With her debut album, “Confidences,” mezzo-soprano Caroline Gélinas, one of Ici Musique’s 2017-2018 Révélations artists, launched her recording career with a profoundly gorgeous collection of songs. Choosing a program of pieces from Ravel, Debussy, Schumann, and Canadian composer Robert Fleming, Gélinas not only demonstrates her willingness to stretch herself (and her vocal versatility) but also takes the daring step of exploring a range of repertoire in a debut – a time when an artist might be tempted to play it safe. Gélinas most assuredly has not done that here – together with pianist Olivier Godin, she digs deeply into challenging lyrics and weighty emotions, and the result is a transcendently beautiful album. I can’t wait to hear what she does next.
Maurice Ravel, “Schéhérazade,” M. 41
Claude Debussy, “Trois Chansons de Bilitis”
Robert Schumann, “Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart,” op. 135
Robert Fleming, “The Confession Stone (The Songs of Mary)”
We’re delighted that Caroline took the time to answer some questions about the album.
You just finished up a year as one of Radio-Canada’s Révélation artists – what was that experience like, and how has it impacted you as a musician?
This experience was extremely rewarding for me. It gave me so many great opportunities and the space to showcase my own colours, my choices. Everything I experienced during the past year (a recital recording for ATMA, three new opera roles, a video project on Debussy’s Songs of Bilitis and many concerts) transformed me as a musician and as a human being. I also learned how to deal with a higher level of stress and how to let go at the end of each project.
You chose works from four composers (Ravel, Debussy, Schumann, Fleming) for your first disc; as I was reading the texts and researching the pieces, the stories they tell seem to have some common threads – love, loss, uncertainty. You mention in the album’s liner notes that these are “slices of your life” – can you talk about some of the ways in which these pieces speak to you?
Whenever I sing, I always try to find images within myself, memories to share and in all these song cycles, it was easy to find my path. For example, in Ravel’s cycle, it tells the story of a young girl born in a very small village who dreams to see, to taste and to feel other places and cultures, to conquer the unknown despite the trials that life can sometimes impose on us. Even now, as an adult, I have that feeling in me, alive and well.
The Debussy cycle made me think a lot about the subtle feelings of love. For me, it recalls the sensations that wake up inside of us when we are in love, along with the sensuality in all of its beauty, mystery and pain.
The Schumann cycle speaks to me a lot as well. It contains a great sadness but at the same time, a deep acceptance of Queen Mary Stuart’s destiny. Schumann’s refined and vertical writing in the two prayers of the cycle makes me feel an intense and unshakeable faith.
Finally, I tend to think that Fleming’s musical setting to the Confession Stone (Songs of Mary) is the perfect representation of unconditional love set to music. Every time I sing this cycle, I cannot help but immerse myself in it without any restraint. The Confession Stone is at the same time very intense and liberating.
I’ve always had a lot of imagination and from as far back as I can remember, I loved to play roles and act, to try to understand human behaviour, to open myself completely. This may explain why my first career choice was to become a nurse!
This year of course is the centenary of Debussy’s death (and is bringing a whole host of new recordings of his music). This particular work (“3 Chansons de Bilitis”) was written, I believe, in the middle of what was a really fruitful period for Debussy – within the same few years as “Pélléas et Mélisande”(which I think you’re performing this summer?) and “Suite Bergamasque,” both of which are quite well-known; this work is less so. What drew you to it specifically?
To be honest, it was a proposal at first from Radio-Canada. I was not very familiar with this cycle. The moment I listened to it again, I felt it was the missing piece of the puzzle I was looking for in my recording. I love the ambiance, the colours, the phrasing one finds in the Trois Chansons de Bilitis. It is very sensual and it requires deep reflection and introspection. Once I understood the feelings attached to it, it was really fulfilling to sing and bring these emotions to life.
And yes, I sung the role of Geneviève in a concert version of Pelléas et Mélisande last June. This role and the whole opera are just fascinating. Geneviève is a beautiful character that I would love to perform on stage!
All the works on the disc are from the 19th and 20th centuries; do you prefer the later repertoire, or do you plan to explore earlier compositions at some point?
I would say that I know that repertoire better, but I think my voice also fits baroque and classical works (Haendel and Mozart for example). I will definitely consider earlier compositions for a future album!
Schumann’s songs are settings of poems about (the English) Scottish? Queen Mary Stuart, which seems like an intriguing choice of text for a German composer. Like the other characters (so to speak) in the works you’ve chosen, Mary Stuart is a tragic figure. When you begin learning pieces like this, how much research do you do into their origins – does their provenance affect how you interpret them, or do you focus more on the texts themselves as a guide? (or both?)
When I study a new song or a new cycle, I try to find as much information as I can on the character as well as on the relationship between the composer and the text. After, I really focus on the actual poetry and the direct relationship with the music. I try to find what it means stricto senso but also what it really means to me. I do a lot of visualisation and meditation to find the mental images that I will use when I will be singing a specific work. I try to focus on each feeling that emerges from my research and take good note of them.
The final work on the disc is by Canadian composer Robert Fleming – a cycle of songs inspired by Negro spirituals. How did you choose this particular work to close the album?
When I first heard this cycle sung by the great Canadian contralto Maureen Forester, I just felt my heart melt. I recognized myself in this music. I still don’t really understand why, but I feel deeply attached to The Confession Stone. I love the spirituality and the humility that shine through this cycle.
Olivier Godin is the pianist on the project; can you tell us about his contributions to the finished album?
Olivier was my pianist/coach/teacher at the Conservatory of Music of Montreal and we still work very often together. He continues to help me grow as an artist and he was there from the beginning of the recording project. We already knew the content of this CD except for the Debussy’s cycle, which I added 4 months before the recording. Ravel’s Shéhérazade is one of his favourite song cycles and apparently, he really likes it with the sound of my voice. I am truly honoured and humbled by this. I think we also share the same sense of spirituality in Fleming’s cycle, which I hope you can feel when you listen to it. We like to blend our sound together. It is a beautiful feeling and a great performance experience.
Olivier is still a guide and a mentor for me. I couldn’t ask for a better partner to perform and record this wonderful music on my very first album!
You just finished singing in “Carmen,” I think, and you have a number of performances scheduled this summer – what are you looking forward to the most?
I am looking forward to many concerts and recitals. I am particularly looking forward to performing again the role of Geneviève in Pelléas et Mélisande (concert version) at the Quebec City Opera Festival at the end of July and to start auditioning in Europe for Opera houses and orchestras next Fall. I feel that a whole new world awaits me!