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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — From his chair in the orchestra pit, violinist Gerard Svazlian beams with pride as he hears his dream come true.

Above him, performers wrapped in jewel-toned robes and headdresses glide across the stage, and hooded knights wield swords and shields.

It’s a final rehearsal for a 19th century opera that has never been seen in its original version. The composer, Tigran Chukhadjian, wrote “Arshak II” in 1868, creating Armenia’s first opera.

The San Francisco Opera will debut “Arshak II” on Saturday — the first time it will be performed as conceived by the Italian-trained Chukhadjian, and the first professional U.S. staging of any Armenian opera.

“All my life I played all kinds of opera,” said Svazlian, an Egyptian-born Armenian. “My dream all the time while I was playing Wagner, Strauss, all of those, was, ‘Why not play some of those Armenian jewels?”’

Five years ago, Svazlian took his idea to outgoing opera director Lotfi Mansouri, who offered him a deal: If the violinist could raise $1 million, Mansouri would make sure “Arshak” made it to the stage.

“In this country every opera has to be sponsored by somebody,” Svazlian said.

“But the million dollars scared me a little bit. I hesitated, but I said, I will do it.”

He turned to the Armenian American community, thinking at first that he could simply approach some millionaire and seal the deal. He quickly met with resistance from people who felt opera was an extravagance given the suffering in Armenia, a former Soviet republic.

The Caucasus Mountains nation has endured enormous economic and social hardships, including a 1988 earthquake. Many thought the money could be better spent on hospitals or schools.

Svazlian formed a committee to raise money for the opera through smaller donations.

The United States is home to about a million people of Armenian descent, about half of whom live in California. Dinners were held, letters were sent, and money came flowing in. In the end, only 104 of 550 donors gave $1,000 or more. The rest came in contributions as small as $10.

The word-of-mouth fund-raising effort not only energized Armenian Americans but raised Armenia’s profile among powerful patrons of the arts, said committee member Denise LaPointe.

“Any introduction to one’s culture can have long-term effects,” she said. “It’s a benefit that you can’t touch, but it’s equally significant.”

Next, the company had to find its opera.

Chukhadjian wrote “Arshak” to an Italian libretto by Tovmas Terzian, a fellow Armenian. Excerpts were performed in Europe during the composer’s lifetime, but the full production was never staged. The score, thought to have been lost, was discovered in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, in 1942. A Soviet version was produced in 1945, but its score had been chopped up and a new libretto glorified the title character.

“One hour of music was not written by the riginal composer,”
said Kip Cranna, musical administrator of the San Francisco Opera. “It’s in a grandiose 20th century style as opposed to a mid-19th century Italian opera style. It’s also very different in character. The adaptation is a piece in which the hero is just that, he’s heroic. He’s all-conquering and triumphant.”

In the original, the 4th-century ruler was a flawed an caught up in romantic and political intrigue.

With Svazlian’s help, Cranna tracked down two Armenian scholars who were already at work crafting a true-to-the-original“Arshak.”

“It was basically a job of scholarly editing to recreate the composer’s original intentions,” Cranna said.

Christopher Robertson, a baritone who sings the lead role, said “Arshak” is full of “beautiful and dramatic moments.” “There are parts of it that have a definite ethnic sound,” he said. “But it’s very accessible and it will be very comfortable to listen to.”

Although some seats remained for opening night, spokesman Bob Cable said the company had met 90 percent of its goal of $1.5 million in ticket sales.

San Francisco opera-goers generally have been receptive to new works. The company has performed “Harvey Milk,” about the
gay San Francisco supervisor who was gunned down by an ex-police officer; “Dead Man Walking,” based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who acted as spiritual adviser to a murderer on death row; and Andre Previn’s adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“New opera has always been a piece of what can sell here,” said LaPointe. “If it’s artistically valid, they’re open to it.”

Saturday’s premiere will be accompanied by a fund-raiser for the Vanadzor Music School in the earthquake-damaged Lori region of Armenia.

“We’re a very small nation,” said Svazlian. “Many others came out and disappeared from the earth because they didn’t have a culture. But our culture goes back before the 7th century B.C. and now we’re seeing something new come into the world, like a newborn baby.”

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