The Legend of Armand Tokatyan

By Jacques Tocatlian.

All through my childhood, my Uncle Armand was to me more of a legend than a real person. When my father talked about his famous brother, Armand, who lived in the United States, and sang at the Metropolitan Opera, I did not think that I would some day actually meet him. The United States was in those days, very very far from Alexandria Egypt where we lived.

The letters from Uncle Armand arrived at the rate of one or two a year, often accompanied by a series of photos, which added to the fascination since he was usually dressed up for Pagliaci, Traviata, or Cavaleria Rusticana. I knew he had a son, Leon, and a daughter, Gloria – my cousins – but knew very little about them. My Uncle had even modified his name, at the request of his Impresario, from “Tocatlian” to “Tokatyan” – easier to pronounce and remember. In fact, our family name had already been modified once from the original spelling “Tokatlian” to Tocatlian. In Armenian, the name means originating from Tokat – a city north-east of Ankara, Turkey.

My own brother was named Armand, after our Uncle. What fascinated us as kids were the stories we heard in the family about Uncle Armand. Apparently, it all started towards the latter part of the 19th century in Plovdiv, Bulgaria – known as “Philipopoli” at the time. Grandfather Gabriel, who was a pharmacist, had fled Istanbul and the problems Armenians were encountering with the Turks. He had at the time only one daughter, Eugenie, who later married Leon Chichmanian and gave birth to our cousins: Garbis, Yervant, and Marie.

In Plovdiv, Grandfather Gabriel and Grandmother Virginie had several sons. The one before last was Armand,born in 1894, and the last one was my father, Lucien, born in 1899. I do not know how many years they lived in Plovdiv nor how many children they had. Besides Armand and Lucien, I know of Leon who studied painting in Paris, died young in a horse carriage accident, and was buried at the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

At one point early in the 20th century, Grandfather decided to return with his family to Turkey. They sailed to Istanbul, but were not allowed to disembark. As Armenians, they were probably considered person non grata. Grandfather inquired from the Captain where the ship was going next. “To Alexandria,” he said. So they went and settled in Alexandria, Egypt.

As a pharmacist, Grandfather had no problem establishing himself in thriving conditions. He acquired a pharmacy downtown, which he named “La Pharmacie du Phare”, after the lighthouse of Alexandria, and lived a life of ease in good comfort. The children went to private French schools and were given a good education. Eugenie played the piano, Lucien played the flute, and Armand sang.

Early in life, Uncle Armand showed a great interest in singing. As years went by, he would not hear of any career in life other than that of an opera singer. With the prevailing mentality of the time, Grandfather did not want one of his sons to become a singer. It must have been a conflicting situation. It was eventually resolved when Uncle Armand expressed the wish to study tailoring in Paris. So he was sent at considerable expenses to France. Years went by. For one reason or another, he found an excuse to extend his stay in Europe.

One day, Grandfather, sensing a problem, asked a friend who was going to Europe to check on his son. When the friend came back, he informed Grandfather that Armand had studied no tailoring all these years, but had sang instead ,here and there, even in cafés of the Latin Quarter,  and had began to establish a reputation as a singer of  talent. He brought back many newspaper articles by famous critics and strongly advised Grandfather to encourage his son in this direction, which he did. Armand went to Milano in 1919 to seriously study voice. His operatic debut took place in 1921 as de Grieux in a procuction of Puccini’s Manon.

On February 14, 1923, he had his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, where he regularly appeared with The Company until 1946, concentrating in French and Italian repertories. During his career, he sang in most European capitals, was applauded by the world critics,  was crowned with success, acted and sang in Mexican films.

On March 10, 1940, Armand madetelevision history, by participating in the first televised performance by the Metropolitan Opera, as he sang Canio’s “Vesti la giubba” to conclude the telecast of Act I of Pagliacci.

Immediately after the war, he participated in a country-wide fund-raising series of concerts for the benefit of Armenian families in Europe who wanted to migrate to the States. Eventually, Armand Tokatyan gave a last concert at the Hollywood Bowl – I believe in 1949.

In the summer of 1958, I visited him in Whittier, California, where he had retired and taught singing. The legendary Uncle was real. He was then 64.He unfortunately passed away two years later, a few months before my father came to the United States. They had been looking forward to seeing each other again after some forty years…

Some of his performances include:

09.19.1927TurandotRoselle, Tokatyan, Pinza, Merola
01.28.1933La TraviataBori, Tokatyan, Tibbett /Serafin
05.16.1936CarmenCastagna, Tokatyan, Royer, Bodanya /Papi
05.15.1937MignonTourel, Tokatyan, Rothier, Antoine, Matyas /Pelletier
01.06.1940LakmePons, Tokatyan, Pinza, Petina, Cehanovsky /Pelletier
02.10.1940La BohemeSayao, Tokatyan, Dickey, De Luca, Cehanovsky, Pinza /Papi
01.25.1941Madama ButterflyAlbanese, Tokatyan, Browning, Brownlee, De Paolis/Papi
03.25.1944Cavalliera RusticanaFlesch, Tokatyan, Valentino, Votipka /Sodero

On September 2, 1997, when Grace Bumbry was interviewed after she made her operatic farewell, she was asked whether she had a natural voice. She responded by saying:

“I had a natural voice. I remember my teacher, Armand Tokatyan, said to me, “Your voice was so beautifully placed and your first teacher did such a wonderful job, that you don’t have a lot to do, but you have to know what to do when you get older, when you get tired. When the voice is working well, anyone can sing well, but when you don’t feel well and don’t feel like singing, you have to know how to get the voice there.”

Listen to a 30-second clip of Armand Tokatyan singing the opera. This video was captured on Armand Tocatlian‘s record player.

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