That voice is just piercing and shatters your will to be and all that you wish to do as it bursts out and wraps itself around your heart while suffocating it. It is as if that voice summons spirits both dark and light.
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80 page book with over 50 photos and a 21 track CD.
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"Zabelle Panosian sang one of the most amazing notes I've ever heard - so much humanity, sorrow, promise, infinite longing. When I write my novel the main character will be Zabelle's note."
-David Harrington, Kronos Quartet
"Please listen to the Armenian singer, Zabelle Panosian. [Her ‘Groung'] is a secret song that steals away the breath of those who are fortunate enough to hear it." - Susie Cave
"Like many recorded folk songs, 'Groung' is a document of how far it has traveled — from Armenia to the US and back again in ways that it took years for Nagoski, Kezelian, and Arakelian to put together. It’s a tune that came with Panosian across thousands of miles, grew
and changed with her, and then told its own tale of travel on record, a servant of her voice."
-Noah Berlatsky, No Depression
"Her soprano voice concentrated generations of inherited grief and the individual experience of exile into a performance so sublime that you don’t need to know a word of Armenian to feel its pain."
-Bill Meyer, Dusted
Winner of "Best History" in Historical Research on Recorded Classical Music by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections in their 2023 Awards for Excellence
"A carefully crafted and detailed, yet succinct biography. Many of us were introduced to Armenian-American singer Zabelle Panosian’s soul-jolting rendition of “Groung” via the 2011 release of To What Strange Place, but here, in Zabelle Panosian: I Am Your Servant, for the first time, we travel with Panosian from her birthplace in Bardizag to her home in New York. We are there in the studio with her at Columbia Records for her historic recordings in lower Manhattan, and we stand with her in the radio studios of WEAF. We become readers of reviews of Panosian’s concerts both celebrated and scathing. We accompany her on performances, minuscule and grand from Waterford to Providence and San Francisco to Fresno, eventually recrossing the Atlantic with her to sing in France, Italy, and Egypt. More than a singer or performer, we learn of Zabelle, the estranged sister, the loving aunt, and the mother who passes the baton to her daughter, Adrina Otero, completing what will be the starting point for future historians or ethnomusicologists wishing to explore Zabelle Panosian and her legacy.”
-Richard Breaux, Associate Professor of Race, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse
Among the most significant Armenian singers in the early twentieth century, Zabelle Panosian made a small group of recordings in New York City in 1917-’18. Unaccountably, she was then largely neglected as an artist for more than half a century. This volume by three dedicated researchers is the first effort to reconstruct the life and work of a woman who had an exceptional and cultivated voice — who toured the world as a performer and made a significant contribution to the cultural lives of the Armenian diaspora, the elevation of Armenian art song, and the relief of survivors of the Armenian genocide.
Panosian’s music is derived from a syncretic experience of the Western Armenian village near the sea of Marmara where she was born and a passion for the coloratura sopranos she encountered in Boston. As an immigrant carrying the traumas of dislocation and the loss of her home, she transformed her grief into action, dedicated her life to an expression of the greatest art she could imagine, both from her former life and her new life in America, and she created a path in her wake for her daughter to become a renowned dancer.
Tracing her story from the Ottoman Empire to New England, from the concert halls of Italy, Egypt, and France to California, Florida, and South America through two World Wars, the story of Zabelle Panosian is that of a serious talent recognized and celebrated, dismissed and forgotten, year by year, waiting only to be known and loved again.
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"There was an Armenian girl who was a big star at one moment, and she sort of disintegrated into nothing. I mean, no one knows where she's ended up."
-Cathy Berberian, mezzo-soprano, interviewed by Charles Amirkhanian, KPFA, Nov. 1, 1972
Zabelle Panosian was born with the name Takouhi Der Mesrobian on June 7, 1891, in Bardizag (present-day Bahçecik), Turkey, a town 80 miles east of Constantinople. Bardizag’s population of about 10,000 was supported by two silk mills at either end of its main street and the mulberry groves surrounding the town where the silk worms fed. Its population had been over 90% Armenian for several hundred years through a combination of discretion and bribery and had been a locus of Presbyterian missionary work since the middle of the 19th century. There she received her primary education at the Shoushanian School and first sang publicly at the age of 10 at St. James (Soorp Hagop) church. Her mother died when she was 11. As a child, she took on roles of leadership and nurturing, directing a group of girls in liturgical singing as well as working as an assistant at a kindergarten.
