STAGE TUBE: Anita Darian Dies at Age 87

By: Feb. 02, 2015
Anita Darian, a soprano whose four-octave voice earned her the nickname "The Armenian Yma Sumac" and spawned an eclectic 50-year career that ranged from performances with the New York City Opera, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic to big-band jazz concerts, co-starring roles with Barbara Cook, and hit pop recordings that included "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is dead at 87. A longtime resident of East Atlantic Beach, L.I., she died Sunday, Feb. 1 at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside of complications from surgery.
Born Anita Esgandarian in Detroit on April 26, 1927 of Armenian-American descent, she studied opera at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School of Music in New York, but first came to popular attention as a featured singer with the short-lived Sauter-Finegan jazz band of the mid-1950s, with whom she recorded for RCA Victor. She settled in New York City and worked in everything from opera and classical recitals to television jingles and cartoon voice-overs. On Broadway, she was seen as Helen Chao in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song" and as Lady Thiang in both the 1960 City Center revival of "The King and I" with Barbara Cook and Farley Granger and the 1968 City Center production with Constance Towers and Michael Kermoyan. She had previously appeared with Cook in a 1956 live TV broadcast of the Harold Arlen-E.Y. Harburg musical "Bloomer Girl," which was recently restored from a kinescope print and released on DVD by VAI Music. Other stage roles included Maria Corona in the 1965 City Center revival of Gian Carlo Menotti's "The Saint of Bleecker Street". She was featured on several studio-cast album recordings of Broadway musicals and operettas, reprising her role of Lady Thiang for a 1962 version of "The King and I" with Barbara Cook and Theodore Bikel; as Julie in "Show Boat" with Cook and John Raitt; and as Princess Margaret in "The Student Prince" with Jan Peerce, Roberta Peters and Georgio Tozzi, all for Columbia Records. She was also seen in TV adaptations of "The Golden Apple" with Margaret Whiting and the Jule Styne-Leo Robin musical version of "Ruggles of Red Gap" with Michael Redgrave, Peter Lawford and Jane Powell. Her guest appearances included such programs as "The Bell Telephone Hour," "The Jack Paar Show," "Music For a Summer Night," and the British series "The Music Shop".

In 1970, Leonard Bernstein cast her as Leonora in "Fidelio" for his celebration of Beethoven's 150th birthday at Lincoln Center, which was also broadcast on CBS-TV as part of the New York Philharmonic's "Young People's Concert" series. Darian had previously appeared on the program humming a kazoo in the Philharmonic's performance of Mark Bucci's "Concerto For Singing Instrument," which emanated from the stage of Carnegie Hall, conducted by Bernstein

She recorded the Gershwins' musical "Lady Be Good" with Lehman Engel and the Belgium Radio Orchestra, which was broadcast nationally on NPR, and later participated in the recording of John Corigliano's eccentric electric-rock opera "The Naked Carmen," based on the original Bizet opera.

Her solo albums included two classics of "exotica"-"Hawaiian Paradise" for Fidelio Records in 1959 and "East of the Sun," released by Kapp Records in 1960, which was especially praised for her versions of "Miserlou" and "Gomen Nasai".

In 1961, millions of listeners heard her demonstrate her vast vocal range without knowing her name when she provided the swooping theramin-sounding counter-melody behind the tenor lead on the Tokens' No. 1 hit, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight". Two RCA producers, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore, had engaged Juilliard-trained musician and lyricist George David Weiss to fashion a more modern English-language adaptation of the South African folk song "Wimoweh" by Solomon Linda, and he brought Darian in to vocalize before, during and after the saxophone solo, using her eerie descant voice as another instrument. Originally intended as the "B" side of the Tokens single "Tina," it became one of the biggest-selling records of all time.

Her unique soprano was also heard as background on numerous other pop and R&B recordings, including Mickey and Sylvia's No. 1 hit "Love is Strange" and for such diverse artists as Burt Bacharach, Dinah Washington, LaVern Baker, King Curtis, Jane Morgan, Patti Page, Eddie Calvert, and Maxene Andrews of the Andrews Sisters.

Later classical recordings under her own name include Glenn Gould's "So You Want to Write a Fugue" with the Juilliard String Quartet and Ned Rorem's "Four Dialogues For Two Voices and Two Pianos".

She toured the country singing with several major symphonies including The Cleveland Orchestra and The Los Angeles Symphony, and appeared at such venues as The Hollywood Bowl, New Jersey Arts Center and Blossom Festival in Ohio.

Survivors include longtime partner Lynda Wells and a cousin, Varham Fantazian

Check out some of her iconic performances below:

Photo by Lynda Wells (permission granted)