Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 3 November 2007

Michel Beaulac: A Passion for Opera

Par/by Wah Keung Chan / November 18, 2007

Hearing Michel Beaulac speak, you feel the heart of an artist. The Montreal Opera’s new artistic director is sitting across the table talking passionately about the art-form he’s known since age 3, when Raoul Jobin gave Beaulac’s father his new recording of Bizet’s Carmen. Now at age 61, Beaulac is ready to take on his greatest challenge, that of Artistic Director of the Montreal Opera in its crucial turnaround years. “When they asked me, I felt the timing was right for me to take the position, and I took it with a lot of humility and gratefulness.”

Born in Montreal’s poor Pointe- St- Charles district and growing up in the equally poor Saint- Henri district to parents who loved to sing and play piano, Beaulac treasured those Carmen LPs and by age 5 had learnt them by heart. “That and the Nutcracker were the only recordings we had,” recalled Beaulac. “Every time Carmen died, I cried to my mother because I thought my cousin Carmen had been killed.” This fascination with voices and drama continued when Beaulac was in college, when he would save up for the New York bus trips to see the Metropolitan Opera.

After finishing his second year in philosophy in 1967, Beaulac went into teaching for 13 years. Even then, Beaulac found ways to inject opera in his work. “I did some puppet shows of Gianni Schicchi and Turandot. The kids played the characters after studying the work.” This inspired him to write a book. “I always drew all my life,” said Beaulac, “so when I published my first children’s novel, I thought I was finally an artist.” Beaulac then left teaching to study fine arts at UQAM, and worked as a sculptor for 7 years giving exhibits at Concordia University and UQAM. He was planning a huge exhibition in South America when fate came knocking.

During the same period, Beaulac had been studying voice with Louise Ferland at UQAM for 7 years which culminated in him passing the audition for the Montreal Opera’s chorus. “I had also been doing a radio show called Opera Plus at Radio Centre-Ville and after interviewing [then Opera de Montreal’s artistic director] Bernard Uzan for the show, he asked me to join his communications department.” Beaulac never did sing in the chorus, but as Uzan’s assistant—Uzan consulted Beaulac regularly for his knowledge of singers and the repertoire—Beaulac took on more responsibilities in the company. “When a set designer cancelled, Uzan asked me to design a set,” recalled Beaulac, who went on to create sets for Andrea Chénier, Carmen, Manon Lescaut, Manon, Don Carlo and Fedora. Nine years ago, Beaulac became the company’s artistic administrator whose duties were to suggest singers and finalize contracts. Beaulac’s promotion to Artistic Director means that he will now make the final choices of singers and future repertoire.

LSM: What do you look for when hiring
a singer?

It depends on the opera and the parts. The first thing I ask from a musician is the right pitch, the inner sense of rhythm, musicianship, interpretation and the fit to our hall, in that order. I’m really a voice person but the demands of opera have changed through the years. I look more for a package. We look for a good musician and someone who will sing the part and act it well, be responsive to stage direction and be a good colleague. More and more, the theatrical aspect is important for the director. We are in a world of show business. People now expect everything of an opera singer, to look the part, to be convincing and touching. It’s extremely demanding. Those who cannot comply are not hired.

How do you find your singers?

We hold auditions yearly in New York. Sometimes, I seek auditions. If the singers are too busy, then I ask them to make a demo for a particular opera. When I started here, I listened to all the singers and I did the chorus auditions, so I knew the voice. I listen for the placement of the voice, where it is in the head, how it negotiates the passaggio and the support it has. It’s a sixth sense. I know how the way the voice sounds in the rehearsal hall will translate on the stage of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.

How far ahead do you cast your productions?

Ideally, I would like to cast two to three years ahead. Nowadays, two years is fine. If I want a Villazon I would be casting for 2012, 2013. Today, careers are shorter than before. Now Villazon is sick. Nathalie Dessay was sick. And some singers with great voices like Susan Dunn have had short careers. I sometimes get CDs of singers in their 20s who sound like they are in their 40s. You don’t know if they will last singing like that. Singers today sing too much and travel too much.