She later recalled that at the age of eight, she was abducted from her bed at night by Turkish military men and made to sing and dance for them before being returned to her family. Her father and some other family friends intervened in a second abduction attempt when she was 15. That second abduction attempt instigated Zabelle’s having been sent away to the United States to keep her safe. Shortly after arriving in Boston in the Spring of 1907, she married a photo-engraver from Bardizag named Aram Sarkis Panosian who was between 11 and 14 years her senior. He arrived in the U.S. in April 1896 and had a long, productive, successful career with the Tichnor Brothers, a significant company in the development of the picture postcard. On August 29, 1908, Zabelle and Aram Panosian's daughter Adrina was born in Somerville, Massachusetts. Zabelle had just turned 18 the month before. By the Spring of 1910, the Panosian family was living at 91 Pearson Avenue in a house shared with another Armenian family. They lived there certainly through 1919.
Three of her siblings arrived in the U.S. separately during the period 1907-1911. Her brothers Mesrob (b. Jan. 2, 1881; d. Nov. 1977) and Hachig (b. Sept. 15, 1885; d. 1956) were both tailors and life-long bachelors who mostly lived and worked in New York City. Her younger sister Nevart (b. Dec. 24, 1894; died April 2, 1974) arrived April 16, 1911, and married Megurdich Mikaelian (b. Feb 22, 1888 in Constantinople; arrived 1909). They had two daughters, Meline (born July 24, 1916) who never married, and Armine (born Dec. 9, 1919, in Boston, married name Keazirian) who had four children. The descendants of those children, Panosian’s great-grandnieces and nephews, are the only living relatives of Zabelle Panosian's parents.
With the support of her husband, Zabelle Panosian received private tutelage in English and about two years studying music under two teachers with whom she said she learned “practically nothing,” Zabelle began studying around 1915 with Gertrude Dueheana (b. April 1873). Dueheana was a widowed and childless professional teacher of vocal music in the Boston area for several decades who described herself as the pupil of one Signor Olivieri and gave regular recitals of her students. The influence of Dueheana from whom Panosian remarked that she learned the “delicacies of the art” of singing coincided with Aram’s upward financial mobility and their resultant entry into Boston society and the massive swell of interest in grand opera in the United States.
By 1910, three opera houses were operating in New York City, and further houses sprung up in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston. The short-lived Boston Opera Company and its House were the schemes of German-born financier and art patron Otto H. Kahn (b. February 21, 1967; d. March 29, 1934). Between 1909 and 1914, it presented only 88 concerts in Boston (along with 47 others in off-season tours elsewhere). During that brief time, however, it brought some truly great performers to Boston including the sopranos Nellie Melba, Maggie Teyte, and Luisa Tetrazzini. Zabelle Panosian never had a credited role in the Company but for the rest of her career billed herself as as being “of the Boston Opera Company.” The earliest surviving mention of Panosian as a performer is from an April 1913 performance at a Unitarian church where she performed as a member of a minstrel show given by the Mattaponnak Women’s Club. By October 1913, she was one of two sopranos who performed at a meeting of the Quincy Women’s Association.
In 1870, there were fewer than 70 Armenians in the United States. About 100,000 arrived in the U.S. following the Hamidian massacres between 1894 and 1914. Between the onset of WWI and the passing of the Johnson-Reed Act which restricted immigration, allowing only 100 Armenians a year to enter the U.S. until 1965, another 30,000 Armenians arrived. As news of the Armenian genocide reached the United States in 1915, Armenians in the U.S. came to the shattering realization that not only was there no longer any home to go back to but that everyone they had left behind was likely dead, as a million Armenians had been slaughtered. Meanwhile, the U.S. formally declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and the Ottoman Empire, having sided with Germany, formally severed diplomatic ties with the U.S. on April, 20.
