As a 2018 Opera Canada Award winner, Dominique Labelle, LMus’86, is joining an exclusive club. Past recipients of the “Rubies,” awarded for exemplary contributions to the opera industry, include Maureen Forrester, DMus’82, Ben Heppner, DMus’02, and Teresa Stratas. The prize holds special significance for Labelle that goes beyond her career accomplishments.
“It was especially nice for me because even though I did my studies in Montreal at McGill, I had to move to Boston to continue my studies and when you leave like that, you feel like you’re betraying your country a little bit,” says the soprano who is the area chair for voice at the Schulich School of Music. “The fact that I’m back [in Canada] and being recognized for my contributions, it’s really nice. And not just as a singer, but as a teacher, as well.”
Earlier this May, Labelle received another honour she wasn’t necessarily expecting: the Schulich School’s annual teaching award for the performance area. While Labelle has drawn plenty of accolades for her performances over a 30-year career, she wasn’t entirely sure at first how she would fare in the role of educator.
For one thing, one of her greatest influences from her time at Boston University was American soprano Phyllis Curtin, who she learned from by simply observing the legendary opera singer in her element. Labelle also admitted she followed her own path when she was just starting out.
“In a sense, I was always afraid of becoming a teacher because I understood the immense responsibility of being one,” Labelle explains. “You have to be quite personal with the students, because you’re trying to help them grow as artists, so you need to build trust.”
A key message Labelle tries to impart to her students from the beginning is the discipline needed to become a professional singer. Labelle still spends an hour of each day on vocal exercises, but says it takes more than just hitting the high notes to stand out in an intensely competitive field. Students will need to master languages, including becoming fluent in German and Italian, and they’ll also have to read poetry and understand what life was like when these classical compositions were originally created.
Labelle can teach technique, but ultimately it’s up to the students to show the initiative and find themselves.
“Singing is very self-centered in a way,” she says. “You have to be very aware of who you are and how to express yourself. Being a teacher of singing is about helping someone figure out how to define and develop their own voice.”
One lesson that students can learn from Labelle’s example is to challenge themselves early on. While she was still a student at Boston University, Labelle auditioned for and landed major professional roles. Her peers were surprised that she even had the courage to compete for parts alongside industry veterans.
“I didn’t know how ready I was when I left McGill because there was no way I could compare myself,” Labelle says. “The Boston Symphony Orchestra put up a small ad on the school bulletin board looking for maids number four and five for a Strauss opera. I was the only one in my class who got on the subway and actually went to the audition. And I got the part.”
From there, she has had about as complete a music career as one could ever hope for. She has worked with some of the biggest names in classical music, including Roger Norrington, Christopher Hogwood, Pierre Boulez and Kurt Masur. She has performed some of opera’s most iconic roles, including a memorable turn as Donna Anna, reimagined as a junkie, in a provocative Peter Sellars production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
She has had the opportunity to perform all over the world. “In Taipei, we did Beethoven’s ninth. When we were finished the concert, we went outside the hall and there were about 50,000 people watching on the screen because they couldn’t get inside. They sang it back to us, it was incredibly moving.”
Because of her wealth of experience, she tells students to have as diverse a repertoire as possible.
“I don’t think there’s a magical recipe. It involves luck, talent, work and being at the right place at the right time,” she says. “I try to give students the best preparation I know how, which means being willing to try whatever life throws at you.”
Earlier this year, taking note of her Opera Canada honour, The New York Times praised Labelle for her versatility, comparing her “sharply drawn” performance as a witch in a Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra production of Handel’s Teseo to the “extravagant baddies from Disney cartoons.
“Her recital disc Moments of Love, with the pianist and composer Yehudi Wyner, shows a very different side of Ms. Labelle’s artistry,” noted the Times. “[Her] languorous, weightless phrasing and soft-grained tone are the epitome of French sex appeal.”
Labelle hopes that critics will praise her students in the years to come for following their own distinct paths.
“I never tried to imitate anyone and I always followed my own rules,” she says. “It’s important that every singer who comes through here doesn’t have my voice, but has their own voice. I already have my voice, and now it’s time for young people to figure who they are, what they have to say and how they’re going to say it.”