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Joseph Rouleau, famed bass and champion of Canadian musicians, has died at 90

He sang for a quarter-century at Covent Garden, then returned to Canada to nurture young classical talent.

He sang for a quarter-century at Covent Garden, then returned to Canada to nurture young classical talent

Bass Joseph Rouleau's discography includes Semiramide by Rossini, L’Enfance du Christ by Berlioz, Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov and an album entitled Grands airs d’opéra français. (Supplied to Radio-Canada by Joseph Rouleau)

Canadian bass Joseph Rouleau, who shared the stage with Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti and other opera greats during his illustrious career, has died in Montreal at the age of 90.

The news was confirmed by staff at Jeunesses Musicales Canada, the organization Rouleau helmed for a quarter of a century.

As a performing artist, Rouleau was known not only for his deeply resonant voice and compelling stage presence, but also as an affable and beloved colleague who never forgot his humble roots in his hometown of Matane, Que.

Bass-baritone Joseph Rouleau and soprano Joan Sutherland perform in a 1964 production of Bellini's I puritani at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. (Supplied to Radio-Canada by Joseph Rouleau)

He spent his prime vocal years at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, beginning in 1957 when he debuted as Colline in Puccini's La bohème. In that first season, he also sang the Ghost of Hector in Berlioz's Les Troyens, Ferrando in Verdi's Il Trovatore (Zinka Milanov was Leonora), Sarastro in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, and Sparafucile in Verdi's Rigoletto, sharing the stage in the latter opera with fellow Canadian Richard Verreau (Duke of Mantua) and Sutherland (Gilda).

Sutherland would be a frequent collaborator in the ensuing years: Rouleau made his Opéra de Paris debut in 1960 as Raimondo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor with Sutherland in the title role; together they toured Australia in 1965-6, with a young Pavarotti joining some of their casts.

At the conclusion of that season, Rouleau, Sutherland and Marilyn Horne hit the studio to record Rossini's Semiramide with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Richard Bonynge. From that album, here are Rouleau and Sutherland singing the great Assur–Semiramide duet from Act 2:

Rouleau's very first experience in the recording studio was with none other than soprano Maria Callas. He sang the role of Rochefort in her 1958 recording of the mad scene from Donizetti's Anna Bolena, later recalling that Callas insisted on singing it nine times until it was perfect. Listen here.

For the Canadian Opera Company, in the 1960s, Rouleau sang Basilio (Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia), Ramfis (Verdi's Aïda), and created the role of Bishop Taché in the world premiere of Harry Somers' Louis Riel.

In the '70s, the BBC engaged Rouleau to perform and record the role of Philippe II in the complete French version of Verdi's Don Carlos.

In 1984, Rouleau would make his long-overdue Metropolitan Opera debut in the Italian version of that same opera, but in a different role: he sang the Grand Inquisitor alongside Montserrat Caballé, Renato Bruson, Shirley Verrett and Jerome Hines.

In 1985, back in London, Rouleau gave his final performance at Covent Garden, also as the Grand Inquisitor. In all, he sang in 850 performances there over nearly three decades.

He returned to the Met in 1986 to share the stage with Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Pavarotti, Fiorenza Cossotto and fellow Canadian Louis Quilico in Verdi's Aïda.

Other notable roles that reveal Rouleau's range included Titurel in Wagner's Parsifal, Timur in Puccini's Turandot (which he sang in 1967 at Covent Garden alongside Birgit Nilsson and James McCracken), the title role in Massenet's Don Quichotte (of which he gave 55 performances over two seasons at Opéra de Paris), Mephistofeles in Gound's Faust, and both Pimen and the title role in Moussorgsky's Boris Godunov.

The latter became a trademark for Rouleau, who fell in love with the Russian language. He sang it in Kazan, Russia, wearing the same costume as the role's most famous interpreter, Feodor Chaliapin. "Before each performance, I crossed myself, prayed for my father's support, and said, 'Mom, my God, I've come a long way from Matane,'" he told ICI Musique recently.

In February 1988, CBC/Radio-Canada broadcast his concert performance of Boris Godunov from Montreal's Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste.

Born in Matane, Que., on Feb. 28, 1929, Rouleau moved to Montreal and began taking voice lessons at the age of 17. He started entering amateur singing contests, which he invariably won.

It was while competing for the Archambault Prize (now the OSM Competition) that Rouleau met conductor Wilfrid Pelletier, who urged Rouleau to leave Brébeuf College, where he'd been studying, and enter the Conservatoire de Montréal to begin a rigorous musical education. This led him to Milan, Italy, in 1952 for further training.

In 1955, Rouleau went to New York City to take part in a contest organized by the Experimental Opera Theatre of America. He was one of seven singers retained from a field of 250 with the prize being a series of engagements in New Orleans. Rouleau was cast in productions of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi and La bohème, and upon returning to New York, he auditioned for the visiting director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, who offered Rouleau his first contract on the spot.

Charisma and experience

While working in London, Rouleau met his wife, Renée, a dancer in the Royal Opera House's corps de ballet. In 1977, they relocated to Montreal where Rouleau began putting his charisma and experience to use advocating for young singers. He became a professor of voice at the Université du Québec à Montréal in 1980 and created the opera studio there.

He was a key figure in the establishment of the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal and l'Opéra de Montréal.

In 1989, he accepted the presidency of Jeunesses Musicales Canada, a non-profit organization that encourages classical musicians at the beginning of their careers. He held that position for 25 years, well into his 80s.

"I've yet to meet someone with a bigger heart, a stronger will and a more determined mind," reflects Danièle LeBlanc, the current executive and artistic director of Jeunesses Musicales Canada. "He never took 'no' for an answer and yet, he was an amazing charmer, maintaining people's attention with his wonderful stories and anecdotes about his career and other things.

"Joseph was instrumental in the restoration of our foundation, in the renovation of our current location, and, finally, in fundraising for our different artistic projects and for the overall recognition of our institution," LeBlanc continues. "JM Canada would not be where it is today were it not for his implication over the last three decades. He knew everyone, and if not, made certain he got to know them and involved them with our activities."

While at Jeunesses Musicales Canada, he and his friend André Bourbeau, a Quebec politician and classical music lover, co-founded the Concours musical international de Montréal, an annual music competition that attracts young musicians from around the world to compete for a prestigious prize package. Rouleau was actively involved in fundraising — he told ICI Musique he was a "quêteur professionel" (professional beggar) — and served on the jury each year the competition was for singers.

Naturally, a man of his accomplishments and longevity had accumulated many honours over the years. He was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1977 and later promoted to companion of the order. In 1999, he became an officer of the National Order of Quebec and was promoted to grand officer in 2004. Rouleau received a Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement in 2004.

He held honorary doctorates from McGill University and the Université du Québec à Rimouski. In his hometown of Matane, the Complexe culturel Joseph-Rouleau was named in his honour.

Rouleau is survived by his wife, Renée, and three children.

Canadian bass-baritone Joseph Rouleau, pictured here in 1966, toured Australia with Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti during the 1965-6 season. (André Le Coz/Radio-Canada)