Soprano  Pierrette  Alarie  and  Tenor  Léopold  Simoneau
The Couple in Conversation with Bruce Duffie

simoneau & alarie

Over the course of my quarter-century of doing interviews with musicians, it has been rare to chat with two at once.  There have been a couple of couples and a few times when more than one person from a production came along.  It has also been very rare that I encounter any of my guests more than once.  So this presentation is twice-out-of-the-ordinary since it does have both the husband and wife and was continued over two separate sessions.

The first interview took place on the telephone in May of 1986.  They were pleased that I asked for their time, and responded with thought and enthusiasm to my questions.  The following summer, I was in the Pacific Northwest for Wagner in Seattle and a cruise of the Inside Passage in Alaska.  When I informed them I would be close, they insisted on a personal visit, which I gladly arranged.  So a little more than a year after our first conversation, we met in person and after a lovely drive around the city of Victoria, I was ushered into their home for refreshment and more talk.  Both of these meetings have now been transcribed and are presented below.

Though they had long since retired from performing, their lives were busy with their teaching as well as a duo-biography which was then in the works and has since been published.  Their voices, however, still had the warmth and vitality which was ever-present in their vocal performances.

After so many years working as a team
— both professionally and personally — they truly spoke as one voice and often handed phrases off to one another seamlessly and naturally.  Here is what was said on those two wonderful occasions . . . . . .

Léopold Simoneau:    It’s a pleasure to hear someone from Chicago.

Bruce Duffie:    So tell me about singing here!

LS:    Well, that has been quite, several years ago now.  I was just thinking today that the first time I sang at the Lyric Opera of Chicago was in the first production of the revival of the opera company in 1954.

BD:    Our famous Don Giovanni!

LS:    In the famous Don Giovanni, yes.  And I participated in several seasons after that, four or five seasons, and I can tell you that I still cherish some of those seasons because Madame Carol Fox [co-founder and General Director of the company] knew how to put on opera production with the finest artists.  It was really an honor to participate to those productions at the time, and I have a vivid remembrance and souvenir of all those seasons.  

BD:    Is this something that is not possible today, or is it just not done as often?

LS:    I don’t know.  It’s very difficult to say.  We have a tendency to become very easily sentimental about past productions, about past glories.  For one thing, twenty-five years ago we spent a little bit more time preparing the productions.  I don’t know what goes on in Chicago these days; I understand that presently they do have still some splendid productions, but in general, in the world of opera we have less and less time.  The singers have become more and more nomadic, and the conductors the same thing.

BD:    You say less time preparing a production.  Do you mean each individual singer preparing his part in the studio, or all of the singers together, preparing it and rehearsing it on the stage together?

LS:    I would say both.  I am now retired from singing and live in Victoria, Canada, but I do go to some performances Toronto.  I haven’t been to Chicago or the Metropolitan recently, but I’ve heard broadcasts, and it seems the preparation is not as carefully prepared as it used to be.

BD:    Can we place the blame for this at any one doorstep, or must it be spread over several problems?

LS:    I think that there are several problems, but the main one is maybe the economy.  The staggering of cost of opera nowadays, with all the high fees of orchestras and stage hands, it’s become prohibitive almost.

Pierrette Alarie:    And also, if I may add something, the astronomic fees of the singers today make it so expensive.  That is absolutely why the level is not as good as it used to be, because they have one star or two stars, and then the rest is not up to that level.  So it’s rather uneven.

BD:    Are any of the stars worth the fees they charge?

LS:    Some of them admit that they are paid too much!  In a recent interview with Leonie Rysanek, she absolutely, clearly said, “We’re all, all of us, paid too high fees.” [Laughs]

PA:    Overpaid.  That’s what she said!

BD:    Yet you don’t find any of them voluntarily taking pay cuts!

PA:    [Laughs] No.

LS:    I don’t think so!

BD:    Is this something that is peculiar to opera, or is this happening in general?  Sports figures are also getting paid huge fees...

LS:    Well, you have a very good point there, yeah.

PA:    Absolutely.  It’s almost scandalous, I think!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We’ve talked about performing standards changing over forty years.  Are you optimistic about the future of opera, or do you think that it is going to be a dead issue very soon?

PA:    Oh, I don’t.

LS:    I don’t either, because opera is more and more popular.  Of course, arts are very frequently in a state of crisis.  There is, presently in some quarters, a state of crisis in opera, and I mean by that the change of concept of the whole art of opera including the tendencies that parody some stagings of some productions of some of the masterpieces.  I think that this is a dangerous trend!  In some quarters there is a very strong protest about these new concepts of production in opera which change totally the meaning of a libretto!

PA:    And the meaning of the composer.  That is what is dramatic among the new trend of stage directors.  They probably have some fantastic ideas of their own of the actual world of today, but there’s no composer coming with something new for them....

LS: satisfy their aspirations.

simoneauPA:    So therefore they take the masterpieces and play with them, and they try to make something else, which is very sad.

LS:    For instance, I saw the fourth act of Bohème with all the participants as drug addicts, and Mimì died after a needle shot of heroin.

BD:    Well how much experimentation is acceptable?

PA:    Technically this is a fantastic world!  We can do so much with lighting, for example, and with new fabrics for costumes and things like that.  There is so much that we can experiment.  We can update a work, but you absolutely cannot play with the composer or his music...

LS:    ...or touch the essence of a work.

PA:    You don’t play with a great painting.  You don’t paint over it, but with opera, it seems to be fun for some of them, and I think it’s awful.

BD:    Getting back to your point, then, why are there no new great operas being written, so that the stage directors can experiment with the new works?

PA:    I would ask you the same question! [Laughter all around]

LS:    That would be ideal for these stage directors who look for new media of expression!  But I still maintain, and I think that it’s the right path, that we have to respect the original concept of the composer.  We have no rights to change that.  As Pierrette said, we can’t change the slightest thing in a painting of Renoir.  Why should we try to make it look like a very modern concept?

BD:    Is it a mistake on the part of the public to perhaps expect every new opera that they see to be a masterpiece?

PA:    Perhaps the public expects too much.  That is a good point there.  But even the great composers had their bad days, their bad moments, with their own composition.  It’s not that every work of theirs was a masterpiece, absolutely not.  There were a lot of flops and things that were never published.  That happens to all the composers.  Some of their opening nights were flops, you know.  I think Carmen was one.

LS:    Carmen was a flop at first.  Most of the Wagner operas were not successful at first.

BD:    Even Traviata, I believe, was a scandal.

LS:    Traviata was, yes.

BD:    Besides the great and well-known ones, should we do operas that we know are lesser works?

LS:    Yes.  I think there are a lot of masterworks that are just waiting to be revived or to be presented.  We see, for instance, a great vogue, a great popularity, in the Handel operas and in some of the Baroque music.  Fifteen or twenty years ago, no one thought to put on operas of Handel, but nowadays it’s rather popular and very successful.  We, in a modest way with our program here — we have our advanced training program — that’s a little bit what we do with chamber operas.  There are charming works that are never done, for instance, the early Rossini works or Paiciello.

PA:    Last summer we did the very first opera written by Bizet, which is called Don Procopio.  It was very successful with the audience.  It was a discovery and it was really fantastic!

LS:    The music is absolutely charming.  You already sense the genius of Bizet; there are two or three themes in Don Procopio that were put in Les Pêcheurs de Perles, and later on in Carmen.

BD:    Well, how can we get the managers of the theaters all over the world to take chances on some of these unknown works?

PA:    [Laughs]

LS:    I think a work like that can be presented in a very acceptable way with lesser names than Caballé or Domingo, but to assure a good box office, most of the managers have to go to big names.

PA:    That is a problem.  It’s the box office; it seems box office comes first.

BD:    Is the public really determining the taste by showing up at the box office or staying away?

