Lia Martirosyan — Music and Laughter

Lia leans on white grand piano with a city night scene background.

Lia Martirosyan

It’s true, in an instant, your life can change; an accident, a ruptured aneurysm, blunt trauma to the head, a cancer diagnosis. With Lia, it’s been slow, temperamental and undiagnosed. Her blasé attitude makes one wonder if she’s just used to her body’s deception. She isn’t, she just knows where her energy is best channeled— through music and laughter.

World-renowned soprano’s Anna Nshanian, Luisa Tetrazzini, Montserrat Caballé, Maria Callas, now here comes Lia. This young diva is travelling, performing and sharing laughter along the way; the next two stages will light up Asia and Europe.

Talented actor, musician and good friend of ABILITY, Max Gail, turns the mic to become the interviewer and witness to Lia’s infectious spirit.

Max Gail: So what’s goin’ on with you?

Lia: Plenty. Music—I have a few dates set up for performances, and in the meantime I’m working on new pieces and potential recordings, mostly classical pieces and arias.

Max: When did you know that you had the facility, appetite and the calling to sing that kind of music?

Lia: My father did a lot of theater and singing, and he’s still quite the entertainer. My mom is a classical pianist, turned nursing professor, and now I’ve trapped her back into playing so she could accompany me, which is wonderful. And my grandmother was a theater and stage performer, grandfather writes poetry. A lot of it runs through my veins.

Max: Wow!

Image-left: Lia wearing head phones and sitting straight in chair sings into microphone. Image-right: Lia in casual leather jacket pulls hair back with a slight smile.
Lia in studio singing in front of a microphone while world-renowned soprano, Anna Nshania, looks on, waiting to join her in song.

Lia: I was on stage quite a bit in my younger years, whether I was singing or theater. A lot of poetry writing. This classical chapter of my singing, began a few years ago, after I—I was on a hiatus from being happy. Then, I met Arman Nshanian, without whom my voice would have no armor. And his grandmother, my maestro, soprano Anna Nshanian, she is my portal to all things classical. I have been, and as long as I can, will be singing. When I’m singing, I don’t recognize what my mouth is producing, it’s euphoric.

Max: So it’s just part of life for you, all of those things that were around you. That’s wonderful.

Lia: I absolutely love and respect creativity, being able to explore various avenues.

Max: With this mysterious set of challenges you’ve been dealing with, have you found that you’ve had to reroute some things? Is the singing actually helpful with that? I sing kind of like a frog. I sing anyway. My twin sister studied voice for a long time, so I’m kind of in awe of what happens when people really create a song and people go, “Oh, wow!” But I am curious what that interaction is, if any.

Performance announcement for Guangzhou, China. Lia leans on white grand piano with a city night scene background.

Lia: Well, I can’t run around the stage anymore. But, physically, what’s been happening hasn’t held me back from exploring music. I think it’s more of what I’ve personally been allowing myself to be exposed to. I would have had challenges period, just a different set of. I think my perfectionist attitude is more of a challenge than anything physically that comes my way.

Max: Uh-huh.

Lia: The reality is when I’m singing, I can’t focus on anything but. It is unusually freeing.

Max: When I hear people sing in ways that if I try to do it when I’m sure nobody’s listening, I end up kind of hurting myself.


But the sense of it is of connecting with anyone who can hear it. It’s soaring in space, in a way.

Lia: That’s a good word to use. You’re definitely connecting and communicating on another level. And people feel it in different ways. If not audibly, through vibrations. My dear friend and comedic hoot, Kathy Buckley, was explaining to me the feeling of music through vibrations and frequencies. Music has a direct connection to your soul.

Max: It seems to me it’s essential. The birds sing, the whales sing. Humans, when someone makes a sound, whether you’re hearing Ray Charles or Liberace or whatever, it’s like you feel that vibration in your own body. I don’t know another word to use, but when I’m touched my music, it’s a healing.

