Looking back at the life of an opera diva, one would expect a few anecdotes involving cracked notes, flubbed lines, balcony boos or stormy exits, but those reminiscing about Pierrette Alarie’s many performances and recordings could not come up with any gaffes.
Instead, they talked about how her success was built on constant preparation, roles learned long before rehearsals began, an emotionally astute search for the essence of each character, a sense of perfectionism and a fear of the bad review (which would never come). Having the music down and fully understanding her character meant she could push her art further.
Alarie and her husband, Léopold Simoneau, were Quebec-born opera stars who performed on the world’s biggest international stages – often together.
She earned a regular opera spot on radio at 17, made her Metropolitan Opera debut at 25 and had a three-year engagement with the company. That was followed by a move to Europe in the late 1940s, where she spent another successful three years with the Opéra Comique in Paris. After that there were numerous radio, television and stage engagements, and a string of festivals and recordings, which ended in 1970, when she and Simoneau voluntarily retired from the opera circuit. During the following two decades, she taught opera and directed productions.
Alarie, who died on July 10 in Victoria at the age of 89 from natural causes, did not fit the mould of an opera singer, where bodies are often rotund and voices are of the booming variety.
She had a petite stature and described her voice as “small.”
In an interview that she and her husband gave the American music writer Bruce Duffie in the late 1980s, she said Elisabeth Schumann, her teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music, also had a small voice and would tell her students not to try to sing more than what they had. “She said, ‘If people are bothered, they’ll just have to get on the edge of their seat to listen to you!’ “
Bernard Turgeon, who sang with Alarie when she played the role of Zerlina in a 1958 Vancouver production of Don Giovanni, found that what her voice lacked in volume, it made up in emotion. “It was not a big voice, but it was one that had soul.”
Turgeon said Alarie embodied her characters, talking about them in the first person, and that the emotions she put across on stage were honest and in the moment. Cast in coloratura roles, her sound has been described as crystalline, with Turgeon adding that her voice was “filled with joy.”
Pierrette Marguerite Alarie was born in Montreal on Nov. 9, 1921, the third of four children of Silva and Amanda (née Plante) Alarie. Her parents were both artistic. Her father was a cellist and choirmaster, who made his living as a translator for the French-language daily La Presse. Her mother was an actress who would eventually gain immense popularity on early 1950s Quebec television as the matriarch in the series La famille Plouffe.
Every Sunday, after church, the family would sing together. The arts were taken seriously, which meant Pierrette received private lessons in drama. At the age of 9, she played her first stage role. By 12, she started taking singing lessons and gained an appreciation for classical music. By 16, her sister Marie-Thérèse Meloche remembers her announcing to her family, “I’m going to be an opera singer.”
“She never let that out of her sight. And then she worked to make the dream happen,” said Meloche.
By 17, Alarie was performing a weekly half-hour show on CKAC, a popular French-language radio station. She continued to study singing, taking lessons with Salvator Issaurel. It was through the Montreal teacher that she met Simoneau in 1940.
She would earn a coveted spot at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute, where she studied from 1943 until 1946. Just before that ended, she won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air in 1945, playing Oscar in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, and then appeared 25 more times on the Met stage in three seasons.
In 1946, Alarie married Simoneau, the two often appearing in the same operas and touring the festivals in Aix-en-Provence, Glyndebourne and Salzburg. A love affair also ensued with the works of Mozart, and the two were nicknamed “Monsieur et Madame Mozart” by the press in both France and Quebec for their many roles in the Austrian composer’s operas.
Alarie and Simoneau prepared musically at home for their many dates in European and North American opera houses, as well as for radio and TV appearances. They had two daughters, Isabelle and Chantal. A live-in nanny was hired and there was an understanding that the living room was off limits when they practised. “It was the most normal upbringing, except there was this music every day. But it was work and we had to be quiet,” said Isabelle, who added that her parents were very accepting of each others’ criticisms in rehearsals.
The couple did not sing for fun with their family save for lullabies when the girls were very young and the Midnight Mass they would be asked to perform.
They didn’t impose their music on their daughters, who nevertheless gained an appreciation for opera. And they would tolerate the Beatles and other pop music from the era, which could be heard from the basement, usually at a lower volume than their living room rehearsals.
In 1966, Alarie performed her final stage role, as The Merry Widow, for Quebec City’s Théâtre lyrique de Nouvelle-France, and in 1970 she and her husband gave their final public performance, singing Handel’s Messiah with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
According to Isabelle, they decided to quit singing at that time so that they could leave at the top of their game. She said they had little time for singers who would wait until their voices had weakened before deciding to retire. They found it unprofessional to play a role at a diminished level and that it showed a lack of respect for the art form.
In 1971, Simoneau was appointed artistic director of the newly created Opéra du Québec, but resigned that same year after a dispute with the president of the company. He and Alarie took up teaching positions at both the San Francisco Conservatory and the Banff School of Fine Arts.
“Mom didn’t approach things very intellectually,” said Isabelle. “She loved talking about feelings.” She said her mother also loved working with lighting designers, using a vocabulary of moods as she described what she wanted, such as a sense of intimacy or a feeling of coldness.
In 1982, Alarie and Simoneau moved to Victoria, where they founded Canada Opera Piccola, an opera training school, with Simoneau as voice teacher and Alarie directing most of the productions. The productions employed 12 singers on three-month summer contracts and toured various provinces with orchestra-accompanied productions that included Cimarosa’s The Secret Marriage, Mozart’s Così fan tutte and Bizet’s Don Procopio. It was forced to close in 1988 when it lost funding from the Canada Council.
Alarie rarely listened to her old recordings, cringing at most of them, with an exclamatory “Quelle horreur!” Occasionally she did come across a song she liked, pointing out a moving moment to her daughter. “Oh, that was very good,” she’d say.
Alarie leaves Isabelle and Chantal. Léopold Simoneau died in 2006.
Special to The Globe and Mail