LS:    I think it’s true that they determine what repertoire they’re going to see and hear.

BD:    Is the public always right?

LS:    Yes! [Laughter all around]

BD:    But it seems that some operas come in fashion and go out of fashion, and the pendulum swings.

PA:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk about your advanced training opera center.  You’re very much engaged in working with younger singers.  Are they more prepared than they were thirty or forty years ago, or how is it different?

alariePA:    Personally I think they are more prepared musically than in our time.  In general, they have much more opportunity to study in university, and then conservatory, or music school.  So I think they are musically more prepared, although in some ways they know a lot about music.  They learn a lot about music, but one thing that is lacking very much is sight reading and solfège.  They learn a lot of counterpoint and harmony, but it’s amazing that they can’t read very well.  To me, it’s always a surprise.  They know so much about symphonies and how to analyze them and things like that, but to a singer, I think it’s not that necessary.  There’s so much that the singers need to learn
languages, theater...

LS:    Especially languages.

BD:    You’re encouraging a lot of singers to get into the field.  Are we perhaps getting too many young singers coming into opera?

PA:    There’s a lot, of course, but it’s a very attractive world, and for youngsters it seems very glamorous because today the TV and the cinema make it very glamorous.  All young singers who have a bit of a voice try, but we know very well that only five percent at the most will make it.  It’s sad, in some ways, but I guess they have to try what they want to do.

BD:    Five percent of the people who begin a singing career make it?

LS:    Yes, will make it in the big leagues.  Basically, singing is a vocation.  In the bottom of their heart they live for singing, and their aspiration comes from this intense desire to become a singer, because for them it’s a necessity.  We can see that by some young singers who persist year after year, spend fortunes to go to Europe to study and to go to all possible master classes in the country east and west.  And yet, after many years some of them do not succeed.  But they had to go through all this — I don’t want to  say ordeal — but those sacrifices to succeed.  So basically it’s really a necessity, a vocation for them, and we have to respect that.

BD:    When you’re training young singers, do you also train them to sing in translation?

PA:    No.

LS:    No, we do all our repertoire in the original.

BD:    Do you believe, then, that opera should never be translated?

LS:    That’s very strongly our belief.

PA:    Translations are very rarely adequate, for one thing.  It very often doesn’t fit the music, and it’s very bothering or annoying...

LS:    ...for all sorts of reasons.  You can’t speak about the perfect style of a composer if you translate because the composer had the poetry, the libretto, in front of his eyes when he wrote the music, and he wrote the music accordingly, rhythmically, and with the emphasis on the words according to the rhythm of his writing.  And when you translate this, it’s all lost.  I can tell you just a short experience that I had during my career.  I sang the Abduction from the Seraglio in four different English translations.  I also sang it in French and of course I sang it in German.  I even recorded that opera with Beecham, as you may know.

BD:    Yes, of course.

LS:    But I can tell you that all these translations I sang were just a fake of the original text!

BD:    You didn’t feel any closer communication because the audience understood each line of text?

LS:    No, because the audience cannot understand every phrase, every word, even if it’s translated.

BD:    I would think, though, they would get more that way.

PA:    Well, they do.  Particularly in comedy, they do get more.  But nowadays, the fashion is with the surtitles.

BD:    Do you think this is the ideal compromise?

LS:    Yes.

PA:    Well, it’s maybe not the ideal, but it’s a good compromise because at least the singer can sing the original, and then it’s up to the audience to read the surtitle or not.  He is free to do it.  So I think it’s basically a good idea.  As far as we’re concerned, in our program we are teaching the original.  Take Le Nozze de Figaro, for example.  Why teach it in English?  They might have to learn it in English eventually, but that’s going to be their problem, then.

LS:    And it may be another translation.  We teach the style, really, and that can be done only in the original.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Tell me the secret of singing Mozart.

PA:    [Laughs]

LS:    [Laughs] Do you have two hours?

BD:    [With a sly nudge] I have plenty of tape!

LS:    Well, I may say only words about Mozart.  First of all, you must love the composer with all your heart.  That means that you will accept to be a slave of this genius, and devote all your time and your energy in studying and comprehending and polishing this beautiful literature.  I don’t think that you come to love Mozart in a short time.  It’s just by refining your taste and knowing more about the man.

PA:    And by singing it!

LS:    Yes, and by understanding this literature and this man with all the reverence that he deserves.

BD:    Is there any other composer that even approaches this same level?

LS:    Well, musically of course, Beethoven is an equal giant, but no other composer has written so much vocal literature as Mozart did, and with such brilliancy and with such mastery!  Don Giovanni remains the unquestionable masterpiece of the lyric theater.  And besides that, he has all these other masterpieces.

BD:    Tell me just a little bit about your character, Don Ottavio.  He seems to be misunderstood.  He is almost swamped by Giovanni and Anna and Elvira and Leporello.

lpLS:    If you do have a clever Don Ottavio — one who is capable of singing these two superb arias properly, or perfectly, if I can use that word
he will come out with a shoe in his hand.  Those are the two most-known arias; of course, the Champagne Aria is known also, but Ottavio, with these two beautiful arias, will almost always have the success of the evening.  I could talk for a long time about my concept of Ottavio.  I read quite a bit about the character before I performed it, and even during my career.  If you go to the origin of the plays of Don Giovanni, even the Molière play, you find out that Ottavio was a much stronger personality than in the Da Ponte concept.  I’ve tried to transpose, in the Da Ponte libretto, the strength that I thought was given to Ottavio in other Don Giovanni plays.

BD:    In general when you prepare a role, how much do you go back to letters and diaries and previous plays, etc?

LS:    The more you do, the better it is.  I think the best performance of any given role will be conditioned by your knowledge of every aspect of the text and of the context of this personage.

PA:    And if there is a play of the opera, it’s most interesting to read the play.  It seems very often that the characters are more specified in the play, because it has been adapted for a libretto.  You have more of the original in the play.

BD:    More ideas to work with?

PA:    Yes.  For example, right now we are working on The Marriage of Figaro because this is what we’re going to produce with our young singers this summer.  Reading the Beaumarchais play helps me so much in understanding the Mozart-Da Ponte Nozze de Figaro, because I go to the origin of the opera, which is the play.  I think it’s fantastic when you have a play to lean upon to help you understand your characters and the whole story of the libretto.

BD:    Staying with Figaro, is it not, perhaps, too much to expect that you would then know the third play in the series by Beaumarchais?

PA:    It does help if you know the third play!  It certainly helps because Figaro is in between The Barber of Seville and La Mère Coupable, so it’s really fantastic if you can research to that point.

BD:    Does that not put an onus on the director to make sure there are glances between the Countess and Cherubino?

PA:    I’m sure a lot of directors
most directors, probablyhave read La Mère Coupable, and they do put too much emphasis on the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, on that sort of love story between the two.  But I think that it’s just a beginning.  What happens to the Countess in La Mère Coupable is years later.  At the point of The Marriage of Figaro, you can hardly sense that something will happen later.  But I know that some directors push it a little bit too much.

LS:    Well, there is a tendency nowadays to put a little bit of sex in everything.

PA:    Oh yeah, everything’s got to be sexy!

LS:    Coming back to The Marriage of Figaro, Beaumarchais himself wrote a very, very long introduction in the French play, where he gives all his ideas about each personage, and gives the age of everyone.  This is very interesting, because Da Ponte respected that.  And if you have the curiosity of reading about the premiere, and the composition, of The Marriage of Figaro, you will find out that one of the longest roles in all operatic literature is the part of Susanna.

BD:    Yes, she’s on stage practically the whole time.

PA:    Absolutely.

LS:    The part of Susanna was created by Storace, and on the first of May, 1786, she was only twenty years old!  That’s exactly what Beaumarchais wanted in the play.  And in that same performance, the short part of Barbarina was sung by Anna Gottlieb, who was only twelve years old!  She is the one who sang the first Pamina five years later, in 1791, and she was only seventeen at the time!

