The Illuminator
An Opera (2015)
based on the life of St. Gregory of Armenia
by Ron Hannah, libretto by Andrea Mellis

Duration: Aproximately 1 hour

     I have seen too many movies. While visiting Armenia in 2013, to work with the children at the Anahit Tsitsikian Music School, Andrea and I learned of the legend of Saint Gregory "The Illuminator". It was told to us during a trip by car to an historic site. Amid the noise of traffic, I thought I heard him being called "Gregory the Eliminator". You see? Too many movies!

"The Illuminator" was premièred in Yerevan,
Armenia, on April 3, 2017.

The part of Gregory was sung by Andranik Malkhasyan,
and the State Chamber Orchestra of Armenia
was conducted by Harutyun Arzoumanyan

Video by HD Studio, Yerevan


  positive, I think!
     He was not a Hollywood figure at all, rather he is responsible for the conversion of the king, and thus the nation, to Christianity in the year 301. Legends about him abound, some quite bizarre. Historically he was imprisoned in a hole in the ground for life after offending the king by refusing to participate in a pagan ritual. Finally after persuasion from his sister, and after several painful bouts of royal madness, the king released Gregory. His sister had had a dream that if Gregory were released the madness would cease - and so it happened - after 13 years. For a more detailed account of both the history and the legend, visit
The Online Encyclopedia or The Catholic Encyclopedia. Gregory is regarded by many as a hero, but he also has his detractors. It seems that when he finally had the ear of the king, he launched an attack on the old pagan system, persecuting and killing practitioners, and destroying temples. Our opera concentrates, however, on the ability of one man to survive for years, stuck in such a terrible situation. I don't think I would have lasted that long. And, judging from the enthusiastic reaction of the audience at the première performance, I would say that Andrea and I got it right!

     Our visit to Armenia was at the invitation of Noune Shamakhian, daughter of the famous violinist, Anahit Tsitsikian. Here is a link to Anahit playing a passionate song about the crane. Noune took us around her lovely country and told us a lot of its history, including the story of Gregory. All of this produced many new sensations in us: a feeling of the great antiquity of this area coupled with a realization of our nearly complete ignorance of its rich history. Our Western educational system has certainly failed us in this regard. Another impression was that of the beauty and immense talent of the Armenian people, and their ongoing anguish following the terrible events that happened a century ago. Was there something we might do, something positive, to help lift the spirits of these people? Why not a theatre piece (since we are respectively a composer and a singer/director)? The enthusiastic and talented children at the music school of which Noune was director at the time, and others whom we met, finally brought about the idea of using young people to tell the story of Gregory in his dungeon, and his final glorious release. It was our intention to give some of those children a role in our production, and the score is gratefully dedicated to Ms. Shamakhian.

     Andrea has worked with children in theatre before (see her impressive website and CV here), directing works such as Britten's Noyes Fludde (Noah's Flood), a piece for children's chorus, orchestra, and only a couple of adult singers. We would do the same, and so she sat down to write a charming libretto about Gregory and this thoughts and visions while he was imprisoned. Gregory is to be an adult, as is the old widow (whom we have called Anahit) who has brought him food and water over the years. The rest are to be children and young adults, who play the part of birds, of insects, of the three angels who watch over him and send him sustaining visions, and of himself as a young man remembering his first love amongst the youthful apricot pickers. Even the king and his sister are to be played by young people.

     Overture & Scene 1: Three angels express their sympathy for
Singers are always looking for works
by contemporary composers to perform on auditions and recitals.
This opera has a couple of arias that might serve that purpose...
click on the titles below

(Scene 1)

(Scene 2)

For still more, please visit my Auditions page...
Lots of stuff there!
Gregory, while he himself laments his painful situation. The angels ask God if they may help him by sending him visions: "A glimpse of light, a memory to smile at, a memory to frown at, a memory of love..." God says "Yes", but they may only call upon things native to Armenia.