Panosian’s hometown Bardizag was drained of its population in 1915. Firearms were stripped from the population and young men were conscripted to civil construction projects before April 1915. Then, after several dozen prominent Armenians were arrested in Constantinople, including the priest/composer/musicologist Komitas Vartaped, residents were required to quickly sell all of their possessions to neighboring villagers at any price. The money from those sales was then turned in to the Ottoman military along with the keys to their homes to pay for train fare to the Syrian border where they were marched into the desert. Most died of thirst, starvation, and exposure including, apparently, Zabelle Panosian’s father who had saved her life only ten years earlier. Many girls were sold into slavery. Bardizag’s mulberry groves and churches were destroyed. The floorboards of the homes were torn up. From a population of 10,000, only a few dozen inhabitants remained by 1918.
in the months before the genocide, Panosian had been noticed by Boston’s Armenian-language press as a rising star and began singing benefit concerts for Armenian causes including English, Italian, and Armenian songs. She was enough of a draw that she resorted to posting a notice in the Hairenik newspaper requesting that her name not be used for events where she was not scheduled to perform. Even before April 1915, she had raised over $15,000 in current value for Armenian relief at three concerts in Boston, Providence, and Philadelphia and had come into contact with some key figures of the Armenian-American political class. When the famous Armenian tenor Armenag Shah-Mouradian (b. April 8, 1878) arrived with his wife and child as a refugee in December 1914, he and Panosian began singing at a relentless string of fund-raising events around the eastern United States, both together and separately, through all of 1915-17. Shah-Mouradian had been a student of Komitas, had been jailed twice for revolutionary activities, and had become a star in Paris when he sang the title role of Gounod’s Faust at the Grand Opera.
At all of the concerts Panosian gave during this period, she performed the song “Groung,” using a melody that was specific to the region where she was raised, different from the tune used by Shah-Mouradian and Komitas when they recorded it in early 1914 in Constantinople (and most of the subsequent versions performed since then). The lyrics were at least four hundred years old, expressing in only four lines the worry and homesickness of an Armenian living away from home. The melodic setting of the words, however, was specific to Bardizag, learned, she said, “from the lips of my countrymen.”
During the 1910s both major U.S. record companies, Victor and Columbia, released extensive series of discs aimed at the rapidly-swelling immigrant communities coming from Southern Italy, Eastern Europe, and every other elsewhere from which over a thousand immigrants a day were arriving just through the port of New York alone, to say nothing of those immigrating through Boston, San Francisco, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. By the ‘20s, three out of every five discs released by Columbia was in a language other than English. In January and February 1917, Shah-Mouradian and Panosian respectively both made trial discs for the more prestigious of the two majors, Victor Records at their Camden, New Jersey studio, and both were rejected. When Panosian went to their competitor Columbia’s studio at the Woolworth Building in Manhattan in April 1915, it appears that she had procured funding to record and press a batch of six songs with piano and string accompaniment for release on the label’s foreign-language series. Columbia, at the time, was making a big push to produce “personal” self-funded discs, and this aspect of their business had already been utilized by Madiros Tashjian (b. Jan. 6, 1880), an American-American photo-engraver and political activist, to record and release small pressings of Armenian songs sung by himself and his brothers during 1909-11. He and his brothers Levon and Garin collectively had long-standing ties to Komitas, Shah-Mouradian, and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. After Shah-Mouradian recorded at Columbia in May 1917, the Tashjians offered the three 10” 78rpm Panosian discs and four Shah-Mouradian discs along with what was essentially a toy gramophone player to the Armenian community as a package for a break-even price of $17, less than a fifth of the cost of the most popular Victrola model of the time as a way to draw the Armenian population into the new technology and present the music of the two leading trained vocalists. They included a money-back guarantee with the package. When orders were made from Columbia for pressings of, perhaps, 500 copies at a time, various takes were pressed, either intentionally or by accident.