PA:    In my view, today we could not have that young a singer, particularly the Barbarina.

LS:    No, but our own concept will be on youth, and we can do that with the group of young singers that we have here.

PA:    We have them for three months, so...

LS:    ...we have time to prepare it well.

BD:    You have time to mold them properly?

PA:    Exactly.

BD:    In the time of Mozart, singers didn’t have to perform in auditoriums that held two or three thousand people.

PA:    Absolutely, that is true.  That’s too bad today, that the halls seem to be bigger and bigger.

LS:    And orchestras are larger and larger...

PA: the detriment of the voice.

BD:    Apart from the size of the group, should old music be performed with old-style instruments, also?

LS:    Yes, yes.  I think for the Baroque music it’s a very good idea!

PA:    It might be interesting, but I don’t know if we would really enjoy the quality of the sound, because we are so used to how our orchestras sound today.  If we had real baroque instruments to accompany The Marriage of Figaro, I don’t know.

LS:    Well, no.  I would think of earlier Baroque music, of Lully, for instance, or Couperin or Rameau.

PA:    Yeah, well that’s different.

BD:    One last question on Mozart.  Is it particularly different in Entführung and Magic Flute to go from singing to speaking?

LS:    Yes.  Dialogues are always difficult for singers.  Our training, from the very beginning, is to sing.  Even at the very beginning, we work on the purity of the vowel; that’s the secret of bel canto, after all.  And we sing these beautiful early composers
Frescobaldi, Vivaldi, and so forth, and so on.  Then when we come to speaking, I can only speak for myself.  I was never able to put the knowledge that I was given in learning singing in projecting the text.  Pierrette could tell you more about that, because she was in the theater.

PA:    I was an actress before I sang, so I have learned to speak, to deliver a text in speaking.

BD:    Is there a direct correlation between speaking and singing, or is it two separate things?

PA:    No, it’s not that separate.  I was very lucky that I was taught to speak with support.  When you sing, you need that support, so I have been able to mix the two.  When I stop singing to project some dialogue, then I try to use the same support.  Therefore I could project my voice without pushing it while speaking.  That’s what happens very often, and singers find it very difficult.  They say they get tired speaking because they speak like they speak in their living room, and they don’t learn to project the voice just as if they were singing.  I have been lucky to learn that as an actress.

LS:    Well that’s something I never succeeded at.  I understand the point, but I couldn’t apply it in projecting the text, either as Tamino in The Magic Flute or as Belmonte in Entführung.

BD:    Let me ask one other question about acting.  When you’re on the stage, do you portray a character or do you become a character?

PA:    Oh, you portray your character.  Especially in singing, it’s very difficult to become the character.  Take mezzo-sopranos for example.  A lot of mezzos or contraltos play older characters, as would a bass.  You cannot ask a singer to sound, really, like an old man.  It’s impossible!  So he cannot become the character; he really has to portray him physically, and to understand how you can portray the old man.  But as a singer, he has to sing with his own voice.  So that is the problem with singers.  A coloratura soprano will have to play a very, very young girl, and the singer herself physically is forty.  Then she has to really work a lot to portray the character, to try to look physically young with all kinds of help from a director.  But the voice is always there.  That is very difficult for a singer — much more difficult than for an actor.  But I think that singers nowadays are working a lot on that, and we’re getting many more singer-actors than we had in the past, which is more interesting, as long as they sing!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You are both French singers, so let us move to the French repertoire.  It seems that when a French opera is being done, there are many more laments about poor diction.

LS:    Oh, my God!

PA:    I should say! [Laughs]

lakmeLS:    You are touching a very, very sensitive point.  Yes, it’s true that French is not an easy language to sing, but if I speak about the singers in North America
either American singers or Canadian singers of English descentthe great problem is that there is no one to really teach the French repertoire.  Look, for instance, at the Metropolitan Opera.  How long is it since they have had a really good French conductor?  Do they have French coaches?  There is none that I know in San Francisco.  I don’t know if they have one in Chicago.

BD:    We have a French diction coach, but he’s not a musical coach; he’s a diction coach.

LS:    Yes, a diction coach who works according to the international phonetics, but not a real French coach that is a French person whose mother tongue is French.  And that is the problem.

BD:    Is it a solvable problem?

PA:    The solvable problem would be to bring somebody from France, but right now there are very few French conductors that are traveling around the world, unfortunately.  North American companies could certainly import French coaches for a French opera.  That would be at least a partial solution.

LS:    But as you suggested a moment ago, for a French person to listen to most of the French operas in North America being performed in French, it is quite sad.  I think it belittles the richness of the French repertoire, because an important point in the French operas is what we call la declamation lyrique, which means that the emphasis on the projection of the text is very important.  I don’t know who once said it, that every French composer is first of all a poet.  That reflects in the composition of French opera.  For instance, you would never encounter in a French opera four pages of, “Addio, addio,” as you find in Rigoletto.  The French text is much more important to the French composer, and therefore it should have that importance which should be emphasized by the singer, which is rarely the case.  And also, when a singer sings Italian, he strives to sing the purest vowels possible, and he’s usually trained in that way.  But the nuances of the vowels in French is so complex!

PA:    A lot of the people of English decent who teach French, who know French, will say to you that all the an, in, en sounds should be nasal, which is not true!  It’s not nasal at all, but it’s very special; it’s a very special way of pronouncing it and you have to be French to be able to demonstrate how it sounds.  But it’s not nasal.

LS:    That’s a very good point that Pierrette is bringing there, because the moment a foreign teacher will teach French, he or she will precisely mention that French has to be nasal, and I must repeat that this is a mistake.  For both Pierrette and I, French is our mother tongue, and I challenge anyone to listen to the many recordings of French works that we did and find any nasality!

BD:    It’s a very pure sound that both of you have produced.

PA:    We have a colleague, Gabriel Bacquier, and he’s not nasal at all.  He sings with a beautiful sound.

LS:    The very best French singers that we’ve known in France were never nasal!  But singing is a mental concept, so if you do mention this to a foreigner, he’s going to think that he’s obligated to sing nasal!

PA:    And he has to have a special technique!

LS:    And he’s going to be terrible! [Laughter all around]

BD:    We’ll have to rely on more teachers, such as the two of you. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings you made?

PA:    Some of them, yes.  Comme ci, comme ça. [Laughs]

LS:    Comme ci, comme ça.

PA:    I like some of the Debussy I did.  And the operas, I like not all, but quite a bit of the Pearl Fishers.  I think it’s quite a good recording.

LS:    Although it was made in 1954 — ’53 or ’54.

PA:    Yeah.  There’s some good things in it, some very good things in it.  Also some excerpts I did, and separate arias; some of them, like “Caro Nome”...

LS:    Yeah, I think that’s very beautiful.

PA:    I think it’s a good one.  And “Bell Song” from Lakmé, and the other arias of Lakmé, also.  I think that was successful.  There are some parts of Faust that are very well done, but the whole role of Marguerite was too heavy for me.  So there’s some spots the voice doesn’t come out right at all.  But in the more sensitive moments, the tenderness I think is done well.

BD:    If the role of Marguerite was too heavy for you, how did you get conned into doing it?

PA:    I was asked to do it for recording only.  I never performed it on stage, only on record, and I accepted it because I thought, “Well, on record I think I can do something with it.”  In fact I think I did some pretty things, but when comes the very last act, then I find my voice a little bit too thin for that.

LS:    That happens all the time; artists will accept roles that they would sing in front of a microphone, but they will not sing on the stage.  I sang Don Jose in a recording of Carmen, but I never sang it on the stage.  The same thing with Faust.

