Obituary: Canadian Bass Joseph Rouleau Passes At 90

By Sebastien Turgeon

Bass Joseph Rouleau has died in Montreal at the age on 90. He will be remembered for his long career at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, his large booming voice, his dedication to music education and for his staunch support of young singers’ career development.

Born in Matane, Québec, Canada, in 1929,  Rouleau studied voice in Montréal and Milan. His professional debut came as Colline in “La Bohème” at the New Orleans Opera in 1955.

Two years later, on April 23 1957, he made his debut at the Royal Opera House in London, also as Colline. He would quickly become a main feature of the company for the next 20 years, where he sang over 800 performances in 45 roles. His last appearance at the Royal Opera was in 1985 as the Grand Inquisitor in “Don Carlos.” While in London, he became a frequent collaborator of soprano Joan Sutherland.

His debut at l’Opéra de Paris came in 1960 as Raimondo alongside Sutherland and his triumph there was in the title role of Massenet’s “Don Quichotte,” which he performed over 50 times in a two year span. In 1965-66 a successful tour of Australia with Sutherland sometimes included a young Pavarotti as well as acclaimed performances as Assur in Rossini’s “Semiramide.”

He also had the opportunity to star in the title role of “Boris Godunov” in the Soviet Union and Boris became of his signature roles. 

His overdue debut at the Metropolitan Opera came in 1984 as the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” and later returned for a single performance of Ramfis in “Aida.”

Later in his career, Rouleau moved back to Canada and took a position in the voice faculty of the Université du Québec à Montréal. He was Chairman of the Board of Jeunesses Musicales Canada for 25 years and later Honorary President. Under his leadership, Jeunesses Musicales was able to launch large scale projects due to very successful fund raising efforts.

In 2002, he co-founded the Concours musical international de Montréal, which has become a major international competition for young singers, pianists and violinists.

Rouleau was a co-founder and president of Mouvement d’action pour l’art lyrique du Québec which led to the founding of the Opéra de Montréal and its young artist program as well as the Opéra de Québec.

Rouleau received many honors during his career: the Silver Medal from the Royal Opera House for 30 years of service, Companion of the Order of Canada (the highest honor of the country), Grand Officier de l’ordre national du Québec, honorary doctorate of McGill University and Université du Québec à Rimouski and member of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France.

Several recordings from the 50’s and 60’s were made of studio and live performances in London but they can be difficult to find. These recordings include a “Don Carlos (french version)” with the BBC, Rossini’s “Semiramide” with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge, Verdi’s “Macbeth” with Titto Gobbi and “Boris Godunov,” as Pimen, with Boris Christoff in the title role.

A recording of French arias with the Royal Opera, “Joseph Rouleau sings French Opera,” is more widely available. His discography also includes a fine recording of L’Enfance du Christ by Berlioz under the baton of Colin Davis.

I had the privilege of witnessing a few performances of Mr. Rouleau in the 1980’s and 90’s, notably as the four villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Ramfis in Aida and as Mephistopheles in Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust alongside Alain Vanzo. I will remember his magnetic stage presence and his booming basso profundo.

Here is Joseph Rouleau singing the french version of Philippe II’s great aria from Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” with the orchestra of the Royal Opera.