The history of opera in Quebec had slow beginnings. In New France, as in the metropolis, lyrical activities were rather modest. It was a fledgling genre in Europe and until 1687 French opera had only one composer, Lully, who enjoyed a royal monopoly. However, in the nineteenthe In the 19th century things changed with the arrival of great soloists, and particularly European and American troops, in the capital. The opening of the music academy, the Music Hall on Rue Saint-Louis, will also serve as a catalyst.
Be that as it may, Quebec opera is in great shape at the moment. The activities of the Opéra de Québec and its 12th edition of the Festival d’Opéra de Québec are proof of this. Follow us and discover the history of opera in Quebec in 10 acts.
1) Under the French regime
A first performance related to the ballet de cour, a genre popular in France at the time, was given at Port-Royal in Acadia in 1606. Entitled Le Théâtre de Neptune, this piece, which alternated dances, poems, arias and choruses, was conceived by Marc Lescarbot to celebrate the return of explorers from Poutrincourt and Champlain.
In Quebec, it took a long time to see a comparable performance at the Théâtre de Neptune. Apparently, before the conquest, it did not present real opera. However, 17th-century French theater often included pieces of music. The instruments supported the dances, the pantomimes and of course the many sung pieces, solos or choirs. Since instruments, notably violins, were used in certain plays performed in Quebec, one can assume that these showed some analogies to French performances.
However, if there is one place where we have been able to present something resembling opera, it is the Intendant’s Palace. At least, Mr. Glandelet, Dean of the Chapter of Quebec Cathedral, reports in a letter of 1706 that “Mr. l’Intendant regularly had concerts and a kind of opera”. [Jacques Raudot]”.
Presentation of the Théâtre de Neptune in the Port-Royal basin, opposite the Port-Royal residence, drawing by Charles William Jefferys, Wikimedia Commons.
2) From the conquest to 1800
After the Conquest, the British presence brought about important cultural changes for Canadians. England maintains more regular relations with her new colony than France formerly; At least the influence of the metropolis will not be long in coming. It only takes a few decades for the country’s new masters to gain a foothold. From the 1780s, therefore, quite intense cultural activity developed in Quebec.
After some plays performed mainly by Francophones, Quebecers are finally offered a first opera. This is The Padlock by English composer Charles Dibdin. This modest comic opera was staged on February 10, 1783 at the Thespian Theatre, located upstairs in Miles Prentice’s tavern in the rue Saint-Jean. It was probably the only opera performed in Quebec up until 1793, and on several occasions.
In 1793 and again the following year, William Shield’s The Choleric Fathers was presented to the public. The Poor Soldier, another of his compositions, was a great success when it was published at the Hôtel Ferguson, rue Sainte-Ursule, in 1795 and again in 1796. Still, it was to be a few more years before we witnessed a real awakening.
Charles Dibdin, 1799, by Thomas Phillips, Wikimedia Commons.
3) The first years of the 19th centurye century
The Patagon Theater opened its doors in October 1804. It was located at the top of the Canoterie hill, near the Sainte Famille road. It offered space for 220 spectators. During the opening show we will present, among other things, the opera The Castle of Andalusia by the British composer Samuel Arnold. A few days later, the work is presented again. The Patagon closed its doors in March 1805.
Another room was on the first floor of a building on the corner of Sainte-Anne and des Jardins streets, overlooking the Heumarkt, where the Hôtel Clarendon is now located. It was the Haymarket Theatre. It will be active until 1825. Plays and light operas were performed.
In 1790, Joseph Quesnel, a Boucherville merchant, founded Colas et Colinette, or le Bailli dupé, in Montreal. It is the first opera composed in words and music in North America. It was performed at the Patagon Theater in January 1805, and then by popular demand the following February. It was performed twice more at the Haymarket Theater in 1807. Local singers were responsible for distribution, and a certain Thomas Voyer took on the female role of Colinette.
At that time almost all operas performed in Quebec were in English. The only exceptions, apart from Colas and Colinette, are Madame Angot or La Poissarde upstart, an 1806 variety show by Antoine-François Ève dit Maillot, and Le Déserteur from 1815, probably Monsigny’s famous comic opera.
William Shield’s English opera Rosina, performed in 1806 and revived in 1810, deserves special mention. In fact, the libretto is by Frances Moore Brooke, author of The History of Emily Montague. Published in 1769, it is the first British novel set in the house of the Jesuits in Quebec. It has often been mistakenly referred to as the first Canadian novel.