BD:    How difficult is it to say no when they ask if you will do a role onstage?

PA:    It’s not that difficult if you know yourself, if you know your possibilities, if you know your voice.

LS:    If you’re honest with yourself, I think you will find an easy answer.  Doing a recording is a little bit faking.  It’s canned music, after all.  The engineers can do anything with microphones, especially nowadays.  But singing on the stage, that’s a different story.

BD:    Is it a mistake for the public to be so enamored of the recordings?

LS:    To a certain point, I would think so, yes.

PA:    Yes, because they expect so much when they go in the theater.  They expect so much, and very often they put their stereos full blast in their living rooms, so they have big, big sounds.  Then they come in the theater, and they say, “Oh, wow, the voice is not as big as I was expecting,” especially in a big hall.

BD:    Let me ask about Orphée.  It’s usually sung by a mezzo, of course, but you sang the tenor version.

orpheeLS:    Yes.  It’s the original.

PA:    And may I say I think that’s Leopold’s best recording.  That’s my favorite!  [Note: The photo at right is a video of a staged performance, and not the audio-only studio recording of which they are speaking.]

LS:    You see, Gluck wrote his first score of Orphée in Vienna in 1762 for male contralto.  Several years after, around 1769 or ’70, he moved to Paris.  At that time, there was a very famous tenor in Paris by the name of Legros who sang all the works of the most famous composers at the time, and he did sing the Orphee.  Gluck was asked by Empress Marie-Thérèse to rewrite his score to the demands of Legros.  So Gluck rewrote his score completely for tenor, and he even added some music that was not in the Vienna version.  In Paris, every composer had to write for the ballet, and the beautiful scenes of the Champs-Élysées were written for the Paris version.  So a great amount of music that you hear nowadays in a performance of Orphée was written for the Paris version, not the Vienna one.  When you buy a score nowadays, usually it contains the music that was written for the Paris production in 1774, if my memory is well.

BD:    So we get kind of a hodge-podge of this version and that version, all compiled together?

LS:    That is correct.  That is correct.

BD:    That’s a recording you both appeared in.  Was it always better when the two of you could appear together, either in recordings or on stage?

PA:    Well, it was very interesting because at least we were together! [Laughs] It seems that lots of times we were away from each other for months.  But when had the opportunity of being engaged together for either recording or live performance, it was most interesting.

LS:    After a few years of career, we became known as a team.

PA:    Particularly for concerts.

LS:    Yes, and we became more frequently engaged to sing together mostly in Europe and especially in Paris.  We sang a lot together.  At the Opéra Comique, for instance, we were cast very often together in The Barber of Seville or The Pearl Fishers or Lakmé.

BD:    Looking back on it, were all of the trials and tribulations of the careers worth it?

LS:    Oh, yes!

PA:    Oh, yes!

LS:    Oh, my God, yes!

PA:    Oh, yes.  It’s a beautiful métier, you know.

LS:    It’s a hard life, but every moment is worth it.  Being able to enjoy music and being able to make music...

PA:    ...and being able to work with great, great artists — great conductors and great singers.  That was fantastic.

LS:    Great people, and it was wonderful!  It was, really.

BD:    Did you find that your performances become better when you worked with better colleagues.

PA:    Oh, yes, definitely!

LS:    Oh, yes, yes!  Yes, by all means.

PA:    Definitely, oh, yes.  Presenting an opera is the work on an ensemble.  If everybody is on the same level, you can achieve so much!  But if you have some that are not on the same level, or are not interested
— if they just come because it’s a job, well, it’s terrible.

LS:    We all aim in idealization of a form of art, after all, and every component of the staging, the sets, the chorus, the orchestra and our colleagues all are a part in that ideal.  So if some of these elements are poor, then it hurts the whole object, the whole feeling of the production.

BD:    So it’s better to feed on the good and let it spiral upwards?

LS:    That’s it.

PA:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Did you sing some Massenet?

LS:    I sang Le jongleur de Notre Dame, which is a totally unknown opera in America.  Otherwise I sang only excerpts of Werther.  I never sang the full role, because the third act is too dramatic for me.  I also sang Manon...

PA:    We did Manon on the radio and on CD.

LS:    Yes, because again, the Saint-Sulpice scene takes a real spinto tenore.

BD:    Tell me a bit about Jongleur.  It’s a work, as you say, we don’t know.

LS:    [Laughs] Yes.  It’s a work only for men.

BD:    Not in Chicago.  In the thirties we had Mary Garden as Jean!

LS:    You had Mary Garden there, I know!

PA:    Oh, that’s right! [Laughs]

LS:    But this, I am sorry.  Mary Garden may have been a great artist and a great interpreter, but I don’t see the role from a woman at all!

PA:    Well, maybe they didn’t have any tenor to do it then! [Laughter all around]  It’s a beautiful work!

LS:    Yes, charming work...

PA:    ...with very lovely music.

LS:    It’s a difficult work to put over, but I think it’s great music.  It’s subdued, religious music.  It’s musique modale in many instances, but I think it’s great music.

BD:    Let me ask about one other work that you did together
Colas et Colinette.

PA:    Well, it’s sort of a little operetta.

stampLS:    As you’ve probably read in the information they provide with the recording, this opera was written at the same time as Mozart wrote Così fan Tutte.  Quesnel had a certain talent, of course, and I think it’s the first opera, or chamber opera, written in North America.  There is a little town in British Columbia that has his name, Quesnel, because apparently he came from this part of the country.  It was his son who came to the west coast and established a town.  The English people call it Quinnell, but in French it’s really Quesnel.  He was a merchant, apparently, and he had a talent and loved music.  He wrote more than one short opera, but this was the only one that was performed in Canada at the time.  Most of it was kept and it was possible to reconstruct the rest.  That was an interesting little page of musical and artistic history of Canada to put on record.  We never performed it on a stage.

PA:    No, I never saw it before in my life.

LS:    It’s a very naïve little libretto.

BD:    But because it’s Canadian, you should do it in your school!

PA:    [Laughs] Well...

LS:    We try to choose repertoire that is a little bit of a vocal challenge, and Colas et Colinette is not that challenging.

PA:    No, it’s not very demanding.

BD:    I really appreciate your spending the time with me this evening.

PA:    It’s been a pleasure!

LS:    Oh, it was so pleasant to talk with you!

A little more than a year later, I was briefly in Victoria, B.C., and arranged to visit with Simoneau and Alarie in person.
We had a lovely drive around the city and then settled into their living room for a continuation of our conversation.

BD:  Earlier today you were saying that nothing is ever the same.  Is everything ever the same in opera?

LS:  Good gracious, no!  Not at the present time, at least.  It seems that we are going through a very strange, a very strange approach to opera, especially in the visual aspect.  I don’t think we see it too much, or so much, in the very larger companies
for instance the Vienna Opera, Covent Garden or Paris or the Metropolitan.  I think they keep it quite in the grand tradition.

PA:  Traditional, yes.

LS:    But in some of the marginal opera companies, in the smaller companies in Europe — Germany and England, and even in Canada here — we see some absolutely strange concepts of the major works, which I think it’s outrageous!

PA:    It seems to be the age of the stage director, much more than the composer.  Years ago it was it was not of the composer, but the conductor. 

They were the gods and they decided everything; everything had to be their way.  Now it seems that it’s just the visual aspect that takes over the musical aspects.  In some ways, sometimes it’s very good because we do have to keep the opera rejuvenated.  We should keep it alive, but there is a way of rejuvenating without ruining it, or transposing it completely to something else!

BD:    Well let me turn the question around.  What is right with opera today?

togetherLS:    For any composition or any expression of art, we are always right if we respect the creator, no matter what kind of work you do.  If a pianist strives to discover the inner feeling of a Beethoven sonata, he’s going to be absolutely right.  But if he goes to any kind of fantasy in his interpretation, then I think he’s not on the right path.  It’s the same thing with opera.  The composer leaves us a legacy and we have to interpret that legacy.  We can’t presume that he would have thought of something else, because he put everything on the paper, and we’re not permitted to alter that!

