Houston is filled with surprises for baritone Rameen Chaharbaghi.
The Iranian-American singer half-expected cowboys and tumbleweeds when he moved here in 2013.
“I thought I would get my master’s at the University of Houston, then return to Maryland or go somewhere else,” he says. “I had these silly stereotypes of Texas in my head, but that’s not at all what I found. I love how diverse, big, and sprawling the city is, and how there is a lot of opportunity for working in the arts.”
Chaharbaghi also found love, in the person of Houston Grand Opera Chorus member Nathan Abbott. “I have a fantastic boyfriend and an equally fantastic puppy dog. We’ve been together two years, and living together for a year in the Heights.”
Chaharbaghi’s first performance with the Houston Chamber Choir, in June 2017, featured the complete choral works of Maurice Duruflé. The recording of the performance, made in the reverberant organ concert hall at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, will be released by the prestigious Signum Classics label next April.
“I had these silly stereotypes of Texas in my head, but that’s not at all what I found. I love how diverse, big, and sprawling the city is, and how there is a lot of opportunity for working in the arts.”
“I’m really excited because my family, who lives so far away, will be able to hear it and still be a part of what I am doing in Houston,” he says. “It is such a great opportunity, because the Signum Classics label is so high-profile” in the world of operatic music.
The singer and arts entrepreneur was born March 20, 1988, in Laurel, Maryland, near Baltimore. His parents’ courtship is worth mentioning.
“My father emigrated from Iran in the 1970s, and they got married right around the time of the hostage crisis,” Chaharbaghi says. “My mother came from a good, old Roman Catholic family in Baltimore, and she had dated one or two guys but didn’t like the way they treated her mom. She and her mom happened to be eating out in Louisiana and my father was their server. My mother was so impressed with how my dad treated her mom that she left her phone number on the ticket. They became pen pals.”
Continuing the story, Chaharbaghi explains, “Unfortunately, my dad had to briefly go back to Iran,” where he got stuck during the diplomatic standoff that followed a group of Iranian students storming the U.S. embassy in 1979. “My mom wrote to senator Barbara Mikulski, who was able to get my dad back on a fiancée affidavit.”
Chaharbaghi’s mother marched with him as part of the PFLAG group in Baltimore’s 2016 Pride parade.
Even though he grew up in a decidedly blue state, Chaharbaghi says he endured some gay-bashing that included “a rabbit punch in the locker room.” But mostly he endured verbal insults such as being called a faggot and being stereotyped with insults like “Oh, you’re gay—would you go shopping with me? I need help decorating,” he says.
After the 9/11 terror attacks, Chaharbaghi was deluged with questions about Islam.
“For a while, I considered myself a Muslim. I feel the Koran is a beautiful text, but I now identify as agnostic,” he says. (His boyfriend is an atheist.) “I believe it’s everyone’s right to believe what they believe, and I am happy to help them celebrate, especially through the power of music. The Chamber Choir’s annual Christmas concerts are probably my favorite concerts of the year.” Those choir concerts have become a Houston holiday tradition that combine beloved carols with classical Christmas works.
This year’s performances, entitled The Wondrous Gift Is Given: Christmas at the Villa, are set for December 7–9 at the Chapel of the Villa de Matel, 6510 Lawndale at Wayside.
“It is a beautiful sanctuary and a great space to enjoy the atmosphere of the season,” Chaharbaghi says. “It is all about bringing people together.”
Chaharbaghi and Abbott are founding members (and co-managing divos) of Opera on Tap (operaontap.org), which “sends opera into bars,” Chaharbaghi says. It’s the Houston chapter of a new national network of opera artists whose community outreach is “local, grassroots, and very fun.”
“Where do we perform? Anywhere people will let us. But not really so much in concert halls and opera houses,” the website explains.
The Houston chapter’s debut performance was October 27 at Bohemeo’s on Telephone Road, followed by a November 23 stint at Notsuoh’s on Main Street.
Chaharbaghi, who began taking voice lessons at age 14, studied piano along with voice in college, graduating in 2015 with a master’s degree in vocal performance and pedagogy from the University of Houston. He currently teaches private voice lessons and prepares high-school students for vocal competitions.
This article appears in the December 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.