Lia: There’s a lot of studies around music, healing and being able to communicate in ways you might not have the ability to at that moment but once there’s music, things change. We’ve been looking at music and memory. There have been studies with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients and the power of music, tapping into emotion and memory.

Max: Isn’t that amazing?

Lia: It is absolutely amazing.

Max: There are people who are totally withdrawn and someone starts singing to them, and they come alive and will remember lyrics to songs when they can’t remember their name. What I know so far, Lia, what I think so far is, there’s more mystery to what’s going on with you than answers.

Lia: Yes.

Max: And maybe you could bring me up to speed with that, of what actually it is that you’re dealing with in some kind of way that the medical folks have been able to identify.

check this out

Lia: Sure. I’ll go back a few years. Growing up my health was smooth sailing. At about nine and a half years old, I began experiencing weakness in my legs. And unpleasant, excruciating pain in my legs. This was around the time when I was in acting classes preparing head shots, going on auditions and starting my career as becoming a young actress. My goal was to be on the Disney Channel. Oh, how I dreamt of being on Disney.

It was a blast adding this to my awkward teenage years. You never really get used to it, just deal with whatever comes, as it comes.

Max: I would imagine that to have some kind of explanation would be meaningful, even if the next step was back to head-scratching, to have some kind of sense of where it’s—some kind of explanation.

Lia: Perhaps, but I’ve faced my fair share of—doctors haven’t been shy with trying to diagnose me with whatever comes to mind.

Max: Aha! So you’ve had plenty of people come up with their idea of what’s going on?

Lia: I’ve had three or four buckets full of diagnoses. Can’t blame them for trying.

Max: (laughs)

Lia: So, I’ve had some interesting experiences growing up and built quite a tough exterior for myself.

Max: Yeah, for some reason I thought this was all later onset. I didn’t realize that this had been going on for so long.

Lia: It’s dragged on. For now, based on my symptoms, the verbiage we use is motor sensory peripheral neuropathy, which basically means that I have trouble with the movement and feeling of my lower extremities.

Max: Ah!

Lia: We see pieces, but not enough to put the puzzle together.

Max: (laughs) Have you heard of anybody or met anybody who seems to be similar enough to feel like you know might be dealing with the same thing?

Lia: When we we went to the Middle East, a mutual friend introduced us to an aspiring Palestinian model. Prior to going into the restaurant where we were going to meet, I noticed this young lady walking in. Arm in arm, for support, with another person. She had an almost identical gait as me. My initial reaction was, “Oh, hell no!” (laughter) That was a fun memory.

Max: So now you’re getting ready to go to China and sing?

Lia: Yes sir.

Max: That’s really exciting. Have you found an accompanist, got that part of it worked out?

Lia: I have a couple of pieces that I’ll be using recorded accompaniment, courtesy of my mother.

Max: That must have been neat with your mom.

Lia: She’s a woman of many talents.

Max: Very cool.

Lia: It’s quite an experience!

Max: That must be very cool for her, too, for the two of you.

Lia: Sometimes she’ll get lost in my singing and stop playing. (laughter) It’s hilarious. She says, “I’m sorry, I just got so into what you were doing!” I told her she can’t be doing that when we’re onstage. It’s wonderful to be able to share this with her.

Max: I think that is all really nice. What about your poetry? What is your poetry to you?

Lia: I think poetry is a creative combination of words that have come together like never before. I use poetry as a way of getting things out of my mind and onto the piece of paper. Performing them is another exciting art form.

Max: When you say perform them, you mean you recite them? Does music come into that?

Lia: Yes, I do mean reciting. The combination of music and poetry is something I’m working on. My one-woman show will have plenty of this woven into it.

Max: Those two have a natural fit. Things want to come off the page once they’re on the page.

Lia: That’s a nice way to put it.

Max: Even when we speak, there’s music.

Lia: The sposung word.



