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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 2 October 2007

Robert Savoie, 1927-2007

by Richard Turp / October 3, 2007

Version française...

One had only to hear the voice of Robert Savoie to recognize him. Whether in speech or in song, this voice was a perfect reflection of the man: naturally resonant, richly flavoured, but full of nuance, a smiling voice filled with color, of authority and presence, a voice animated by incredible experiences on stage and in life.

During a training session at Orford where Robert taught one summer, I remember him giving a masterclass with his usual exuberent energy, and without the help of a microphone. A young student who was surprised by the amplitude and the projection of Robert’s voice, was heard whispering: “He doesn’t need a microphone, he’s connected directly to a 220 line!”

Throughout this week, we have read or heard of the many anecdotes about Robert, but allow me to make a brief summary of his brilliant professional career.

A student of the legendary Pauline Donalda and of maestro Antonio Narducci, Robert studied in Montreal and Milan at the same time as other Quebecers including my father André Turp, Joseph Rouleau, Constance Lambert and Guy Lepage. He made his Italian debut under the distinguished name Roberto Savoia before returning to Canada for an impressive series of roles with the Montreal Opera Guild. Like several Quebec opera singers at the time, he took part in many radio and television programs on Radio-Canada, including a filmed version of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in which he played the role of Figaro. This splendid production won many prizes of excellence internationally.

His international career took off when he signed a five-year contract with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1961 where he joined his friends Joseph Rouleau, André Turp and other Canadians such as Louis Quilico, Teresa Stratas and Jon Vickers. He performed over twenty roles at Covent Garden as well as appeared with the Sadler’s Wells Opera (now known as the English National Opera) and the Scottish Opera.

In the rest of Europe, Robert enjoyed the same success. There was hardly a city in France where Robert did not sing - often side by side with his Canadian colleagues Joseph Rouleau (namely in Massenet’s Don Quichotte) and with my father (particularly in Massenet’s Werther).

In North America, Robert made his debut at Carnegie Hall and was invited by many large companies, notably in Washington where he sang the title role in Verdi’s Falstaff which opened the Kennedy Center in 1971.

However, despite his important international career, Robert Savoie refused to turn his back on his country and on his province. In addition to singing at the Stratford and Ottawa festivals, he took on leading roles at the Montreal Festival, the Grand Opéra de Montréal, Expo ’67, the Quebec Opera and the Montreal Opera, and he was in the cast of the North American premier of Gilbert Bécaud’s Opera of Arran. By the end of his career, Robert had a repertoire of ninety-five operatic roles sung in six languages.

Robert Savoie was never a simple “singer.” For him, the voice and vocal technique were not the means to an end in themselves, but the means of expression, of incarnating and making a character come to life. Robert was a true “opera singer,” a man, a performer proud to practice his trade.

Indeed, Robert Savoie was one of the most striking singer-actors of his generation. An under-appreciated musician, he possessed an enviable interpretative ability. Armed with an innate and natural stage presence, he had an uncanny ability to create and sustain an operatic character.

What made his portrayals of Falstaff, Rigoletto, Figaro, Scarpia or Sancho Panza so memorable were precisely their complexity as well as the truth and the conviction with which he injected them.

Offstage, Robert Savoie was a founding member and vice-president of the Mouvement d’action pour l’Art lyrique du Quebec (MALQ) which gave birth to the Montreal Opera.

He was also the artistic director of the City of Lachine between 1976 and 1997. With this title and with his two great collaborators, Mayor Guy Descary and Noël Spinelli, he founded the Concerts Lachine which organized the Lachine Music Festival for the last 33 years. He was the artistic director of the festival for twenty years and I had the privilege of replacing him. He was also one of the founders of the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal and served as its president for almost five years, from 1981 to 1985.

The issue of succession and the future of the vocal arts were of primary importance to Robert. These concerns were not only at the core of his fascinating and touching autobiography, Figaro-ci, Figaro-là, but also fueled the numerous initiatives and projects which he undertook during his life.

He never stopped teaching (even to the very last day) and many young singers and professionals benefited from his advice, his experience and his knowledge for the last thirty years.

Considering his commitment and his devotion (to music), it is hardly surprising that he was bestowed numerous prizes and titles. A Member of the Canadian Opera Hall of Fame, he also received the title of Officer of the Order of Canada and the National Order of Quebec.

But however many achievements and awards I, and others can evoke, the fact remains that Robert Savoie was so much more than the sum of his parts. One could admire and respect the performer, the teacher and the administrator, but it was impossible not to cherish and love the man.

Robert remains for me an immense force of nature. His surprising and considerable physical force was matched to a force of personality and an equally impressive determination.

Like Atlas in Franz Schubert’s song, Robert could carry the weight of the world on his shoulders in moments of crises. We all have had to undergo difficult periods in our lives, but in such circumstances, Robert could summon reserves of energy and unexpected forces to emerge stronger than before.

Bob was above all, true to himself and to his nature. He never sought merely “to please” in a time and in a career where image and political correctness were the general rule. He was as uncompromising in his standards as he was demanding of himself.

Sometimes Robert seemed to be a moving paradox:

A demanding man, of incredible rigour, almost severe, but on the other hand a man of considerable charm and of remarkable warmth and generosity.

A man perfectly at ease discussing hockey with his neighbours, but who was also a man of great depth, of a rare culture, curiosity and intelligence.

A man who needed moments to live with nature and in solitude, but who adored life, a man who could be “the life and soul of the party.”

A man who could be quite candid, with a disconcerting or even crushing frankness. On the other hand, Robert loved his friends and especially the members of his incredible family in an encompassing unconditional way.

Then there was this sense of humour, this laughter which made the walls vibrate.

Robert was a remarkable story-teller. Armed with his pipe, he could make you cry with his tales of his bohemian life in Italy at the beginning of the 1950s, of the card games, the New Year’s Day dinner which cost much more than anticipated. A polyglot, he used his facility with languages to perfectly imitate the mad Marseilles singer or the head of the claque of an Italian opera house.

These are the stories which have fortunately nourished and animated my youth.

This week I thought of the last Lachine Music Festival that Robert oversaw as artistic director. For me, it has always been “Uncle Bob,” my Uncle Bob. But thanks to the Lachine Festival, I realized that everyone already knew and spoke of Bob as a brother or an uncle. In the final analysis, Robert did not belong to me.

He did not belong to me, in the same way that he did not belong to his family, Michele or Aline, Élizabeth or Pierre. Ultimately, he belonged to everyone.

What a beautiful legacy to be able to say that you not only touched so many people with your voice for over twenty-five years, but you also engraved such lasting memories in so many hearts.

Listen for a moment... somewhere Robert is laughing... n

[Translation: Richard Turp and Wah Keung Chan]

Version française...

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