BD:    Then where does interpretation fit in to this inalterable score?

LS:    Once you have mastered all the notes and all the dynamic indications and all the phrasing, then it’s up to you to add the nuance as an interpreter.  That’s the difference.  There may be a slight change of tempo.  There may be a slight modification of the intensity.

PA:    And amongst certain singers, there might be more sensitivity.  Some others will respect the score very well in every way, but because of their personality, their interpretation can be cold or leave you cold.  Another one singing the same role, because of his quality of voice or his own personal feeling, will bring something more to you, and both of them can be right!  That is what makes the difference in artists.  You can like one better than you like the other.

LS:    We don’t object in the sense that interpreter and the final interpretation is right at the given moment.  But that is completely different from taking an opera and changing the concept totally.  For instance, a production of Carmen took place here, and Michaela came on the stage blind, pregnant...

PA:    ...and on tiptoe
— on pointes!  That was in Vancouver, a production coming from England.

BD:    You were mentioning the pianist studying Beethoven has to get into the soul of Beethoven.  The opera artist, it seems, has at least two, and maybe three or four, souls to dig into
not just the composer, but also the librettist and perhaps the originator of the story and the play before that.

PA:    That’s true.  That’s true.  That’s why opera is so difficult to render right what is right in opera! [Laughter all around]  That’s why it is a very difficult medium, because of all the sidelines from the music itself.  You have the language, for one thing.  You have, as you say, to respect the librettist of the story.  Take, for example, The Marriage of Figaro, which is based on a famous play by Beaumarchais.  If you want to interpret all the characters they way they should, you have to know very well the story and the play of Beaumarchais.  This way you know that it can fit with the music of Mozart, because it’s amazing how Mozart really got his music to correspond so well with the finesse, the refinement of the Beaumarchais, and of that period.  And I think that goes with most of the plays.  Mind you, some opera libretti are really stupid.  That makes it more difficult to really try to make something of the characters.  But then, very often, you have the music that makes up for it.

BD:    Should we keep alive operas for which the music is either great, or almost great, where the libretto is perhaps less than great?

PA:    Oh, yes!

LS:    Oh, yes, because in the final analysis, according to the old saying, “Prima la musica e poi le parole.”

PA:    Yes.

LS:    One will always have a great satisfaction with the music, even if the libretto is a little bit silly.  Let’s take for example Così fan Tutte, since Pierrette just mentioned Mozart.  One cannot say that this is the greatest libretto.  It’s probably the greatest libretto of Da Ponte, because it’s a creation of him, but Mozart wrote such divine music on this naïve libretto, that you can go to a performance and have the greatest satisfaction without being too much concerned with the words or the story.  I think that we should preserve all those operas where the music has some value, even if the libretto is rather weak.

BD:    Just a side note
— in Così, who should end up with whom?

PA:    [Laughs] That’s an amusing controversy.  I just saw, not long ago, a production where they ended up with the partner that chose them to cheat with.  I don’t know if it was made clear, but that’s the way I saw it.  But I think it’s because of the lightness of the whole thing, the superficial of the story.  I personally think that they should go back to their original partners, being pardoned, of course. [Laughs] You know, everyone is forgiven.

BD:    But then, are they happy in the third act?

PA:    [Laughs] Well, let’s say they are happy forever after.

LS:    I would imagine that Mozart, if he did not make it that clear, that he was hoping in the bottom of his heart that they would return to each original lover.  Mozart was very unhappy when he wrote Così.  His own wife, Constanze, was spending so much time in Baden, and Mozart was very unhappy about that.  And he knew that Constanze was not faithful at that time, and he reproached it, many times; so when he wrote Così, even if there is a smile, there is much more sadness than buffoonery in it.  But that’s a real mistake to do it that way.  I remember participating in many, many performances of this opera, but some of the best performances were certainly in Chicago.  And when you would sing Così under the direction of Krips, you could not be a clown in every way!

PA:    Not with Krips!

LS:    ...because he had authority on that music, and all the business on the stage.

BD:    This sadness in Mozart’s own life — is this something the audience should be aware of when the come to see a performance of Così?

LS:    Why not?

PA:    Well, yes and no.

LS:    Well, I say why not.  It’s much better if they are!  They can enjoy Così without knowing, but...

PA:    Yes, yes, true, but they’re going to see something.  Most of the audience, unfortunately, is not aware of what’s behind it all.  They come to see a show; they come to see an opera.  If they know the background, so much the better; but it’s very rare.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask the balance question.  Where is the balance in this opera
or in any operabetween the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

LS:    That’s a debating question.  I think that one is not the same as the other.  There may be some kind of entertainment in operas.  For instance, in The Barber of Seville there are some scenes that are very amusing, especially with Basilio.  But in an opera like Così, that stems from the classical period, you may have a very delicate and very sophisticated comedy aspect.  I would not call this entertainment, especially with the meaning that we give to entertainment today.

PA:    I was just going to say that entertainment is a very difficult word to define, particularly in North America.  Because I think we always think of entertainment as something like a popular show, very much more for the eyes than for the ears, or the mind!

BD:    More frivolous?

DGlpPA:    Yes, I think so.

LS:    You would go to Las Vegas, for instance, to have entertainment, but you would go to Salzburg for opera and inspiration.

PA:    But yeah, that’s a very difficult word to define.

BD:    Should opera be for everyone?

PA:    I think it should.

LS:    Most people think so, but I’m not too convinced about that!

PA:    I really think it should.  One of the reasons we can keep opera alive, like we said at the beginning of the conversation, is rejuvenating the opera
— to present the opera today as theater, so that the singers are not standing there with their arms open, one foot downstage and opening their mouth to sing a high B and hold it forever!  You know, like it was in the past.  That’s why a lot of people, and especially younger people even now, say, “Oh, opera!  It’s so boring.  People don’t do anything.  They don’t know what to do, and they don’t know how to act.”  Thank God, now it is changing a lot.  The young singers are learning to go beyond the music, to go beyond the word to convey a message because what you do in opera, you’re telling a story.

LS:    Opera is theater, after all.

PA:    If you say it, if you tell a story in a good style with conviction and in a theatrical way that we have today, with the techniques and the possibilities, opera can be available for most people.  But we have to keep in mind that it is theater, and we have to aim into that way, absolutely.  People are spoiled by going to movies and watching TV where they see very simple acting.  To me, the way of acting is to be simple, more realistic, instead of going into lots of artificial gestures that don’t mean anything.  Singers need to be more convinced of what they say, and then they will convince an audience.

BD:    Are these some of the directions that you encourage your own students to go?

PA:    Oh, absolutely!  Absolutely.  I say if you cannot convince me, if you cannot tell me something, how will you convince a whole audience?  It’s impossible.  Singers today have not only to sing, but they have to tell something, and to me that is very important.

LS:    And that’s a very difficult thing to accomplish, because one of the most unhappy situations about opera today is that no one has time anymore.

BD:    Time to give to learning the artistry?

LS:    Right, right.

PA:    And time to rehearse and to put on a performance.  You’re lucky if you have two and a half or three weeks to rehearse.  And that is not much — depending on the work
but in general it’s not much.

BD:    But with a group of professional singers, isn’t it possible to get it over-rehearsed?

LS:    I’ve never seen that.  I don’t know if it’s possible.

PA:    It could be over-rehearsed if it’s something that they have performed a lot.  If they have performed that same role a lot, for example, they come and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, it could be overdone, because then I suppose the singers cannot go beyond a certain point in interpreting.  And that goes for an actor just the same.  But in a new production, for example, I don’t think that can be over-rehearsed, or if it’s the first time everybody’s doing the work or their roles.

