Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Abominable Showman, November 9, 2013

(photo by Denis Rouvre)
Diva with a Heart
CharPo sits down for a revealing tete-a-tete with contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who is reprising the role that earned her accolades and standing ovations last year at The Royal Opera at Covent Garden, Mistress Quickly in Verdi’s classic opera Falstaff
by Richard Burnett 

French composer Claude Debussy once famously said, “In opera, there is always too much singing.” Of course, he never heard Marie-Nicole Lemieux, the first Canadian to win the First Prize and the Special Prize for Lieder at the Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition in Belgium.

To hear Lemieux tell her own story – with her amazing charisma and bubbly personality – you  know she’d be able to convince Debussy he was dead wrong, and without her even singing a note.

That is how utterly convincing and invested Lemieux is in her craft.

I never asked myself if I could sing because singing was always natural for me,” says Lemieux. “I could always sing. I only studied music later. But I could always sing. It was like breathing. Then when I discovered opera when I was 10-years-old, it was like a dream, untouchable. It really was the start of my passion.”

Born in small-town Dolbeau-Mistassini, Quebec, in 1975, Lemieux entered the Chicoutimi Conservatoire de musique in 1994 and graduated with a degree in voice before doing her graduate studies at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal with noted teacher Marie Daveluy. 

(photo by Richard Burnett)
Within three weeks of graduating with a Masters in voice in 2000, Lemieux won first prize at both the Jeunesse Musicale du Canada’s Joseph Rouleau Competition in Montreal and the Queen Elizabeth International Music Competition for opera in Brussels. Lemieux also took second prize in the separate competition for Lieder at the Queen Elizabeth International competition. 

Lemieux would go on to great success, performing concerts and recital work with everybody from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Orchestre National de France, to the London and St. Petersburg Philharmonic orchestras.

But nothing quite prepared Lemieux for her professional operatic debut with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto in 2002, in the role of Cornelia in an all-star production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare alongside Daniel Taylor, Ewa Podles, Isabel Bayrakdarian and Brian Asawa.

(photo by Richard Burnett)
“I was so scared!” Lemieux admits today. “But I was with such a great cast. Then at the end of the run my parents came down for the final show, and I was crying because I found everything so difficult. For two years I’d been singing concerts ands recitals, so to be onstage in an opera was real torture! On one hand I was always checking the maestro, with the other the staging. I had to be careful [not to trip over] my big black dress.”

The Juno Award-winning Lemieux applied herself 100 percent – and then some – to the role. If that makes her a diva, then Lemieux wears the title like a badge.

“It depends on the definition,” Lemieux tells me. “I take nothing for granted. People pay their hard-earned money to see you play and they want to see you do your best. I care about perfection of intention. That’s the thing. When I’m in the audience and watch someone onstage sing [technically] perfect but with no heart, that’s not good enough for me. So when I’m onstage I give myself totally. If that makes me a diva, so be it.”

Beginning this weekend, Lemieux co-stars in L’Opéra de Montréal’s new production of Falstaff, Guiseppe Verdi’s final opera, a madcap comedy adapted by Arrigo Boito from Shakespeare’s plays The Merry Wives of Windsor and scenes from Henry IV

(photo by Yves Renaud)
It is Lemieux’s first company production since she co-starred in Gianni Schicchi back in 2009 – but it isn’t the first time she plays the role of the irresistible Mrs. Quickly. Lemieux has won acclaim the world over for portraying Mrs. Quickly, notably on stages across Europe last year, including La Scala (where Verdi premiered the original Falstaff back in February 1893) and at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden. 

“There are some surprising touches, [such as] a sexy comic turn from Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s Mistress Quickly as a woman whose unfashionable curves promise unimaginable pleasures for the connoisseur, “ The Independent raved. “Lemieux steals that scene.”

Lemieux remembers Falstaff at Covent Garden like it was yesterday.

(photo by Yves Renaud)
“We did six shows [in May 2012] and the first night was also broadcast live on the BBC, and after the show they came to see me, told me it was charity week and asked if I could ask the audience to donate money,” Lemieux says, whose English is much better than she thinks it is. “I asked them to ask one of the other cast members, but [the Royal Opera] said, ‘We think you’re going to be great!’ My dresser coached me, helped me rehearse my English. Then I went onstage and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen…’”

Lemieux’s contralto voice trails aways a moment, then she looks at me and laughs out loud, with that great big infectious laugh of hers. 

“I think it was the most difficult thing I did during this production!” says Lemieux. “Happily it turned out to be one of their best fundraising evenings ever!”

L’Opéra de Montréal presents Falstaff by Guiseppe Verdi, at Montreal’s Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place des Arts, November 9-12-14-16, at 7:30 pm nightly.  Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, with one intermission. 

Click here for more info and tickets. Click here for Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s official website.

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