Amid continuing angry protests against the sacking of the acclaimed Armenian-American director of Armenia’s national opera theater, the government pledged to at least delay the appointment of his successor on Monday.
Constantine Orbelian, a San Francisco-born conductor and pianist, was named as artistic director of the Alexander Spendiarian National Opera and Ballet Theater in Yerevan in 2016 and became its director general as well a year later. He is widely credited with breathing a new life into one of the country’s most important cultural institutions chronically underfunded by successive post-Soviet governments.
Acting Culture Minister Nazeni Gharibian dismissed Orbelian as chief executive on Thursday, saying that he is not legally allowed to combine the two leadership positions. She also argued that the 62-year-old U.S. citizen is not fluent in Armenian.
Orbelian rejected the decision as illegal and said he will challenge it in court. Most actors and musicians of the state-run theater also condemned his dismissal, demanding that Gharibian be sacked instead.
In an unprecedented protest, many of them walked on stage just before a ballet performance on Sunday to voice their indignation in front of hundreds of spectators. They threatened to go on strike if Orbelian is not reinstated. The audience responded with applause.
Scores of other artists, among them the directors of other state-run theaters, voiced support for the protesting staff by signing an open letter to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian.
Dozens of opera and ballet staffers rallied outside outside the main government building in Yerevan on Monday, leading Pashinian to meet with their representatives.
Pashinian defended the legality of Orbelian’s dismissal at the meeting. He also pointed to the latter’s frequent trips abroad and, citing the Armenian Finance Ministry, alleged financial irregularities committed by the theater administration in 2017.
Pashinian at the same time made clear that he is open to hearing the artists’ counterarguments. In that regard, he announced that the theater will be run by one of Orbelian’s deputies for the time being.
“Keep working as usual,” the premier told them. “I will wait for your arguments and we will jointly make decisions.”
Gharibian said on Friday that she has already appointed a new opera director and will introduce him or her to the theater staff on Monday. The acting minister did not attend Pashinian’s meeting with the protesters’ representatives even though she was seen entering the prime minister’s office.
The protest leaders seemed satisfied with the meeting. One of them, conductor Harutiun Arzumanian, said they will study written justifications for Orbelian’s sacking and respond to Pashinian in writing.
“The prime minister said if it turns out that even one of the submitted [government] arguments is false the official who submitted them will be immediately fired,” Arzumanian told reporters.