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Bernard Turgeon, centre, as Riel in Louis Riel. The opera was performed for the Centennial of Canada by the Canadian Opera Company and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for the "Bicentennial Celebrations of the United States of America". (Canadian Opera Company)
Bernard Turgeon, centre, as Riel in Louis Riel. The opera was performed for the Centennial of Canada by the Canadian Opera Company and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. for the "Bicentennial Celebrations of the United States of America". (Canadian Opera Company)

Baritone Bernard Turgeon originated the role of Louis Riel Add to ...

It’s one thing for a Canadian opera singer to triumph in the great roles of the international repertoire. It’s quite another to originate the title role in an acclaimed new opera written by Canadians, about Canadians. In 1967, Bernard Turgeon did just that. Already known as an impressive performer in Canada, Great Britain and the United States, the ruggedly handsome baritone starred in the world premiere of Harry Somers’s legendary Louis Riel, first at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, then in Montreal during Expo 67.

Praised for his vivid incarnation of the controversial Métis leader, Mr. Turgeon recreated the part in the COC’s 1968 revival, performed it again in 1975 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and committed it to videotape in a 1969 CBC television adaptation. Reviewing a DVD release of the latter in 2011, The Globe and Mail’s Robert Everett-Green declared Mr. Turgeon’s Riel to be “the role of his career.”

It was. And yet there was so much more to Mr. Turgeon’s lengthy career – as a performer, teacher, administrator, therapist and mentor.

Mr. Turgeon, who died of cancer in Victoria, B.C., on Oct. 25, five days after his 85th birthday, had already been celebrated for his achievements with a 2012 induction into the Canadian Opera Hall of Fame. It was his influence on younger generations of singers, however, that was abundantly clear from the outpouring of gratitude flooding his Facebook page at the news of his passing.

His widow, Teresa Turgeon, said that even having known her husband for 40 years, “it’s still overwhelming, the things that people say about him – not just that he was a great teacher, but how he changed their lives. That seems to be a recurring theme.”

Soprano Chantal Lambert, a fellow Hall of Famer, remembered him as “a man of great wisdom and great warmth.” As director of Opéra de Montréal’s Atelier Lyrique artist-in-residence program, Ms. Lambert often brought in Mr. Turgeon as a guest instructor and witnessed his transformative power on young singers. “He would challenge the singers to bring out what was special inside themselves that no one else could give,” she said. “It had immediate results. The singers were suddenly freer and blossomed in front of your eyes, just by the warmth he was transmitting.”

One of those singers was a young Patrick Corrigan – now the general director of Opéra de Montréal. Mr. Corrigan studied with Mr. Turgeon at Opera McGill at the beginning of the 1990s and later became friends with him during Mr. Corrigan’s time as an administrator at Pacific Opera Victoria. He said it was Mr. Turgeon’s belief in his students that was so inspiring: “He was this wonderful artist of great stature and attainment who was able to give you the sense that he was entirely focused on who you were and had tremendous faith in you.”

Bernard Joseph Roméo Vianney Turgeon was born on Oct. 20, 1931, in Edmonton into a family with French-Canadian and Métis roots. His father, Noël, was an officer with the Edmonton police. His mother Irene, née Robidas – who had some Algonquin blood – was an accomplished pianist and organist and played at their local Catholic church. Bernard, the third of their five children, inherited his mother’s musical gift and studied with tenor Jean Létourneau before receiving a scholarship to Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.

While there, he began his association with the emerging Canadian Opera Company, making his debut in 1952 as the sergeant in Massenet’s Manon and playing his first significant role, Masetto in Mozart’s Don Giovanni in 1956. By then, the young singer was already a favourite with audiences – the previous year he had been crowned top male vocalist in the CBC’s national competition Singing Stars of Tomorrow.

Mr. Turgeon continued his studies in Vienna and then in London where, from 1960 to 63, he became the first Canadian hired as a permanent principal singer at Sadler’s Wells Opera (now the English National Opera). In the 1960s, he performed at the Edinburgh and Glyndebourne festivals in the U.K., at Canada’s Stratford Festival and with the opera companies of Pittsburgh, San Diego, Edmonton and Vancouver. During these peripatetic years, he was also starting a family. Mr. Turgeon had met and married a fellow Royal Conservatory student, violinist Dolores Mokree, and their first child, Michael, was born in 1958. Two daughters would follow: Rachele in 1963 and Monique in 1965.