LS:    The first performance of Così I sang was in 1945, and the last one I sang was in ’67, I think.  Even though I sang that role for more than twenty years, I never got tired of rehearsing that opera because in a masterpiece, you never go to the bottom of all its value!  You never discover everything in a masterpiece. And today, Pierrette and I teach those operas.  We produced The Marriage of Figaro last year.  Next year we’re going to do Così.  We plunge in those operas with the greatest enthusiasm, and still discover things to teach the students.

BD:    Is this what defines a masterpiece, then
— that there’s always something to learn?

LS:    That’s it.

PA:    Oh, yes!

LS:    That’s it.  In literature it’s the same, and I think a pianist or a violinist will tell you the same thing!  That’s what I meant a moment ago, that nowadays the greatest negative challenge about opera is that the companies have less and less time, and the singers, who have become nomads, are less and less willing to spend more time in a city to really prepare a role.  I don’t have to tell you that even in the great opera houses the consequence is that you feel immediately that nothing has been rehearsed.

PA:    You don’t have this ensemble-look of a production.  Because they come and go, they don’t rehearse enough and they don’t have time to understand each other’s point of view, each other’s character, and their response to one another.  So you see and hear individuals doing quite well, but not an ensemble production.  When it is an ensemble production, it is so fantastic.  You don’t know why, but it is because it is together.  Everything is there.

BD:    I assume that those kinds of productions do still exist even if they’re fewer and farther between?

LS:    Yes, right.

PA:    Yes, oh yes, exactly.  I think you can still find that in festivals, because in festivals...

LS:    ...they take time!

PA:    They take more time to rehearse.

LS:    That’s the answer.  They take time!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are the young voices today potentially as good as the voices of yesterday, and the day before?

LS:    I think so.  I think even more so today.

alariePA:    The voice itself, yes.

LS:    Yeah, but the reason is that you never hear them, or you hear them at the very beginning.  You say, “Oh, my God!  Here’s a remarkable talent.”  You hear a beautiful voice, fresh with good potential and dynamics and coloring.  Three years later you don’t hear about them anymore.

PA:    They don’t last.

LS:    Because of the fact that we live in a society where everything is instantaneous. 

PA:    Yes, and fast!  Very fast.

LS:    Food, traveling, communication, everything
— the formation of the young is the same thing.  They pop on the stage attacking roles that are probably too heavy for them.  But they will do it just the same because they are very much in a hurry to make money and to be known.  So after three or five years you already see a wobble, and usually after seven years it’s finished.

BD:    How can we get them not to fall into the trap?

LS:    That’s very difficult in this context.

PA:    It would be difficult because this is the age we’re living in
fast, fast, fast.  It is the jet age.

LS:    A pupil of mine, for instance, who is a light, light tenor, was offered to sing Hoffman.  I had almost a heart attack!  [Laughter all around]  I told him, “I beg you to stay away from that.  That’s the shortest way to your suicide.”  Well, he’s going to do it!  Why?  Because he needs the money.

PA:    Yeah, and that’s very sad because it’s a very, very light, light tenor voice.

LS:    And a beautiful voice!

PA:    The type of voice for Rossini, Mozart, things like that.  Can you imagine singing Hoffman?  It’s a killer!

BD:    Are we perhaps contributing to the deterioration of the voices, though, by building such large concert halls?

LS:    Oh, yes, oh, yes.  Definitely.

PA:    And also the orchestras are getting larger.

LS:    And heavier.

PA:    And conductors love to hear their orchestra!  [Laughter all around]  They just love it!  They want sound, you know!  They want sound and sound and more sound.  So the poor singer who is on the stage in a big, big hall, with a big, big orchestra says, “My God, I will never be heard!  I have to sing!” 

LS:    And he shouts, then, at that moment.

PA:    He shouts, because he has to.

BD:    Did either of you change your technique when you got to the large houses, as opposed to the small houses?

LS:    No.

PA:    No.

LS:    No, not at all, no.  Of course, I never sang Siegfried, as you know!  [Laughs]  If I would have been in that situation, you have to save your life!

PA:    My teacher when I was studying at Curtis Institute was Elizabeth Schumann.  She had a very small voice, and she would tell us, “Don’t try to sing loud.  Don’t try ever to sing more than what you have, to give more than what you have.”  She said, “If people are worried and bothered, they’ll just have to get on the edge of their seat and get closer to hear you to listen to you!  And then the orchestra automatically will have to play a little lower!”  And that was also the technique of Joseph Krips.  He loved singers.  There are lots of conductors that don’t like singers, but he did, and he would always tell his orchestra, “Listen to the singer.”  So then you could sing normally!

LS:    Krips had a very funny formula to ask the musicians to play piano when they were in the orchestra pit.  After all, an orchestra in the pit is an accompaniment and it should be considered thus, except when they have interludes or something like that.  I heard Krips say that very often.  He used to say to the musicians, “Gentlemen, if we hear you, you are already too loud.” [Laughter all around]

BD:    And it worked?

LS:    And it worked, oh, yeah.

PA:    It worked!  It really worked.

LS:    You remember Bidú Sayão.  She was with me in that first production of the Lyric Opera singing Zerlina.  She always had a very, very sweet voice and she made a tremendous career; she left such wonderful sentiment about her artistry!

PA:    She was wonderful!

LS:    She never forced her singing voice.  She sang Manon.  She sang Manon then!  Do you think she could sing Manon today at the Met?  I don’t know if you heard this last production.  I thought it was Wagner who wrote Manon!

PA:    But she could sing Manon then, because the conductors respected a small voice, and could accompany her and give the real style of Manon, the real freshness and youth.

BD:    And yet it’s interesting, because the current Met production has a French conductor, Manuel Rosenthal.  [Note: See my interview with Manuel Rosenthal, which was first published in the Massenet Newsletter in 1987.  That conversation had been held when Rosenthal was in Seattle, where (in different seasons) he conducted both Manon of Massenet and The Ring by Wagner!]

PA:    Yes, but my God!  I don’t know what happened to him, but it was loud!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We talked earlier about singing in different houses.  Did you sing differently in the studio for recordings?

LS:    No, no, no.

CBD discPA:    No, no.  Oh, no!

LS:    As a rule, you should never change your singing approach, whether you do this or that, or here or there.  If you sing properly and try to do beautiful tones, that’s the only way of doing it.

BD:    Is there only one way of singing for you, or is there just one way of singing for everyone who wishes to be a singer?

LS:    I think there’s only one way for every singer.  It’s to sing according to his natural disposition and talent, not to fabricate something.

PA:    Not trying to be somebody else.  That’s a big problem today.  Most of the young singers listen too much to recordings.  They want to sound like...

LS:    ...Domingo, or Caballé...

PA:    ...or Pavarotti, or Tebaldi back then.  They all have a singer that they appreciate and they love, and they try to develop that sound.  They want to sound like those singers, and that is so wrong!  That’s why a lot of them, as we said earlier, push their voice and sing too heavy for what they have.  I would have loved to be Tebaldi; she was my favorite singer, but I just didn’t have the voice to do that!

BD:    Should no singers try to sound like Leopold Simoneau and Pierrette Alarie?

LS:    Well, the voice is such a personal instrument.

PA:    If they have small voice, they might try to sound like me! [Laughter all around]

BD:    Is singing fun?

PA:    It should be! [Laughs] It should be.  It’s work.

