Chants Libres: Rethinking the Total Art of the 21st Century

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

Chants Libres came into being in 1991, at a time when contemporary opera didn’t have much good press in Quebec. Many singers dreaded damaging their vocal cords with new techniques, while musical theatre was eclipsing lyrical voices. This didn’t prevent soprano Pauline Vaillancourt from founding a company that, 30 years later, has carved out a top place for itself in the world of contemporary music. Let’s look back at three decades of Chants Libres.

Catching up after a lagging behind

During Nuit blanche on Feb. 29, more than 400 people enjoyed a program presented by Chants Libres and its partners that reprised several masterworks of the company’s repertoire. “At this time, composers didn’t have a forum for the domain of opera,” says Chants Libres artistic director Pauline Vaillancourt. “Dance and theatre had evolved with time, but opera remained frozen in a traditional, static form. There was a lot of catching up to do.”

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Bringing artists from diverse disciplines together and reaffirming the comprehensive character of opera, Chant Libres has become a vital platform for creators and interpreters and has returned opera to its former place as an up-to-date artform. Among the composers in the company’s repertoire, which counts 17 premieres to date, there are many Canadians (Gilles Tremblay, Serge Provost and Bruce Mather) as well as international luminaries (Giacinto Scelsi and Zad Moultaka). The creativity surprises, attracts, questions, and seduces us. One thing is certain: contemporary opera’s lag has now been rectified.

Total art needs a total singer

“I’ve always been very demanding of myself,” Vaillancourt says. “I’m also demanding with artists.” Taking risks has always been part of Vaillancourt’s work, from her first experiments as in musical theatre in Europe until her role as director, in which she pushes singers to surpass themselves. The will to push limits also corresponds to the public’s higher expectations for stage performance. This “endangerment.,” according to Vaillancourt, allows one to better engage the attention and emotion of spectators.

“Although we’re pushing the limits, we’re still respecting the vocal instrument,” she says. “There are different types of singers, some more lyrical and others more experimental. These are the different tools the composer works with.” Body work and movement are also an integral part of the interpreter’s role, which is fundamentally different from traditional opera. The infinite possibilities of the body, as exploited by contemporary dance, are also echoed in the productions of Chants Libres, which allow the body to resonate differently within the work. That in itself is another means to enrich the understanding of the opera or give it an additional meaning.

New technology: supplementary or indispensable?

While the tools available to composers have multiplied, so have those for directors and scenographers. In the past 30 years, what has constituted “new technology” has much evolved. It’s now rare to see an opera, even a traditional one, that doesn’t use any technological effects. How can one find balance in the use of these technologies?

“I’ve always loved working with visual artists since they destabilize our vision of things. By creating unfamiliar environments, they push us to rethink our own work.” This visual work is intimately tied to Vaillancourt’s creative process. But in terms of technological effects, there are tools that should only be used when necessary, “if they are useful for transmitting an emotion.”

Chants Libres in three milestones

The opera performance Chants du capricorne was created in 1995 with the music of Giacinto Scelsi. This staging of the sacred and the immemorial, delving into the themes of self-reflection and self-exploration, was a turning point for Chants Libres: “Not only did the opera open us up to a new period of exploration, but it also shifted my personal point of view, since I directed myself. It was the first time I took so many risks in a role, with a very difficult score written in quarter tones.” This opera went on an international tour and, 20 years later, was reprised with mezzo-soprano Marie-Annick Béliveau in the principal role, winning her an Opus award.

Gilles Tremblay’s fairy tale opera L’eau qui danse, la pomme qui chante et l’oiseau qui dit la vérité (“The water that dances, the apple that sings, and the bird that tells no lies”), based on a libretto by poet Pierre Morency, is the meeting of two major voices in Quebec’s artistic landscape. This foray into the imagination, within the confines of the tale and the fable, was given a stunning stage treatment that charmed its audience at the Monument-National in 2009. It’s one of Tremblay’s recent scores, his only opera, and one of Vaillancourt’s most cherished memories.

Photo: Mathieu Dupuis

The Trials of Patricia Isasa by Kristin Norderval and Naomi Wallace, premiered in 2016, also marked a turning point for the company – one associating the name of Chants Libres with socially engaged productions. The opera retraces the true story of Patricia Isasa, an Argentinian architect and human-rights activist who was abducted, imprisoned and tortured by the military dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s. The opera was awarded two Opus awards in 2016.

Chants Libres is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and was originally planning to present the opera L’orangeraie on October 8. Because of the crisis, the premiere has been postponed to fall 2021. We wish many more years of creativity, experimentation, and success to Chants Libres.

Translated by Isabel Garriga

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


About Author

Benjamin Goron est écrivain, musicologue et critique musical. Titulaire d’un baccalauréat en littérature et d’une maîtrise en musicologie de l’Université Paris-Sorbonne, il a collaboré à plusieurs périodiques et radios en tant que chercheur et critique musical (L’Éducation musicale, Camuz, Radio Ville-Marie, SortiesJazzNights, L'Opéra). Depuis août 2018, il est rédacteur adjoint de La Scena Musicale. Pianiste et trompettiste de formation, il allie musique et littérature dans une double mission de créateur et de passeur de mémoire.

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