Denise Massé (1946-2022)

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

It is with a heavy heart that La Scena Musicale announces (based on news from Slipped Disc) the passing of Denise Massé on June 14, 2022. Born in Montreal on April 2, 1946, Massé was a French repertoire vocal coach and pianist for the New York Metropolitan Opera. La Scena Musicale has had the privilege to interview her for articles published in past issues, and we will be sharing them below as a tribute to her legacy.


Massé is currently in the care of the Centre Funéraire Côte-des-Neiges. To read the following obituary on the funeral centre’s website, click here.

Consummate musician, pianist, and vocal coach inducted into the Canadian Opera Hall of Fame in 2013, she gave everything to her artists and to the operas she was tasked with. As music staff of L’Opéra de Montréal (1980 to 1993), the Metropolitan Opera (start. 1993), and faculty of the Juilliard School (start. 1999), she was crucial to the success of many.

Denise worked with the leading musical institutions of the world—among them the Berlin and Wiener Staatsopers, the Los Angeles Opera, Washington and Santa Fe operas, the Paris Théâtre des Champs Elysée, the Teatro all Scala in Milan, and the Tokyo Nikika Opera. She collaborated on the preparation of recordings for Sony, Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Warner Classics, and concert versions of different operas with the NY Philharmonic, the symphony orchestras of Cleveland, Boston, Philadelphia, and l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, with conductors such as Sir Colin Davis, and maestros Levine, Boulez, Maazel, Haitink, DeWaart, Barenboim, and Dutoit.

She worked with some of the world’s greatest singers and with countless young artists around the world, including singers of the Lindemann program of the Metropolitan Opera, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, the SIVAM Program in Mexico, the International Meistersinger Akademie in Germany, the Ravinia Steans Institute, and more.

Denise was deeply admired and loved by all who knew her. She leaves behind her siblings—Louise, Francine, Paul, and Gilles; nieces/nephews—Nathalie, Martin, Fabien, Philippe, Sarah, and Patrick; and her partner Roland Richard, with whom she married (1969) and moved to Vienna after she won the Canadian Music Competition and he, the Prix d’Europe.

The interment of her ashes will be alongside her father, Laurent Massé, and mother, Rita Desjardins, at the St. Eloi Cemetary, Kamouraska, Quebec. In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to the Canadian Music Competition or similar organization of choice.




Statement from the Opéra de Montréal

Click here to see the Facebook post.

It was with great sadness that we learned of the passing of pianist and lead singer Denise Massé. A close collaborator of the Montreal Opera since its foundation, the artist was inspired by a great passion for opera and exemplary professionalism. She participated, as an accompanying pianist, in several of the most remarkable productions.

In 1993, Ms. Massé became the lead singer at the The Metropolitan Opera in New York, where her knowledge of French repertoire made her an exceptional collaborator. The pianist was inducted into the Canadian Pantheon of Lyrical Art in 2013. She contributed to the development of the lyrical arts in Canada as well as to the outreach of the Montreal Opera around the world. We wish to offer our deepest condolences to her family, her many friends and all the artists who had the pleasure of making music with her. 💙

Denise Massé: the pianist who became a MET vocal coach

by Marc-Olivier Laramée, originally published in La Scena Musicale, February 2014
translated by Zenith Wolfe

La Scena Musicale, February 2014

Denise Massé is much more than a vocal coach; she’s a passionate musician who breathes new life into each of the operas she prepares. After studying piano at the Vincent d’Indy school of music in Montreal, she developed a preference for piano-voice duos. “Instead of isolating myself in the world of soloists, I always worked with singers… I even married one,” she says about her love of being surrounded by singers.

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As a child, she had the pleasure to practice the vocal arts by accompanying, on the piano, the songs sung by her uncles. This was the beginning of a life-long passion.

During the last year of her master’s degree, she participated in the Canadian Music Competition and took home the first prize, a scholarship. Afterward, she flew abroad to live with her husband, Roland Richard, a Prix d’Europe laureate who worked in Vienna. Throughout her sojourn in the Austrian capital, Massé developed her piano skills and assisted her husband by accompanying him during his classes. Over this period, she had the great honour to see many operas, around two to three times per week – the famous standing room operas had a lot to do with her success!

