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Reunion: Huguette Tourangeau

Huguette Tourangeau's repertory ranged from Mozart and Handel to Rossini, Massenet and Offenbach. SYLVIA L’ÉCUYER visits with the French–Canadian mezzo-soprano, one of the busiest artists on the international scene in the 1970s.

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Photographed at home in Canada by Yves Renaud
© Yves Renaud 2011
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As Parséïs in the Met premiere of Massenet’s Esclarmonde, 1976
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As Elisabetta in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at Covent Garden, 1977
© Reg Wilson 2011

Canadian mezzo Huguette Tourangeau, remembered for her powerful, almost baritonal chest voice, as well as for her stunning stage presence, was barely twenty when conductor Wilfrid Pelletier asked her to sing for his young colleague Zubin Mehta in the early 1960s. Pelletier had founded the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec à Montréal and was proud of the singers graduating from his school. The twenty-four-year-old Mehta was conducting symphonic concerts and opera productions as music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra at the time. He invited Tourangeau to sing Verdi's Requiem, and to make her professional opera debut as Mercédès in Carmen. Pelletier, who had worked at the Met as a rehearsal pianist and conductor from 1917 to 1950, also suggested that she prepare for the Met auditions. After she won those auditions, the stars were aligned. In 1964, Tourangeau landed the role of Cherubino at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. The conductor was Richard Bonynge. Tourangeau's auspicious meeting with the maestro was to be a turning point in her career. "My whole life has been like that," she says at our recent meeting in her airy, roomy apartment in the leafy West Island area of Montreal. "I happened to be at the right place at the right time." By 1965, she was touring with the Metropolitan Opera National Company, this time singing the roles of Carmen and Suzuki, and could not believe she was actually being paid to sing. "I was crazy with joy. I came from a very modest family, and it felt like money was falling from heaven — every week!" 

After a successful tour of fifty-six U.S. cities with the Met, Tourangeau returned to New York and happened to meet Bonynge, who said he would like to hear her again. She was to sing a few days later in Carnegie Hall for Colbert Artists, soon to be her agents. Bonynge attended the audition and immediately asked her if she would be free to come to Seattle to sing Mallika to the Lakmé of his wife, Joan Sutherland. "Of course, I was!" she recalls. "Bonynge loved my voice because of the ample medium range and the very low register, which has been sometimes criticized. He liked the quality of our voices together, Joan and I, and he also liked the fact that I was so enthusiastic to take up challenges. The more difficult the part, the more quickly I learned it." At first, Sutherland and Tourangeau sang French operas together. Eventually, Tourangeau was invited to the Bonynges' home in Switzerland, where the conductor coached her for several weeks in other repertoire. Together they prepared a recording of Messiah and a solo album of Arias from Forgotten Operas by Auber, Balfe, Bizet, Donizetti, Vaccai and Verdi for the Decca label, both LPs issued in 1970.

In much the same way that he had done with his wife, Bonynge encouraged Tourangeau to tackle the coloratura repertoire. Up to that point, she had been heading toward heavier roles. "Richard told me, 'No, this is not your voice! Your voice is like that of the great contraltos of the early 1800s.' So he would play the music at the piano, ask me to sing it, and he actually made me realize that I could! He did not design any special vocal exercises for me, I was simply to repeat the ornaments after him." Bonynge wrote dizzying ornaments for the last aria in Messiah. Tourangeau learned them in two days, and they recorded the piece. The solo album was prepared the same way and recorded in only two days, in two three-hour sessions. Some of those forgotten gems were extremely difficult, and the ornaments Bonynge wrote included some very low notes. Recognizing the challenge to the voice, he arranged for the arias that required the use of her lower register to be recorded at the first session. Tourangeau fondly remembers that after each aria, the musicians of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande would break into applause. "It's true! They rarely do that. They reacted to my low register!" A famous "singer's doctor" in New York, Dr. Leo P. Reckford, examined her and found that she had exceptionally long vocal cords — "like a cello," she laughs. 

Grateful for Bonynge's guidance, Tourangeau also acknowledges the stimulating influence and generous friendship of Sutherland. Until the mezzo shared the stage with Sutherland in Lakmé, Tourangeau knew the soprano's voice only from her recordings. Hearing the opening line of the flower duet, "Viens, Mallika," she recalls having suddenly "understood the phenomenon." A few years later, after the recording of Messiah, she told Sutherland how she would like "to float those notes like she did." "It's quite easy," Sutherland, in her matter-of-fact way, replied, "when you get the hang of it!"

