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Friday, May 20, 2011

Feature: Backstage at L'Opéra de Montréal

Antoine Bélanger and Marianne Fiset rehearse the death scene

A Day at the Opera
The Charlebois Post goes backstage for the making of L’Opéra de Montréal’s all-new million-dollar La Boheme
A CharPo exclusive by Richard Burnett
(Photos by Richard Burnett)
Even out of costume, rehearsing Mimi’s death scene in Act 4 of Puccini’s masterpiece La Bohème, the two stars of L’Opera de Montreal’s brand-new production of La Bohème are riveting. Canadian soprano Marianne Fiset, who plays Mimi, and Canadian tenor Antoine Bélanger, who plays Rodolfo, do the scene over and over, in the enormous basement rehearsal studio at Place des Arts. They are accompanied by a pianist, as well as by conductor Giuseppe Petraroia of the Victoria Symphony and La Bohème director Alain Gauthier.
Fiset interrupts the scene and asks the director, “If Rodolfo is telling me he loves me, shouldn’t he be looking at me?” 
Alain Gauthier then takes the place of Antoine Belanger and shows his stars how to do the scene.

Bohème score
“I know La Bohème very well and a long time ago set up in my mind how this opera would play out on stage,” Gauthier told the Charlebois Post. “I prepared at home with the score. By the time rehearsals began I knew what I wanted and how to do it. But [my] rehearsals are also very collaborative.”
La Bohème is an opera in four acts by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica (who also wrote the libretto for Tosca and Madame Butterfly) and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on Henri Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de bohème about young bohemians living in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s and ending with the death of Mimi. The opera’s world premiere was held in Turin in February 1896 at the Teatro Regio, was conducted by Arturo Toscanini and instantly became part of the standard Italian opera repertory. It has since, according to Operabase, become the fourth most frequently performed opera worldwide. And there is a lot riding on L’OdeM’s new million-dollar production of La Bohème, which debuts at Salle Wilfred-Pelletier on May 21.
Director Alain Gauthier
“This is a new production, it’s not a co-production – not yet!” says Gauthier. “So hopefully directors [from other opera companies] will come to see La Bohème in Montreal and buy this production.”
At Place des Arts on this day, the rehearsals are pretty intense.
“I came out of L’OdeM’s [renowned] Atelier Lyrique, I’m from Quebec City and have friends in Montreal, so there is some pressure,” tenor Antoine Bélanger admits. “Not to mention the role of Rodolfo is so well-known. I can’t deny there is pressure at this level. But the atmosphere at our rehearsals in Montreal has been very agreeable.”
Soprano Marianne Fiset, who plays Mimi, is also feeling the pressure. “But mostly I’m excited! It’s a privilege for me to play one of the great roles in opera here at home, in front of my friends and family, many of whom have never seen me [at] work! And even if my voice cracks or I fall onstage, they will still think I’m great!” Fiset laughs happily. “I’m thrilled!”
Conductor Giuseppe Petraroia
Fortunately for director Gauthier and opera lovers, Bélanger and Fiset know not only how to sing, but how to act. “There are so many singers today and many of them are also good actors, so you have a choice,” Gauthier says, but adds, “It’s also true [opera singers] don’t take enough acting classes. If you can take singing lessons, you can take acting lessons.”
L’OdeM’s La Bohème is budgeted at a whopping $1.15 million for just six performances.  “We’re using [older] L’OdeM costumes but we have an all-new set,” explains Gauthier, who confides he has been preparing for this run for two years and assisted in the casting of this production. “In Montreal, there isn’t a lot of money to rehearse for months and months, unlike in Paris and New York. You have to do it in three or four weeks. So you really have to prepare. So for me, when we have a big success, it’s a miracle.”
Gauthier adds, “It’s [also] pretty hard to do a shitty La Bohème but I actually saw one a few months ago!”
(For the record, it was not Opera McGill’s sold-out January 2011 production of La Bohème at Pollack Hall, which, like Gauthier, I really enjoyed – with the exception of having the orchestra onstage behind the set, which I found a bit distracting and loud.)
“But it also comforted me in my vision of La Bohème,” adds Gauthier, who also directed Pagliacci/Gianni Schicchi for L’OdM in 2009, as well as L’Etoile for the New York City Opera. “I’m not straying far from the original production of La Bohème, which is beloved by audiences who don’t like it when you mess around with a classic.”
During this run of La Bohème, if audiences don’t like what they see, there will likely be no tweaking of this production. Explains Gauthier, “I’m lucky I live in Montreal, so I will see all the shows. But usually you are hired up to the opening night. You stay for the premiere, take a bow onstage and then they put you on a plane the next morning and send you home. Then opera companies will do 5 or 7 [more] shows without you.”
Gauthier’s rehearsals with Bélanger and Fiset are in French, but that’s because all three are from Quebec, which in recent years has churned out many top-tier opera singers like Marc Hervieux and Marie-Josée Lord. Otherwise, Gauthier says, “English is the international language of opera. I’ve worked in the United States and Australia where it’s all English. It’s also mainly English across Europe, and also in Paris and Montreal. Everybody in this business speaks English. I mean, all the international singers, they mostly speak English. That’s just the way it is. My job is to establish a good communication with people.”
When it comes to camaraderie on the set, Antoine Bélanger says he always makes a point of going out for drinks with cast mates during rehearsals. “It’s important to have camaraderie,” Belanger says. “If we each go our own way during the production it shows [negatively] in our work [onstage] and that’s a shame.”
For Fiset, the hardest show during a run is always the second show. “We invest so much of our energy to make sure the premiere is perfect that you are fatigued for the second show,” she says. “Since I know how I will feel – that the second shows are a little harder for me – I always prepare differently for that show.”
Despite the behind-the-scene closeness that develops among cast and crew, when a production ends, it usually means good-bye. “At the wrap party everybody says, ‘Let’s keep in touch.’ But no one really does. That’s the drag about developing intense relationships during a production. It ends as suddenly as it began.”
For Marianne Fiset, who will co-star in Jules Massenet’s opera Manon at L’Opéra national de Paris in November, she says with a big smile on her face “As for taking ‘une bonne brosse’ during this run [of La Bohème], I’ll wait until the wrap party!”

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini
Presented by L’Opéra de Montréal at Salle Wilfred-Pelletier
May 21-25-28-30 and June 2 at 8 p.m., as well as June 4 at 2 p.m.

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