LS:    When you sing correctly!  Singing is a natural gesture.  A human being is born to be a singer, just like a bird.  We have within us the mechanism, the apparatus, to sing like the birds or some other animals!  I sing and my neighbor doesn’t sing because we have different artistic ambitions.  But everyone can sing, to a certain extent.  So there is joy in singing.  If you go to a party and there’s a few drinks being distributed around, everyone starts to sing!  It’s a natural gesture.  And if a talented singer is well-directed to develop his voice in a natural way and to stay away from all the artificial attitudes and gimmicks, there is a great satisfaction in singing, as there is great satisfaction in eating good food or smelling a beautiful flower or listening to a beautiful symphony!  But if you watch some poor singers who have been oriented in the wrong way, you would think it’s agony to sing! [Laughs]

BD:    It should be effortless?

PA:    It should at least look and sound effortless [laughs] because there is some kind of effort!  I mean, you’re working.  As Leopold says, we are all born to sing because we’re all born to talk, to speak and to use our voice.  But some are gifted with better voices than others.  Those who are gifted with a beautiful voice and want to really go on and use their voice, to do something with their voice, have to work!  It’s work; you have to know what to do with it in order not to ruin it.

LS:    Singing is a physiological and a physical activity.  It requires the coordination of maybe a thousand muscles, from your diaphragm to your throat and your glottis, and even your tongue and your palate
all in what I call a harmonious way.  If you change the place of a chair in your living room, you’re going to make a very nice, easy effort.  It’s required to do that.  For singing, it’s the same thing.  All those muscles come in coordination, but in a harmonious way.

PA:    And in a natural way.

BD:    Then it’s the lighter voices that will move smaller pieces of furniture, and the Siegfried voices that might be able to move a sofa?

LS:    Correct.

PA:    Exactly!

LS:    Correct!  Wonderful, wonderful example.

PA:    Yes, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Did you like the life of a wandering minstrel?

PA:    Of a what?

LS:    [To his wife]  Un voyageur de commerce, pour l’opera.

PA:    Ah, oui, je le comprehends.  Not that much, no.  [Points to her husband]  He hated traveling.  I got very tired of living out of suitcases.  I would like to travel again, really!  I would like to go back to some places where I have been
not little towns left and right, but I would like to go back to Vienna, and those places.  But we were there to work.  We have friends and acquaintances who go to see those wonderful countries, and they come back and they say, “Do you remember this?” and I say, “We don’t remember!  We haven’t seen it!”

BD:    [Laughs] Well, you were there to work!  You weren’t there to sightsee.

LS:    That’s it.  That’s it.

PA:    But that’s what I would like to do now
sightseeing! [Laughs]

BD:    This is one of the nice things about Lyric Opera of Chicago.  For most of the operas, the cast stays together for the entire run.  They come about three weeks before the performances, and they work every day in rehearsal until the opening night.  Then they sing maybe twice a week, and so they have a little time in between performances to go out and see the city.

LS:    That’s good.  That’s wonderful!

PA:    That’s good.  That’s good.

BD:    And in most cases, they’re just singing the one opera so they’re not overtaxing themselves.

PA:    Oh, good.  That’s good.

LS:    Good.  Well you see, you have a wonderful woman there, Miss Krainik, who is manager.  She was a singer herself.  I sang with her in Thaïs.  I remember her very well.  She understands the singers and she can treat them well.  But when you’re in the hands of a very, very ambitious impresario who books you left and right, sometimes it’s frustrating.  That’s why you don’t enjoy your time in some cities.

BD:    We’ve been very lucky in Chicago.  It’s been a good atmosphere for the singers to work.

LS:    Oh, yes.  And it was always there — Carol Fox did the same thing.  She was a sort of singer in her time, and she treated us very well, very well.
  We’re writing our biography presently.  It’s quite a challenge; we’ve been at it for two years, you know!  Oh, it’s terrible!  Because we’re two of us...

PA:’s a much bigger challenge...

LS:    ...than we thought...

PA:    ...because it’s two biographies in one.

LS:    It’s amazing that when you go back to all the things you’ve done, you’re quite surprised sometimes!  When you get involved in a career that takes you left and right with travel on all continents, you don’t realize.  We went all over.

PA:    When you dig out everything, there are things where we had even forgotten completely.  We saw things and said, “I didn’t sing there,” or, “I didn’t sing that,” and there’s the program! [Laughs] It’s very funny.

LS:    We used to tour for two or three months a year for Columbia Management, and we were all across the continent.

PA:    We did a lot of duet recitals.

LS:    [Laughs]  We arrived in a town in the midwest
quite an interesting city, maybe twenty-five thousand or soand we looked at the hotel with our accompanist and we said, “My God, we don’t want to stay here!”  So we asked the accompanist, “Why don’t you call the manager and ask him if there is something better than that, even if we have to drive to a motel.”  So he calls the manager, and he told him our reaction to the hotel.  The manager said, “It’s amazing.  The Simoneaus were here three years ago, and they stayed there!”

PA:    And we didn’t remember!  It was quite embarrassing! [Laughs]

BD:    You have been more than gracious to speak with me today in your lovely home and to show us around your wonderful city.  So thank you for the chat, and thank you for all of the singing you’ve given all over the world.

PA:    Why, thank you.  That’s very nice.

LS:    It has been our pleasure.  

Pierrette (Marguerite) Alarie. Soprano, teacher, b Montreal 9 Nov 1921. The daughter of Sylva Alarie, the Montreal choirmaster and assistant conductor of the Société canadienne d'opérette, and the soprano and actress Amanda Alarie (b Plante), she studied voice and acting with Jeanne Maubourg and Albert Roberval and made her debut on radio at 14, first as an actress, then as a singer of popular music. While studying voice 1940 with Salvator Issaurel she met the tenor Léopold Simoneau, and in 1946 she married him. She made her debut (1938) at the Monument national with the Variétés lyriques in a supporting role in The White Horse Inn. She sang Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro (1943) under Sir Thomas Beecham who at that time was living in Montreal, Marie in La Fille du régiment (1945), the title role in Mireille (1947), Rosina in The Barber of Seville (1949), and Violetta in La Traviata (1951). On a scholarship to the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia, she studied 1943-6 with Elisabeth Schumann.

Alarie won the 'Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air' in 1945 and made her Metropolitan Opera debut 8 Dec 1945 as Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera under Bruno Walter; in January she sang Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann with Raoul Jobin, conducted by Wilfrid Pelletier. She spent three seasons (1945-7) with that company, and in 1949 with her husband she was engaged by the Opéra-Comique in Paris and sang there the title roles of such works as Lakmé and Lucia di Lammermoor and Olympia and Rosina. As a team Simoneau and Alarie gained celebrity in both Europe and North America, appearing at a number of festivals, including that at Aix-en-Provence, where both performed a variety of roles and where Alarie in 1953 premiered two concert arias, Chanson and Romance du Comte Olinos, written for her by Werner Egk. She also appeared at the Edinburgh, Glyndebourne, Vienna, Munich, Baden-Baden, and Würzburg festivals and in 1959 sang Isotta in Richard Strauss' Die schweigsame Frau at Salzburg, conducted by Karl Böhm.

Alarie also had an important career in North America, appearing in opera with companies in San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, New York, Vancouver, and Toronto, and in recital, alone, in duo with her husband, and in the Bel Canto Trio with Simoneau and the baritone Theodor Uppman. In 1961 her recording of Mozart concert arias and duos, made with Simoneau, won the Grand prix du disque de l'Académie Charles-Cros, Paris. She starred in CBC radio and TV productions, including those of Arthur Benjamin's Prima Donna (1956), Gounod's Mireille (1957), Offenbach's La Grand Duchesse de Gérolstein (1958), Ravel's L'Heure espagnole (1959), J Sauguet's Les Caprices de Marianne (1959), Poulenc's La Voix humaine (North American premiere, 1959), Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice (1961), Offenbach's La Vie parisienne (1963), Rameau's Les Fêtes d'Hébé (1964), and The Abduction from the Seraglio (1967). For the Montreal Festivals she sang Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro (1956) and Constanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio (1960), a role which she had sung with the COC in 1957. With the Opera Guild of Montreal, she sang Blonda in The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1947, Juliette in Roméo et Juliette in 1961, and Zerlina in Don Giovanni in 1964. Her last stage role was The Merry Widow (1966) in Quebec City and Montreal with the Théâtre lyrique de Nouvelle-France. Her farewell concert appearance (with Léopold Simoneau) was in Handel's Messiah with the MSO, 24 Nov 1970. During the 1960s she taught at the École Vincent-d'Indy. In 1972 she moved with her husband and two daughters to California where she taught and staged opera in San Francisco until 1982. She then settled in Victoria, BC, where she founded and directed the Canada Opera Piccola with her husband. She also taught 1972-7 at the Banff SFA (Banff CA).