Upon returning to Canada, she joined the University of Ottawa where she accompanied Louise Ambrée and her husband’s classes. At that time, Montreal didn’t have its own opera. However, the summer festival organized by Mario Bernardi would feature several operas, acting as Massé’s gateway into the world of Canadian opera. She recalls, in this regard, the challenges of her debut with Bernardi, who offered her her first chance by giving her two months to learn the second act of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, as well as the second act of Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.

This first experience allowed her to master the profession of vocal coach, a position she held at the Opéra de Montréal from its opening in 1981 until 1993, the year after she started at the Metropolitan Opera.

A series of opportunities and… surprises

Portrait of Denise Massé

“My life has just been a series of opportunities,” she says while explaining how, at each step of her evolution, she had challenges to overcome, which strengthened her motivation to move forward and honour her commitments in the best possible way.

“No matter how much we make life plans, life never ceases to surprise and challenge us. We simply have to be at the rendezvous of the decisive turning points and know how to seize the opportunities that life offers us.” Denise Massé sums up her philosophy, citing as an example the opportunity she had to work in New York, an exceptional experience that opened up new horizons and allowed her to make interesting encounters.

Long term

“Preparing a singer requires a lot of work. The coach has to have a deep understanding of the orchestration, of the singer’s personality, of the melodic line. It’s a job that requires quite a long training period,” Massé says. “An opera takes three to five weeks of work, six days a week, six hours a day. Hundreds of hours are therefore at stake. Artists, singers, musicians and vocal coaches ensure that each production is as close to perfection as possible,” she says. “Each singer has a personality. At the MET, there can be three people cast for the same role in case of a problem. Those are three different roles that will have to be worked.”

For Massé, each interpretation of a role is distinct and singular. She speaks passionately about meetings that have made marked her, notably with great artists at the MET. She recounts, for example, her first experience with Placido Domingo for the preparation of Carmen. “I had listened to all his recordings to figure out where he was at. We cannot afford to make comments at a first glance. We have to be polite, respectful and humble, knowing that great artists want to constantly improve and that perfection will always be their goal,” she says, adding that each experience with a singer adds value to the development of her profession as a vocal coach.

Another aspect of this artist’s life, recently inducted into the Canadian Opera Hall of Fame, is her teaching at the Juilliard School of Music. “To prepare for my successor, it’s important to be very patient,” she notes. She adds that she makes life difficult for her students to prepare them for a professional career where it isn’t easy to break through without great determination. She is immensely overjoyed when she notices her good students internalizing her teachings and working hard to achieve their focused goals.

Opera Finishing School

by Wah Keung Chan, originally published in La Scena Musicale, June 2004

La Scena Musicale, June 2004 cover

“There is no ‘perfect’ in the opera business,” says internationally renowned vocal coach Joan Dornemann. “What we want to instill in young singers is that there is wonderful, and more wonderful. There is terrific, goose bumps, excitement and magic, but perfect is something none of us is looking for.” In June, Dornemann will bring together 18 world class teachers (including renowned artists Mignon Dunn, Catherine Malfitano and Sherrill Milnes) to Montreal for the first Canadian Vocal Arts Institute (CVAI). Forty young promising singers from around the world including 18 Canadians (and many from the Atelier Lyrique of the Opéra de Montréal) will participate.

The CVAI is actually the creation of a Canadian stop for the International Vocal Arts Institute (IVAI), a high-end opera-finishing summer school founded and directed by Dornemann 17 years ago. The traveling institute also makes stops in Israel, Puerto Rico, China, and Japan. Today it can boast over 40 IVAI graduates are on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The creation of the CVAI is a coup for Montreal and Canada and came about from a dream of ex-Montrealer, vocal coach, and IVAI instructor Denise Massé. “Three years ago, I was in a Shanghai café when I told Faigie Zimmerman, director of the Tel Aviv school and also an ex-Montrealer, that we needed something like this in Montreal, and she just took off with the idea.” The Jacqueline-Desmarais Foundation stepped in with financial assistance to provide bursaries valued at $200-2000.

