To understand rising baritone Etienne Dupuis’s approach to opera, it helps to know about one of his favourite gigs. It didn’t take place in the glittering opera halls of Paris or Berlin; instead it was a flash mob that happened in a market in his hometown of Montreal.
Staged at the busy Marché Jean Talon to promote Opéra de Montréal in 2010, it found Dupuis and several other of the company’s performers suddenly emerging from the crowds and stalls to belt out masterpieces by the likes of Giuseppe Verdi to passersby. And the singer still marvels at the reactions they got.
“I love people’s faces when I start singing opera in an up-close space,” one of the stars of Vancouver Opera’s La Bohème tells the Straight, sitting in the lobby of the West End apartment he’s staying in. “We were standing right in front of them and they just became statues,” he goes on about the market crowd, stiffening up to mime the reactions. “They’re like, ‘What is that sound? How is that even possible?’ People don’t realize the nature of that sound and what it does to you….It can make you vibrate.”
That feeling can happen even in a theatre setting. “There’s no better way to experience vocal commitment hands on—I say ears on—than through opera,” Dupuis enthuses. “Pop [music] is great and microphones are great, but they do take away some of the truth of the sound.”
Acting came easily to Dupuis, who plays the charismatic painter Marcello in Giacomo Puccini’s Bohème here, but unleashing his rich, resonant voice did not—at first. He had always been into music and had a good ear, but piano was his earliest pursuit, starting at age four. Dupuis always hated the practising, though, and by the second year of CEGEP in Quebec he transferred out of a jazz-piano program and into classical voice work. (“Everyone said, ‘Are you fucking nuts?’.”) Dupuis explains he wanted to learn the technical side of singing, but immediately fell in love with portraying characters on-stage, proceeding on to McGill University to specialize in voice. Still, he admits it took him till about the age of 24 to learn how to fully access that baritone.
“Classical singing is hard because of what we are always taught: you look at every kid in the supermarket and they’re being ‘shushed’,” the affable singer explains. “But when we are being shushed we learn to make less resonant sound. We create tensions in our throat that we keep—sometimes forever. So it took me a long time before I believed in singing. But I always believed in my acting. I walk on-stage like I walk into my living room; it’s somewhere that I enjoy being.”
Nowadays, though, that singing, as well as that acting, has put Dupuis in demand, across Canada and by the likes of Opéra de Paris and Deutsche Oper Berlin. Many times over the years, he’s been cast as the amiable Marcello, bohemian painter and buddy to Bohème’s heartbroken Rodolfo, who pines for the poor, consumptive Mimi. It’s a role Dupuis seems to slip easily into, and he’s been praised for bringing energy to Marcello every time he steps on-stage.
Of the part, he offers: “I think in Puccini’s mind, Marcello is the ideal ear. It makes it silly to sing how you feel to nobody in particular—and that happens a lot, still, in opera. Like, ‘Oh, I feel like cra-a-a-a-ap,’ ” he sings to, well, nobody in particular. “Marcello is the guy you go to; he can tell you what to do. Except when Musetta walks in the room. She’s his kryptonite,” he says of his character’s love interest, who begins the opera with a sugar daddy.
Marcello likes to have fun, though, and so does Dupuis. And that’s the reason he’s so thrilled to be part of this VO production: he’s friends with the three other youthful leads—Jason Slayden (Rodolfo), Krisztina Szabó (Musetta), and Marianne Fiset (Mimi)—and they’re having a great time rehearsing the show. He also likes director Nancy Hermiston’s approach to the often-staged work: it’s traditional, with lush 19th-century Parisian settings, but she is pushing her cast toward realistic acting. “You don’t stand there and say you’re ‘sa-a-a-a-d’ for 10 minutes. No. Instead we look the other person right in the eyes and say ‘I’m sad,’ ” he says with emotion.
There have been a lot of laughs at this VO production’s rehearsals, but a lot of tears, too, because of that honesty, and perhaps because the performers are so close in age to the characters in the tragic opera. Dupuis is part of a new generation of Canadian opera singers who like to have a good time and who bust all notions of the art form as a stiff one. But this is Bohème after all. “Every bloody time we do the run-through, the kids from the VO’s Young Artists Program, and the assistant director, and all these stage managers—everyone’s crying at the end.”
Vancouver Opera’s La Bohème is at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday (October 20), Tuesday (October 23), and October 25, 27, and 28.