By Ellen Freilich
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Lili Chookasian, a renowned contralto who sang at the Metropolitan Opera for more than two decades and taught at the Yale School of Music, has died at her home in Connecticut. She was 90.
Chookasian, who died on Tuesday, enjoyed a long career that included 290 performances with The Metropolitan Opera from 1962 through 1986, and she appeared with many of the world's major conductors, symphony orchestras, opera and recording companies.
Her debut with the Met in 1962's "La Gioconda" earned a strong review in Musical America by John Ardoin who called her voice "as beautiful as it is big" and her musical intelligence "just as impressive."
Writing in Opera News after the singer's death, Brian Kellow noted Chookasian was a woman of small stature. "But the sound that emerged from that body was enormous - dark, with a power and cut that were exhilarating and, when she sang Menotti's 'The Medium' or Ulrica in 'Un Ballo in Maschera,' quite terrifying."
She specialized in the concert contralto repertoire: Mahler's Second Symphony, Das Lied von der Erde and Kindertotenlieder; Verdi's Requiem; Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky.
After retiring from the stage in 1986, Chookasian joined the voice faculty of the Yale School of Music in 1985. In 2002, she was awarded the Sanford Medal, the school's highest honor. She was named Professor Emerita in 2010.
"Lili was a source of joy and inspiration to all of us and to countless generations of students," Robert Blocker, Dean of the Yale School of Music, said in a posting on the school's website. "Her life exemplified extraordinary gifts of love, compassion, and grace for her family, friends and colleagues. We were enlarged by her presence, and we celebrate the gifts she freely gave to each of us and to our School."
Chookasian was born in Chicago, on August 1, 1921 and began her career in the 1940s as a featured soloist on the Popular Hymns of All Churches radio program. She came to prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960's when her concert, oratorio, and recital performances drew critical acclaim.
In 1960, she was offered a contract with the Metropolitan Opera but turned it down, citing family considerations and her desire to be at home with her children in Chicago. She was approached again in late 1961 and accepted.
Chookasian, who was married for 45 years to the late George Gavejian, is survived by three children, eleven grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.
(Reporting By Ellen Freilich)