Denise Massé

“Canadians always had good voices,” says Massé. “I saw many singers from Quebec who were fantastic. I think people here think our singers are not good unless they sing somewhere else. There is a lack of trust in our own judgement. We need the judgement of people from outside in order to be recognized. Quebec singers are not in touch with what is happening outside of Canada, and this is a weakness. They should go outside more, go to competitions and auditions. They cannot have a local career, not in opera. An American who wants to be recognized needs to go to Europe and vice versa.

“I think Quebecers would have everything to gain by working and seeing how things are done elsewhere. It helps you to see where you stand, what your strengths and weaknesses are.

Over the course of the two-week course, students will go through daily lessons in vocal technique, diction, and coaching. What kind of progress can we hope to see? “It takes 5 minutes to give somebody a wonderful new idea, but it takes 50 days to begin to implement the idea with regularity, and 5 months for it to become part of your body,” says Dornemann. “Two weeks is too short a time to give permanent results. It is enough time to locate some talent, get acquainted, and raise some enthusiasm; it’s enough to give people ideas and to help them secure the road they are on, or to see where that road should take them. Musical facts and concepts take longer to absorb.

“We can open students’ minds to give them another view of the career, the teaching, and emergency; to show them they should concentrate and not relax so much,” says Massé. “They see how quickly they have to do things and how hard they have to work, and it motivates them. That is priceless; it may make them ask more questions. Usually, they work differently after that: they are more serious and intense in their work, and develop friendships with students from outside. It starts another chain of events.”

Marc Papillon

What are the most important ideas to transmit to the students? “The singer needs to stop being a student and start being a performer,” says Dornemann. “It’s important to be unafraid to communicate. The three key components to a good singer are voice, drama, and musicality. You can have extreme talent in one and have a career. Some are wonderful at all three components and they progress much faster. It’s up to us to help them realize their gift. Singers always need help in how to learn music more easily and more reliably. There are basic things like breath support, not under-singing nor over-singing. The great stumbling block is style. It’s easy to recognize, but difficult to explain. We are there to help deal with the musicality of the language.

“There was a time when a student had a lesson every day where he or she warmed up with the teacher,” said Dornemann. “At a certain point, almost all singers need that kind of attention. It’s wonderful that we can offer this through the CVAI. This year we start with a two-week program. Hopefully, it will expand to four weeks and we can prepare staged operas as we do in Tel Aviv.”

The Return of Denise Massé

The June CVAI is a homecoming for vocal coach Denise Massé, who left Montréal permanently in 1997 for New York to become one of the leading vocal coaches in the world, working at the Metropolitan Opera in the French repertoire and teaching at Juilliard. The loss of the talented 58 year old pianist and coach to the USA came after Bernard Uzan terminated her contract at L’Opéra de Montréal in 1993. “Charles Dutoit and Richard Bradshaw at the COC gave me some work, but it wasn’t enough. I was working half time here and half in New York. When I finally moved to New York, I knew that I could have failed.”

But failure was not waiting for Massé, as the Metropolitan Opera was beckoning. “Stage director Fabrizio Melano arranged a meeting for me with the Met’s musical administrator Craig Ruthenberg who told me that they needed someone to coach Les Troyens, a work she had done with Dutoit. At one of the rehearsals, Kent Noda, assistant to James Levine, came. Two days later, maestro Levine came. That was my audition.” Since then, Massé has worked with Boulez, Colin Davis, Haitink, and next year she will coach Carmen for Daniel Barenboim at the Berlin Staats Opera. “It’s all a fantasy. In Montréal, I was happy, my glass was full. Suddenly, I was given another glass.”

The Canadian Vocal Arts Institute runs from June 5–20 at the Université de Montréal and in collaboration with the André-Turp Musical Society which will provide a song component.

The public is invited to a series of master classes and concerts.

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


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