanding her approach, my method puts thematism, phrasing, and interpretation in the first place thus bringing very good results in our very technocratic times.

Flowers, painting by Zara Doloukhanova
Flowers, painting by Zara Doloukhanova

Zara Doloukhanova's creative spirit extends beyond music. She loves to paint, a passion that she has carried throughout her life.

The lasting friendship with Zara Doloukhanova is one of primary reasons for my frequent visits to Russia. She is full of energy, looks better than ever, works in the Gnessin Academy of Music, getting there by walking a great distance every day. In her eighties, she seems younger and keener than many other people I know.

Zara Doloukhanova has been passed away on December 4th, 2007 at her home in Moscow city.

Copyright © 2001 Nina Svetlanova