What ever happened to Huguette Tourangeau, the Canadian mezzo-soprano who appeared on many of superstar soprano Joan Sutherland’s recordings in the late 60s and 70s? Just a few weeks after her 72nd birthday in August, I tracked Tourangeau down at her Beaconsfield home, where since her husband passed away three years ago she has taken a page from one of Mahler’s most famous songs and “been lost to the world.”
In person, Tourangeau is, like many opera singers, larger than life yet approachable. You can tell she has a story to tell and she does it with the panache of someone who has spent years on stage. Her voice is fresh and at home she still sings her signature role Carmen, “for my own pleasure,” she laughs.
Tourangeau was born and raised in Montreal into a family of singers and musicians. She always sang and knew she was going to be a musician. Blessed with a natural voice, Tourangeau was encouraged, winning a prize at the Jeunesses Musicales at age 13. She graduated in piano and pedagogical studies from the Marguerite-Bourgeoys College and in 1958 enrolled at the Montreal Conservatory of Music, studying voice with Ruzena Herlinger. In 1962, she was the soloist in Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine with the Montreal Festivals. Wilfrid Pelletier, director of the Conservatory, organized auditions for the school’s graduates with Montreal Symphony director Zubin Mehta, who hired her to sing Mercédès in Carmen in 1964 to open Places des Arts. Mehta also encouraged her to enter the Metropolitan Opera auditions; Tourangeau was one of five finalists in the 1964 Auditions, winning the $2,000 Fisher Foundation prize and joining the 1964-65 Metropolitan National Touring Company. For the 1965-66 Season, as the choice of Regina Resnick, she took on the title role of Carmen in a 56-city North American tour.
Joan Sutherland / Richard Bonynge
After Tourangeau sang Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro at the Stratford Festival in the summer of 1964 under Richard Bonynge’s direction, the conductor invited her to sing Lakmé with Joan Sutherland in Seattle, and this started a 16-year collaboration with Bonynge and Sutherland on stage and in recordings. How did she become their mezzo of choice? “They wanted a mezzo who could sing in tune, and he thought my voice blended well with Joan’s,” said Tourangeau. “They also wanted to keep the same team, like a family.” Tourangeau remembers Bonynge as someone who was very demanding as well as a genius; in preparing a role, they would spend three weeks non-stop working in his home. The collaboration led Tourangeau to sing in Seattle, San Francisco, London, Sydney, Hamburg to New York in operas as diverse as Rigoletto, Faust, Maria Stuarda, Norma, Die Fledermaus, Julius Caesar, Rodelinda, Lucrezia Borgia, Tales of Hoffmann and Orfeo ed Euridice. Having sung Wagner once, she knew where to draw the line.
Running the gambit of coloratura mezzo to more lyric roles requires agility and solid technique. “The key to singing coloratura is to hear all the notes in your head, and you learn that by working all the notes slowly and methodically,” said Tourangeau. As a side benefit of singing with Sutherland, Tourangeau began to evaluate her own technique. “When I heard Joan for the first time, in Seattle, I was just awed by her ability to float her sound over the orchestra,” said Tourangeau, who had found Herlinger’s teachings of singing in the mask too approximate. “All my life, people were saying how great I was, but when I started to work on difficult repertoire, I knew my technique wasn’t enough,” she said. Although Sutherland never gave Tourangeau formal lessons, the soprano told her the secret was to bring in the head voice to mix with the chest voice, and Tourangeau began to develop her own method along these lines. It wasn’t until she was 35 that she was completely satisfied with her technique, Tourangeau admitted. Listening to her recordings and performances, one can hear the gradual difference. Early on, her voice was covered with a bit of a quick vibrato, but the sound became brighter. Her 1978 Zerlina from the Met Don Giovanni (available on YouTube) shows an incredibly rich instrument.
To the operatic world, Tourangeau has been lost since 1980, when she retired mainly due to health difficulties. “Female problems,” Tourangeau said. “At the same time, Joan was retiring and I really liked singing with her.” The underlying reason was her extended long-distance marriage to artistic administrator Brian Thompson. The couple met in 1969 when Thompson, general manager of the Edmonton Opera, hired Tourangeau for a production of Carmen. Within four months, they were married. With a thriving career, Tourangeau led a double life connected by thousands of dollars in long-distance phone bills; on the road, her family was Sutherland and Bonynge. Children were out of the question, as her schedule demanded commitments years in advance. The couple moved from Vancouver to Montreal to be closer to family and Tourangeau began teaching in 1984. Her last recording of de Falla’s El amor brujo on Decca was in 1981 with Charles Dutoit and the MSO.
Massenet Songs with Richard Bonynge
Tourangeau made 21 recordings, most of them with Richard Bonynge as conductor. Her proudest is the disc Arias from Forgotten Operas. The 20 Massenet songs in this month’s Discovery CD pairing Tourangeau with Richard Bonynge on the piano is a complete delight. Tourangeau is a fresh sweet voice and sings beautifully. I agree with Jonathan Woolf who wrote in MusicWeb, “Not all the songs are on an especially elevated level but whilst Tourangeau sings them she makes us believe they are.”