Joseph Rouleau, a Canadian bass whose long career combined performances on the great stages of the world with tireless work at home as an arts advocate, particularly for Jeunesses Musicales Canada, an organization he revitalized through his presidency, died on July 12 in Montreal at age 90.
“Joe was generous in every way to all the people he touched,” Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, contacted in London, said of Mr. Rouleau, who once helped her care for her ailing father. “I was one of the lucky ones.”
The New Zealand-born soprano is one of many renowned singers Mr. Rouleau could call colleagues, notably during his decades on the roster of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden but also at the Paris Opera, the Metropolitan Opera and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. The remarkable roll of A-listers includes Victoria de los Angeles, Jussi Björling, Montserrat Caballé, Marilyn Horne, Gwyneth Jones, Birgit Nilsson, Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland and a fellow Canadian, Jon Vickers.
Even Mr. Rouleau’s recording debut in 1957 was dappled with stardust, as he was one of the supporting singers on an EMI album featuring Maria Callas. Mr. Rouleau received a crash course in perfectionism from the diva, who required nine takes of the mad scene from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena before she was satisfied.
Mr. Rouleau was born on Feb. 28, 1929 in the Gaspé Peninsula town of Matane, the son of a forestry contractor. When the family moved to Montreal, Mr. Rouleau was enrolled at the elite Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, where he played on the hockey team.
The bass-to-be might never have pursued his career had not Gilles Lefebvre, a family friend and founder of the Jeunesses Musicales movement, noticed the quality of his voice around a summer campfire near Lac Simon in Quebec.
“Singing lessons? Me?” Mr. Rouleau recalled in a 2004 interview. The notion had never occurred to the 17-year-old. When he auditioned for Édouard Woolley a few months later, Mr. Rouleau sang Alouette and O Canada, which were among the few songs he knew by heart.
After private lessons with Mr. Woolley and Albert Cornellier, Mr. Rouleau studied with the noted French baritone Martial Singher at the Montreal Conservatoire, learning piano and harmony in an era when some opera singers could barely read music.
In 1949, Mr. Rouleau won the Archambault Prize, which became the basis of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra Competition. Then Jeunesses Musicales sent him on a recital tour of eastern Canada.
Performance fees from this experience and a bursary from the Quebec government allowed Mr. Rouleau to study in Milan with Mario Basiola and Antonio Narducci, who gave him a taste of traditional Italian technique while coaching him in the standard bass repertoire. At La Scala the young singer heard Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, a bass who, in Mr. Rouleau’s view, took on the title role of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov too soon.
“From then on I decided that I must take the right road,” Mr. Rouleau said. “Develop technically, learn how to sing, and then do the repertoire.”
Whether because of or despite his resolution, Mr. Rouleau added roles steadily after his Italian sojourn, singing Tom in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera with the Opera Guild of Montreal – for a fee of $75 – and Arkel in a concert performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the distinguished French conductor Pierre Monteux. For the New Orleans Opera he sang Colline in Puccini’s La Bohème and the King in Verdi’s Aida.
His big break, however, was the consequence of a 1956 audition in New York for David Webster, general administrator of the Royal Opera House. “My boy, would you like to join Covent Garden?” was the simple question after Mr. Rouleau, recovering from laryngitis, sang selections by Mozart and Verdi. “Yes, sir, with pleasure,” was the equally simple response. First appearing in the company’s touring productions, Mr. Rouleau made his London debut as Colline on April 23, 1957.
“You go to a great opera house like Covent Garden, with all the best singers and conductors, and think, ‘My God, what am I going to do?’” he remembered. “I was 26, without much experience. Well, you think, ‘I’m going to work, I'm going to watch.’”
Mr. Rouleau certainly worked, checking off most of the major bass roles and many of the lesser parts. Méphistophélès in Gounod’s Faust, Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlos (the opera in which, as the Grand Inquisitor, he made his belated Metropolitan Opera debut in 1984), Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the Commendatore in the same composer’s Don Giovanni were standards. He sang the title role in Massenet’s Don Quichotte many times in France, sometimes with his compatriot, the baritone Robert Savoie, as Sancho Panza.
While Mr. Rouleau was not a frequent visitor to the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, he created, in 1967, the role of Bishop Taché in Harry Somers’s landmark of the Canadian stage, Louis Riel. Other world premieres in which he participated were of John Tavener’s Thérèse and Jacques Hétu’s Le Prix. Mr. Rouleau appeared as Wagner’s Daland (The Flying Dutchman), Fafner (Siegfried), Veit Pogner (Die Meistersinger) and Titurel (Parsifal). His 2004 biography lists 118 roles, a total that is probably not exhaustive.