Why can’t you bring the very top singers?

We choose the most promising and most creative artists we can afford. Singers’ fees have reached a top level. There is a stars system, and the stars are like hockey players in the way they are paid and the way they want to be treated. The reason we’ve had a deficit is because our funding hasn’t increased as it should have.

Our field is the up and coming. The good singers that are not singing at the Met. Well rounded artists. I try to seek and develop with them a long term relationship. I keep my ears open, through recordings, through the grapevine and from what I read. We want to find tomorrow’s Villazon, like Mark Delavan, who sang with us before he starred at the Met. The gems generally show up at the Ateliers across North America. I see promise in the Spanish and Latin countries. It’s the way the voice is positioned when they speak. All the big names now tend to be coming from the Latin countries.

The state of singing in Canada is good. I could cast an all-Canadian production but the singers are not all available at the same time. Sometimes I have to change the date. For instance, Ballo being not so well known may not have been the ideal opera to open a season, but September 2007 was the only time I could get Richard Margison and Manon Feubel together. There is not one top Canadian singer that I didn’t try to hire.

We try to promote excellence amongst the local talent to make it feel like it’s their alma mater, and we also try to find talent abroad and create a feeling of family.

What do you make of the trend for power to be in the hands of opera directors?

Theatre, music, acting, and singing all have their importance. Today, people are more demanding and rightfully so. The conductors’ era came about because they brought musical discipline. The rise of the director came about because it was needed to bring theatre back into the opera house. Everything has to be more cinematic. That’s the influence of cinema on opera. The Met is going that way with Peter Gelb and the Live Telecasts.

The key is getting good acting singers and make sure directors are more theatre conscious and have greater respect for the work, the music, the composer, and for the story in a creative way. The director should not betray the work, but just translate it in contemporary approaches.

The crossover movement has taken away some of the mystique of the voice. People are not turned off by an operatic voice anymore. Opera helps people discover the true meaning of certain emotions, that they may not discover in everyday life. The surtitles makes opera so accessible. You don’t have to know the opera before coming in. Today, the action is clear and emotions are focused.

Nothing beats a live performance. That’s why a play has so much impact. The actors are there. Your reaction has an impact on the acting. The artist feels the attention, the vibration and the connection. Opera goes beyond theatre or any other media. The music envelopes you, carries you with the emotions. It’s so overwhelming. When there are sets and the singers move and act, you cannot just sit there, you are swept away. It gives everybody a chance to experience and live that piece in his or her own way.

The COC has been highly successful. Why can’t Montreal follow its example?

Montreal is not the richest city in Canada. The money is in Ontario and in Alberta. The COC office staff is 4 to 5 times our eleven- member team. Before it was 3 times. Montreal, rich in cultural imagination, is a very artistic metropolis. The tradition of investing in art in Montreal is not there. When you talk of buzz, you talk of the star system. We can’t afford it now. When Uzan was here, we did a budget for a possible Robert LePage production, but it would have meant that we would have to cut a production from the season. For the same reason, we couldn’t do Billy Budd here because it cost 20% more than average.

We want to Montrealize the Montreal Opera. Hire many international local talent. Present operas in a way that Montrealers will feel very connected to. They will recognize their own styles. To bring either new productions or renting productions close to the personality of the population. There is a style in Montreal.

What are your plans for the upcoming seasons?

I would like to have increased support at all levels, government, private, public and corporate support. This will allow us to increase the number of performances and the number of productions. Next year, we’ll go back to 5 productions. We would like to have 6 or 7. We were able to manage to have 7 productions, with one in Theatre Maisonneuve. Six is possible with a team of 24 people, now we have 11. There will be a new work or production every year and one French opera.