Panosian’s discography was further complicated when a much more expensive 12” disc by Shah-Mouradian was released around early 1918 and was a commercial flop. When Panosian went back into the studio to record another set of songs in July 1918, some of them, including re-recordings of two that she had previously released, were recorded with the intention of releasing them on the 12” format, but finding that Armenians would pay $1 for a 10” disc but not $1.50 for a 12”, the funders made the extraordinary decision to release them sped up so that the grooves would fit onto 10” discs. So it was that, for instance, Panosian’s “greatest hit” “Groung” / “Im Sereli Zavagounks” remained in print from 1918 through 1931 in its final take (7) a major third too high, a minute too short, and much too fast. Another twist in her discography was that in 1918, she recorded her only performance in a language other than Armenian, a cover of “Charmant Oiseaeux,” a song from Lucien David’s opera The Pearl of Brazil, which had been made a hit by the Milan-born coloratura star of the Metropolitan Opera Amelita Galli-Curci as a Victor 12” disc just the year before. Panosian’s recording of it was delayed until well into 1919 by which point WWI had ended, and she was gaining a significant reputation not just as a performer for relief concerts in her community but as a notable singer in her own right. Articles on her ran in the establishment opera magazine The Musical Courier as well as in the Boston Globe and the Armenian feminist journal Hai Guine in Constantinople. In February 1920, Panosian substituted for Luisa Tettrazini, one of the great sopranos of the time, in Washington D.C., and in May of that year, she had a role as Abishag in an extravagant “biblical pageant play” called The Chosen King in Boston.
After Aram Panosian returned from a trip to Constantinople in late 1919 into early 1920, he leased a store in Manhattan, and the family relocated to 183rd St., a few blocks from the Holy Cross Armenian Apostolic Church. On May 29, 1920, Zabelle Panosian obtained passports for herself and her 11-year-old daughter Adrina to visit Europe with letters of recommendation on her behalf from her teacher and from her husband’s bank to see relatives over six months. The two of them departed on July 3 and ultimately stayed abroad, headquartered mostly at the Hotel Vernet in Paris, for more than three years. Among the first things she did was make a pilgrimage to the psychiatric facility where Komitas Vardapet was living. She published a touching and detailed account of their meeting in a September 1920 issue of Veradzenout Weekly (La Renaissance) in Paris, providing us with a view of Panosian as a serious artist and researcher. Panosian sang to acclaim in large halls in Paris, Rome, and Egypt before she and her teenage daughter returned to New York City on Jan. 23, 1924, to her husband and siblings.
A few years later, she made another trip to Europe with her daughter Adrina, who eventually became a celebrated stage performer in her own right. Toward the end of their journey, she began to use her husband’s first name as her surname on stage. In the U.S., she committed to the stage name Zabelle Aram and spent the second half of the 1920s and early ‘30s performing widely as a concert singer, typically giving concerts in English, French, Italian, and Armenian with costume changes for each language, or in second-tier opera troupes. In the 30s, she sang on the radio as her career declined precipitously. Armenians who associated her with the genocide era were fatigued by remembrances of the trauma, Americans were experiencing both a wave of xenophobia and a shift in taste away from the coloratura style of art singing, and the old show-biz prejudices against women performers who had once been young and pretty and now entered middle-age all worked against her.
Through the 1950s and ‘60s, she appeared now and then at literary and social events. By 1982, Zabelle Panosian was widowed, and all of her siblings and her daughter were dead. That year, she donated $756,939 (approximately 2 million dollars today) to the Armenian General Benevolent Union, which, in addition to the enormous sums she'd contributed to Armenian causes in the 1910s, made her one of the greatest Armenian-American philanthropists of the 20th century. She died on January 26, 1986, and is buried with her daughter, husband, brother-in-law, and mother-in-law in the Cedar Grove Cemetery in Flushing, Queens. The apartment building where she lived discarded all of her costumes, photographs, and memorabilia. Her AGBU obituary ran:
“Zabelle Aram Panosian, the extremely well-known beloved singer of the Armenian-American old generation, closed her eyes forever, leaving behind her good name and remembrance-worthy work. Peace to her tormented soul.”
released April 3, 2017
Tracks 1-7, 14-15, 17-22, 26-27 recorded ca. March 1917.
Tracks 8-13, 16, 23-25 recorded June 1918.
Transfer, restoration, and notes by Ian Nagoski except tracks 4 & 5 transferred by Jesse Kenas Collins at the Armenian Museum, tracks 12 & 19, transferred by Aram Bajakian at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research in Belmont MA, and track 26 transferred by Michael Alexandratos
Research by Harout Arakelian, Harry Kezelian, and Ian Nagoski.
Thanks to the Armenian Museum of America, the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research, and Malcolm Vidrine