Caroline Bleau tackles Wagner in her Ottawa Symphony debut

Montreal soprano Caroline Bleau took some convincing to sing Wagner, but now that she's started, she's fully on board.

Caroline Bleau used to have brown hair.

That is until the soprano sang in the Opera Montreal production of Another Brick in The Wall which adapted the famous Pink Floyd lyrics, written by Roger Waters, and put them to new music by Julien Bilodeau. The show was a smash hit last season and will be remounted in Toronto and Vancouver this year.

For her part as The Wife in the opera Bleau was given a bright red wig. And, she says, she almost immediately went out to get her hair coloured that way.

That flaming mane will make its Ottawa debut on Oct. 7, when Bleau will sing the soprano aria from the Immolation scene from Act III of Götterdämmerung or Twilight of the Gods with the Ottawa Symphony in the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre.

Bleau is certainly starting in Ottawa with a bang — perhaps the biggest bang in opera. The aria is one of the very hardest ever written for soprano. It’s also a new addition to Bleau’s repertoire, something she gives credit to OSO music director, the very persuasive Alain Trudel.

“He has been pushing me to sing Wagner for a decade. Ten years ago, I think I would have stopped singing if I had listened to him. I hated Wagner so much at that time.

“I think it was a good thing to hate that music then because I wasn’t ready to sing it. Now I am listening to him. He has never been wrong about my voice.

“He has a good ear and he can see where things will go in the future. When I worked with him 10 years ago he said, ‘You have a much bigger voice than you think. You shouldn’t be singing Mozart. You should be singing Salome from Richard Strauss and you should be singing Wagner.”

Then when they worked together on Another Brick in the Wall he told her the same thing. And this time she was ready.

“It was a revelation for me.”

She had hated Wagner’s music because, she said, she didn’t understand it.

“It was too cerebral for me. With Wagner you never know where it is going to go and there is no stopping the music. It’s hard to follow and the operas are really long.”

Ten years ago she wasn’t able to go through a whole Wagner opera without yawning.

But now: “There is a saying. You don’t choose Wagner, Wagner chooses you. It’s a calling that you have or you don’t.” Two years ago she got the call.

The work on The Wall cemented it.

“Julien Bilodeau’s writing for my part was very similar to Wagner. It was very dense.”

Since she enjoyed that — with Trudel’s words in her ear — she thought that maybe she could try.

Then Opera Montreal artistic director Michel Beaulac asked to hear her audition for Das Rheingold, the first of the Ring Cycle.

He was casting for Freya, the goddess of love and beauty, and he asked her to bring a Wagner aria and something by Strauss.

“I told him I don’t have Wagner in my repertoire. He said I could sing with a score.”

She asked for two weeks. She showed up for her audition and got the part.

“Singing Freya was great. She doesn’t sing a lot in the opera so it was the best way to get accustomed to the music and Wagner’s way of thinking. I was in it but not drowning in it.”

Of course, Wagner carries a lot of baggage but for Bleau, “when I listen to composers I try to focus on the music. I learned about (his anti-Semitism) afterwards. But I didn’t read about him before listening to the music.”

Ten years ago, I was a Puccini, Verdi, Massenet kind of singer. That’s what I loved. You have to feel opera deeply. It’s in your flesh.

“Right now, I feel the same way about Wagner. It’s more emotional. There is something really deep and have to feel it deeply.”

Wagner’s Immolation aria is extremely demanding to sing physically. 

“You have to keep pushing yourself to be able to sing it. It’s like a marathon, you have to get through the entire 42 kilometres.”

Then you find yourself singing the last 20 minutes of the Ring Cycle and describing the Apocalypse of the world.

In her preparation for the Ottawa concert she says she had to learn basically the equivalent of four or five arias. So she would focus on one section, and figure out to manage her phrasing and her voice. Then she added a second, third and fourth section. Talk about your Load Management. 

“Right now I am doing run-throughs with my pianist and my coach. We are trying to sing it at least three or four times in a row to get to a point where I can sing it constantly for about an hour.”

That would match the stress of singing with a large orchestra.

Bleau is even running on her treadmill and singing the aria. She is doing this to feel what it is like it is to be out of breath and when stress might kick in during performance.

“I need to know where I have to push my voice, where I need to focus, where I need to breath really well and where I need to relax.”

The only other role like this in the repertoire is in Turandot, which is soemthing she would like to tackle one day.

Could she ever go back to Mozart and Verdi?

“I can but when you have reached this level and you go back it would seem like it’s not enough. Every time I conquer one of my dream roles I’m one step closer to being able to sing everything I want.”

Changing repertoire also means reinventing a career.

“When you change repertoire everyone in the business goes crazy. They ask: ‘Are you sure you are doing the right thing?’

“You have to redo all these auditions to convince everyone this is the right thing to do. I am at that point now.”

This is a really big year for Bleau. She will also have debuts in Toronto and Vancouver in The Wall.

“That’s a good way for me to be in touch with new opera houses and for them to see how I work.

“I’m trying to manage my schedule because I’m married with two teenagers. That’s the hard part.

“But being a mom has fulfilled me. Singers these days tend to have a career first then have a family.” She did the opposite and that means “I don’t have questions about restarting my career.”

The Ottawa Symphony Orchestra presents Lost Love
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Oct. 7 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.