Virginia Babikian: “Opera Singer – Educator”

Looking Back At Women’s History in Everett

Editor’s Note: The following is the first in a month-long series about noteworthy women in Everett, taken from vignettes written by former City Clerk Michael Matarazzo in his book ‘They Came from Everett.’ The histories of many women of Everett are stunning, with women playing a role in so many early parts of the formation of the country.

When 26-year old Aaron (Aharan) Babikian arrived in the United States from Armenia in 1915, he was ready to dive head first in the American experience. Aaron got a job as a bellboy at the Somerset Hotel and within three years was speaking and writing English. On his 1918 draft registration, he wrote that he was “ready and willing to fight for Uncle Sam.” Aaron never got the opportunity to take up arms in defense of the nation as he was assigned to the 73rd Infantry of the 12th Division that was organized in July of 1918. By the time it was ready for action, the Armistice had been signed. Aaron became a U.S. citizen in 1918 while serving in the US Army.

The Babikians lived on Pleasantview Avenue, and when at 33 years of age, Aaron met and married 21-year-old Ella Clark of Central Avenue, they originally moved in to the Babikian family home. However, when Aaron died in 1937 at the age of 48, the 36-year-old Ella and the Babikian children; 14-year-old Eleanor and 12-year-old Virginia moved in with Ella’s widowed mother on Central Avenue.

Music played a big part in the girls’ lives. After graduating from Everett High School, Eleanor studied music and became a beloved music teacher in various Massachusetts public schools. After Virginia graduated from Everett High, she attended the renowned Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, where she earned both her bachelor’s degree in Voice and Cello (1951) and master’s degree in Choral Conducting (1952).

After graduation from Westminster, she headed to Houston to serve as the first Minister of Music at the River Oaks Baptist Church. While serving in that capacity, she took advantage of the opportunity to further her study of the cello under Alfred Urbach, the principal cellist of the Houston Symphony and founder of the Houston Symphony Chorale. Urbach, though impressed with Virginia as a cellist, was more taken by the beautiful soprano voice that she possessed.  Urbach encouraged Virginia to audition for Leopold Stokowski, one of the leading conductors of the early and mid-20th Century who was at the time Music Director for the Houston Symphony. Stokowski was also impressed with Virginia’s voice, and in 1956, he chose Babikian to make her professional debut as the soprano soloist for the Texas premiere of German composer Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Virginia’s successful performance earned her notice and Stokowski cast her once again in the American premiere of Orff’s The Triumph of Aphorodite. Stokowski was so appreciative of Virginia’s dedication and so confident in her talent that he recommended her for a Fulbright scholarship for intensive advanced vocal training with the Rome Opera.

Her stay in Europe led to concert tours of Italy and Spain and in 1957, she made her operatic debut in at the Teatro Lirico Speriment- ale in Spoleto, Italy. Critics were unanimous in praising the wide-range of vocal resources in her possession and her sensitivity to the lyrics and message that her voice was portraying.

Meanwhile, Stokowski was planning a revival of Carmina Burana and had secured a contract with Capitol Records for a recording of the performance. He immediately invited Virginia back to Houston to perform in the events. The recording greatly expanded Virginia’s audience and resulted in a boost in her career and opportunities.

After being honored by the New York Madrigal Society with their Town Hall Award and debuting there in 1958, Virginia decided to make New York City her base of operations. For the next six years, she would travel and perform throughout the United States, Europe, South America, Central America and East Asia, singing with world-renowned orchestras, opera companies and legendary conductors such as Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, and Hermann Scherchen. Conductors love to work with Virginia for she was known as a “conductor’s soprano” because her musical knowledge made it easy for conductors to effectively relay their creative visions to her.

By 1964, Virginia, now almost 40 years old, was seeking a more stable life. She met and married George Stein and moved to his hometown of Seguin, Texas. Her new hometown embraced Virginia’s fame and was very proud that she lived in Sequin, abeit only for a short time. Virginia continued to perform, but in 1965 she became artist-in-residence and associate professor at Houston Baptist University. After a year of enduring a two and half hour commute each way, her family moved to Houston, where she remained for the next 27 years. She continued to teach at HBU until 1982 while occasionally performing both locally and internationally. In 1982, she joined the faculty at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and was appointed chair of the voice instruction department and professor of voice.

Despite being known throughout the opera world, Virginia’s legacy in Houston is her contribution to choral music and her everlasting effect on raising the Houston Symphony Chorale to previously unreachable heights. She served as assistant conductor and vocal coach of the Houston Symphony Chorale. In 1977, she took over the reigns as the chorale’s director and over the next nine years, she vastly improved the chorale’s vocal standards and brought the group to a new level of respect and admiration within its genre. Virginia was able to impart to her pupils her vast knowledge of the human voice and music with patience and clarity. Many vocalists credit her with encouraging their careers and now pass on her techniques and love of music to new generations.

In 1987, Virginia Babikian retired to spend more time with her husband. George died in 1991 and in 1997 at age 72 Virginia joined him after a long battle with cancer.

The voice that echoed from Everett to around the world was now silent.

Westminster Choir College – 1952

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