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Hystory of the opera in Quebec

Definition and origin of opera

An opera is a dramatic musical composition mainly composed of arias (solo movements that express the emotions of the characters) and recitatives (solo movements that move the action forward), as well as movements for two or more soloists, a chorus, and instrumental groups, depending on the country and period of the opera. All the movements are closely related, but linked in different ways. In operas by Mozart, for example, there are short breaks between the movements, whereas a century later, in operas by Wagner, the music is continuous.

Opera first emerged in Italy in the late 16th century, and became extremely popular during the first half of the 17th century, in particular thanks to the genius of Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643).

Opera quickly spread throughout Europe, and until the early 20th century remained the most grandiose of all stage productions - a total work of art, as Wagner phrased it. Over 25,000 different operas exist, half of them in Italian. Other related types of musical theatre include operetta or musical comedy which, in contrast to grand opera, includes some spoken dialogue.

Opera in Québec City

No opera is known to have been presented in Québec City during the French regime. It appears that the first opera heard in the capital was performed on February 10, 1783. This was Padlock , by Charles Dibdin (1745-1814), one of the most popular English composers of the day. The performance was given in the Thespian Theatre "to the complete satisfaction of a numerous audience" as reported in the Quebec Gazette . With several repeat performances, The Padlock was apparently the only opera heard in Québec City until 1793, when the first of many popular English operas by composers such as William Shield, Samuel Arnold, Thomas Attwood and Steven Storace (two former students of Mozart) were performed.

A small number of French operas were also presented, including Madame Angot ou la Poissarde parvenue by Maillot and Le Déserteur by Monsigny, and what is believed to be the first opera written on the North American continent, Colas et Colinette. The words and music to this opera were composed by Joseph Quesnel (1746-1809), a general storekeeper in Boucherville, who composed music and poetry during his leisure hours. First performed in Montréal on January 14, 1790, Colas was presented on several occasions in Québec City in the early 19 th century, and the libretto was published. Quesnel, several of whose poems and plays have survived, composed a second comic opera, Lucas et Cécile, but it is unclear whether it was ever performed. These are short, charming works with a naive but well-conducted plot and inspired musical numbers, especially the lively ensemble pieces.

All the evidence shows that the first operas performed in Québec City were not, in fact, representative of the grand art that we now consider as opera, but rather reflect the tastes of a population that needed entertainment. The situation contrasted with that in the great cities in Europe and, already, the United States, where major operas were often performed. One consolation, however, was the fact that world-renowned artists came to perform in Québec from the second half of the 19 th century onwards, including several who had taken part in the first performances of operas by Rossini or Donizetti.

In June 1856, the English company of Pyne & Harrison arrived in Québec and performed four major works, including Bellini's La Sonnambula and Donizetti's La Fille du régiment .

In the following years, and as late as 1944, many other travelling troupes came to perform in Québec. They introduced the Québec public to some of the greatest works in the repertory, and to many lesser known operas such as Les Diamants de la couronne   by Auber and The Bohemian Girl by   Balfe, as well as countless operettas.

Several local composers, too, made a modest contribution to the repertoire. Célestin Lavigueur (1831-1885) wrote three stage works, including the operetta La Fiancée des bois with a libretto by Pamphile Le May. Later, the founder of the Québec Symphony Orchestra, Joseph Vézina (1849-1924), composed three operettas, Le Lauréat, Le Rajah and Le Fétiche, which were all huge successes.

On March 17, 1900, fire destroyed the Academy of Music on St-Louis street, where so many shows and artists (including the great Albani, a Québec-born soprano of worldwide renown) had delighted generation after generation of Québec audiences. However, the opening in 1903 of the Auditorium, now known as the Capitol, soon offered a new venue. The Québec Symphony Society, later to become the Québec Symphony Orchestra, opened its first year of activities with a grand inaugural performance that included excerpts from Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de perles , Verdi's La Traviata , Hérold's Pré au Clerc   and Massenet's Manon .

The Auditorium also became a temporary home to touring opera troupes, mostly from the United States but sometimes from Canada. In 1910, the Montréal Opera Company came into being. During its brief, three-year existence, it presented operas such as Lakmé, La Bohème, Carmen, Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Madama Butterfly, La Traviata and several others in Québec City.

Following World War II, opera and operetta continued to attract audiences. A second concert hall, the Palais Montcalm, opened in 1932. Opera troupes such as the San Carlo Grand Opera Company from New York were regular and faithful visitors to the capital. Sometimes, local singers were part of the cast, such as the famous tenor Raoul Jobin who sang in Faust, Paillasse, Rigoletto and Roméo et Juliette in 1933.

In 1949, a local opera company was established for the first time. L'Opéra français Enr. presented Faust, La Traviata, Rigoletto and Tosca before dissolving a few years later. In 1961, Le Théâtre lyrique de Nouvelle-France, later to become Le Théâtre lyrique du Québec in 1967, took up the challenge and presented on large-scale productions featuring the well-known Québec singers such as Colette Boky, Richard Verreau, Pierrette Alarie, Claude Corbeil, Robert Savoie and many others.

Between 1969 and 1984, La Société lyrique d'Aubigny presented a large number of professionally-produced operas, before making way for the current company, L'Opéra de Québec.


Text and research by Bertrand Guay.

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