Hidden away in a Soviet-era building frozen in time, the Choir of the Armenian Union for the Blind meets in Yerevan for rehearsal. Since 1976, their director has fought to keep his talented, tight-knit group in operation. They play alongside a folk ensemble of fellow blind musicians and perform a wide repertoire of classical and folk, foreign and Armenian works. In better times, they travelled to perform in Russia, picked up awards in Belarus, and participated in festivals in Georgia. Salaries are low, and sometimes nonexistent, but as professional musicians, they wouldn’t trade their jobs for the world.
On a scorching July day, the choir members mount the grand stairway leading to the third floor of their second home. Most are partially or fully blind, but they hardly need the firm wooden railing for support—they know these marble steps by heart.
Laughter rings out from the dressing room. The women are wearing floor-length sapphire gowns made from an oppressively hot fabric, but their hair and makeup are nevertheless immaculate. The men wear neatly pressed white shirts and a variety of retro sunglasses.
The musicians remove their instruments from their time-worn cases, warming up for the show. For them, every performance is to be treated with the utmost seriousness.
This is not a stage in St. Petersburg, nor is it a competition in Tbilisi. It is simply a chance to display their talent in hopes of raising funds and earning state recognition.
The group toured extensively during Soviet times, but after the collapse of the USSR, the choir never received official state status. Today, the group struggles to make ends meet financially, and cannot even provide regular transportation for the members to travel back and forth for practices and concerts.
Despite the challenges, the singers and musicians haven’t left the group, a ray of light in a world of darkness.
“The most important achievement for them is to have a job in their profession. Although the salaries are very low, they are devoted and come to work with pleasure,” said Choir Director and Composer, Simon Hovhannisyan;
Ruzanna Papikyan, who has been singing with the choir for 28 years, agrees: “Here, I can work in my field and do what I studied. It is better for me to earn a low salary doing what I love, than to work in a shop.”
Love Is Blind
As a fresh university graduate in Tbilisi, Georgia, Marianna Hovhannisyan went on a hunger strike before her parents allowed her to marry her husband, Simon. They objected to her union with a blind man. The young woman nevertheless saw a bright future ahead with the aspiring composer.
Over sixty years later, the couple has no regrets, lovingly teasing one another despite the challenging circumstances surrounding them. On this day, the retired German teacher with bright red lipstick sits alongside her husband, listening to the choir with pride.
Some of the works are national or folk songs composed by Simon himself others are European classics or parts of the Armenian Church liturgy. The instruments range from the accordion to the kanon, a trapezoidal-shaped stringed instrument that is placed on the lap.
The concert showcases the choir’s range of voices too, with soloists stepping out for their diligently rehearsed numbers. The auditorium is not air conditioned, and one young woman nearly faints from the heat during the show. But the group carries on as two members calmly walk her down the perilously small side steps.
After the show, black coffee and biscuits are served and the magic of the stage gives way to the fading Russian concert bills on the wall. Marianna shuffles through heavy drawers and glass cabinets to show the awards the group has won over the years.
“The main goal at this point is to get state status for the choir and folk ensemble. Once we get it, we can receive funding from the government,” said Hovhannisyan, adding: “In the Baltic countries, such orchestras already receive state subsidies.”
The director thoughtfully puffs his cigarette from behind his desk, as timeworn and sturdy as he.
“We don’t want you to think we’re complaining,” he reflects quietly. “We live for our work.”