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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 4 December 2010

Phillip Addis & Michèle Losier : Werther & Charlotte

by Wah Keung Chan / December 1, 2010

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It’s been five years since 33-year-old baritone Phillip Addis and 32-year-old mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier have sung together in Montreal, in OdM’s production of Chabrier’s L’Etoile. Since then, both Canadians have taken different paths to success. Each now has New York agents and contracts for the next few years. In January, when they reunite as headliners in Montreal Opera’s production of Massenet’s Werther, they return as bona fide rising stars in the international opera world.

Phillip Addis
Phillip Addis started his singing career at a young age in the Halifax Children’s Chorus and the Toronto Children’s Chorus. “It was really a decision made by my parents,” said Addis. A career in singing was not on his mind while he was in high school. Although he sang in choirs, took up the baritone horn and the tuba in music class and played bass in a rock band, he had his sights set on becoming a civil engineer.

When he applied for university, he felt he should give music a try and he was accepted at Queens University for his tuba skills. “It’s a small program, but it had the flexibility that was ideal for me,” he said. While taking part in the chamber choir at Queens, the choir director suggested that he take up singing. “That first lesson with Bruce Kelly was really exciting and I felt a big door open. I was a mediocre tuba player but felt at home in singing,” he explained. In his third year, Addis switched to a major in voice, studying with Kelly. As luck would have it, Addis received immediate stage experience in a student production of a new opera by Ron Beckett that needed a baritone. Living just five minutes away from campus allowed him to immerse himself in both voice and opera; he spent most of his time in the practice room and at the library watching videos and listening to recordings.

Addis then started his artist diploma in Opera at the University of Toronto, studying with Patricia Kern. There, Addis met and started dating pianist and vocal coach Emily Hamper. In 2002, Addis joined the Atelier lyrique of the Opéra de Montréal, and Emily joined in 2003 as a vocal coach. Today, Emily and Phillip are partners in music and life. “She is my toughest critic,” said Addis. In Montreal, Addis studied with César Ulloa. “He helped me to sing more consistently.”

Michele Losier
Michele Losier’s dream of being an opera singer goes back to age six, when she heard recordings of Pavarotti and Virginia Zeani, and watched opera on TV. Although Losier is half Acadian on her father’s side, she wasn’t aware of the Acadian line of accomplished singers such as Rosemary Landry, Adrienne Savoie and Nathalie Paulin until she was in her 20s. Growing up in the small town of Saint-Isidore, New Brunswick, her dream became a distant memory as she became active in sports (figure skating) and piano studies. “I really didn’t know that I could sing,” said Losier.

At age 12, after her parents divorced, Losier moved to Montreal with her mother. She continued private piano studies at Vincent d’Indy and then, in 1995, at Cegep Marie-Victorin in piano performance under Francine Chabot. In 1996, while singing in the school choir, director and contralto Madeleine Jalbert suggested she take voice lessons. “It was the marriage of two of my passions, music and theatre,” said Losier. At age 20, Losier decided to go to university in Voice instead of pursuing her other dream of becoming a doctor. “My friends and family were worried that I was making a mistake,” she said.

She wanted to improve her English and had a good feeling about McGill. There, under Winston Purdy, Losier excelled, appearing in the school’s productions. After graduation in 2002, thanks to the Jeunes Ambassadeurs Lyriques Program, Losier made her professional operatic debut at Avignon Opera and Nancy Opera, in France, in the Mozart roles of Dorabella and Zerlina respectively. At this time, she began studying with soprano Lyne Fortin, and within two years continued her studies with Fortin’s teacher Marlena Malas.

In 2003, Losier entered the Atelier lyrique of the Montreal Opera. “I was looking for an apprentice program,” said Losier. Montreal audiences immediately saw her as Cherubino in the main stage production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. “I started getting nervous, because I suddenly realized that I could have a career,” she said.

Here, Losier met Addis. At the 2004 MSO Competition, Addis placed first and Losier second. “Our paths would always cross. Sometimes, I came ahead of him, and other times, he was ahead of me,” recalled Losier.

Just months earlier, in May 2004, Addis was going through an experiment. “People were telling me that I could be a tenor, so I thought I should give it a go,” he explained. Neither Hamper nor Ulloa liked the idea, but they went along with it. That two-month period ended with Addis almost loosing his voice to fatigue. “I could sing the high notes, but the tessitura was just too high for me,” said Addis. “I was torturing myself. It was a great learning experience, in terms of how my voice works and knowing whom to trust,” he recalled.

