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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 9

Jean-François Lapointe From Europe and Back

by Wah Keung Chan / June 4, 2008

Version française...

Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapointe is on a mission. Under his somewhat soft-spoken exterior is an artist passionate about protecting (in French he uses the verb défendre often) his artistic culture. After over 20 years ascending European operatic stages, as his career is evolving to heavier roles, Lapointe is also looking to bringing his experience back to Canada.

Beginnings and competitions

From the beginning Lapointe was destined to become a musician. Born in Hébertville in Lac St-Jean, Lapointe grew up in Chicoutimi studying piano and violin at age 6. His father was an excellent amateur singer and Lapointe began singing with him in church and later also accompanied him at the piano. At 10, he started singing and conducting lessons. Like most young musicians, Lapointe entered the Canadian Music Competitions; the difference was that he entered not just for experience but to win. At age 16, he won the 18-20-age category, and it came as a validation. The next year, he won the 20-22-age category and at 18, he won the 22-24-age category. This determined attitude carried him through his successful auditions. Lapointe made his debut at 16 singing with the Chicoutimi Symphony Orchestra, and he continued his studies at Laval University completing a master’s degree with the venerable Louise André.

A victory at the Paris International Singing Competition at age 22 helped launch Lapointe’s European career. At the same time, he started singing French operetta. Lapointe began lessons with the great singing teacher Martial Singher in Santa Barbara. “I studied with him the shortest time, but he had the most profound influence on me,” said Lapointe. At their first meeting, after singing Valentine’s aria “Avant de quitter ces lieux,” Singher told Lapointe that he was already a professional. Quite a shot in the arm, but Lapointe didn’t rest on his laurels. “Singher told me that I could gain 20% more projection by modifying my position and opening the chest cavity,” said Lapointe. “He taught me to be more refined and exact in the style; in the French style, he explained how to be natural.” There are many good singers, and Singher taught Lapointe how to reach the international level. “At this level, it’s not only about singing loud or projection,” he says, “but it’s to have a specialty, be unique, and have something that can be recognized immediately, in the timbre, in style, approach and the way of working. It’s to have an artist’s path. For instance, I don’t always like contemporary music, but I respect the creative and artistic approach.”

International Artist

Of all the roles, Lapointe is most identified with Debussy’s Pelléas, which he has sung over 200 times since 1988. It was his first leading role. Thanks to Peter Brooke, Lapointe toured the role all over Europe including Paris and La Scala when he was only 27. He last performed it in Canada in June 2007 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées à Paris, and it is on his agenda until 2012, “probably my last time, as I’m finding the tessitura a little high. Then it will be time for [the role of] Golaud.”

Specializing in the French comic and romantic repertoire has meant spending atleast 10 months a year in Europe, where Lapointe reports that unlike in Canada and the US, every city with a population of 60,000 to 100,000 has an opera company. His best roles include Hamlet, Valentine in Faust, Mercurio in Romeo et Juliette, Lescaut in Manon. After 20 years on the international stage, Lapointe’s voice is evolving. He explains, “I have been singing so often, it’s normal for the voice to get larger.” He has already sung Figaro (Barber of Seville) in Paris, Count Almaviva (Marriage of Figaro) in Nancy and Don Giovanni in Trieste. Last month, Lapointe made his debut as Escamillo in Carmen at the Lausanne Opera opposite fellow-Canadian Nora Sourouzian in the lead role, a performance that continues to Vichy on June 7 and 8, postponing his recital at the Turp Society by one week to June 15. The same production will go on a tour of Japan in October. Future projects include debuts in Les Troyens, The Pearl Fishers, Fortunio, Pique Dame, Eugene Oneguin and in two years, the high Verdi baritones starting with Ford in Falstaff. “Every time I do a role, it is a sort of test.”

Singing so often in Europe has also meant long periods of separation from his three children and family. “In Europe, rehearsals take 7 to 8 weeks, which is very long,” said Lapointe. “We live in the time of the stage director, and most of the time, it is for scenic rehearsals, and often the director arrives insufficiently prepared.” Lapointe cites the example of Pelléas et Mélisande. “The opera is difficult musically, but scenically, because of the limited number of characters, it can be easier to stage than other operas. With experienced singers, the staging can be done quickly.” Financially, singers also have to pay their own living expense. Lapointe adds, “4 weeks is just right.”


Starting out in the lyric baritone fach has also meant an equal dose of operetta in Lapointe’s repertoire. Montrealers will remember him as Danilo in La Veuve joyeuse. “I love this repertoire which unfortunately, I don’t sing much anymore.” Lapointe also wants to dispel some false perceptions, “Contrary to what people often think, singing operetta is an extremely difficult. You have to be multi-talented: good singing, dancing, speaking and must move well. There are lots of ensembles and difficult choreography. There are many difficult baritone roles,” he says. “French operetta needs a refined musicality, and to do it well, you need lots of talented people and lots of elaborate decor.” Lapointe, however, laments the lack of support for French operetta. He tells us, “Germany, where they have about half of all opera houses in the world, has the best market for operetta. In France, it’s badly served. The Chatelet in Paris used to produce only operettas, but now it’s mostly presented in the regions.” Lapointe finds it encouraging that there is the Opera français de New York. “I think Montreal could be a good market for the French repertoire, both operetta and the romantic,” he says.

Defending Culture

Unlike many singers, Lapointe has always had an interest in the administrative side of music. He was artistic director of the Chapelle du Bon-Pasteur in Quebec City for 5 years in the early 1990s and from 1997 was artistic director for 7 years of the Société d’Art Lyrique du Royaume in Chicoutimi, when he has conducted La Vie Parisienne, La Veuve joyeuse, La Belle Hélène, Pomme d’Api and Orphée aux Enfers. “In Europe there is no need for productions to be profitable because it is impossible; that’s why they are so heavily subsidized. An opera production costs $2-3 million, so why do we put on opera in Canada with a budget of $600K or $1 million? There is not enough money for marketing. We have to think that culture is important, and we shouldn’t mix the terms, artistic and social culture. Museums are there to protect our heritage and we don’t ask them to be profitable. The same is true of the artistic repertoire. It’s a question of priorities for governments. The culture of a people should not be measured only by social culture [like health care]. It’s important to invest in the spirit, to develop the fine arts.”


Another of the high art forms Lapointe defends passionately is the French mélodie (or art song), especially recently with the release of a couple discs on Analekta with Louise-Andrée Baril on the piano. “There is more nuance in mélodie than in opera. It unites a text of great finesse and infinite beauty with a music that is sublime,” says Lapointe with passion. “There is a huge repertoire of songs by Hahn, Duparc, Poulenc, Chausson, Massenet, Godard and Saint-Saëns that are rarely heard.”


When asked who his idols are, Lapointe answers that he initially adored Sherrill Milnes and Placido Domingo, but he goes on, “Now, I admire Domingo for the variety of his career and his longevity.” With his passion for singing, conducting and arts administration, we are sure to be hearing of Lapointe for years to come. n

Upcoming Canadian Performances

› -Recital, June 15, Montreal, André-Turp Society, turp.com

› -Conductor, Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène, June 27, 28, 29, Opéra Théâtre de Rimouski, operarimouski.com

› -Danilo in Lehár’s Merry Widow, August 9, Dunham, Jeunesses Musicales du Canada Foundation, jeunessesmusicales.com

› -Recital, August 24, Le Rendez-Vous Musical de Laterrière, rendezvousmusical.com

› -Soloist, Chausson: Poème de l’amour et de la mer, Nov. 26, 27, 28,
Quebec Symphony Orchestra, osq.org

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