After his centenary-year success in Louis Riel, Mr. Turgeon continued an association with CBC/Radio Canada that included starring in other televised operas. Peter Symcox, then a CBC producer-director based in Montreal, has fond memories of directing him in Britten’s The Burning Fiery Furnace and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, among other projects. Mr. Turgeon’s baritone voice remains Mr. Symcox’s favourite. “It was so mellifluous and smooth,” he said. “I trembled every time I heard it, actually.” Mr. Turgeon’s performance as Sharpless, the U.S. consul, in Madama Butterfly was especially memorable. “It was so compassionate,” Mr. Symcox recalled. “I can still hear phrases from it in my mind.”

Mr. Turgeon returned to his native Edmonton in 1969 to run the opera and voice departments at the University of Alberta. While his professional life was spent in the rarefied air of classical opera, his private life was lived in the fresh air. “He was an outdoors guy,” Michael Turgeon said, recalling summers with his father that involved fishing, water skiing and horseback-riding, and winters of tobogganing and snowmobiling. “I always remember him as this adventurous person.”

That sense of adventure led Mr. Turgeon to make three invited tours of the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, at a time when Cold War tensions saw only limited artistic exchanges with the West. He became among the few Canadians to perform at the fabled Bolshoi Opera in Moscow, where he played a pair of Verdi roles: Amonasro in Aida and the eponymous jester in Rigoletto. He spent his offstage hours visiting Soviet music schools and conservatories, gathering ideas for his own educational programs in Canada.

By the 1970s his marriage to Dolores had ended. He met Teresa Pope while heading the opera program at the Banff Centre, where she was a rehearsal pianist, and the two were married in 1978. That same year they moved to the West Coast, where Mr. Turgeon took on the task of developing the opera and voice programs at the University of Victoria. By then he had a reputation as an administrator with vision. “The opera programs that he developed were really state-of-the-art,” noted singer Janice Jackson, who studied with him at UVic and later became a lifelong friend. “He believed in putting the best people together and developing programs that were student-centred.”

In 1989, Mr. Turgeon was lured east again, to Montreal, to direct McGill University’s opera studio. He remained with McGill until his retirement in 2000, when he and Teresa resettled on their property by Elk Lake, outside Victoria. There, Mr. Turgeon took up a new part-time career, as a farmer. The couple ran Star Hill Farm, where they grew and sold asparagus, apples and figs.

Mr. Turgeon had also become a practitioner of neuro-linguistic programming, a therapeutic philosophy, which he took up after being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1994. It helped him successfully deal with his illness and he came to apply its techniques to his teaching. “He wanted to use it to help other people,” Michael Turgeon said, adding that looking after others was typical of his father. “He was a loving, caring man who would go out of his way to make sure other people were taken care of.”

The Turgeon siblings inherited their parents’ passion for music. Michael, a horticulturalist at Victoria’s Butchart Gardens, is the singer and drummer for local rock band The Weeds. Monique, a manager with B.C. Ferries, is also a rock singer, while Rachele, a luthier, owns the Rococo Violin Shop in Prince George, B.C.

Mr. Turgeon stopped performing publicly when he turned 80, but continued to sing. “He believed if you sang every day you could keep singing your whole life,” Ms. Jackson said. Mr. Corrigan was among the many who delighted in his voice. “It was at once really dark and chocolatey, but bright … a real chiaroscuro,” he said. “He was the Caravaggio of baritones.”

After a long period of remission, Mr. Turgeon’s cancer returned and spread dramatically this past year. He didn’t feel its effects, however, until late September. He died at home, surrounded by his family. He leaves his wife, Teresa; his children, Michael, Rachele and Monique Turgeon; his brother, Pierre Turgeon; and sisters, Madeleine Fiorino and Marie-Claire Turgeon; as well as four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

His wife said Mr. Turgeon had been thrilled to learn that the COC will finally give Louis Riel another production next year – 50 years after its premiere. “When he first heard about it he said, ‘Oh my God, they certainly waited too long for me!’ But seriously, he thought it was long overdue and worthy of being mounted again.”

“It’s too bad that he didn’t live to see it,” Mr. Corrigan added, “but I’m sure that all the artists involved will have Bernard in mind.”

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