Joseph Rouleau, who died in Montreal on July 12 at the age of 90, was a French-Canadian bass who spent 25 years as a stalwart of the Royal Opera, appearing in almost 1,000 performances of more than 40 operas.Rouleau had a massive voice, which he deployed to good effect in such mainstays of the repertoire as Aida, Norma and Don Giovanni. As the murdered Commendatore in the latter, he could terrify even the most hardened Giovanni — whether Tito Gobbi, Cesare Siepi or Ruggero Raimondi — as he came to life in the final act to bring his assailant to atonement bellowing the famous line “Don Giovanni! A cenar teco m’invitasti” (“Don Giovanni! You invited me to dine with you”).Overseas, Rouleau was perhaps best known for Boris Godunov, the Russian tsar, in Mussorgsky’s opera of the same name, and in the 1960s he became the first non-member of the Bolshoi Opera to sing that role with the company in the Soviet Union. In London, however, the part effectively belonged to Boris Christoff and Rouleau had to be content with the role of Pimen.On disc he sang the minor part of Rochefort in scenes from Donizetti’s Anna Bolena with Maria Callas. He went on to sing Assur in Joan Sutherland’s famous 1966 recording of Rossini’s Semiramide, which he also sang on tour with her in Australia.Speaking to Opera magazine in 2011, Rouleau recalled how as Sparafucile in early Covent Garden performances of Verdi’s Rigoletto he had to hoist Joan Sutherland over his shoulder and carry her off stage.“She weighed around 250 pounds, more than I did at the time,” he said. “Fortunately, I was rather strong physically.”Joseph Alfred Pierre Rouleau was born in Matane, on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River in north-east Quebec, on Feb. 28, 1929. He was 17 when Gilles Lefebvre, a family friend and the founder of the Jeunesses Musicales du Canada (JMC) movement, heard him singing by a summer camp fire and suggested he take lessons. At his audition for a local teacher, the only song he knew in its entirety was O Canada.As a teenager, Rouleau’s ambition was to be a professional tennis or hockey player and in 1947 he captained the school hockey team at the Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal. Two years later, he won a prestigious vocal award and became the first voice student to be admitted to the Quebec Conservatoire, promising his parents that he would abandon singing if he was not successful by the age of 30.
Joseph Rouleau and Montreal mayor Valérie Plante inspect Rouleau’s medal during the Ordre de Montréal ceremony in Montreal on Friday, May 17, 2019.
Allen McInnis /
In 1950, the JMC sent him on a 40-concert tour of eastern Canada, from which he was able to save some money. This, combined with a bursary from the Quebec government, enabled him to study for three years in Milan, where his teacher, Maria Basiola, drilled into him one role after another.During the 1955-56 season, he made several minor appearances in Montreal before winning a competition in New York, for which his reward was an official debut with the New Orleans Opera Company as Colline, one of the bohemians in Puccini’s La boheme. Back in New York, he auditioned for David Webster, general director of the Royal Opera, who offered him a contract on the spot.His first appearances with the company were on tour, but his Covent Garden debut was in early 1957, also as Colline, conducted by Rafael Kubelik.“Mr. Rouleau should be a valuable acquisition, since he showed powers of conveying character with a touch of ironic understatement,” observed one critic presciently.After 12 years with the company he went freelance, although he continued to regard Covent Garden as his “mother house.” One of his greatest recordings was as Philip in Verdi’s Don Carlos when Radio 3 broadcast the first performance of the original version in 1973.Returning to Canada in 1977, Rouleau settled in Montreal, where he sang with the Opéra de Montréal. He made a belated debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1984 as the Grand Inquisitor alongside Montserrat Caballe in Don Carlos, returning there in 1986 to share the stage with Luciano Pavarotti in Verdi’s Aida.In 1989, he began a 25-year stint as president of JMC, the organization that had done so much to nurture his own love of singing, helping to revitalize its depleted finances.“I have become, and still am, a professional beggar,” he said of his overtures to potential supporters.Rouleau was also professor of voice at the Université du Québec à Montréal and in 2002 co-founded the Montreal International Music Competition. Well into his 80s, he could maintain his outstanding tonal accuracy and breath control.Joseph Rouleau was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada in 1977 and later promoted to Companion. He is survived by his wife, Jill Renée (nee Moreau), a former dancer at the Royal Opera House, and by their three children.The funeral for Joseph Rouleau takes place Tuesday, Aug. 13 at 1 p.m. in St-Viateur Church, 1175 Laurier Ave. W. in Outremont. Doors open at noon. Donations in his honour may be made to Jeunesses Musicales Canada (jmcanada.ca).The Daily Telegraph