The three Abelian brothers, originally from Shamakha (current Azerbaijan), became noteworthy personalities in different aspects of Armenian culture and history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The elder brother, Nerses (1855-1933), an engineer by trade, was among the students who founded the Union of Patriots (1882) in Moscow, one of the first Armenian political groups in the Russian Empire. The middle brother, Alexander (1858-1940), was a prolific playwright, and the younger one, Hovhannes, turned to be one of the stars of Armenian theater for more than fifty years.
Hovhannes Abelian was born in 1865 in Shamakha. After the violent earthquake of 1872, most of the Armenian population of the city started to move to Baku, which was coincidental to the development of this city as a world-known oil center. The young Hovhannes gave his first steps on the stage in 1882, in a Russian group. He moved to Tiflis (Tbilisi), the main Armenian cultural center of the Caucasus, in 1886 and entered the playgroup of the Armenian Dramatic Club. He lived and played between Tiflis and Baku for the next two decades, and became an unsurpassed interpreter of the works of famous playwright Shirvanzade (Alexander Movsisian, 1858-1935), who incidentally was his cousin. He played some 300 roles in his long career, including plays by Gabriel Sundukian, Levon Shant, and Hagop Baronian, but also works by Russian and European playwrights, from Nikolai Gogol to William Shakespeare.
In 1908 Abelian joined forces with another famous Armenian actor, Armen Armenian (1871-1965), brother of theater director and playwright Kaspar Ipekian (the founder of the Hamazkayin theater group in Lebanon, 1883-1952). The Abelian-Armenian Theater Group, with several very important names in the cast, started a three-year long tour of Armenian cities and communities in Eastern Armenia, the Caucasus, Western Armenia, Iran, and Turkey. In 1909 it went to Constantinople and another famous actor, Hovhannes Zarifian (1879-1936), joined them. After several performances in the Ottoman capital, following the cultural revival brought by the restoration of the Ottoman Constitution in 1908, the Abelian-Armenian-Zarifian Theater Group divided into three branches, which performed in Smyrna (Izmir), Anatolia, and the third one, led by Abelian and Zarifian, in Izmit, Bardizag, Adapazar, Eskishehir, and Rodosto (Tekirdag). They ended their run in 1911, with performances in Baku, Nor Nakhichevan, and Moscow.
During the 1910s, Abelian—who was equally qualified to play in Armenian and Russian productions—continued his professional activities and performed in the Caucasus, but also in Moscow and Petersburg, as well as Iran and Central Asia. He left the Caucasus in September 1920 and moved abroad with his family. For the next three years, he performed in Constantinople, Smyrna, Cairo, Alexandria, Berlin, (where he played “Othello” with a German group, performing his signature role of Othello in Armenian), Paris, Brussels, and London. He arrived in the United States in 1923 and performed in many communities on the East Coast and the Midwest (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago) for the next two years.
However, Abelian’s aim was not to stay abroad. In 1925 he accepted an invitation of the government of Soviet Armenia and settled in Yerevan. He was conferred with the title of Popular Artist of the Republic in 1925 and entered the First Theater (now the Sundukian Theater). He would continue to play with the same enthusiasm and talent of his younger years until his death on the stage, in Yerevan, at the age of 71. The dramatic theater of Vanadzor, the third city of Armenia, bears his name.