Max: Yeah (laughs). There’s melody and rhythm and all the things that make music, music. The best songs are where the melody helps to bring out what’s being expressed. That opens up a wonderful big open door.

Can you tell me more about your one-woman show?

check this out

Lia: Almost.


Max: Where are you originally from, Lia?

Lia: Armenia.

Max: Do you still go back there?

Lia: I go back as frequently as I can, but I haven’t been able to for at least two summers. I have a sense of calmness when I’m there.

Max: I didn’t know you were born there. You came here at an early age?

Lia: Yes, I was about three. I sent for my family when I settled in.


Max: Where in the States did you arrive?

Lia: Exactly where I am now, California. It’s known to have the biggest population of Armenians outside of Armenia. That’s where I am.

Black and White Image: Lia looks down wearing polka-dot blouse and fedora hat.Max: I dated an Armenian girl back in Detroit, when I was in college, and I remember going to a family gathering. I’m a Midwestern guy, I kind of thought—it was the first time I ever experienced a whole bunch of people who were checking me out, and I was coming out sort of okay with them, but at the same time, I knew it would be a really big deal to go any further with that relationship. (laughs)

Max: I didn’t know how close everyone was. It opened me up to ways people can be connected as family. I just didn’t have that sensibility. Armenians have had a very particular journey in the last century or so.

Lia: Yes. This year will mark the 100th anniversary since the Armenian genocide that occurred in 1915.

Max: Yeah. It’s amazing.

Lia: Now we have George Clooney and his incredibly intelligent wife, Amal Clooney, who are fighting for human rights and recognition of the genocide. The goal is recognizing and preventing these atrocities from happening.

Max: We have to keep hoping for the best. Before we go, what’s your favorite color?

Lia: Let’s say, periwinkle

Whiskey in a Wine Glass book
Lia Martirosyan’s poetry book

Read more articles from the Max Gail Issue.

A Visit to the Children of Armenia’s SMART Center

Children of Armenia Fund smart center
Children of Armenia Fund smart centerAn unexpected two and a half our drive through the hills and valleys of beautiful Armenia was well worth it when we got to the SMART Center, developed by the Children of Armenia Fund (COAF). The facility is like cold iced-tea on the warmest summer’s day. Architecturally unique to the region and brimming with endless potential, the structure was made to be one with nature, without compromising the natural splendor of the rolling green hills that make up its environment.
The SMART Center provides education, healthcare, and culture to the children of six surrounding villages, and features a library, computer access, and exposure to the arts including dance, music, and theatre, as well as area’s designated for quiet and creativity. Transportation for the children is provided by the Children of Armenia Fund, with young children accompanied by adults as they travel.Children of Armenia Fund smart center lab
“There is a growing drive to promote innovation,” explains Garo H. Armen PhD, Chairman of the Children of Armenia Fund and the figure whose creative vision led to the development of the SMART Center. “Some of the more progressive companies, not just technology companies, biopharmaceutical companies and others, are setting up innovation centers. One of the objectives of setting up an innovation center is to populate them with groups of individuals who are not biased with corporate culture, because even though some of the corporations do wonderful things, they erect or transmit biases that prevent people from thinking freely.”Children of Armenia Fund smart center
“SMART would be a fantastic experiment to see what can be created away from the urban environments and the corporate environments that we are so obsessed with today,” Garo elaborates.
Still in its early stages since launch, the SMART Center is eager to share this world of opportunities. “The question then was, we spent 14 years to reach 45 villages, are we going to spend a hundred years to reach the rest of Armenia? That wasn’t really practical. So we developed this concept of SMART”.Children of Armenia Fund smart center

– Lia Martirosyan, Co-Founder of ABILITY Corps

[Video: Krist Marukyan, Operations Director at COAF SMART Center — click toggle icon on lower right side to enlarge]

Garo H. Armen, PhD

Garo Armen SMART Armenia

Garo Armen SMART Armenia

The Children of Armenia Fund (COAF) first came into my realm of awareness when I saw Tom Hanks in a video on Facebook talking about COAF in support of its upcoming gala. Within months, a myriad of celebrities were cheerfully joining in videos on social media to give a shout-out to COAF. From Nicole Richie, Ariana Grande, John Stamos, Lori Loughlin, to Martin Short and Conan O’Brian who recently broadcast his humorous trip to Armenia exploring the culture, language, and cuisine. Name dropping aside, the campaigning and gala were successful and a wonderful amount of funds were raised for COAF.