Joseph Quesnel, c. 1808, attributed to Gerritt Schipper, Collection Musée régional Vaudreuil-Soulanges, Wikimedia Commons.
4) The arrival of great artists
In 1824, Quebec newspapers announced the opening of a new theater, the Royal Circus, the 1832 Royal Theater, on rue Saint-Stanislas. By 1846 this area proved to be very active. It welcomes renowned acrobats, magicians, singers and instrumentalists and presents various light operas.
The 1840s marked a crucial stage in Canadian musical development, particularly in the field of opera. Although Quebec is as important as Montreal in terms of population, the latter will have the first privilege to see the lyrical works of the great repertoire represented. It was the beginning of the era of the traveling troops, which would not end until the second quarter of the 20th century.
A new era began in the 1840s. Famous singers will soon be heard with us. Mention should be made of the tenor John Braham, the bass Giuseppe de Begnis and the soprano Euphrasie Borghèse. They perform at the Hôtel Albion on the Côte du Palais and at the Théâtre Royal. It was mainly through these performers that the Quebec audience of the time came into contact with the most important operas in the repertoire, such as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and many others.
With these concerts, English opera gradually lost ground and the French-speaking population organized themselves. In 1839, a Swiss immigrant, Napoléon Aubin, founded a theater association. Over several years, she produced an amazing number of plays of all kinds. These take place notably at the Théâtre Saint-Louis, on the site of the UNESCO monument, near the Château Frontenac.
Napoleon Aubin, lithograph on vellum, after a portrait by Théophile Hamel, Wikimedia Commons.
5) The large repertoire
The year 1853 marked a crucial turning point in Quebec’s musical life. Finally we have a theater worthy of the name. This is the Music Academy on Rue Saint-Louis. It is then said to be one of the most beautiful rooms in America.
Then in Quebec we find a young French musician, Antoine Dessane. As a teacher of several instruments, organist at the cathedral, orchestra and choir director, he organized numerous concerts in which his wife, the singer Irma Trunel from Croix-Nord, took part. He will conduct various comic operas and operettas.
Thanks to its new hall, Quebec can once again welcome opera groups traveling to North American cities. The first productions took place in the mid-1850s. Quebecers were finally able to hear most of the great works in the repertoire. Beginning in the 1860s, Quebec was almost systematically part of the itinerary of touring companies performing in North America.
At this time choirs were often reduced to their simplest expression and although the soloists were recruited from among the best performers of the time, their working conditions were very difficult. Nonetheless, these productions opened the doors to grand opera for Quebecers.
Mrs. Antoine Dessane, née Irma Trunel of North Cross, by Théophile Hamel, MNBAQ.
6) The turn of the XXe century
We owe most of Quebec’s lyrical performances to foreign troupes, but there have been times when local performers have tried to make their mark there. Think of Calixa Lavallée, the composer of O Canada, who wrote a number of operettas; to Célestin Lavigueur, father of the mayor Henri-Edgar Lavigueur, who composed some lyrical works; and to Joseph Vézina, conductor of the Société symphonique de Québec, who also left behind many compositions, including three operettas and comic operas.
On March 17, 1900, a fire destroyed the Academy of Music on Rue Saint-Louis. The Mayor of Quebec, Simon-Napoléon Parent, wanted to make a magnificent hall available to his city. This is how the auditorium, today’s Théâtre Capitole, came into being. It was inaugurated on August 31, 1903. In the years that followed, the Capitol hosted the largest opera houses in the United States and some of the most renowned artists of the 20th century.
The Theater Hall, 1904, Fred C. Würtele, BAnQ.
7) Am‘beginning of the 20th centurye century
With the new auditorium, Quebec will never have heard as many lyrical works as it did at the beginning of the 20th century. And we don’t just present anything. In 1905, for example, the English Grand Opera Company, a Boston company directed by Henry W. Savage, performed Parsifal, Richard Wagner’s last opera.
The troops that visited us were sometimes European, sometimes American. One of them, the San Carlo Grand Opera Company of New York, was particularly loyal to Quebec. This troupe sometimes even recruited their extras from the local population.
In 1910, Albert Clerk-Jeannotte founded the Montreal Opera Company in Montreal. Unfortunately, it went under in 1913 because of its debts, but in its three seasons it presented a surprisingly varied work and toured, particularly in Quebec.
