Inspiring Mentorship: The bass and the tenor

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Joseph Rouleau and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure at the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards Gala at the NAC in May 2014.

More than 70 years ago when he was a child, acclaimed Canadian opera singer Joseph Rouleau was known for his beautiful soprano voice.

This might be surprising to those who have since enjoyed seeing him perform on the stage and experienced the power of his deep, rich voice.

“Over the course of several weeks when I turned 13, my voice simply crashed,” recalls Mr. Rouleau, now 85 years old. His vocal range eventually settled in the bass range, the lowest among classical male singers. He went on to become one of this country’s most accomplished artists, sharing the stage with legendary performers such as Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Maria Callas. In 2004 he received the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement for his many contributions to the cultural life of our country.

Earlier this year, Mr. Rouleau chose to mentor up-and-coming tenor Jean‑Philippe Fortier‑Lazure, 25, through the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards Mentorship Program, which is made possible with support from The Keg Spirit Foundation.

This mentorship opportunity came in the wake of a very successful artistic year for Mr. Fortier‑Lazure, who has been hailed as “the best young Quebec tenor we’ve heard in a long time” by Christopher Huss, the respected music writer of Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper. The young tenor recently joined the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio. Over the last few months, he has been working intensively with Mr. Rouleau to prepare for two upcoming roles: Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, and Count Almaviva, in The Barber of Seville

During a break from a recent two-week study session in Montreal, the two men – who first met three years ago when they performed together in the opera Pelléas et Mélisande – talked about what it takes to make it as an opera singer.

“Being un artiste lyrique is the best job in the world,” says Mr. Rouleau.  “But it’s hard work. To have a chance at success, Jean-Philippe has to be thoroughly prepared. Once a singer gets on stage, there can be no improvisation. He has to know the score inside out. That’s the secret.”

One of the key areas of focus during these mentorship sessions has been to allow Mr. Fortier-Lazure to perfect the Italian recitative required for his roles. Recitative is a style of delivery used in operas in which a singer adopts the rhythms of ordinary speech.

What’s more, it is critical that the singer’s Italian is flawless. This takes many months of practice and for Mr. Fortier-Lazure, it is well worth it: “These are roles I will be singing for the rest of my career,” he says.

Already, Mr. Rouleau’s collaboration has led to other opportunities. For instance, during last spring’s Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards event, Mr. Rouleau took the His Excellency David Johnston aside to suggest Jean-Philippe be invited to sing at Rideau Hall. A recital is in the works in the coming months.

“I would never have thought that I would have the privilege of being mentored by such a remarkable artist,” says Mr. Fortier‑Lazure. “This is beyond my wildest dreams.”

Click here to learn more about the Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards Mentorship Programme.

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