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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 8 May 2011

Chants Libres: Refusing the Status Quo Even After 20 Years

by Lucie Renaud / May 1, 2011

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A great fighter in a never-ending battle, Pauline Vaillancourt rarely looks back. However, as Chants Libres is preparing to bring the public together for a special musical celebration on May 14, she has agreed to recount the company’s first two decades. “I am proud to have created 13 high-quality operas, to still be there 20 years later and to have conceded nothing,” she begins. “Creating a work is giving it life and giving a character a voice.” Through important excerpts of all the operas performed to date, the 20 performers and 25 musicians involved in the show Arias will therefore be paying homage to all the creators, performers and artists that were involved at one moment or another in the crazy adventure, brought together in a gigantic score by choreographed transitions. “All projects have their aesthetic and strengths. The world cannot have only one colour, it would be hopeless.”

In 1990, upon returning from Europe and noticing the marked lack of opportunities for contemporary music, Pauline Vaillancourt, alongside producer Joseph Saint-Gelais and writer Renald Tremblay, founded Chants Libres, hoping to bring together creators from all disciplines surrounding voice, long before the term multimedia became fashionable. “We wanted to create a space that would allow composers to create opera with today’s tools and encourage those who thought the genre was outdated to drop their prejudices,” Vaillancourt explains. “20 years ago, musicians didn’t have a voice, contrary to theatrical collaborators. We looked for people who were passionate about the program, who would accept some turbulence.”

Serge Provost, who wrote the music to the opera Le vampire et la nymphomane on a text by Claude Gauvreau, claims that this collaboration was one of the achievements that allowed his work as a composer to progress the most: “It was dizzying on occasion, but, after 15 years, I feel ready for a new collaboration. Opera remains as relevant as theatre today.” The human presence on stage is irreplaceable for him: “Since the text is sung, it gives way to a different type of emotions. It may seem paradoxical, but the music and staging convey everything, even if the words aren’t understood.”

Even if integrating decor, costumes, lighting and video screens add a new perspective to the producer’s work, these elements still depend on the music. “The dramatic form, fairly vast, is easily renewed, but the music has to be good for the audience to latch on to it. Technology is only used as a bridge,” explains Zack Settel, composer of the electro-opera L’enfant des glaces and Pocamambo, an opera for children aged 8 to 98 based on a libretto by Wadji Mouawad. Nowadays, he is working on a new opus that will be finished in May 2012 and will evoke the journeys, both exploratory and inside, of Alexandra David-Néel. The text will be written by Yan Muckle, who has already revisited Frida Kahlo’s universe in Yo soy la desintegracion and transposed the mythical Wedekind in Lulu, le chant souterrain. “I had to reinvent everything,” he said, “so that the libretto wouldn’t just be sung dialogue. It required work on the language and turned out to be quite the unusual challenge,” he remembers.

The soprano Marie-Annick Béliveau, who we heard in November 2009 in Gilles Tremblay’s fairy-opera L’eau qui danse, la pomme qui chante et l’oiseau qui dit la vérité (named premiere of the year at the latest Prix Opus gala), will step into Pauline Vaillancourt’s mythical shoes in Scelsi’s Les Chants du Capricorne. Overwhelmed by the 1995 production, she attended two performances: “I had found that Pauline’s work as a performer corresponded to the challenge a contemporary artist should face. The work became a jewel for me. My image and musical vocabulary comes from Chants Libres. There has to be at least one place where we don’t rely on just ticket sales!”

In both her past and present, Pauline Vaillancourt keeps fighting to make the industry, the sponsors and the public understand that the company must exist. “Everything considered creation is by definition precarious. The company has a risk-taking mandate; its role is to break down doors. It is utopian to think that the audience will take to the creation overnight. Ever since we have perfected the quality of the recordings, it is harder and harder to convince people to take risks. I would want to say to them: ‘Get out of your comfort zone, come see!’ We are constantly obliged to drop projects from lack of funding, but it is important to keep our freedom of action.”

Serge Provost doesn’t hesitate in calling the artistic director of Chants Libres a visionary: “She has devoted her entire live to singing, but also to producing. It takes great strength to bring all the arts together like that.” Yann Muckle brings out the leeway she gives her creators: “Pauline really wants to explore and to delve into new territory. She respects everyone’s personal universe and unifies them in one vision.”

Although some of her contemporaries are looking at retirement, Pauline Vaillancourt refuses to think about it. “I won’t stop this soon. I intend to concentrate on even more destabilizing projects; it isn’t by backtracking that we will gain anything. I think the public is interested and can move forward. Our role is to help it.”

[Translation: Catherine Hine]

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