     Scene 2: The cantankerous widow Anahit climbs the hill to bring Gregory food and water. She sings, "All day, every day... all right! Once a week..." She complains about having to mill the flour, bake the bread, and all the rest, and all she gets in return is his blessing. Blessing! What can she do with a blessing? The angels grow tired of her complaining and turn her voice into the squawking of a crane.

Gregory with the cranes
     Scene 3: Then they send Gregory a vision of cranes (the national bird of Armenia). The children dance an angular, long-legged crane dance and Gregory and Anahit sing the nostalgic song of the Crane. Gregory is amazed and delighted by their arrival, but falls into despair when the birds fly away. He collapses, wanting to see the sky once more. The angels' first attempt to cheer him up has failed. Dismayed, they send him a vision from his youth.

     Scene 4: Gregory's childhood nurse scolds him on his bad behaviour, and his teacher wants to know how he is progressing with his lessons. "Er... haven't either of you noticed that I am dwelling in a hole?" asks Gregory, as the teacher and nurse start to argue over who has the greater responsibility for him. "This is not going well", says one of the angels.

     Scene 5: An atonal fugue announces the arrival of the insects. Gregory complains to God about the eternal torment these creatures give him, and children in elaborate insect costumes appear. By the magic of the angels, they turn into a friendly presence as they invite Gregory to dance with them.

     Scene 6: The dance is interrupted by the arrival of the Loti, a peculiar creature, recently discovered. It is neither snake nor lizard but at some point will become one or the other. The insects laugh at the solitary and frightened Loti, and Gregory comforts it with a lullaby.*

     Scene 7: The king's madness is signalled by drumming (we heard some great drumming in Armenia!). Gregory reflects that the king is going mad in the light while he himself goes mad in the darkness, and he and Anahit sing a sad duet about the pomegranate - another powerful Armenian symbol. The angels are getting worried, and they try once more.

     Scene 8: A chorus of apricot pickers appears, including Gregory himself as a youth (played by a young singer) who sings with his first love: "Taking a kiss from your apricot lips, I'll taste gold from the forests of gold." Gregory thanks God for this memory of love, for the beauty of the world, and for the new hope in his heart. At last the angels' efforts have paid off. Anahit appears again, excitedly and incoherently explaining that the king's madness has left him and that Gregory is to be released.

     Scene 9: The scene shifts to the palace and the king's sister calming the drumming with her vocalise. Then gradually Gregory is brought up out of the hole, where he recites a poem by Komitas, a beloved Armenian poet, and all ends in a great fugal Amen.

     I have employed several Armenian folksongs in the opera. The Overture opens with fragments from a song called "Krunk", or "Crane" (see the link above), which is then presented fully in Scene 3. When the angels sing in Scene 1 of using only things found in Armenia to comfort Gregory, I quote a song called "Kilikia". This is a lovely patriotic song, and btw also the name of Armenia's most famous brand of beer. The Lullaby that Gregory and the Loti sing in Scene 6 is in reality a lullaby called "Ruri Ruri"*, and the song of the apricot pickers in Scene 8 is a real Armenian harvest song. At the second performance, in Gyumri, Armenia, the lady sitting in front of me was enjoying her 2 children singing along with it (as was I!)

     The libretto is in English, since we do not know Armenian, although a translation has recently been made. When we inquired into doing the opera in English, we were told that that would be fine, and that it might encourage people to learn the language. So be it, but part of me still thinks an Armenian composer should have written the music, however good mine is :)

     The full score and vocal score (piano reduction) are available through the Canadian Music Centre, or by contacting me (see below). For orchestral parts, please send me an email. We are grateful to HD Studio in Yerevan, for their production of a fine video on short notice, and pleased to see a write-up of our work in a recent edition of Opera Canada Magazine (Vol. LVII, #4).

* "Ruri, Ruri" now also exists in vocal quartet and SATB choral arrangements. The former won the Uncommon Music Festival 2019 (Sitka, Alaska) Composition Competition,
and has now been published by Performer's Edition!