Marc Hervieux: High on Operaby Wah Keung Chan
/ September 1, 2009
Good-natured, humble, generous: it’s tempting to think of Canadian tenor Marc Hervieux as just a voice. However, behind his rare lyrico-spinto tenor, years of hard work have carried Hervieux from a modest upbringing in Montreal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district to an unlikely career on the world’s top opera stages. Today, Hervieux stands as Quebec’s leading tenor, following in the footsteps of Raoul Jobin, Léopold Simoneau and Richard Verreau.
The Montreal Conservatory production of Gluck’s Orfeo e Euridice at the Chapelle du Bon Pasteur in 1993 marked Hervieux’s official opera debut. His performance of the aria “Che farò senza Euridice” was the most memorable for the strength and clarity of his voice. Definitely a promising tenor like Domingo, I thought at the time.
Music and opera were not present in the Hervieux household of four kids. “I remember seeing some operas on TV,” said Hervieux. “They impressed me, but they were like aliens to me.” However, he loved to sing, and from the beginning he was fascinated by the stage. In elementary school (grades 3-5) he wrote plays and staged them twice a year. By age 13, he had already acquired his current stocky five-foot-ten self and was accepted into Le café du marché, a local adult amateur theatre troupe, where he became involved with acting, costumes, sets, lighting and sound.
When Hervieux turned 17, his father told Marc to learn a trade; theatre, the labourer was concerned, would not earn his son a living. Luckily, two members of the theatre group worked as graphic artists for the city. Marc decided to study graphics at Ahuntsic College. After finishing two years of the three-year program, Marc left in 1988 to focus on his graphics business. “It went very well because I was one of the first to own a Mac in Montreal,” said Hervieux. “I had a Mac 512K with an external disk drive and a laser printer, which allowed me to do type very quickly.” The $12,500 investment in 1986, made possible through a bank loan, was a gamble that paid off. Many printers called to get access to that equipment. He soon won an exclusive contract with the City of Montreal, printing posters and various forms such as election ballots. His life seemed set.
However, singing continued to be Hervieux’s passion. He was now a part of a rock band which performed for weekend weddings and parties. The turning point came with a professional production at the Denise-Pelletier Theatre, where he was asked to sing a couple of arias from Don Giovanni. Ever the accomplished mimic, Hervieux carried it off. By now, encouraging comments about his voice being suited for opera were common. “When I was 22, I thought that I didn’t want to look back at age 50 and say that I could have made it if only I had tried,” said Hervieux, who decided to audition for music school at age 23. Three weeks before his first audition, he was referred to voice teacher Marie-Germaine Lelanc, for whom he sang “The Impossible Dream.” Leblanc suggested he prepare “Una furtiva lagrima,” and “Caro mio ben,” among others. At the next lesson, Louis Quilico was also there to give advice. Needless to say, Hervieux aced the vocal part of the audition at the Montreal Conservatory (he was accepted at all the schools where he applied), placing him in the third-year level. But he failed the sight-reading and musical dictation exams because he had had no formal training. No matter; seeing his natural talent, the Montreal Conservatory told Hervieux to work hard. He basically squeezed four years into his two-year Cegep-level courses.
Hard work became the norm when Hervieux started his formal studies at age 24 under voice teacher Sylvia Saurette. “The best decision was that after I was accepted, I focused everything to make sure it worked,” said Hervieux. “There were moments when I was really discouraged with musical dictation. I went to the director of the conservatory two or three times to quit, but Jean LeBuis, Lorraine Prieur and Sylvia Saurette really encouraged me.” When there was discouragement, such as La Presse critic Claude Gingras’s cutting comments on his Orfeo, the singer persevered. “I cried the whole day, but I went on that night anyway,” said Hervieux. “Today it’s not the same. You can’t let things bother you.”
When Hervieux left the Montreal Conservatory after five years (including three years at university level), he entered the Montreal Opera’s Atelier Lyrique, going without a voice teacher for a period. There he finally learned a complete opera role. “At school, we are in a cocoon. At the opera, we start from the beginning of the score to the end, we don’t just work the arias or duos,” he said. He also started his collaboration with pianist Claude Webster. When he won the Diana Soviero award to study with the soprano in Miami, he roomed with Webster and they soon became best friends. Hervieux always learns new scores with Webster by starting with the music to get the rhythm and notes down. “I sing with the words without feeling, and now it takes me 15 to 20 hours to learn an opera. The music helps me remember the words. Then I translate the text to know the meaning. This method works for me,” he said.
Hervieux had to rely on this method in 2001, when out of his eight scheduled operas, he sang six of them (La Bohème, Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor, Roméo et Juliette, Madama Butterfly and Pearl Fishers) for the first time. “I was performing one opera while learning another,” said Hervieux. He admits that during a rehearsal of Butterfly in Edmonton, he had a complete memory blank. “I doubled my efforts and finally it worked. When you are young, it’s hard to say no, and you can take on too much,” he explained. Like every young singer, Hervieux went through constant auditions in Europe and the US. He has many amusing stories of singing before Muti, Gergiev, Mehta and Levine, which have landed him opposite the likes of Netrebko in Moscow and Fleming at the Met. Today, he has the luxury of taking on only one new role per season.
