'A night out is not about the food, but music or theatre'

'A night out is not about the food, but music or theatre'
Musicians Gevorg Sargsyan and Ani Umedyan, with their daughter Paloma. The couple say Singapore is the perfect place to raise kids and expose them to the world, and hope to stay on here.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Armenian violinist and music teacher Ani Umedyan has lived here since 2008, but still thinks it strange when Singaporeans ask: "Have you eaten?"

Ms Umedyan, 34, who is married to Armenian musician Gevorg Sargsyan, also 34, recalls her initial reaction: "Whenever people asked me that, I thought, why is it anyone's business whether I've had lunch or dinner?"

She teaches music part-time at Raffles Institution (RI), while her husband runs his own artiste and concert management company, besides teaching at Tanglewood Music School and Lasalle College of the Arts.

Armenians, Mr Sargsyan says, traditionally have a hearty diet of lamb, cheese and cracked wheat, but mostly "eat to live".

That, he stresses, is because it is music, not munchies, that sustains them.

"For a nice evening out in Armenia, it is not necessary to eat," he says. "But we must go to the opera, theatre or jazz club."

The arts are so vital that Armenian lawmakers debate whether the country's sole opera house and national orchestra, which employs 600 musicians full-time, are sufficient for its population of three million.

Ms Umedyan muses: "When I ask my students to come for my concerts, they will say things like, 'Sorry, Ms Ani, we have a family dinner.' Or if we are all performing in a concert together, they will say, 'Can I come, play and go because I have to attend my grandfather's birthday dinner?'"

In Armenia, she says, it would be shocking if students skipped their teachers' concerts.

But a blessing involving food came in 2011, when Ms Umedyan gave birth to Paloma, their first child.

Their Singaporean friends rallied round to care for them for a week, cooking nourishing dishes such as fish and papaya soup. The couple are from Yerevan, Armenia's capital. Mr Sargsyan's father is a choirmaster and his mother an opera singer.

Ms Umedyan used to teach at the Yerevan State Conservatory and has performed with renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. In 2008, when she received an offer from RI to do relief teaching, her husband began reading founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's memoir, From Third World To First, to learn more about Singapore.

In 2010, the couple and two Armenian musicians, vocalist Gayane Vardanyan and pianist Naira Mkhitaryan, formed the Armenian Heritage Ensemble to bring Armenian culture to the people here.

Four times a year, they play music by Armenian composers within the 180-year-old Armenian church in Hill Street, which is Singapore's oldest Christian church. Those who come direct from Armenia make up a third of the Singapore community, which numbers anywhere between 80 and 100.

The newer arrivals are here to study or work.

Mr Sargsyan, a trustee of the Armenian church, says: "In Armenia, we have a saying, 'Wherever the bread is, stay there.'"

About 30 members of the community are descendants of the original Armenian settlers, such as the Sarkies and the Galistans.

The rest are Armenians who have lived away from their motherland for centuries.

There are about 40,000 Armenians in Australia, 1,000 in China, 200 in Kolkata and 150 in Hong Kong.

Mr Sargsyan and his wife say they have applied for Singapore permanent residence three times without success.

He muses: "As the Singapore song goes, 'This is home… truly' and we do hope to continue living here. This is the perfect place to raise kids and expose them to the varieties of the world."

Ms Umedyan adds, with a laugh: "If you see how my daughter eats noodle soup with chopsticks, you will know how much we like living here."


This article was first published on September 17, 2015.
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