How Do You Spell Holiday?

Enfant de Bohème: in conversation with Michel Beaulac

The Opera de Montreal’s venerable veteran Artistic Director, Michel Beaulac, has travelled the world and visited some of its most notable concert halls — Palais Garnier, La Scala, Teatro Comunale di Bologna among them. But his roots as a music lover are planted firmly in the working-class neighbourhood of Pointe-Saint-Charles.

“I like that section of Montreal. I have a lot of memories there,” says Beaulac on a phone call during the final weekend before five performances (another was added, by popular demand, on May 16th) of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly close out the company’s 43rd season. “Butterfly is certainly an opera that is always sold out because there is a connection there with the audience. People think it really is about a Geisha in Nagasaki, and her tragic story. But it really is so much more. It’s a denunciation of Imperialism. It’s a denunciation of power.”

Beaulac comes from a financially modest family. “In Pointe-Saint-Charles, that was really the rule,” he says. “Everybody was, not poor, but of relatively meagre means.”

When he was five, Beaulac’s favourite uncle, an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist at Notre-Dame Hospital, who happened to be the preferred referral for touring singers performing in the city, gifted the family a phonograph and a few classical recordings. “The only records we had in the house were those my uncle had given us,” Beaulac recalls. “One was Casse-Noisette. And the others were Werther, and Carmen, with Raoul Jobin, which Raoul Jobin had given him because he had just seen him for throat problems.” Particularly, Carmen first caught Beaulac’s ear — and broke his heart.

“I used to sing the words,” Beaulac remembers, “not really understanding the story. And when Carmen died at the end, I would run over to my mother, because I had a cousin whose name was Carmen. I would always go to my mother and say, ‘Carmen is dead!’ And my mother would have to tell me, ‘no, this is just a story, Carmen is not dead. Your cousin Carmen is not dead.’”

By his mid-teens, Beaulac began attending performances that the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal co-produced, featuring singers like Shirley Verrett and Richard Verreault. And at 18, he saved up enough money working summer jobs to visit Europe’s most storied opera houses.

“That was just such an incredible experience,” Beaulac recollects. “I was still developing that fascination for the voice and for opera and I never thought I’d spend my life in opera. I never really hoped or even thought of it.”

Beaulac’s career took a roundabout path. He taught for ten years, and then studied sculpture and painting, before landing a job in communications at Opera de Montreal. “And that’s where it all started,” Beaulac laughs. “It was such luck. I mean, I began in communications and moved on. I had a good knowledge of space, and structure, and drawing, and colours. One day a set designer dropped out. The director at the time said, ‘we have a production in seven months and the designer just dropped out, do you want to do the sets?’ And I never say no, so I jumped in.”

Since, Beaulac has served as the OdM’s Artistic Director and shows no signs of slowing down. The company is already casting for its 2024-’25 season. “We’re starting to look ahead,” Beaulac says with genuine excitement. “We’re really starting to plan who I could have here in ‘25-‘26. It’s really rolling.”

As other high artforms like cinema, prestige TV, and video games seem to be losing their post-covid appeal amongst younger audiences, opera is gaining a new generation of aficionados. With the OdM’s world premiere of La Beauté du Monde, the composer Julien Bilodeau’s collaboration with Quebec dramaturg Michel Marc Bouchard, and Juno winner Keiko Devaux’s debut at the Darling Foundry in January of L’ecoute du Perdu, Montreal is emerging as the new world leader in a centuries-long tradition.

“Opera hasn’t just survived,” Beaulac affirms, “it has developed. Opera has become this formidable artform that is so complete — that brings art, and architecture, and music, and words, and drama, and dance, and movement. This is what is so fascinating about this artform, and why you and I are so taken by it. It’s a world unto itself. When I hear people in the tech world talk about the metaverse, I think that we had access to the metaverse before they did.”

In efforts to attract younger audiences, the OdM has experimented in recent years with opening up dress rehearsals to the public, showcasing performances in a more informal setting. Still, Beaulac finds that people are drawn to opera’s immersive, transformative potential, regardless of age.

“It’s kind of a magnet,” Beaulac explains. “Opera is an artform that we can express thoughts and feelings that are connected to today’s reality. New works do that. The audience, young and old, wants to be told stories. People love to be told a story. Especially if the music is carrying it. Time slows down. They get to that meditative state where they get into the story. When it’s well put together, and the artists are really communicative, and the story is presented to them beforehand so that they already have a grasp of what they’re going to see, or if they get to look it up on their phones, they love it.”

Just don’t ask Beaulac to select a favourite. “There are so many,” he says, “for different reasons. In the 15 years I have been here, even where I’ve got to pick and choose, there are still too many.”

Beaulac is especially proud, though, of his contributions to the 2014 staging of Porgy and Bess. “We got to work nine months with Trevor Payne,” says Beaulac, “who’s an incredible musician and artist, an incredible person, an incredible soul. We worked with the Montreal Gospel Choir, and that was a real community. And the consciousness of the Black community in Montreal, and the connection that the Montreal Opera forged with the Black community, it was one of the most riveting and fulfilling experiences. It was incredible.”

Beaulac is equally fond of his relationship with Yannick Nézet-Séguin. “We did several operas together,” Beaulac says of the Montreal native who is currently Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York City. “I gave him his first Bohème,” Beaulac beams, “his first Butterfly, his first Cosi Fan Tutti.” In 2018, Nézet-Séguin returned to lead a co-production with the Orchestre Metropolitain in a triumphant concert version of Beethoven’s only opera, the rarely performed and mythically regarded Fidelio. “Those are fond memories, Beaulac recalls. “Yannick is a great musician.”

When it comes to contemporary artists, Beaulac is most drawn to the classics, listing off The Beatles, Roberta Flack, and Aretha Franklin, before mentioning George Michael as a recent inspiration. I note that Michael is among the 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees. “George Michael was phenomenal,” Beaulac approves. “He was very talented. He wrote beautiful music.”

Nonetheless, opera is the be-all and end-all for Beaulac. “I was literally brought up with opera,” a history pressed on albums made right across the canal at the RCA plant in Saint Henri, and spinning out on a gramophone likely manufactured just down the street at the Northern Electric factory in the Pointe.

“Pointe-Saint-Charles is very dear to me,” Beaulac says nostalgically. “Whenever I take my car out, I always go there, like on a pilgrimage. I see where I lived when I was a kid, and see the river, and Boulevard LaSalle. It’s always very moving to see that for me.◼︎

Madama Butterfly continues May 9th, 11th, 14th, and 16th at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier.

photo: Brent Calis