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A Gifted Voice Gives Back

Jeannette Kouyoumjian-Illanjian

I would like the new generation to know and love music more.

For soprano Jeannette Kouyoumjian-Illanjian, music is a lifetime passion. The lyricism of her voice and the richness of its timbre are the hallmarks of her beautiful renditions, captivating audiences throughout the world and inspiring music students across generations.

Born in Beirut shortly before World War II to Abisoghom and Drvanda (née Hannesian) Kouyoumjian, Jeannette grew up in an environment in which arts and culture were much appreciated. She developed an interest in music by listening to her older sister playing piano and her mother humming melodies on mandolin. By age 13, she was taking private piano lessons, playing and singing in the evenings, bringing immense joy to her father, a music enthusiast. As classical singing began to appeal to her more and more, Jeannette decided to attend the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music for formal voice training. She remembers how worried she was before her first class audition—only six months into the training. Over time, the feeling dissipated with practice and experience. “I was anxious before performances, but that feeling would go away right before I walked on the stage,” she says.

In 1957, thanks to a scholarship from the Lebanese government, Jeannette entered the National Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome—one of the world’s oldest and most reputable music institutions—majoring in voice with a minor in piano. “I was shy then,” she admits. “I cried when I learned my entrance exam results. It was a great success.” Studying at the academy helped her grow personally and professionally. Soon after graduating, she continued her studies at the Chigiana Musical Academy in Siena, mastering her opera singing skills with celebrated Italian soprano Gina Cigna. “I was so lucky to have great voice teachers,” she says. While in Italy, she earned roles in two operas. Next, she moved to Armenia to hone her vocal skills in Armenian songs, later returning to her ancestral homeland three times for recitals.

Upon her return to Lebanon, she embarked on a new career with a teaching position at the National Conservatory of Music. For over 40 years, she trained students, revealing to them the secrets of vocal technique and passing down her knowledge and experience. Jeannette takes pride in the success of her students, one of whom is Rima Tawil, a well-known French-Lebanese soprano. Alongside teaching, Jeannette continued to perform solo recitals and toured in many countries, including Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, Italy, Iraq, Romania, and the U.S. Above all, she enjoyed performing works by Armenian composers, particularly Tigran Tchoukhadjian and Komitas.

Her appearance in the Baalbek International Festival in 1965 as a soloist of the Lebanese-Armenian Song and Dance Ensemble was a significant milestone. It was through the festival that she met Samuel Ilanjian, her future husband, at the time, was instrumental in creating the ensemble. They married in 1966 and have three children together—Wanda, Talin and Sevag, and seven grandchildren.

It was through Samuel—the founder of the AGBU-AYA Vahram Papazian Theater Group in Lebanon and executive director of the AGBU Ardavazt Theater Company from 1997 to 2007—that Jeannette became involved with AGBU. The couple has remained committed to AGBU programs for decades. After moving with their family to the U.S. in the 1980s, fleeing the Lebanese Civil War, they continue to serve the Armenian community through various artistic projects.

These days, Jeannette wants to promote classical music among youth and instill in them an appreciation for it. “I would like the new generation to know and love music more,” she says. In 2013, she established an endowment, the AGBU Jeannette Kouyoumjian-Illanjian Fund, which contributes to the AGBU Performing Arts fellowship. Her gift helps young musicians master their skills at some of the world’s most reputable institutions so they may pursue their passions just as she did.

December 29, 2018