A quick read produced the following: COAF is a non-profit focusing on reducing rural poverty, through “education, healthcare, community and economic development”. What began in one village in the country of Armenia has expanded into 45 villages. Its method has been to use a “cluster village model” approach. This sparked my curiosity. Who was behind this operation? What was actually going on in bringing access to a country with such history and birth of globally influential minds, yet so much of its population isolated from information? This may be the right time to mention I was born in Armenia, along with many others, my family and I emigrated to the States fleeing the Soviet Union and seeking opportunity. A new trend has been settling in, a trend in which those with Armenia in their blood have been finding ways to contribute or permanently settle back were their roots were planted. I was pleased to have the opportunity to get to know the individual whose brainchild this is, Dr. Garo H. Armen.

Garo emanates efficiency. The first few minutes of conversation was spent on him gathering the blueprint of our chat. This was so he could provide thorough information in the most effective and easily digestible manner. He is the Chairman and Founder of COAF as well as the Chairman and CEO of Agenus. The company has spent 20 years committed to immuno-oncology, targeting the immune system to fight disease; we’ll dive into more of this in a bit.

check this out


Garo came to the United States when he was 17, he studied chemistry and went on to get his PhD in physical chemistry. With no prior background, chance and exposure led him to the financial market. He found himself leaving research to go to Wall Street, became a specialist in pharmaceutical technologies and subsequently, biotechnology. His career on Wall Street varied from banking to managing money. He then came across technology he felt seemed to address the problem of cancer fundamentally as a complicated disease. When Garo mentions technology he is referring to “individualized cancer vaccine technology because cancers are individually distinct from person to person”. This got him interested enough to start Antigenics, now known as Agenus.

The idea of COAF came about on Garo’s visit to Armenia where he recognized a need. In rural Armenia, access to information or technology has been quite difficult to say the least. He explains, “At this time the objective of COAF is to empower children, the youth, and the overall population so that they can take charge of their own future. That’s the primary objective. We do this by a wide range of programs, from education to healthcare to social structure.”


At a time when intervention was limited, and chemotherapy was nonexistent, Garo’s mother had lived through and died of cancer at the age of 47. He feels even when chemotherapy was introduced it “was not really a fundamental way of addressing cancer”. When he came across this technology in 1993, a technology he felt strongly enough could turn out to be a solution, he pursued it. After 24 years he thinks we are on the path to solving cancer, “I’m not referring to inadequate treatments, but cures”.


During Garo’s first visit to a local school in a village, he was shown how treatment would work. He felt the situation was painful and unsafe to continue this way. “At that time I thought that if we simply addressed the school issue we would solve it, bit by bit we discovered that things weren’t that simple.” After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of Armenia, there was a palpable deterioration in the education system. Garo saw a dire need for repair “not just physical construction but also reteaching teachers how to teach, administrators how to run a proper school, empowering young children and students, how to learn. Because they were going down the wrong path.” He felt COAF’s approach was holistic and addressed issues fundamentally.

Garo and his team quickly discovered major problems with the healthcare system. “We had to do the same all over in healthcare, first the physical infrastructure and then training nurses and doctors how to treat patients, to teach parents and children how to conduct healthy lifestyles”. Garo stresses importance of not going into these villages dictating how things should be done rather, collaboratively learning what the community feels its issues are and actively participating in the process.

