Research always yields many surprises. While researching Diaspora Armenian film professionals and the history of Armenian presence in China, and contacting the American-born director-actor Edwin Gerard, I found out he is the grandson of the Armenian-Egyptian singer/actress Valentina Amirayan, familiar to me, who turned out to be the wife of another Armenian national media figure who lived in China, Haig Assadourian.
We asked Edwin Gerard to send information about his grandmother — articles, newspaper clippings (some of them with illegible dates of publication, however, whose accuracy is indisputable), and the result was a portrait of Valentina Amirayan, (née Maria Hortensia Ophelia Nedda Arnaud, 1901, Constantinople – 1971, Los Angeles).
Valentina is unique in the history of Armenian Diasporan culture in that only one of her parents was Armenian (from her mother’s side); yet Valentina contributed greatly to promoting Armenian art throughout the world. Her father was Italian, Nicolai Michele Arnaud, of Sardo-Piemontese origin, reportedly born of a noble family. Her mother was a Constantinople Armenian, Akabi Hamamdjian. Valentina and her parents moved to Cairo. The first documentary evidence of her presence in the Egyptian capital is from ca. 1920.
Here Valentina married Stepan Zarmayr Amirayan, a native of Smyrna. They had a daughter, Alida, born in Cairo in 1921.
Valentina was a student of Professor Cantoni, composer and founder of the Musical Lyceum of Cairo. Throughout the 1920s, she participated in numerous concerts performed by his students, featuring works by her teacher along with favorite Armenian works. Still young and musically gifted, she appeared in many theatrical events in the Armenian community of Cairo. She was especially acclaimed in Tigranyan’s opera “Anoush.” As the journalist O. M. (code-named) wrote: “Mrs. Amirayan was the main figure of performance, who shone in her part from beginning to end and was the grace of the opera with her charming singing and beautiful acting. Particularly impressive was Mrs. Amirayan’s song where she was telling on Dervish’s curse” (The staging of “Anoush,” Arev Armenian daily, Cairo, May 29, 1925). The same newspaper also spoke about a performance she gave in Alexandria: “As about the actors, it must be said Mrs. Amirayan’s role brought her much acclaim. Her sweet voice and gentle movements communicated the pain and suffering of poor Anoush” (“The production of Anush in Alexandria, Arev, May 18, 1925).
On August 9, 1925 a great concert was held at the at the “San Stefano” casino. The concert was directed by Maestro Edgardo Bonomi, featuring soloist Valentina Amirayan. Schubert’s Tragic Symphony and Rimsky-Korsakov’s great Russian Easter Overture, were also on the program, along with Amirayan performing solo arias from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” and Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” and selected works by the Armenian composer Komitas.
In 1927, she gave a recital of Armenian, French and Italian songs, including an aria from Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” “It should be noted that starting with the first Mozart aria from ‘Figaro,’ followed by eight or nine other pieces and culminating with P. Ganachian’s Oror, Mrs. Amirayan maintained the same level of freshness and immediacy throughout,” according to “S” in the Cairo Armenian newspaper Lusardzak, December 26, 1927.
In 1930, she performed the role of Gyulchora in Hajibekov’s popular operetta “Arshin Mal Alan.” Here in Cairo, Arax weekly wrote in its June 14 publication: “The performance was a success thanks to Amirayan’s naturally poignant voice, holding the audience at rapt attention till the end. Her rendition of Sirouhis (‘My Sweetheart’) drove the public’s heart into a world of dreams. After the highly talented artist sang A. Aharonian’s The Father’s House, she found herself surrounded by an outburst of endless, thunderous applause…”
The piece continues, “Amirayan, known as the “Nightingale of the Nile,” is an Armenian-Egyptian soprano. The king of Egypt has invited this truly unique personality to be present on stage in his palace theatre. She has also performed in Sudan and won high praise in the English-language press of Khartoum.” These articles have been published in translation by the French media in Cairo.
