A single line from a heart-rending love letter, enrapturing in its poetic simplicity, is deeply woven into the fabric of Opera de Montreal’s Les Feluettes: “I compose you. I create you. I let you live. I kill you.”
Based on the 1987 play of the same name by Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard, Les Feluettes was co-commissioned by Opera de Montreal and Pacific Opera Victoria, and had its world premiere on May 21. The plot follows Simon, an aging prisoner, as he forces his former schoolmate, Bishop Bilodeau, to watch his fellow inmates reenact the scenes from Simon’s life leading up to his incarceration for the murder of his first love, Comte Vallier de Tilly – a murder in which the Bishop might be implicated.
As the tale unfolds, the actors immerse the audience in Roberval, 1912 – a time and place where queerness was violently rejected from Quebec society. The opera’s title reflects this history: Opera de Montreal’s website defines feluette as “[a] Quebec expression with its root in the word fluet (thin, frail in appearance) which, in common parlance of the time, referred to men who were weak, frail, or effeminate.”
Tackling themes ranging from mental illness to matricide to wrongful incarceration, Les Feluettes breaks the bounds of classical opera, as a romance between the male protagonists unfolds during the early decades of the twentieth century. In a genre so often entrenched in the rigid and heteronormative tradition of a “high art” mindset, it was refreshing to see a queer narrative shine in the operatic spotlight.
Even in 2016, Les Feluettes marks the first opera starring queer male protagonists to be staged in Montreal.
On May 24, with a full house packed into Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, theatrics were underway even before the house lights dimmed. Costumed in grey prisoners’ uniforms, the Orchestre Métropolitain formed an omnipresent character essential to the plot, bringing to life an enthralling score written by Australian composer Kevin March. Under the capable baton of conductor Timothy Vernon, the orchestra cultivated a sound that was nothing short of cinematic.
The evening’s musical standout was baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson as the Comtesse Marie-Laure de Tilly, Vallier’s mother, affected by delusions and hallucinations. Through the eyes of the comtesse, a ragged dress became a fashionable ball gown, a crumbling villa became a grand palace, and her long-absent husband could return at any moment. Meanwhile, solemn scenes were interrupted by her sunny observations, eliciting laughter from a captivated audience.
The trope is all too common – a woman with a mental illness, naive and fragile, yet privy to some mystical wisdom beyond the grasp of a neurotypical populace. Though Nicholson’s performance was stunning, with a glowing voice and sublime acting that mesmerized the audience, the compassion and resilience he lent to his character failed to alleviate the ableist cliches inherent to the role.
In a genre so often entrenched in the rigid and heteronormative tradition of a “high art” mindset, it was refreshing to see a queer narrative shine in the operatic spotlight.
As the performance unfolded, the set was transformed – a grim prison cell became a school theatre, a hotel terrace, a dilapidated mansion, and a moonlit forest in the Quebec countryside. The floating spectre of a whimsical hot air balloon became a cratered full moon thanks to the video projections designed by Gabriel Coutu-Dumont. The striking visuals, from the glowing moon to a raging fire, immersed the performance in a thrilling and dynamic multimedia landscape.
Baritone Étienne Dupuis as young Simon and tenor Jean-Michel Richer as Vallier commanded the stage with captivating magnetism. The singers, both based in Montreal, navigated their roles with raw chemistry – a stolen kiss in an empty school theatre, a nude embrace on a moonlit night – each tracing threads of breathtaking intimacy and desire. Both voices shone, with richly nuanced tone and skillful control. Richer in particular stood out, his velvety tenor spinning those haunting words with earnest passion: “I compose you. I create you. I let you live. I kill you.”
Queer narratives are often tainted by problematic patterns of erasure and tropes of tragedy. In portrayals of queerness, a fatal ending often seems unavoidable, as though queer people can only exist tragically, their love made “impossible” by the inevitability of death. Yet, in an art form famous for its over-the-top depictions of deadly drama, tragedy is an inevitability for all characters, not just queer ones – making the tragic outcome of Les Feluettes seem, in a way, expected.
In portrayals of queerness, a fatal ending often seems unavoidable, as though queer people can only exist tragically, their love made “impossible” by the inevitability of death.
However, the repeated tragic deaths of queer characters across different media – a trope known as “bury your gays” – persists as problematic even in a genre as death-obsessed as opera. Other genres similarly teeming with tragedy and bloodshed fall into the very same cycle: dystopian TV thriller The 100 saw the death of a major queer character, as did zombie drama The Walking Dead and the aptly named American Horror Story. In shows as gory as these, viewers tacitly accept that “any” major character might die, making the deaths of queer characters – out of all the characters who might have been killed – seem less than coincidental and decidedly disproportionate, given the rarity of queer representation across media.
Further, this scarcity of queer characters makes the “bury your gays” paradigm all the more troublesome – particularly in opera, a genre originating centuries before television and film. Even in 2016, Les Feluettes marks the first opera starring queer male protagonists to be staged in Montreal.
Simon and Vallier inhabited a spotlight usually reserved for heteronormative romantic duos in the operatic literature, and exhibited a love as real, moving, and undeniably existent as any other to have graced the opera stage. This, perhaps, was the greatest strength of Les Feluettes: discovering possibility within what society has forbidden, and lending voice to a love story that refused to be silenced.