However, the troupe had to come to terms with the church at the time. We often have to present the program and lyrics of the operas to the bishop in order to receive his blessing. Different times, different customs.
In addition to foreign artists, many local talents perform in Quebec, including sopranos Louise Edvina and Adine Fafard-Drolet, tenors Paul Dufault, François-Xavier Mercier and Rodolphe Plamondon, baritone Joseph Saucier, and many others.
Brochure of the San Carlo Grand Opera Company, 1918, Bertrand Guay Collection.
8) L‘between two wars
After the First World War, opera and operetta experienced a golden age in Quebec. The troops are loyal to the capital and pass through it regularly. In addition to the San Carlo Grand Opera Company, we welcome the Cosmopolitan Grand Opera of New York, now New York City Opera, and Les Petits Chanteurs de Vienne on a tour of America, stopping at the Palais Montcalm, a new space inaugurated in October 1932 just opposite the auditorium.
Local companies will soon join the foreign troops. Such is the case with La Société canadienne d’opérette, a Montreal-based organization that also performed in Quebec. It was founded in 1921 and ceased operations in 1934. In 1936, Lionel Daunais founded Les Variétés lyriques, which operated until 1955. From 1938 this new company performed several operas in addition to performing the most popular operettas in the repertoire. However, it only occurs occasionally in Quebec.
In addition, Doctor JO Dussault founded the Conservatoire national de musique de Québec in 1930 – which has nothing to do with the current Conservatory, founded in 1944. In fact, it was an establishment devoted mainly to the production of lyrical works and plays. The lyrical part ran from 1930 to 1947, the dramatic part from 1930 to 1956.
Few Quebec composers dare to compose lyrical works. In Quebec, organist and composer Omer Létourneau will present three operettas that will have some success. Finally, the completely forgotten Lucien Vocelle can still often be heard in the programs of the Orchester symphonique de Québec, which has performed several of his major works.
The Palais Montcalm, 1951, City of Quebec Archives.
9) L‘after the war
After World War II, many European singers returned to Quebec, whether with the Musical Club, the symphony orchestra, or others. The list of these artists is impressive: Ezio Pinza, Jussi Bjoerling, Benjamino Gigli, Giuseppe di Stefano, Lily Pons, Mado Robin, Lotte Lehman, Lauritz Melchior, Ninon Vallin, Janine Micheau, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Marjorie Lawrence, Tito Schipa, George Thill, Jan Peerce, Grace Moore, Jan Kiepura, John McCormack, Erna Sack, Nicolai Gedda, Gérard Souzay, Tito Gobbi and many more. On the other hand, the European and American troops that had regularly appeared in Quebec since the mid-19th century disappeared after the war.
The economic prosperity of the post-war period and the growing number of top-class Canadian singers favored the development of lyrical art nationally. In 1949 a company was founded in Quebec itself, the Opéra français enr. As the name suggests, its artistic director, Emmanuel Grandini, insists that his productions are offered in French.
Bass Ezio Pinza, Barihunks.
10) From the silent revolution to today
Since the 1960s, the history of opera in Quebec has been marked by the creation of new ensembles. Bass Roger Gosselin and soprano Nelly Mathot founded the Théâtre lyrique de Nouvelle-France in 1961. The most famous singers of Quebec appear in the large-scale productions: Colette Boky, Richard Verreau, Pierrette Alarie, Claude Corbeil, Gaston Germain, Pierre Duval, Robert Savoie and many others. In 1968 the Société lyrique d’Aubigny was founded.
In the 1960s, Quebec wanted to have a national opera. The ambitious project was realized in the early 1970s and was named Opéra du Québec. The company has a ephemeral existence of five years. His productions of exceptional quality have featured Canada’s most celebrated singers and have been performed largely in Quebec.
The 1984-1985 season marked a pivotal moment in the history of Quebec opera: the founding of the Opéra de Quebec. He will live a success story. It was he who launched the Quebec Opera Festival in 2011. Happy Holiday.
Program of Falstaff by Verdi, Opéra du Québec, 1974, Bertrand Guay Collection.
Texts by Jean-François Caron, historian, after Bertrand Guay, musicologist, Société historique de Québec
- You can consult the Facebook page of the Société historique de Québec by clicking on Here and its website by visiting Here.
- You can also read our texts prepared by the Bibliothèque et Archives Nationales du Québec (BAnQ) by clicking on Here and that of Rendez-vous d’histoire de Québec Here.