Opinions on opera, among other things

Félix Le Dem gets to know a grand dame of the Montreal Opera

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Living in Montreal as students, we often forget the amount of culture nearby. I walk past the Redpath museum, the Montreal Musée des Beaux-Arts, and the McCord everyday and have never been inside. These places remain as treasure chests of sorts, just waiting to be opened. I usually convince myself that I don’t have the time, or that it isn’t for me. However, I just love to pretend that I am immersing myself in Montreal culture when I’m drunk on St. Denis. In addition to the inebriated escapades, there’s one other cultural cache that enriches my life: Montreal’s classical music scene. The new OSM concert hall, for example, truly is a Montreal gem. For a better perspective on this scene, I sat down with voice coach and rehearsal pianist Esther Gonthier. 


The McGill Daily: So what exactly do you do?

Esther Gonthier: I’m a “master coach,” as they say. I work with singers, mainly classical singers. Many opera singers passing through Montreal come see me, as well as McGill voice majors. I also work at the Montreal Music Conservatory. I am a pianist that fills in for an orchestra during rehearsal periods of opera singers.

MD: So you’re a singing coach rather than a teacher? What’s the difference?

EG: The work of a coach is all that’s not the technical aspect of a voice. So, I make sure students sing the right notes, the right rhythms, the right words. I correct pronunciation in French, English, Italian, German, Spanish, Czech, Russian. I try for my singers to have a broad spectrum. There are so many different styles – how to sing Mozart for example, as opposed to Verdi, or Puccini, or Massenet. They’re not sung the same way. The voice is an abstract instrument, it’s just two little strings in here (motions to throat). Opera singing is a joint work between the coach and the professor – all great singers have both a coach and professor with whom they work regularly.

MD: So you mostly work with singers rather than pianists?

EG: Yes, I would say about 95 per cent of the time. Sometimes the  Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM) is supposed to practice a piece with a violinist, a piano, and a conductor. So if I know the piece well, I’ll go and play the piano part. Another job I do is replacing the orchestra during practice. So, there is a conductor who conducts the singers, and then there’s me, because it would be way too expensive otherwise. 300 years ago you would do it with an orchestra, but today you can’t anymore. I often rehearse with the director of the OSM, Kent Nagano, and four singers.

MD: Besides your work at the OSM and the Opera de Montreal, what is your affiliation with McGill?

EG: I teach some McGill students too. McGill is fun because I have the advantage of living so close to the school and having my own piano and my extensive material on singing for the students to use. I have dictionaries, books on diction, everything. So instead of going to McGill and finding a studio with a piano that’s not as good as mine, I work from here.

MD: That must break up the routine for McGill students…

EG: Yeah, it’s a nice change of scenery, and no one is listening at the door. The McGill music school is an old building. There is a new building, but the old part is still the one that is most regularly used and you can hear through the walls. Here, only my neighbors are listening but they’re not here to judge.

MD: I read that you were born in Levis, Quebec. When did you move to Montreal, and has your profession taken you anywhere else?

EG: Yes, it’s on the south shore of Quebec City. It’s beautiful. I moved to Montreal 23 years ago. At one point in my life, I worked for a little in Lorraine, France at an opera and a theatre company. It’s a beautiful career and a job where you are always learning. This summer I went to Italy for a month to work on Italian diction in signing.

MD: Are the subtleties of pronunciation and diction that important considering the audience may not speak the language, or not understand at all?

EG: Well, the point of all this work is for the audience to both understand the lyrics while still finding the music beautiful.

MD: If you speak the language and still can’t understand, is this a problem with the singer’s diction?

EG: Yes. When singers go into ultra-high pitched notes, they have to change the diction. For example, a high pitched “I” would discomfort the audience’s ears, so singers adapt their singing. Today, we have subtitles at the opera, so people can follow the story in their languages.

MD:  I wanted to talk about the fact that students hardly ever experience live classical music. I think the fear of not understanding is part of what keeps McGill students from trying the opera. What are your views on this?

EG: I think it’s awful. The worst is that even the singers and musicians don’t go because they don’t bother to find out scheduling times. You don’t have to go to the OSM or to the Opera [de Montréal], which are a bit more expensive. There are a lot of small concerts that are very cheap with student discounts, but students don’t try and find out about them, and it’s really important that they do. I used to bring my sons to anything cultural – theatre, opera, concerts, ballet, museums, the circus. When they were young, telling them that one day they will be happy to have a cultural background. Its part of who they are. Now my sons are in a death metal band called “Eyeless.” I go see their shows too. It works both ways.

MD: What would you like to tell McGill students?

EG: I think you have to try. Not just young people, but everybody. We are so often in our own little comfort zone that we need to force ourselves out of it. Myself, I don’t know contemporary dance very well and I recently subscribed to Danse, Danse. I don’t really understand the movements in contemporary dance like I do in classical dance. But, I subscribed to this magazine, telling myself that ‘I will understand at some point.’ If we stay in our own little world, we will never evolve.