The legend of Siranush (Merope Sahaki Kantarjian, May 25, 1856 – June 10, 1932) is living among Armenians for more than a century. Her name was a benchmark, an unattainable peak in the history of Armenian theatrical art. This actress of great dramatic talent with her life and work has become one of the few artists who raised Armenian art to the world level.
A bit about the history of Armenian theatrical art in Western Armenia in the 19th century
The center of spiritual culture of Western Armenia was Constantinople, where in as early as 1810, the first Armenian performances were staged under the direction of M. Bzhishkyan. In 1846-1866 operated the theater “Aramyan Tatron” under the direction of O. Gasparyan, which preserved the traditions of the ancient Armenian theater. In the 1850s, several Armenian amateur troupes functioned in Constantinople. In 1856, poet-playwright M. Peshiktashlyan founded the Armenian National Theater. In 1857, the theater magazine “The Muses of Ararat” was first published.
Western Armenian drama developed rapidly, with key figures being M. Peshiktashlyan, S. Ekimyan, P. Duryan, and T. Terzyan. In the 1860s, amateur troupes in Constantinople and Tiflis formed professional permanent theaters. In 1861-1867, the theater “Arevelyan Tatron” (“Oriental Theater”) operated in Constantinople.
In 1869, Hakob Vardovyan established the “Vardovyan taterakhumb” (“Vardovyan troupe”) in Constantinople, which operated until the Russian-Turkish War of 1877. In 1873, a theatrical group was created under the direction of playwright, actor, and director E. Ter-Grigorian.
Brief biography of Siranush
Merope Kantarjian was born on May 25, 1857, in Constantinople (Istanbul). At the age of 16, she rose to the stage of the P. Maghakyan Theater in Istanbul and for half a century has been the glory and pride of the Armenian theater under the name Siranush. Her sister Astghik (Amber Kantarjian) was also a talented actress and singer, but she passed away at a young age, unfortunately.
In 1875, Siranush enrolled in the theater troupe of Hakob Vardovyan in Istanbul. There, she acted as a dramatic actress and opera singer, playing in performances in Armenian and Turkish languages, mainly in melodramas and Armenian historical tragedies of the classicist direction.
After the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1978, by the orders of the Sultan, the activities of Armenian theaters in Turkey were prohibited. In 1879, when the persecution of the Ottoman government against the Armenians became particularly strong, Siranush together with actor Adamyan and her sister Astghik moved to Tiflis.
Since Siranush had been known outside Turkey, she was able to continue performing abroad. She would perform in Baku, Yerevan, Tbilisi, and many other cities.
In 1881, together with her sister, Siranush returned to Constantinople, but by that time, the Ottoman government had already shut down all Armenian theaters. She then decided to tour in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Egypt, playing in dramas and operas.
In 1897, Siranush was invited to the Armenian theater in Baku. In the same year, she moved to Tbilisi with a group of artists and began working in local theaters. She performed successfully in Yerevan, Alexandropol, New Nakhichevan, Shusha, and Tiflis. In 1909, during the Baku tour, the 35th anniversary of the artistic activity of the actress was celebrated.
Siranush was a frequent guest of countries housing Armenians, often at the head of her own theater troupes. In 1912, Siranush had her first tour in Russia. She conquered Moscow and St. Petersburg with her talent.
After the sudden passing of talented Armenian actor Petros Adamyan, Siranush became that bright personality thanks to whom the Armenian audience became interested in theater again.
The play of Siranuish was distinguished by deep emotionality, a bright temperament, and a distinctive interpretation of images, which was highly appreciated by M. N. Yermolova and A. I. Yuzhina-Sumbatova. In this regard, she was close to the talent of Italian actress Eleonora Duse, though Armenian theater critics more often compared her to French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt.
The role of Siranush in Armenian theater art is invaluable. She became a legend while still active. During the 65 years of her stage activity, she has played more than 300 roles. But even playing in the plays of foreign playwrights, her art has always had a national character. The audience and production directors have always witnessed Siranush’s brilliant artistic talent.
Siranush was the first woman on the Armenian scene to play the male role of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s tragedy. Among her best roles were Ophelia in “Hamlet” of Shakespeare, Ruzan in “Ruzan” of Muratsan, Marguerite Gauthier in “The Lady of the Camellias” by Dumas son, Margarita in “Spouses” of Sundukyan, Medea in “Medea” of Suvorin and Burenin, Kruchinina in “Guilty without Guilt” by A. N. Ostrovsky, Johanna d’Arc in Schiller’s “Maid of Orleans”, and many others.
Siranush possessed exceptional power of impersonation – she hasn’t merely played on stage but fully “lived” and “empathized” with the role. Unfortunately, not a single recording of her performances has reached us so we could judge the talent of this legend of the Armenian theater, even though cinema had already “started up” by the end of the twenties of the last century and had captured the plays of the two aforementioned outstanding actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse.
Today, Siranuish can be judged only by theatrical reviews of that time and the memoirs of contemporaries. She was an actress of a small people who at that time had neither a state nor the means to pass the talent of the great actress on to the future generations with. Siranush passed away on June 10, 1932, in Cairo at the age of 75.