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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 7

Marianne Fiset: Voice for Mimì

by Wah Keung Chan / April 1, 2011

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Four years after being thrust into the limelight by her unanimous victory at the 2007 Montreal International Music Competition (which celebrates its 10th edition this May), Canadian soprano Marianne Fiset is finally making her “hometown” leading role debut as Mimì in the Montreal Opera production of Puccini’s La Bohème, which opens May 21. If it seems as if it's been a long time coming, it's only because the opera world is scheduled so far in advance. This Bohème marks a busy 2011 for Fiset; when we spoke with her, she had just finished singing Musetta in Pacific Opera Victoria’s Bohème and was off to Marseille to sing Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Fiset’s 2012 and 2013 schedules are already filling up with roles both nationally and internationally.

Fiset isn't complaining. “I’m very lucky,” she said, referring to the opportunities that presented themselves when she won the MIMC. Since then, she has travelled to Europe and across Canada. Her two solo albums on Analekta and another with piano and horn on ATMA have all been positively received, but the operatic excerpts are the real gems.

Blessed with a naturally beautiful, clear and warm voice with an even vibrato, Fiset has been evolving. In the Montreal Opera’s September 2009 production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Fiset’s rendition of the famous aria “O mio babbino caro” was the vocal highlight. “Fiset’s voice just blooms,” I tweeted from the balcony. It was unlike the others on the stage; it was a wall of sound which enveloped the hall, something she didn’t have before.

During her years at the Atelier lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal and the MIMC, Fiset studied with César Ulloa. Unfortunately, Ulloa moved to San Francisco, so since March 2010 Fiset has been studying with Juilliard’s Edith Bers, who also teaches Julie Boulianne and Lelia Claire. “She was recommended by my colleagues and also by my vocal coach, Denise Massé,” said Fiset. With Bers, Fiset developed a new interest in working on her technique. “We work on the placement of the voice and the breathing. We have to work so that it becomes instinctive. Keep the voice very high and relaxed. Singing is three things: breathing, relaxing and supporting.”

Fiset has a new appreciation for the singing profession. “When I was a student at the Quebec Conservatory, my professor [Madame Cestillini] had to twist my arm to work,” said Fiset. “I wanted to sing right away. I found the richness of the sound through the repertoire instead of the technique. I now feel more able to control the voice and give the effect I want. There are things that I have dusted off, and now it is easier than before. I know how to approach certain roles, arias and songs much better than before.”

It may be surprising to know that in a typical day, Fiset doesn’t sing much. She starts by jogging outside around her Pointe St-Charles home with her dog for half an hour (although she does avoid the cold in the winter). “When I can, I also do yoga,” said Fiset. “Then I start with technique for about a half hour. I work in full voice for an hour, not more. There is a lot of mental work: translation, solfège, memorizing, reciting the text and working in front of a mirror. I don’t work every day. I send e-mails, research productions, invest in my career.”

When Fiset steps on the Montreal Opera stage as Mimì, it will not be the first time she has sung the role. That was in June 2009 with the Saskatoon Opera. The reviews were ecstatic: “Both beautiful and captivating […] Marianne Fiset brings passion and a powerful voice to the role of Mimì,” wrote Jenn Sharp of Verbnews. “Fiset effectively creates the image of a fragile, sweet and quietly heroic woman. She unleashes her true and arresting voice and powerfully expresses deep pain or soaring affection,” wrote Heather Persson of The Star Phoenix (Saskatoon).

Her second staging of La Bohème was just this past February at Pacific Opera Victoria, but this time in the role of Musetta. “Vocally, Musetta is more active and reactive,” said Fiset. “Musetta has emotion; she gets upset, laughs and changes mood quickly. The placement of the voice and the intention is different. She is very impulsive; you can see immediately what she feels and thinks. Musetta has a good complexity too. She is very generous, heart of gold.” Fiset feels this experience will help her approach the role of Massenet’s Manon when she makes her Paris Opera debut in January 2012 singing two performances and covering for Natalie Dessay. “Manon has that coequettish character.”