I would like to present to the audience not only one season but a series of seasons. For instance, we could engage one director to do the three Donizetti Queens in three successive years with the same concept or vision or the same Queen. I hope we can see the Ring staged in Montreal one day, but maybe that’s not our path. My ultimate dream does not have to do with programming. It has to do with communicating with the Montreal public. For instance, when the Atelier goes to the Metro, I also go there myself to introduce the singers. n


Singers: Sondra Radvanovsky, Nathalie Dessay depending on the parts.

Most beautiful voice heard live: Renata Tebaldi.

Singer-actors: Virginia Zeani, Magda Olivero, Maria Callas, Renata Scotto, Diana Soviero.

Music: I like all types of music. I also listen to Spanish and Flamenco music, folk music.

The Montreal Opera presents Gounod’s Romeo and Julliet, Nov. 3, 7, 10, 12, 15, starring Marc Hervieux and Maureen O’Flynn. operademontreal.com


La discographie de cette œuvre témoigne des grandeurs et des vicissitudes de l’opéra français au vingtième siècle. Jusqu’au milieu des années 1950, elle demeure l’apanage de chanteurs français ou d’étrangers formés à chanter cette musique comme on le faisait à Paris. Aujourd’hui, les voix de ces interprètes « authentiques », aux instruments souvent modestes en comparaison de ce que l’on a entendu depuis, nous frappent par leur naturel, leur diction impeccable, l’élégance de leur phrasé et la noblesse de leur déclamation. Cette façon de chanter Gounod, nous la connaissons grâce entre autres à une intégrale de 1953 mettant en vedette Janine Micheau et Raoul Jobin (Preiser, PSR 20041). Mentionnons aussi la rencontre magique, en 1947, au Met, entre la partition et ses interprètes idéaux, Jussi Bjoerling et Bidu Sayão (actuellement indisponible sur disque).

À compter des années 1960, les Français, las de leur répertoire national, l’abandonnent aux grandes vedettes internationales de la scène lyrique. Pour Roméo et Juliette, cette période est celle d’une longue décadence. Désormais on dénaturera l’œuvre en accentuant ses « italianismes » (réels ou supposés), en même temps qu’on commettra l’erreur de négliger les rôles dits secondaires. Pis encore, les vedettes à qui l’on confie le rôle de Roméo, ou bien comme Corelli ne peuvent satisfaire aux exigences du chant français, ou bien tel Domingo y parviennent à peu près. Mais ces ténors sont tellement sollicités à droite et à gauche pour chanter toutes sortes de choses dans toutes sortes de style, sur toutes les grandes scènes du monde, qu’ils n’ont simplement pas le temps d’accorder à cette musique l’attention qu’elle mérite. Une exception toutefois : Alfredo Kraus (EMI, 1983, épuisé) dont Roméo était un des rôles fétiches. Or, on sait que M. Kraus ne chantait que ce qu’il savait pouvoir interpréter mieux que personne.

Et puis vint Roberto Alagna… un jeune chanteur franco-italien qui sait à la fois injecter une certaine passion méditerranéenne dans son chant et l’enrober dans une façon de « style français » qui arrive à donner le change, un Roméo, enfin, qui a à peu près le physique de l’emploi. Naturellement, on lui fait un pont d’or. Résultat : quinze ans après, il aura été la vedette masculine de pas moins de trois enregistrements de Roméo et Juliette. À choisir entre le DVD de 1994 (Kultur D1493) et le CD de 1996 (EMI 586242B/561232), c’est sans doute celui-ci qu’il faut préférer, pour la Gheorghiu au lieu de la Vaduva en Juliette et surtout pour la présence au podium de Michel Plasson, un chef qui connaît bien l’œuvre (c’est sa deuxième gravure) et qui la prend au sérieux.

Par contre, la fausse intégrale disponible chez Arthaus (AHM 100707) ne mérite que mépris. Ce n’est qu’une réduction de l’opéra de Gounod à 90 minutes de vidéo-clips dont on a soigneusement excisé toutes les scènes ou bouts de scènes où n’apparaissait pas le couple Alagna-Gheorghiu. À éviter à tout prix.

(c) La Scena Musicale