In the course of a 32-year career, Pierrette Alarie was eulogized by the international press. Her name ranked high among the most celebrated singers from Quebec who preceded her - Albani, La Palme, Edvina, and Donalda. An accomplished musician and talented actress, she established her command of the light and the lyric soprano repertoires before undertaking more dramatic assignments. On stage, as in concert, her crystalline voice, admirably produced, easily focused, and of great flexibility, was a constant joy to the most exacting critics and music lovers. She and Simoneau were the first recipients of the Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée in 1959, and in 1967 she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. In 1983 the CCA awarded her its Diplôme d'honneur and in 1990 she was named a Chevalière of the Ordre des arts et des lettres de France.

Author Gilles Potvin        

Léopold Simoneau. Tenor, teacher, administrator; b St-Flavien, near Quebec City, 3 May 1916; d Victoria, BC, 24 Aug 2006. BA (Laval) 1941, honorary D MUS (Ottawa) 1969, honorary LLD (Brock) 1971, honorary D MUS (Laval) 1973. In 1939 he began voice study with Émile Larochelle in Quebec City. He continued 1941-4 with Salvator Issaurel in Montreal. At Issaurel's studio he met the soprano Pierrette Alarie, who became his wife in 1946. His stage debut was with the Variétés lyriques as Hadji in Lakmé (1941). His first major roles were with the Variétés, in Mignon, The Daughter of the Regiment, Mireille, La Traviata, and The Barber of Seville, usually opposite Alarie. His first recitals were broadcast by the CBC, and in 1943 he took on his first Mozartean role, Don Curzio in the Montreal Festivals' production of The Marriage of Figaro under Beecham. In 1944 he won the Prix Archambault, the award leading to his debut with the CSM orchestra under Wilfrid Pelletier. He continued his studies 1945-7 in New York with Paul Althouse. In May 1945 he was acclaimed in Montreal as Ferrando in Così fan tutte and Tamino in The Magic Flute (Canadian premiere of the latter opera, staged by the Opera Guild) and in the Berlioz Te Deum. Simoneau's first US opera appearances were in Central City, Colo, and New Orleans.

Simoneau's career took on an international dimension in 1949 when he made his Paris debut at the Opéra-Comique in Gounod's Mireille. He was coached in Paris by Berl Lilienfeld and in Vienna by Erik Werba, continuing to perform at the Opéra-Comique and the Paris Opera until 1954, appearing in the standard roles and, in June 1953, as Tom in the French premiere of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (Le Libertin). The critics compared him with Edmond Clément. His reputation as a Mozart specialist grew steadily after 1950, when, at the Aix-en-Provence and Glyndebourne Festivals and elsewhere, he sang all the main tenor roles: Ottavio, Ferrando, Tamino, Belmonte, and Idamante in Idomeneo. He also was heard in Gluck operas (Pylade in Iphigenia in Tauris and Orpheus in the tenor version of Orpheus and Eurydice) and as Paolino in Cimarosa's Il Matrimonio segreto. During the 1952 Festival du XXe siècle in Paris, he appeared in a historic production of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex with the composer as conductor and Jean Cocteau as narrator. In 1953 he sang in Don Giovanni at La Scala in Milan under von Karajan, and in 1954 he was with the Vienna State Opera in London for its Royal Festival Hall appearances. He was heard shortly afterwards at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires and at the Salzburg and Edinburgh festivals.

In the USA and Canada Simoneau appeared with major symphony orchestras and made numerous concert tours, often with his wife or as a member of the Bel Canto Trio with the baritone Theodor Uppman. He made several appearances at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, including one as Alfredo in La Traviata opposite Maria Callas. In Toronto he sang in Don Giovanni with the COC in 1956 and in The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1957. For the Montreal Festivals he sang in 10 performances of Don Giovanni in 1957 and in 8 of The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1960. In 1958 he repeated Ottavio in the Vancouver International Festival's Don Giovanni with George London as the Don and Joan Sutherland in her North American debut as Donna Anna. He appeared at the Stratford Festival in recital with Glenn Gould in 1962 and in a concert version of The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1969. His performance 18 Oct 1963 as Ottavio at the Metropolitan Opera (his only role with that company) won him a public ovation; according to Theodore Strongin, he sang 'with intelligence as well as beauty of sound' (New York Times, 20 Oct 1963). He repeated that role for the last time in April 1964 at the PDA for the Opera Guild, in two performances that marked his farewell to the operatic stage. He had sung the role 185 times. He continued to appear in concert and oratorio, however, and a Messiah (1967) and a Berlioz Requiem (1969) with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir were memorable. His final public appearance, 24 Nov 1970, was with the MSO in Messiah.

Appointed to the faculty of the CMM in 1963, Simoneau left in 1967 to join the MACQ as deputy head of the music division. At the ministry's request he prepared a report on the situation of opera in Quebec that led to the creation in 1971 of the Opéra du Québec. Appointed to the company as artistic director, he resigned at the end of the same year after a policy disagreement. In 1972 he moved to California with his wife and two daughters where he taught at the San Francisco Cons. He also taught 1973-6 at the Banff SFA (Banf CA) before settling in Victoria, BC in 1982. With his wife he then founded and directed Canada Opera Piccola.

Simoneau is considered one of the most distinguished Canadian singers of the century. His international reputation as a Mozart singer is attested by his presence at major festivals and events dedicated to this composer, as well as by his recordings. He is honoured also as an interpreter of French music both on stage and in the concert hall. An extensive legacy of recordings preserves this patrician singer's art. One of these - concert arias and duos of Mozart with Pierrette Alarie - was awarded the 1961 Grand prix du disque de l'Académie Charles-Cros, Paris. Simoneau and Alarie were awarded the 1959 Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée, thus becoming the first recipients of this important honour. In 1971 Simoneau was made an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in 1983 the CCA awarded him its Diplôme d'honneur. In 1990 he was named an Officer of the Ordre des arts et des lettres de France. He was a member 1968-71 of the Régie de la PDA, and a judge at the Montreal International Competition in1977 and at the vocal competition of the Glory of Mozart festival held in Toronto in 1991. Simoneau wrote a two-part article entitled 'De la futilité des traductions des oeuvres lyriques,' (Montreal Le Devoir, 1 and 8 Dec 1962) and the article 'Voice of classicism,' in Mozart Metropolitan Opera (Jane L. Poole, editor, New York 1991). He also translated Reynaldo Hahn's work Du Chant under the title On Singers and Singing (Portland, Ore 1990). In 1991, he began to write opera surtitles in French and English.

Author Gilles Potvin, Nancy McGregor        

© 1986 & 1987 Bruce Duffie

The first interview was recorded on the telephone on May 1, 1986; the second was recorded at their home in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, on August 23, 1987.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1988 (both together); in 1991 & 1996 (Alarie); and 1988, 1993 and 1996 (Simoneau).  A short portion of the remarks by Simoneau (who was a Jubilarian) were used on the website of Lyric Opera of Chicago as part of their 50th Anniversary celebration.  The transcriptions were made and posted on this website in 2009.  

Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.