The Family Man
Just before his first season with Atelier Lyrique, Hervieux was given a small role in Turandot and a mutual friend encouraged future criminologist Caroline Rheault to go backstage. The huge bouquet of flowers she brought took the shy tenor aback; the ensuing romance led to marriage and three daughters. It’s refreshing to hear the tenor describe how important family is to him. He’s made it a priority not to miss the birth of his children: he cancelled L’Elisir d’amore at La Scala with Ricardo Muti and La Bohème at New York City Opera for his first two daughters, and for the third, he received permission to arrive one week late for Frobisher at Calgary Opera.
He shows the same kind of commitment for his operatic family. In May 2006, La Scala called, offering Massenet’s Manon while he was already in Hamilton for La Traviata. Opera Ontario general director David Spears, told him to go, but after returning to his hotel room, Hervieux decided to honour his commitment. “I’m happy with this decision, because life is too short; I’m not an opportunist,” he said.
Sometimes Hervieux takes his profession too much to heart. At the public dress rehearsal for last May’s Cavalleria Rusticana in Quebec City, for the first time in his career he couldn’t sing the entire performance in full voice. “The next day, I told [Quebec City Opera general director] Gregoire Legendre something was wrong. We went to see a doctor and I was told that my throat and vocal chords were infected. I couldn’t let the opera down, so I took the cortisone and pills the doctor prescribed,” he related. For the first time in his career, it was announced that Hervieux was sick, but he sang in all the performances. “Cortisone covers up the problems, but at the end of the opera, I felt the fatigue. I paid for it afterward, as it takes 3 weeks to recover,” he explained. His fatigue continued through the summer, where he cracked in several concerts. “The tenor voice is a manufactured voice. If you are tired or sleep poorly, it affects you the next day.” After his summer vacation, he now feels rejuvenated.
When it comes to tenors, there are two camps: Pavarotti or Domingo. “Marc is virile like Domingo,” said conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, a long-time colleague from the Montreal Conservatoire. The same compliments and criticism about Domingo also apply to Hervieux. A turning point for him came when pianist Denise Massé suggested he study with César Ulloa. “It makes a difference studying with a real tenor; he knows exactly the problems I would have,” Hervieux said. In 2002 and 2003, audiences could hear the improvement. Since Ulloa now teaches in San Francisco, Gerald Martin-Moore now coaches him. “He has a great knowledge of the voice,” Hervieux said.
The 2009-2010 season is shaping up as a banner year for Hervieux with two new roles for the Opera de Montréal. Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci is another milestone for a lyrico-spinto tenor. “He is very tormented and deceived and appeals to me as an actor because I know it’s not me,” Hervieux explains. Corelli’s recording is his favourite. The revival of André Gagnon’s Nelligan in the spring is another of his dreams. “I love both the music and the history of the poet. He was born at the wrong moment. He was interned at 20 and underwent electroshock treatments. In school, we learned to recite his poems,” he said.
It is also the year of Marc Hervieux on recording. On October 6, Zone 3 will release a pop album. “This will allow me to use the media to talk up opera and classical music. Most people who say they hate opera have never been to one. I would invite them to attend one. As in other arts, there is now an exciting new generation of musicians and artists that are bringing something new to the opera.,” he asserts.
On October 27, ATMA will release a Christmas album, “inspired by Richard Verreau’s recording.” Also on ATMA, an album of 20 Neapolitan Songs is slated for the spring, and a disc of tenor arias (based on the summer concerts) will be recorded in September with Orchestre Metropolitain under Nézet-Séguin.
Having just turned 40 on June 19, the next 10 years should be his prime. Hervieux is looking forward to doing Turandot in 2012, and would like to take on the Verdi spinto roles in Ballo, Trovatore and Don Carlo. For his 45th birthday, his dream is to become the first Quebec tenor to sing Otello. “I have really been lucky. To sing before 3,000 people, where we are one with orchestra and conductor is great. It’s super important to create something in a team. Music and singing equal pleasure and happiness. Singing in life is liberating. Music allows me to imagine infinite choices, colours, images and situations,” he affirms.
› With the Montreal Opera as Canio in Puccini’s Pagliacci, September 26 to October 8. (Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, 8pm) www.operademontreal.com
› With Quartango, October 7, 9, and 10. (Corona Theatre, 8:30pm) www.theatrecorona.com
› With the Montreal Opera as Old Nelligan in Gagnon/Tremblay’s Nelligan, March 6, 8, 10, 11, and 13, 2010 (Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, 8pm)
› With the Quebec City Opera as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, May 15, 18, 20, and 22 (Grand Théâtre de Québec) www.operadequebec.qc.ca