Marie-Josée Lord is a soprano on the move. We caught her by phone while she was in Toronto for an intensive two-week workshop with the Volcano Theatre Company. Lord is participating in their reboot of Treemonisha, the opera written by Scott Joplin in 1910 and first performed in 1972.
The company is replacing the libretto while keeping Joplin’s original characters. Meredith Potter, producer of the show, explains that the original manuscript with an orchestration was lost. Now a vocal/piano score is the only vestige.
The new orchestration and arrangements by Jessie Montgomery and Jannina Norpoth are a fusion of classical romantic music and spirituals. The singing style is a blend of musical theatre, opera and gospel. In total, there are 10 musicians, eight principal characters and a chorus of three. Lord was there to try on the vocal part of Monisha, the title character’s mother.
New CD Femmes
In February Canadians celebrate Black History Month. March 8 will also mark International Women’s Day. In this context, and as part of her busy schedule, this Canadian soprano of Haitian birth is preparing for the release of Femmes, a recording made live on Oct. 23, 2017 at the historical Église Sainte–Rose–de–Lima in Laval with the Orchestre symphonique de Laval under the baton of Alain Trudel.
“I wanted to expose different female characters at different ages and in different situations,” Lord explains. “I wanted to touch upon four themes – love, life, death and aging – from the perspective of a woman.”
“Listening to the voices and stories of various heroines, you quickly realize how much closer they are to our real lives than you first thought. Then you sympathize and connect with them.”
Lord hopes opera houses take notice. “My goal is to start singing more and more internationally, to export my talent. I know my wishes will take shape at the right time.”
Femmes traces an evolving path from Musetta’s Waltz from La Bohème, which suited Lord at the beginning of her career, to heavier arias such as “Ritorna vincitor!” from Aida and “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly. In these she shows great dramatic commitment and seems to be in her element.
“If anything, my voice has become easier with the years,” Lord says. “I have better control of it. I have the sense that my voice and I are in constant collaboration.
“One has to be mentally and physically ready to sing Aida. It’s a role that demands a lot of power but also finesse. I am somebody who likes to take time. I think I’m ready now for the challenge and hope opera houses start taking note.”
Racism in opera
Is racism a problem in opera?
“For sure, the world of opera is very racist,” Lord answers assertively. “Aida, for example, is an Ethiopian princess, but, still today, the role is cast too often with a blonde. They just costume her into a mulatto person.
“However, rarely will companies consider giving Butterfly to a black singer and costuming her to look Japanese. Or even Micaëla.”
“Of course, this is not the case in every opera house, and no stage director in their right mind is going to tell you: ‘We are not going to hire you because you are black.’ He is going to find another way of doing it, because that person knows that if they say it directly, they could face big consequences. But the result is the same. You aren’t going to get hired.”
Lord is not alone in her views. “During a production of Porgy and Bess I got to discuss this with many black colleagues who have wonderful lyrical voices. Most of them have no problem getting hired for musical theater, but struggle to get on an opera stage.”
These comments lead us to reflect on an inherent problem in operas by composers such as Puccini who were inspired by exotic and distant cultures. Turandot and Madama Butterfly are examples.
At the time Puccini composed those operas, researching those cultures was a complicated task. His work was probably influenced by the prejudices of his time. Now, from a practical point of view, should a stage director cast Turandot with no regard to race and make the singers look Chinese by painting their faces? Will such a director be accused of racism?
All these concerns are valid, and that’s one reason why some producers might find the idea of setting operas in a modern and culturally broader context seductive. Then again, opera traditionalists would argue that by modernizing the scenario, they are in fact missing the original beauty of the opera and are just missing the point.
Chatting with a diva
For Marie-Josée Lord, singing is a God-given talent. She emphasizes also that to become a great singer takes a lot of work and dedication. Apart from being a singer, Lord is a capable pianist and violinist. Singing came later on, in her 20s. She felt right away that it was the right choice, always trusting her faith.
“I’m a very religious person, and I don’t hide it,” Lord says. “It is part of my life. Nowadays people talk about yoga and this and that. I talk about God.”
It is through the lens of the divine will that Lord views the passing last year of Jacqueline Martel Cistellini, her teacher at the Conservatoire in Quebec City.
“She was the only teacher that I trusted 100 percent,” Lord says. “When I came to Montréal, it was very difficult for me because I was separated from my teacher.
“I am a bit old-school. To me, there is one teacher, and that’s it. More and more, I see students changing teachers, looking for a teacher who has a big name, or who helped this or that person have a contract.
“A good voice teacher is not the one who wins the popularity contest. A good teacher has to fit you like a glove, understand your instrument, and, most importantly, has to be someone who you completely trust, almost like a second parent.”
Lord learned a valuable lesson in not comparing herself to other singers. “From the moment people start to listen to us, they want to compare us to someone they’ve already heard. That’s very unhealthy. Everyone is different.
“I am not Jessye Norman. I didn’t live her life. One must be authentic. My point of comparison is myself first of all. It’s my body, that’s what I listen to.
“Of course, I also listen to the great singers, but more to appreciate their art and try to learn from them than to depreciate what I can do. La Callas in her time had Tebaldi. Music critics kept comparing them, but this was like comparing grapefruit to pears. They are two different, but great singers.”
Femmes will be released as a CD on Feb. 23. Marie-Josée Lord sings a program based on Femmes at the Théâtre Maisonneuve of Place des Arts with the Orchestre symphonique de Laval under Alain Trudel on Fev. 27 at 7:30 pm. This is a presentation of Montréal en Lumière.