Berj Fazlian: Setting the Stage for Legends

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In 1959, Berj Fazlian married painter Sirvart Gregorian. Their son is well-known conductor Harout Fazlian. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Kamel Jaber

Published Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Armenian director and actor provided Lebanon with some of its most memorable musical and theatrical productions over the course of six decades.

His broken Arabic may have barely changed since he arrived in Lebanon in the early 1950s from Turkey. The young Armenian came to Beirut armed with a fresh academic degree in theater, and found what he was seeking. He met a group of like-minded young Lebanese, and began a long partnership with the Rahbani brothers.

Berj Fazlian was born in Istanbul in 1926. His father, Hayg Fazlian, was a theater-loving merchant and opponent of the Turkish regime. He sent his son to study at a special theater academy where he was taught by the renowned Carl Ebert, who was in the city to escape Nazi persecution in his native Germany. After graduating as a theater director four years later, Fazlian continued his studies with the founder of modern Turkish theater, Muhsin Ertugrul – a student of Constantin Stanislavski.

Fazlian's directorial debut was a production of Moliere's The Miser. But he yearned for greater freedom. That is what took him to Lebanon in 1951. His production of The Miser in Beirut two years later earned him instant recognition. He became well-know in Armenian circles and was invited by Syrian Armenians to stage the play in Syria.

In the Lebanese capital, Fazlian befriended directors and actors like Sharif Khazendar and Jalal Khouri, and through them got to know Munir Abu-Dibs, Antoine and Latifa Multaqa, and Raymond Jbara. Fazlian became a core member of a group that was dedicated to seeking a universal form of theater.

In 1959, he married painter Sirvart Gregorian. Their son is well-known conductor Harout Fazlian.

Shorty afterward, Fazlian came up with the idea of producing Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors in Arabic. Ounsi el-Hajj excelled in translating the text into a dynamic language, while Fazlian directed. The play was staged at the Rachana Festival in 1963, receiving widespread press and audience acclaim. "That was the start of my relationship with the Lebanese and Arab audience," he said.

Hajj introduced Fazlian to Assi and Mansour Rahbani when the brothers were looking for a director for their play The Ring Seller which was being presented as part of the Cedars Festival in 1964.

"I went with the director Sabri Sharif to the Cedars, where the play was supposed to be staged outdoors," he recalled. He asked his friend what time the sun would set, and he was told 6pm. “I decided that this is the time when Fairouz will start singing, with the scarlet sunset behind her." Two months later, the plan worked, and the audience was enraptured.

The musical ran for three days before moving to the Piccadilly Theater in Hamra. "After this, I directed most of the Rahbani brothers' works until the eruption of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975," Fazlian said. He collaborated with them on hit shows including Hala and the King (1967), The Person (1968), Long Live, Long Live, (1974) Lulu (1974), and Mays al-Reem (1975).

In addition to Rahbani Brothers musicals, Fazlian left his mark on other notable productions in the pre-civil war golden age of modern Lebanese theater. These included Mahogany (1969), written by Issam Mahfouz and starring Nabih Abul-Hosn, Raymond Jbara, and Philippe Aqiqi, and On Thin Ice, adapted by Jbara and starring Hassan Alaa-eddine (better known as Shoushou).

On Thin Ice’s opening night was on 28 September 1970 – an evening that Fazlian recalls clearly. "I was with Shoushou backstage while Ferial Karim was performing on stage. Suddenly, the audience started leaving. I thought we’d failed," he said.

"A little while later, Mazen Alaa-eddine, Shoushou's brother, came backstage and shouted, 'Pull down the curtain! President Gamal Abdel Nasser has died,’" Fazlian added.

Stage direction was not Fazlian's only artistic endeavor. He also acted in several Armenian and Egyptian productions, in addition to Rahbani films, such as playing the Turkish officer in The Exile (1967) and the mechanic in The Guard's Daughter (1971).

Armenian director Gary Garabatian gave him the role of an Israeli officer in the film We Are All Commandos (1969), written by Antoine Ghandour. The project ended in tragedy, when Garabatian and seven others were killed in a fire while shooting the final scenes.

Fazlian was not there. He had gone home after completing his scenes. "They were supposed to shoot the scene of the destruction of one of the Israeli quarters, but the lamps or something set the underground studio on fire," he said, adding, "Garabatian died while he was trying to rescue the actors."

He recalls that Israel radio reported the incident the next day in its English-language news bulletin. The announcer said that "the directors were killed in the fire, while the Israeli officer escaped unharmed."

Loving Lebanon

Talking about his relationship with the Rahbani brothers, Fazlian says he was especially close to Assi. While preparing for Guardian of the Keys, Assi confided in him that "he sensed he will enter a dark tunnel. Two months later, he had a severe brain hemorrhage, and it turned out he had cancer. No one was allowed to see him except me," he remembered with tears welling up in his eyes.

He pauses before discussing his special bond with Fairouz and how the diva used to repeatedly tell interviewers that she will never forget the first lesson that Berj Fazlian taught her “to sing for one person as if signing for everyone."

After the civil war in 1975, Fazlian left his home in the Zarif neighborhood of Beirut and emigrated to Canada, where he remained for 20 years.

After returning to Lebanon, he put together his play Gibran Khalil Gibran (1996) by Gabriel Bustani and The Hanged Man (1999) by Canadian writer Robert Gurik, whom he met in Canada.

He also tried to persuade the Ministry of Culture to build a museum or permanent exhibition of Lebanese theater. He suggested it could display excerpts from their work, and items such as props, posters, costumes, sets, and newspaper clippings. Fairouz offered to donate the first dress she ever wore on stage. "But promises by official parties remained ink on paper," he remarked.

One of the outstanding pioneers of Lebanese theater, with over 160 works to his credit, laments the state of art today. "People nowadays applaud chaos and yelling," he complained.

Despite all his love of Lebanon and contributions to its culture, Fazlian has not been granted Lebanese citizenship. Yet he loves the wide margin of freedom, and the artistic and human scope the country provides, "despite all the wars it has witnessed."

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

Hi where is berj fazlian now his wife was my preschool teacher in canadaG

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