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In the title role of Handel's Giulio Cesare in Hamburg, 1969
© Elisabeth Speidel/Hamburgische Staatsoper 2011

After Lakmé in Seattle, Tourangeau sang a number of roles in San Francisco — Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda, Adalgisa to Sutherland's Norma and Prince Orlofsky in Fledermaus. During the 1970s, Tourangeau's career flourished. After a fiery performance as Handel's Giulio Cesare in Hamburg, her photo graced the front page of the daily local paper with the following caption: "Caesar is a woman!!" Her Carmen, also in Hamburg, was a huge success, with Plácido Domingo singing Don José. "After Plácido," she says, "the other tenors, not that they are not good, seem pale. He was quite extraordinary vocally, of course, but also as an actor, with such a powerful presence onstage." She was fêted in Amsterdam, singing Bertarido in Rodelinda. In Handel's music, her voice could show its warmth, without being hard or overpowering, and display her vivid command of coloratura. "And wonderful Joan was singing better than ever," she acknowledges. "You know, up to this day I have never heard any voice approaching hers."  

One of her most high-profile collaborations with the Bonynges was Massenet's Esclarmonde, which Bonynge had unearthed as a vehicle for his wife. It was an immense success at San Francisco Opera in 1974, and Sutherland, Tourangeau and Bonynge later recorded it and brought it to the Met. "I always felt I had his absolute support, trust and affection," says Tourangeau of her mentor. "That is the way he is — generous and faithful."

Tourangeau met her husband, Barry Thompson, while singing Maddalena in Rigoletto in Vancouver. He was director of the opera in Edmonton at the time, "a very handsome man, single — just like me," she smiles. They got married in Montreal, in 1969, and the next day she sang Carmen in concert with the Montreal Symphony. "I sang beautifully that day!" she laughs. 

In London, she received much praise for the trouser role of the page Urbain in a London Opera Society performance of Les Huguenots at Royal Albert Hall. She remembers the crowd waiting for her at the stage door, surrounding her with such enthusiasm that her sister Rachel, who had come from Montreal for the performance, was afraid they would crush her against the wall. "It was as if I was a pop star!"

In 1974, Sutherland and Tourangeau, under Bonynge's baton, came to the Sydney Opera House shortly after it opened. Les Contes d'Hoffmann was one of the highlights of the inaugural year. It was with this opera that Tourangeau had made her debut at the Met, on November 28, 1973. The production attracted a lot of attention for its spectacular staging, and also because it was presented in what we now call the "Bonynge version," with the original spoken dialogue, the Giulietta act's tragic ending restored and the apocryphal septet transformed into a quartet and moved to the end, allowing Stella to reappear to make clear that all three women are various incarnations of her. Tourangeau, of course, was the Muse. "I remember standing on a table, wearing a large cape," she recalls, "and then I turned around and spoke in a voice that sounded like thunder — 'La vérité, dit-on…' — in the dark. Everybody was startled, including myself!" 

Other roles at the Met included Dorabella, Cherubino and, for her last New York appearance, Zerlina, which was televised during a run of Don Giovanni in 1978. She retired from the stage in 1980, shortly after a challenging Charlotte (Werther) in Lyon; after years of fighting sinus infections every time she flew, missing her husband (who was by now in declining health and ultimately passed away in 2009) and feeling lonely, she called it quits. 

In the mid-1980s, Tourangeau went on to teach privately in Montreal. She attempted to equip her students with a solid technique, and to get them to forge a strong emotional connection with what they were singing. "I had students who had beautiful voices, who could sing the most difficult music, but something was missing. Richard Bonynge used to say, 'Don't analyze it — it has to come from inside you.' But then I was criticized. People used to say that I was giving too much, that I sang Elizabeth [in Maria Stuarda] like Bette Davis. Richard had used to write cadenzas in the very low register for me, and when I sang them, people were surprised! And some did not like it." 

Tourangeau was unfazed by these criticisms. "You know, too many singers sing for the critics, and it is a pity, because they lose their spontaneity. They are afraid of too much intensity." Her last recording, an award-winning 1983 El Amor Brujo with the Montreal Symphony under Charles Dutoit, is a perfect case in point. In this flamenco-influenced score, the singer has to use voice techniques and sounds that are not "beautiful." "It does not happen enough that a voice is disturbing," she says, "but it should happen. You have to reach down into a deep-seated emotion with your voice." 

Tourangeau says she never had any regrets. And truly, there is not a trace of sadness in this lively, charming, exuberant woman, who confesses, "It is a difficult career, from one hotel to another. But I was lucky to be with Richard and Joan. They were like family. When we had dinner together, it was so warm and friendly! We had great fun, but of course, the work was always serious. What a wonderful life it has been! Always inspiring, always new places, new works, new people, wonderfully kind and generous people, musicians, singers. After my career ended, during the years when my husband was ill, I could not go to the opera very often. Now I am happy to go, sitting in the first rows, admiring the work of the performers." spacer 

SYLVIA L'ÉCUYER is a musicologist and broadcaster. She is an associate professor at Université de Montréal and host and producer of Saturday Opera Broadcasts for Espace Musique, Radio-Canada's music network.  

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2