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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 5

Julie Boulianne: Dreaming of Rosina

by Wah Keung Chan / February 12, 2008

When mezzo Julie Boulianne took first prize in the voice category of the 8th Journée de la musique française held in November 2002, I was on the Jury. Her seamless legato, darkened velvet tone, agile coloratura, and innate musicality made the decision easily unanimous. If that was Boulianne’s first coming out, consider how she has moved from success to success over the last five years: from studies at McGill, to the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal, and now to the lead role of Rosina in l’Opéra de Montréal’s upcoming production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

This is Boulianne’s first Rosina with orchestra, and only her second time in the role (following performances in Tel Aviv). Opéra de Montréal artistic director Michel Beaulac explains why he cast her in the role, “Julie Boulianne is an exceptional artist and musician. Vocally she is the ideal Rosina—she has the range demanded by the part, the upper extension and evenness of colour right down to the lowest register and is gifted with terrifically easy coloratura. The voice is exquisitely beautiful, very Italianate and projects splendidly. Add to this her enviable looks and her mischievous presence, her Rosina could shine on any international opera stage.”

Rosina’s most notable aria, “Una voce poco fa,” has been Boulianne’s signature tune from the beginning. Even before she started singing, it was this aria, as sung by Cecilia Bartoli, which inspired her. “When I first heard it, I thought I could do it too,” said Boulianne. “For me, it’s like a dream right now.”

Growing up in Lac-Saint-Jean in a family of good amateur singers, Boulianne dreamt of being a pianist or a scientist or a doctor. In CEGEP, she started a double DEC in science and music, but she dropped piano as she couldn’t keep up with the practicing, and started to sing. Luce Gaudreault at the Cegep d’Alma was her first voice teacher, and Boulianne credits her for her remarkable development. For someone with such a natural voice, it comes as a surprise to hear Boulianne say that she had to work constantly: “Having a natural voice could be dangerous. You have the tendency to want to sing things that you are not ready for.” Singing coloratura seems to come easily for Boulianne. “That was the first thing I was taught. I think the secret is to want to sing coloratura; I think anyone could sing coloratura,” she laughed. In person, Boulianne laughs easily and heartily, much like Quebec divas Marie-Nicole Lemieux and Marianne Fiset.

Success came quickly for Boulianne, and within the first year, Boulianne had already won the Canadian Music Competition. “I exposed my voice a lot in public because people wanted to hear me, but if you are not totally solid, there is a danger. When you have a musical background before starting to sing, you want to start singing before you master your voice,” she said.

After graduating from McGill, Boulianne entered the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal. Looking back, Boulianne wished she had waited before entering the program, for, she said, “I didn’t feel ready when I started Atelier.” It proved to be a great learning experience, as she cites a touring production of Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel from the program, “I learned to sing in non-ideal conditions; you can’t learn this in school.”

Boulianne is now in her first year as a young artist at the Juilliard Opera Centre, where studying with Edith Bers has brought back to her the pleasure of singing. “It’s easy to lose the pleasure during the learning process, like working on the placement of the voice,” explains Boulianne. What does she sing for pleasure nowadays? “It depends on the day. I try to sing things I would never sing, like Puccini or tenor arias,” she adds, chuckling. “Sometimes it is French melody, because I can relate to the text. I love listening to Bach, but singing Bach is like playing an oboe. For fun, it is often Mozart. Mozart is always so challenging and inspiring, and he wrote so well for the voice, although I don’t know if tenors will agree. There is something in the essence of Mozart, the simplicity, which makes you feel comfortable. I love all the Don Giovanni women. I love the phrasing of the Countess (from Marriage of Figaro) and I sing it by transposing it.”

Beaumarchais’ Figaro plays inspired both Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s Barber of Seville, which is a prequel to Figaro. Musically, they are completely different, and Rossini composed his work after Mozart’s. Since Boulianne has “sung” both Rosinas, I asked her to compare the two characterizations.

“I’ve always loved the character of Rossini’s Rosina. It’s a young and strong woman, and she is smart, very aware of everything … like who I am,” said Boulianne. “It’s a funny opera, and I’m quite a joker. Her relationship with Figaro is like brother and sister. She knows she will get her way. Like the coloratura on ‘Vincerò,’ I don’t see anything in the music to suggest otherwise. Rossini must have done it on purpose to set Barber different from Figaro. [The character] Figaro is the same in both, but the Count and Countess (the older Rosina) have changed. In Figaro, the characters have evolved. As strong as Rosina is, it makes sense she becomes so sad in Figaro. Love can destroy the strongest person.”

How does Rosina fit her vocally? “It’s totally comfortable for me as a high mezzo,” said Boulianne. “I wonder how sopranos do it [when they sing it], since all the recitatives are quite low. The challenge for me is that there are lots of words. I’ve also realized that it can be a bit dangerous to sing only Rossini and coloratura, as it keeps the voice close. That’s why I warm up with Massenet or Mozart, arias with long lines to open the sound and keep the possibilities of my instrument.”

Like Rosina, the 29-year old Boulianne is ready to take on all her possibilities. She states, “I started singing because I love music. I want to reach the point where I’m going to be proud of the music I do and my goal is to work with inspiring people, to nourish the soul.” n

Rossini: The Barber of Seville, Opéra de Montréal, February 2, 6, 9, 11, 14 at 8 p.m., Feb. 16 at 2 p.m. (514) 842-2112 • operademontreal.com

(c) La Scena Musicale