Lili Chookasian

Lili Chookasian

Famous opera singer, contralto
Date of Birth: 01.08.1921
Country: USA

  1. Famous Opera Singer, Contralto
  2. Career
  3. Early Life and Education
  4. Professional Career

Famous Opera Singer, Contralto

Lily Chukasian is a renowned opera singer, widely recognized as a world-class contralto. She was born on August 1, 1921, in Chicago, and hailed from an Armenian immigrant family who moved to the United States shortly after the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Chukasian began her music career in the 1940s as a concert singer but didn't achieve widespread recognition until she started singing opera in her thirties.

Lili Chookasian


Lily Chukasian became one of the leading contraltos in the world during the 1960s and 1970s. Her career was particularly long and successful at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where she performed from 1962 to 1986. Audiences were captivated by her vibrant and focused sound, as well as her exceptional musicality. Chukasian often memorized oratorios, defying traditional performance practices.

Lili Chookasian

Early Life and Education

Lily Chukasian was the youngest of three children in her family. Growing up in a close-knit Armenian household, she first learned Armenian as her parents spoke it at home. She only began learning English when she started school. Chukasian developed an interest in music during her time singing in the local church choir and participating in school performances. Even during her school years, she earned money by performing on radio shows and at various events.

After completing high school, Chukasian pursued vocal studies with Philip Manuel, whom she studied under for over two decades. In 1941, at the age of 20, she married George Gavejian, a close friend of her older brother. Their marriage lasted for more than 46 years until George's death in 1987. They had several children and eleven grandchildren.

Professional Career

Lily Chukasian began her professional concert singing career in the 1940s, primarily in Chicago and occasionally beyond. The highlight of her career came in January 1955 when conductor Bruno Walter chose her to perform as a soloist in Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. During this time, she also pursued studies at Northwestern University.

In 1956, Chukasian was diagnosed with breast cancer and given only six months to live. With the support of her family, she decided to fight the illness and underwent a radical mastectomy, which was complicated by an infection, leading to three additional surgeries. Against all odds, she triumphed over the disease, and her life returned to normal.

Remarkably, Lily Chukasian's opera debut did not occur until 1959 when she performed the role of Adalgisa in Vincenzo Bellini's "Norma" at the Arkansas State Opera. She was recommended for the role by soprano Barbara Stevenson, who sang the title role. Chukasian's debut performance was a resounding success and caused a sensation in the opera world. In 1960, she created her second operatic role as Azucena in Giuseppe Verdi's "Il Trovatore."

In early 1961, Chukasian sang the role of Amelfa Timoferevna in Prokofiev's cantata "Alexander Nevsky" with the New York Philharmonic. Soon after this performance, she was offered a contract with the Metropolitan Opera but declined due to fears of spending too much time away from her family. Instead, she made her European debut as Herodias in Richard Strauss's "Salome," followed by singing Amneris in Verdi's "Aida" in November of the same year.

During the height of her fame, Chukasian discovered a new tumor in her remaining breast. She kept this information to herself, fulfilling her performance commitments in New York, Baltimore, and Europe before seeking medical attention. She underwent another mastectomy and quickly recovered.

On March 9, 1962, Chukasian made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in "La Gioconda" as La Cieca, the blind mother of the main character. Throughout her 24-year career at the Metropolitan Opera, she performed numerous leading roles and even more supporting parts, while also actively touring as a concert artist.

After retiring from the stage in 1986, Lily Chukasian joined the vocal faculty at Yale University's School of Music. She continues to teach at Yale and currently resides in New Haven, Connecticut. In 2002, she was awarded the Sanford Medal by the university.