Richard Verreau

Tenor whose career was cut short

Richard Verreau was a French Canadian tenor with a very beautiful tenor voice. He sang at Covent Garden for one season, giving 20 performances of three operas, both on tour and in London, but did not return there. Was he not invited back or did he prefer to remain based in Canada? Verreau sang in France and various other European countries, all over Canada, in San Francisco and in New York, both at the City Opera and at the Metropolitan. His career was cut short by a throat operation that went wrong.

Verreau was born in Château-Richer, near Quebec City, in 1926. He studied at Laval University, Quebec, and then in 1949, helped by a government grant, went to Paris to study with the great French Canadian tenor Raoul Jobin. Engaged at the Opéra de Lyon, he made his début there in 1951 as Vincent in Gounod's Mireille. In Lyons he also sang Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon, Gerald in Delibes' Lakmé and Nadir in Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de perles. He then went to Rome to study bel canto with an even greater tenor, Beniamino Gigli, and his daughter Rina.

He made his New York City Opera début in 1956, singing Wilhelm Meister in Thomas' Mignon. He was then engaged, along with his fellow Canadians Jon Vickers and Joseph Rouleau, to sing with the Covent Garden Opera Company (as the Royal Opera was then known) during the 1956/57 season. The first part of the season ended on 28 February 1957, and the company went on tour, opening in Cardiff on 4 March. Verreau made his début as Rodolfo in La Bohème on 9 March. The tour continued to Manchester and Southampton, Verreau singing eight performances. The company returned to Covent Garden on 20 April, and Verreau should have made his début there in La Bohème on 23 April. In fact another tenor sang Rodolfo at that performance and all subsequent ones of Puccini's opera that season. No explanation was given for this replacement, though rumour said that Rafael Kubelik, music director at the time, had ordered it for "musical" reasons. Verreau made his delayed début on 8 May as the Duke in Rigoletto opposite the young Joan Sutherland as Gilda. His singing was found very acceptable, though his acting was considered rather wooden.

However, Verreau scored a major triumph with his next and final role at Covent Garden, when he sang Iopas in Berlioz' The Trojans on 6 June 1957. In this part he was not required to act a great deal, merely to sing, which he did quite gloriously. So why was he not re-engaged? He maintained that he preferred to return to Canada, but rumours still persist in London operatic circles that there was some kind of sinister plot against him. Whatever the truth of the matter, Verreau's career did not suffer. In 1960 he sang Pinkerton in Vancouver with Teresa Stratas as Butterfly and took part in a concert performance of Handel's Hercules, given by the American Opera Society in New York.

The following year he began an association with San Francisco Spring Opera, singing Gounod's Roméo and Alfredo in La traviata. In 1962 he sang Des Grieux in Manon and Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de perles in San Francisco. By this time Verreau had developed into a serviceable actor, and these roles were among his finest achievements vocally. Another of his favourite roles was Gounod's Faust, which he sang at New Orleans in 1962 and in San Francisco in 1964. Faust also served as his début role at the Metropolitan in 1963. He returned to the Met in 1965 for Des Grieux.

Meanwhile in Canada in 1963 Verreau sang Cavaradossi in Tosca at Quebec and had a great success in Montreal as Massenet's Werther, another role that fitted him like the proverbial glove. A concert performance of Rigoletto at Montreal in December 1966 found him in poor voice, while his Faust for Expo 67 in July showed that something was seriously wrong. He had a throat operation that apparently went wrong and his singing career was over.

Verreau opened an art gallery in Quebec after his retirement. He was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada in 1998 and of the Order of Quebec in 2000. His recording of Faust in Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust is evidence of the beauty of his voice and the style of his singing.

Elizabeth Forbes

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