Back as a baritone, 2004-2005 became Addis’s year, as he won the 2004 MSO Competition, the OSQ Competition and placed fourth in the 2005 Montreal International Music Competition. That same year, Losier went on to be a finalist at the 2005 Met Auditions.

The Intervening Years
For a young singer, the period between training and an active career is always precarious, filled with the uncertainties of auditions and a life on the road. After Atelier lyrique, Losier spent a year at the Juilliard Opera Center studying with Malas. Stage director Stephen Wadsworth was so impressed by Losier’s participation in his drama class that he championed her career. “She has a presence,” Wadsworth told Radio-Canada, taking her to productions in Los Angeles, Seattle and the Met.

Losier’s last competition was at the 2008 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium, where she finished as a finalist. “I tried to approach it as a professional instead of as a student—it put a lot of pressure on me and it tired me,” said Losier, who nevertheless ended up with a recording of Duparc songs with the Belgium label Fuga Libera.

Meanwhile, Addis had parlayed his success at the Montreal competition into a role at the Opéra de Marseille. In the last two years, his schedule has been filled with new roles. Two years ago, he was a convincing Zurga in The Pearl Fishers in Montreal, followed by Belcore in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore with Atlanta Opera, his New York debut as Roderick Usher in Debussy's The Fall of the House of Usher with Opéra Français de New York, his role debut as John Brooke in the Canadian premiere of Mark Adamo's Little Women with Calgary Opera and as the Count in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. His greatest triumph to date has been his portrayal of Pelléas at the Opéra Comique in Paris in June under Sir John Eliot Gardiner.

Addis’s advice to getting hired and rehired is above all “… preparation, and it takes a lot of practice and study. There is so much to learn, you can never study too much. The next thing is the strong emotional commitment to the work you are presenting and to the audience. It involves letting go of technique. You have to be really lively in performance and it takes a while to know how to pull it off.”

Losier’s big break came in January 2009, when Australia Opera was looking for a Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther to replace contralto Pamela Helen Stephen, who withdrew following the death of her husband Richard Hickox, the company’s music director. “I was recommended by English Opera with just one month’s notice,” said Losier who spent the time in New York preparing the role with Malas. “The five-week rehearsal period also helped.” Losier is used to singing secondary trouser roles, and Charlotte is a pinnacle for any lyric mezzo as she is on stage throughout Act III and IV. “It’s finding the right balance between the lyric and the drama,” said Losier. “You want to share the emotion, but you don’t want the voice to suffer from the emotions.”

The role fits Losier like a glove and the reviews were glowing. IMG came calling, as did Montreal Opera’s artistic director Michel Beaulac, who offered Losier the chance to reprise the role in her hometown. “There is nothing more cherishing than coming back home and seeing the ones who love you, who encouraged you and knew you from the beginning,” said Losier.

Based on Goethe’s somewhat autobiographic novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, Massenet’s Werther tells the doomed love of a young poet for a beautiful girl, Charlotte, who is married to someone else; unable to fulfill this love, Werther takes his own life. Massenet’s version differs in that Charlotte is with Werther when he dies. “Charlotte falls in love with Werther when she realizes that she misses him at the end of Act II,” said Losier.

“Phillip and Michèle are two of the most exciting young singers of the new generation,” said Beaulac. “Michele is perfect for the role vocally and being French-speaking, her understanding of the part gives her a dramatic edge. I chose to present Werther in the baritone version because the part gains intensity with a baritone voice, which I feel is more suited to the romantic character. Phillip’s French is exemplary. His vocal elegance, refinement and intelligence will give the character its full dimension.”

For Addis, this baritone version of Werther is a unique project. Since it is rarely done, Addis can customize the music to fit his voice. “There are middle areas where I can choose between the tenor and baritone versions,” he said. “I like the final scene with Charlotte. It’s emotionally raw.”

Montreal will use the Opera Australia production although Beaulac said that it would be set at the beginning of the 20th Century. Is the story of Werther relevant today? “When we did the staging in Sydney, it was set in modern times with modern sets, and we had this debate,” said Losier. “In today’s love stories, there is always one person who loves more. There is the debate of who will leave whom, the fear of abandonment and the fear of losing someone. Love is always current.”

Massenet’s Werther, Opéra de Montréal, January 22, 26, 29, 31 and February 3

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