La Langue Maternelle: Brian Wise Speaks with Canadian Francophone Singers about French Opera and the 'Linguistic Motherland'

By Wise, Brian | Opera Canada, Winter 2019 | Go to article overview

La Langue Maternelle: Brian Wise Speaks with Canadian Francophone Singers about French Opera and the 'Linguistic Motherland'


Wise, Brian, Opera Canada


When Opera de Quebec staged Bizet's Carmen in May 2018, most of the cast was French-Canadian, except for the three leads, who hailed from Brazil, Mexico and the country Georgia. Critics reviewing the premiere took the non-Francophones to task for what they felt was an inadequate grasp of the French language.

"Carmen is a French opera, with a French style, a text in French," wrote Le Devoirs critic. "When the main protagonists have no understanding, no idea of this style and colours [of the language], many things collapse." One singer in the cast displayed a "recurring problem of colours and vowels" while another was "terrifyingly nonchalant" in his French pronunciation.

A reviewer for the website Backtrack similarly complained about a "questionable mastery of French," reflected in poor diction, differentiation of vowels and "excessively rolled r's."

Dion Mazerolle, an Acadian bass-baritone who sang the role of Dancai're in the production, acknowledges that the nuances of French diction and vocal colour can bring out the nitpickers. "Not to harp on those details, but they're important details," he said. Mazerolle added that the non-Francophone singers "had to work a little bit harder because the French language level was quite high. They needed to up their game to be at the level where the French people were."

The responses to Carmen highlight the challenges of performing French music in Quebec, where audiences (or critics, at least) can hold exacting standards about language. But it also raises more fundamental questions: how closely do French-Canadian opera singers identify with French vocal music? And while French singers from France often make French repertoire a large part of their musical identity, is the same dynamic true for French-Canadians, where language, but not nationality, is shared?

Julie Boulianne, a French-Canadian mezzo-soprano who performs widely in France and Belgium, does not believe that holding a French-Canadian passport alone provides a deeper insight into French music. "I think you have to experience France to be able to sing it," she said, noting that "everything is linked, from landscape to architecture, painting, music, and even food.

"You will say that's probably true for all music around the world, but what makes French music different is how strongly French people connect to their language through music. The poetry is often the most important thing. It's the motive for everything else in the music. It's the base, and as an interpreter, it must be your priority if you want to be respected as an artist. Even if the language connects Quebec to France in a very strong way," Boulianne continued in an e-mail, "French-Canadian artistry is more about the message, it's more earthy, it's deeply connected to a primary need for expression, while French music is more refined, sophisticated."

But Rosemarie Landry, head of vocal studies at University of Montreal, says that her Canadian-born students actually put more effort into French repertoire than her students from France. "I think the way that French-Canadians relate to the French repertoire is sometimes with more love and affection than how the French relate to it," said Landry, a soprano who is Acadian French. "We sing more French repertoire than the French do themselves many times."

Landry suggests that some French-Canadian singers feel a need to defend their musical language in the midst of a dominant Anglophone culture. "Here in French Canada, there's a love of the language but also maybe a fear of assimilation," she said. "We appropriate the language more than the French do."

Spoken versus sung French

Over the past 400 years, language in the former colony of New France has gradually splintered from France, retaining older French vocabulary and accents while intermingling with English and other influences. At times French-Canadians and the French can seem like two peoples divided by a common language (a Quebec film screened at a recent edition of the Cannes Film Festival featured French subtitles). …

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