Lili Chookasian, of Branford, internationally renowned contralto of the Metropolitan Opera and Professor of Voice at Yale University, died on April 10. She was the wife of 45 years to the late George Gavejian. Ms. Chookasian was born in Chicago, Illinois, on Aug. 1, 1921 and celebrated her 90th birthday last summer with family and friends at her home in Branford. She appeared with many of the world's major conductors, symphony orchestras, and recording and opera companies.
Ms. Chookasian began her career in the 1940s as a featured soloist on the “Popular Hymns of All Churches” radio program. She came to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s when her concert, oratorio, and recital performances drew critical acclaim. Her early career considerations were secondary to her role as a mother, however, and she often chose to make local appearances in the Chicago area where she lived rather than travel or live in Europe.
When she decided to expand her career, the milestones came quickly. In 1959 she made her first operatic appearance with the Arkansas State Opera in the role of Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma. In 1960, her second operatic role was as Amneris in Verdi’s Aida with the Baltimore Lyric Opera, where Ms. Chookasian was studying with Rosa Ponselle, the legendary dramatic soprano of the Metropolitan Opera. Ponselle shared a tape of her performances with Thomas Schippers of the New York Philharmonic, and Ms. Chookasian soon joined Schippers and the New York Philharmonic in their 1960 recording of Prokoviev's Alexander Nevsky.
During 1960, Ms. Chookasian was offered a contract with the Metropolitan Opera, but turned the opportunity down sighting family considerations and her desire to be at home with her children in Chicago. In late-1961, Ms. Chookasian was approached again by the Met, this time by Sir Rudolph Bing personally. Mr. Bing prevailed and Ms. Chookasian accepted the offer making her Met and New York City debut on March 9, 1962 in the role of La Cieca in Ponchielli’s La Giaconda. The performance was monitored by phone from Ponselle's estate, Villa Pace, in Baltimore. Ponselle, who had developed a strong personal friendship with Ms. Chookasian, as well as being her opera mentor, recalled: "It not only brought back wonderful memories, but it was another Force of Destiny," a reference to Ponselle’s own Met debut in 1918 as Leonora in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino.
The critics agreed and enthusiastically predicted "a splendid career for the young lady from Chicago" under the surprising headline "Mom in the Met". Her career with the Met lasted 25 years.
As her career grew, Ms. Chookasian was confronted with physical challenges that she did not disclose to her management or admirers. In 1956, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and physicians gave her six months to live. She attacked the disease with unusual determination; received major surgery which was complicated by a widespread infection; received several additional surgeries; and after several months of recuperation returned to her singing career. Five years later, in the midst of her breakout 1961 season, more cancer was discovered. She fulfilled her singing commitments in New York and at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy; returned to Chicago; and after additional major surgery, received a good prognosis and returned to her singing career. During her career, she quietly counseled other women who suffered from breast cancer and was a silent inspiration to all of them.
After retiring from the stage in 1986, Ms. Chookasian joined the faculty at Yale University's School of Music. She taught voice at Northwestern University in the 1950s, and this was an opportunity to return to a teaching role which she enjoyed passionately. As a professor of music at Northwestern and Yale, Ms. Chookasian taught her students that any voice is a gift. She advised her students to pursue their careers with passion and she was always available to students for advice and counsel. In 2002, she was awarded Yale University's Sanford Medal an honor which celebrated concert artists and distinguished members of the music profession. She cherished her 23 years on the teaching staff at Yale as well as her long-standing personal and professional relationships with the students.
Ms. Chookasian moved to Branford in 1986 after retiring from the stage. While teaching at Yale, she was actively involved in New Haven arts including the Schubert Theater and Yale University concerts. During her 90th birthday celebration in August 2011, she was celebrated by the Pine Orchard Fife and Drum, as well as numerous family members and close friends from the community.
Conductors admired Ms. Chookasian for the deep velvet tone of her voice as well as her excellent musicianship. Her voice was characterized by musicians as unlike any other contralto, with dark tones that resonated throughout the chamber. She attributed her unique vocal qualities to early coaching by Philip Manual and the late-timing to her career. She arose as one of the world's leading contraltos during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and became a favorite choice of conductors such as Bernstein, Levine, Mehta, Ozawa, von Karajan, Ormandy, and Leinsdorf, among other great international conductors. She was selected by Bernstein to sing at the commemorative opening performance of Lincoln Center. Her recordings of the Verdi Requiem with Leinsdorf, Das Lied von der Erda with Ormandy, and the Alexander Nevsky with Shippers have been studied and evoked as the classic contralto sound.
Ms. Chookasian is survived by three children, Valerie Klutch and her husband Alexander of Branford, John Gavejian and his wife Elaine of Mahwah, New Jersey, and Paul Gavejian and his wife Sue of Chappaqua, New York, as well as 11 grandchildren, Peter Klutch, Chris Klutch, and Talene Kelly, formerly of Branford, Matt Gavejian, Cara Natale, and Michael Gavejian, formerly of Chappaqua, New York, and Jason, Justin, Jonathan, Jamie, and Julie of Mahwah, New Jersey. She is also survived by eight great-grandchildren, including Talia, Max, Jaiden, and Marise Klutch of Monroe, and Seamus, Scarlett, and Dempsey Kelly of New York City.
Friends are invited to call on Thursday, April 12, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the W.S. Clancy Memorial Funeral Home, 244 North Main St., Branford, with a service at 7 p.m. at the funeral home. Her funeral service will be held Friday, April 13, at 11 a.m., at St. Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral in New York City, followed by burial in Center Cemetery, Branford. The family requests that donations, in lieu of flowers, be made to either the Connecticut Hospice in Branford or St. Vartan’s Armenian Cathedral in New York City.