Incredibly, Mr. Rouleau was to add to his repertoire in the summer of 2012, at age 83, by singing Gonzalo in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest in Quebec City. This was a few months after a mesmerizing performance as Arkel in a University of Montreal production of Pelléas.
“In preternaturally resonant voice … and deeply sympathetic as an actor,” was the judgment in the Montreal Gazette. “The old king is the most human character in Debussy’s drama, and Mr. Rouleau realized all the subtleties of the part.”
As lengthy and varied as Mr. Rouleau’s career was, he always regarded three visits to the Soviet Union in the 1960s with special affection. In 1966 he sang Mussorgsky’s Boris in Kazan, birthplace of Feodor Chaliapin, a celebrated Boris, whose costume he wore.
“It’s very demanding vocally,” Mr. Rouleau said of the part, which he took three years to prepare. “You need a great degree of maturity.”
Mr. Rouleau never sang Boris at Covent Garden, although he did play the monk Pimen in this opera at what he called his mother house. “I feel my name is written on the walls,” he said of the company. It was at Covent Garden that he met his second wife, Renée Morreau, a dancer with the Royal Opera ballet corps. They were frequently seen together at concerts and operas in Montreal.
Mr. Rouleau’s career in these years did not unfold entirely across the pond. In 1967 he appeared as part of the World Festival of Entertainment presented in Montreal in conjunction with Expo 67 and sang in a Toronto performance of Oedipus Rex in the presence the composer, Stravinsky.
Still, Mr. Rouleau might easily have remained in London. He decided instead in 1977 to return to Canada and Montreal. “I knew I did not want to die in England,” he said in his memoirs. The bass continued to tour – including South Africa in the spring of 1978 – but by 1979 the Rouleau family had settled in the West Island municipality of Beaconsfield.
It was around then that Mr. Rouleau embarked on a parallel career as a mover and shaker for musical causes. One interesting problem in Montreal was the absence of a significant professional company after the collapse in 1975 of the Opéra du Québec.
With his comrade-in-arms Mr. Savoie, Mr. Rouleau founded the Mouvement d’action pour l’art lyrique du Québec, a lobby group that succeeded in persuading the provincial government to support the founding of the Opéra de Montréal in 1980. The bass sang frequently with this company and served on its board of directors. Somewhat to Mr. Rouleau’s chagrin, he was never given the chance to appear as Boris, but a concert performance organized by Radio-Canada in 1986 in St. Jean Baptiste Church left no doubt of the undiminished power of his interpretation.
In 1980 Mr. Rouleau developed a new vocation as a teacher with the inauguration of an opera studio of the University of Quebec in Montreal. This university needed a concert hall to compare with those of its rival Montreal institutions. Mr. Rouleau discussed the matter with the press baron Pierre Péladeau, a great fan of Beethoven. Salle Pierre-Mercure in the Centre Pierre-Péladeau opened in 1992.
Another major project was the restoration of Jeunesses Musicales Canada, which gave Mr. Rouleau his start. From 1989 to 2014 he served as president of this organization, devoted to the development of young musicians and audiences. Among the tangible results of his lobbying with his friend, the former Quebec Finance Minister André Bourbeau (1936-2018), was Jeunesses Musicales Canada’s Maison André Bourbeau and the Concours musical international de Montréal, an annual competition that is now among the most respected in the world.
“He was inhabited by an absolute love of music,” Danièle LeBlanc, executive and artistic director of JMC, said in a statement. “Until his last days, he sat on the different committees of our events and was actively involved in fundraising. He liked to joke that he was a ‘professional beggar.’”
As an artist, Mr. Rouleau combined a deep, full tone with a natural flair for melody and robust but natural acting skills. His repertoire was classical although he made an interesting exception in 1990 by issuing an album on the Analekta label of songs by Félix Leclerc (1914-1988).
“He was not a separatist all his life,” Mr. Rouleau said of this singer-songwriter. “What interested me was the poetry he wrote, how he wrote romantic songs, songs that were humorous, and some with a political context. Frankly, I never thought of the project as political. For me, it was poetic.”
Mr. Rouleau was a companion of the Order of Canada and grand officer of the Ordre national du Québec. He served on the advisory board of the Azrieli Music Project and was chairman of the Orchestre classique de Montréal. This ensemble, the renamed McGill Chamber Orchestra, will present a concert in Mr. Rouleau’s honour on Sept. 23.
Mr. Rouleau leaves his wife, Jill Renée; children, Diane, Jessica and Marc; nine grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and two sisters, Jacqueline and Bertrande.