Which one does she like better, Mimì or Musetta? “Mimì is lyricism, long lines, legato, emotion, sentimental,” said Fiset, who admits that there is a bit of the seamstress in her. “But I hope not to have the same destiny. Mimi is reserved, thinking and reflective and Musetta is an extrovert. That’s the major difference between the two. I like to do both, but I have a preference for Mimì for the magnificent music; her music is a bit more complex."

What is Fiset’s favourite scene? “For me, it’s Act III, as I’m there from the beginning to the end. Act IV is also really magnificent. It’s really not difficult as I’m singing lying down, which only demands a different approach and a bit more concentration to be sure of having enough support."

Before Montreal, Fiset will be in Marseille singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni along side Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapointe in the lead role. This will be her European operatic debut and she is quite excited. Last summer, she prepared for the role by singing it in concert with Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was also doing it for the first time at home before making his debut in Salzburg. Fiset adores the role because “Donna Elvira is both a woman of the heart and of the head.” It was a good exercise because Mozart has difficult lines and the challenge is to find the right place to breathe but she hopes to also sing Donna Anna one day.

Now that Fiset has expanded beyond Mimì, she is setting her sights on more challenges. “I want to keep my instrument healthy. There are some roles that are now possible, like Manon, which is challenging vocally, physically and technically. There are other roles that are heavier which I hope to do in a few years like Tatiana and Violetta.” Already at ease in Russian, the Czech opera Rusalka is within reach, especially since its "The Song to the Moon" is one of her signature tunes. When pressed to name a fantasy role, she admitted: “When I am 50, I would like to sing Aida; but it is clearly not for me for the next 10 years. I find this role magnificent.”

When Fiset was 18, she had a very different fantasy; she was studying political science with the idea of working at an embassy in order to travel. “I stayed seven years at the Conservatory, and each year I had doubts about whether I should continue.” Thankfully, her talent and persistence have paid off: she now enjoys both her lifelong dreams of traveling and singing.

» La Bohème, Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, (Place des Arts), May 21 to June 4 www.operademontreal.com

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Aria of the Month: Mi chiamano Mimì

“Mi chiamano Mimì” or “They call me Mimì,” sung by Mimì right after Rodolfo’s Act I aria “Che gelida manina,” is one of many gems in Puccini’s La Bohème.

“The aria requires endurance and nuance,” said soprano Marianne Fiset. “Puccini writes intelligently and provides places for rest. It’s a jewel, a moment of magic. If you close your eyes, the music takes you elsewhere. It’s a small moment of eternity in the opera.”

The aria begins in a recitative style. “She presents herself casually: what she does, her hobbies, and what she likes,” said Fiset. “She makes flowers and is a seamstress. Slowly, she opens a door to the real Mimì, who likes poetry and the beautiful things. Then there is a change. She talks about spring and love, and it becomes vocally more lyric.

“She starts to open up and talks about what touches her. She is not sure Rodolfo is listening so she asks him. She doesn’t know what more to say, so she repeats she is called Mimì and doesn’t know why. She is a bit nervous because she is in another man’s house. She is simple because she is reserved.”

"Now Mimì has Rodolfo’s attention: she is a bit more coquettish and playful," said Fiset. “She doesn’t go to church, but she prays. And she explains she lives alone, showing that she is available; there is a feeling of flirting. She lives in the attic, and in the spring she looks at the roof tops and the sky.”

“The big moment comes: she is the first to receive the sunlight and this fills her with joy, contentment, pleasure and beauty,” said Fiset. “In ‘Ma quando vien lo sgelo’ we see the real Mimì, radiant. Inside her is full of emotion and passion. Rodolfo sees a new side to her. For me, it’s at this moment that Rodolfo falls in love. Vocally, it’s there where I open the valves. You need to nuance it. The pleasure resides in playing with different interpretations, emotions, colours and nuances.

“Then she returns to herself, and she says that she loves flowers although those she makes have no smell because they are artificial. And the aria ends with Rodolfo looking at her; she doesn’t know what more to say except: ‘I’m your neighbor who comes at an inopportune moment.’”

(c) La Scena Musicale