Having toured the world for nearly six years in the part of Cristal in the opera Starmania, soprano Raphaëlle Paquette has enjoyed a wide-ranging career in Quebec. The classically trained singer, dancer and pianist has now turned her attention to pop music and mixed genres — for example in her Duo Cheek to Cheek — and often performs in nursing homes. The week of October 21–28 finds her playing Gilda in Opéra de Québec’s Rigoletto. As part of our coverage of the new season, Raphaëlle spoke to us openly about the challenges of opera singing and the realities of a young performer at the start of her career.
The big question is, when did you decide to become an opera singer and how did it begin?
“When I was eight, I saw the film of Verdi’s La Traviata with Domingo and Teresa Stratas. Afterwards I was in a flood of tears and I said to my mother, ‘Mom, I want to be an opera singer!’ She heard me but probably thought, well, kids say crazy things. But I already had a toehold in the performing arts. At seven I began ballet and piano, at secondary school I entered the Grands Ballets Canadiens, and in my third year of secondary I started piano lessons at École Pierre-Laporte. And then in Cegep I said, ‘Okay mom, I’m going to train to be a singer,’ and I did a bachelor’s in opera.”
What happened after you graduated?
“I did a lot of corporate events. Some were classical, but then I began to do more crossover. I learned to sing in all sorts of conditions and to perform with the audience very close. It was very formative. I loved the proximity, and now I do a lot of concerts in nursing homes and retirement homes. That was behind my idea of launching two duos. I love that part of my work; in fact it’s essential to me. It’s worth any amount of money.”
Are competitions essential to launch a career?
“I entered competitions when I was younger, but they were never my strong point. I had terrible stage fright. Competitions are hard work psychologically. You’ve got the vocal work, and that’s a discipline in itself, and the competition is just one more source of stress. I just didn’t have the tools to manage the butterflies. I did win competitions, but I didn’t enjoy them. I didn’t like the fact that artists were being compared to each other. It’s a good way of getting yourself out there, and it’s character-building, so I’d tell young people to do it, but not so much to win as to learn how to concentrate their minds and broaden their repertoire.”
You’ve also done rounds of auditions. What’s that like?
“It’s stressful and exhausting. You might visit ten cities or countries in less than a month. You might attend two auditions in the same day but in two cities. You catch the train at six in the morning and when you get to the venue there’s nowhere to warm up. So you warm up in the bathroom, just enough to practise a few notes, and you’re ready. And finally you have two minutes to prove you’re the best in the world, even though you’re worn out. But it’s a very good learning experience. You mustn’t do thousands of them and you mustn’t choose them at random. You think after university you’ll do auditions and gets lots of parts. The reality is repeated disappointment. It’s hard. But it’s our vocation and we have to keep going on.”
Are classical singers obliged to go abroad to have a career?
“It depends on what sort of career you want. For a career in opera, then yes, you have to go abroad. There aren’t many opera houses in Canada and they don’t put on many productions. But Europe has a little opera house in practically every town! It’s possible to carve out a career here, but you need to diversify, as I have.”
How do you prepare for an operatic part?
“At the moment I’m rehearsing Gilda for a production with Opéra de Québec. I haven’t had even two months to prepare. When I got the call, I was on vacation with my husband. In the end I spent the vacation in my room! When I’m preparing a role like that, it really becomes part of me. With a tight deadline, the score is always in my bag. You have to rehearse the text using the speaking voice, because singing is like speaking. I often sing seated at the piano as it’s more restful, and I don’t sing very loud. These days I work three or four times a week with my teachers and coaches. When I’m by myself at home I can practise for two and a half hours, but no more, and I don’t do it every day. I rest my voice periodically and I try not to talk too much. At home I take it easy and work on memorization.”
What advice would you give to youngsters starting out in this career?
“Make sure you’re around positive, constructive people, because you need a lot of encouragement in this career. It’s made up of courage, joy and perseverance. Life is a struggle, but it’s a rewarding struggle. You have to struggle all the time, struggle to get out of bed in the morning, to earn your living. But go for it! Don’t hold back!”
TRANSLATION: Cecilia Grayson
Raphaëlle Paquette sings the role of Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto October 21, 24, 26 and 28, 2017, Quebec City, www.operadequebec.com