Soon, trust between the villagers and COAF began to grow. The organization then began experiencing other issues in need of addressing: social, psychological, discrimination against children with disabilities. This is when they began developing customized programs, including specialists. Word spread to other villages, Garo explains, “We’re now at about 45 villages. It became clear to us that the rest of the Armenian landscape, some 900 villages in total, needed help. The question then was, we spent 14 years to reach 45 villages, are we going to spend a hundred years to reach the rest of Armenia? That wasn’t really practical. So we developed this concept of SMART”.


COAF’s first SMART center has been built in northern Armenia, a 20-acre campus in Lori. “SMART is an experimental model to see if we can have a multiplying effect much faster than doing village by village” explains Garo. Strategically located in a major throughway, the objective is to use modern communications technology and high-speed Internet to access the larger part of the global population and make connections otherwise impossible. This is also an opportunity for locals to exchange their knowledge, including unbiased free-thinking ideas. For instance, Garo expresses, that “There is a growing drive to promote innovation. Some of the more progressive companies, not just technology companies, biopharmaceutical companies and others, are setting up innovation centers. One of the objectives of setting up an innovation center is to populate them with groups of individuals who are not biased with corporate culture, because even though some of the corporations do wonderful things, they erect or transmit biases that prevent people from thinking freely”. Garo sees the value of the exchange of information, knowledge, and skills thinks that’s why, “SMART would be a fantastic experiment to see what can be created away from the urban environments and the corporate environments that we are so obsessed with today”.

With a staff of over 190 professionals working with COAF in a number of villages and 20 newly on board just for SMART, their numbers in various fields are growing. Garo emphasizes the organization being highly integrated with centers of excellence in education, healthcare, psychosocial and economic development.

check this out


How do you overcome biases and prejudices associated with disabilities? Garo feels education is critical. “When you educate young people about these issues, the outcomes are fantastic, because what we see is initiatives by them that maybe even Western programs haven’t thought about on how to overcome these biases and issues and help these children who have disabilities. Some of them are physical handicaps; others are non-physical. What you see is an ecosystem developing where they become a part of a family.” Garo notices a more harmonious society when these prejudices are dealt with. He does not claim to be able to deal with this in every single household but does think the equilibrium is tilting in our favor. When good outcomes are seen, others emulate them, and he sees this behavior occurring.

Garo Armen SMART Armenia
Dr. Garo Armen with children from COAF


I was curious to know about the types of cancer showing most reaction to the immunotherapy. Garo explains cancer is an individualized disease, every person’s cancer is unique, down to its DNA: the mutations driving each person’s cancer are specific generally to that person. This is what led him to the decision he made in 1993, “The only way you could successfully battle cancer, the only way, was through the immune system, because the immune system has a phenomenal ability of being able to direct the armies of the individual’s immune cells to specific cancers, specific infections, and so on”. He admits to being a bit naïve when they began this journey, and the science wasn’t as developed at the time. “Twenty-four years later, we know a lot about the science, the biology of the disease and the immune system. We know today, for example, the most effective immunological means of targeting and destroying cancer is with the right combinations of agents. Those combinations will vary from cancer to cancer, from individual to individual. They’ll vary.” Garo mentions the focus of differentiating treatments from cures. “A lot of treatments were approved in the U.S. as treatments on the basis of slowing down the progression of cancer, sometimes by as little as a 14-day survival benefit. And nobody bothered to ask about the quality of life of the patient in those last 14 days.” He says because of immunological treatments, cures are possible. For example, Stage IV metastatic melanoma, “50% of melanoma is essentially cured today”. Garo expects tremendous progress being made every year at Agenus in curing previously incurable cancer patients.

Dr. Garo Armen travels to Armenia at least six times a year, and he has seen the outcome of being hands on, trusted, and the respect needed in order to use his information and resources to enhance the quality of life of a community. With COAF and Agenus, he continues to use his personal experiences, privileges, and acquired knowledge to share with those that may benefit.

by Lia Martirosyan