Singer Ani Maldjian. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles…)
Sometimes soprano Ani Maldjian gets going so fast she forgets to breathe. She searched for a bracelet with the word "breathe" on it to wear as a reminder but could not find one on the Internet. So she decided to make her own, using beads. In the process, "I fell in love with bead shops, it's like an addiction," she says. She made her bracelet — but instead of leading to relaxation, the effort led Maldjian to launch Solo, an online business selling her own music-inspired jewelry designs.
It is not surprising that the energetic Maldjian, 29, would pile another challenge on top of her burgeoning opera career. "I knew I wanted to be a singer at age 15," she asserted in a recent conversation at Long Beach Opera, where she was rehearsing for appearances in two Surrealist works: Francis Poulenc's 1944 "The Breasts of Tiresias" and Bohuslav Martinu's 1928 opera "Tears of a Knife." Both one-act operas, to be presented on the same program Sunday and again Saturday, are directed by Ken Roht, producing director of L.A.'s Bootleg Theater and producing director of Orphean Circus.
Maldjian, a Los Angeles native and a proud first-generation Armenian American, was inspired to an opera career by hearing her grandfather sing Armenian folk songs. "He just instilled the love of that classical sound in me," she says. Maldjian skipped junior and senior years of high school by taking the GED exam and was accepted to CalArts at 16. After CalArts, she hopped to Cal State Northridge to get her master's degree.
"I went to CalArts as a pop singer; I was singing Mariah Carey tunes. And — rest in peace — Whitney Houston was my idol," Maldjian says. "But within a year I switched to opera. I remember doing this pop competition; I showed up, and there were, like, 5,000 singers. And they were all dressed up — I don't even know how to describe it. They were not there because they cared about music, they were there because they wanted to be famous and get noticed. It just wasn't me."
Besides, pop music just wasn't difficult enough. "I am a perfectionist, and I think I chose a genre and an art form that requires perfection in many ways," she muses. "Opera is the highest of the arts, in my opinion — in music anyway. I wouldn't have picked something that came easy."
Maldjian's grandfather did not live to read the recent reviews that have celebrated Maldjian as one of the opera world's up-and-coming stars — but he would have been overjoyed. A Long Beach Opera regular, Maldjian made her company debut as Anne Frank in the 2007 production of Grigory Frid's "The Diary of Anne Frank," performed in a parking garage. (LBO is known for unorthodox, site-specific performances and plans a fall presentation of Gavin Bryers' ocean-themed "The Paper Nautilus" at Long Beach Aquarium). For LBO Maldjian has also appeared as Madame Mao in "Nixon in China," sung the title role in "Cunning Little Vixen" and appeared in "Medea." She is also a frequent performer with Seattle Opera, Atlanta Opera and numerous regional companies.
Of that Anne Frank performance, Times music critic Mark Swed wrote that the role "offers a technical and emotional tour de force for a game soprano. [Company artistic and general director Andreas] Mitisek found just that soprano in Ani Maldjian. Tuesday at 8 p.m., one might have said she was an emerging artist in the earliest stages of a career. By 9:30, she had emerged. And she is surely the first in opera history to have done so from a car park."
Says Mitisek of Maldjian: "She became a star in a parking garage … since then, I've seen her versatility, her vocal ability, grow and shine in different roles. Being the crazy Madame Mao or Anne the young girl, she fills all of the roles with her full self."
For her part, Maldjian is happy throwing herself into new work, for Long Beach Opera and other companies. "I'm definitely a risk-taker, people have said that a lot — I'm not an inhibited singer," she says happily. "I skateboarded once onstage; that was a risk. Directors like it that I hardly ever say no."