“The multi-talented singer-actress, who uses the stage name Amy Rayan, was approached by an Egyptian film company to star in “Wonderland Park” and “His Holiness C.” “After a three-month run of these films, contract in hand, our talented compatriot plans to leave for America. We are confident that Mrs. Amirayan’s captivating personality and charming voice will, before long, become known to millions of film fans. Her name will once again bring the glory of our artists to the world, as the names of [American filmmaker] Rouben Mamoulian and [French film actor] Max Maxudian,” according to the “Arax” newspaper article, entitled “Mrs. Valentina Amirayean’s brilliant future.” The actress first went to Paris to attend the French Film artists’ festival and received press attention there. “It was a pleasure to hear the Egyptian singer Amy Rayan’s vast and impressive repertoire. She conveyed the melodious arias with her own sense of authority” (Ciné Comédie newspaper and Eus écouté magazine wrote. “Amy Rayan, a name still unknown in Paris… a young Egyptian, with a wonderful, lyric soprano voice. The ‘Mon Club Association’ of Women revealed her last week. Among other talents, Amy Rayan sings in nine languages. She performs equally well, in Greek, works from the Greek operetta “Haji Apastoloni,” Richard Strauss’s “Serenade” in German, “Musetta’s Waltz” from “La Bohème” in Italian, Joaquin Valverde’s “Clavelitos” in Spanish, and Margaret Monnot’s “Viens dans mes bras,” in ??French. “La Claque” the official Paris Cinema Club, predicted that the artistic “young and beautiful Egyptian Artist Miss Amy Rayan will be the star of the film company in the near future.”
Indeed, Amy Rayan went off to Paris in 1933 to the US where she acted in several films (she played a supporting role of Gypsy in the 1933 film “I Loved a Woman” by Alfred E. Green starring Edward G. Robinson), but did not reach stardom. An Armenian-American writer described her as a middle-aged woman, a gifted lady with “natural, inborn grace.” If Armenians attached the same importance to “social life” that Americans do, they would have described in further detail the honorable lady’s wardrobe and manners. Nevertheless, they admitted that she was of a lovely origin, with a delicate disposition, a sweet and soft-spoken, gifted young lady. Even if she were not willing to reveal her identity, no one would have doubted that she is of Armenian origin.” (The author of the article was certainly unaware that the actress was half Italian).
When Valentina Amirayan returned to Egypt, she was introduced to a businessman, former boxing champion of Egypt, Haig Assadourian (1901, Heliopolis – 1987, Los Angeles). After her divorce, she married the handsome, energetic Assadourian. In 1934, they moved permanently to Shanghai, China. Valentina not only brought along her daughter Alida, but her sister Augusta, along with Augusta’s husband Yervant Hamamdjian, leaving behind her first husband Stepan Amirayan. On one of her trips from Egypt to Shanghai on the Japanese steamer “Harun Maru,” she happened to meet and became acquainted with the famous American film director Cecil B. de Mille, who invited her to try out for the role of Cleopatra in his upcoming production. But Valentina never played Cleopatra. She was waiting for a different life …
Established in Shanghai, her husband Haig Assadourian became one of China’s film and sports magnates. He belonged to the Shanghai “Metropolitan Films” company and co-produced the “Sand Locusts.” He founded and directed Jai Alai stadiums in Shanghai, Tientsin and Manila (Philippines). Assadourian was an important player in the Chinese Armenian community, make generous donations to national institutions. The press, however, is silent on how Valentina occupied herself while in China.
Just prior to the breakout of World War II, and for years to come, China was occupied by the Japanese government. Valentina’s husband Haig was arrested by the Japanese in Manila, Philippines, “for being secretly helping US and allied powers in Europe.” Declared an enemy of Japan, he, Valentina and their daughter Alida were interned in the Santo Tomas Interment Camp from 1942 to 1945. There, Valentina was almost at the point of starving to death in the final year of her imprisonment and was on her deathbed when the camp was liberated by the Americans. After one year, the Americans offered them US citizenship, and the family moved to Los Angeles where she lived until her death at age 70.
Her artistic talents have been inherited by her grandson, actor, director, and playwright Edwin Gerard (née Vartan Hamamdjian, born 1948), who has performed dozens of roles in Los Angeles, Paris, and throughout Europe.