Ahead of OA’s Thaïs, the French-Canadian baritone shares his early dream of being a singer in the style of Elton John.

What kind of music did you grow up with?

My parents were radio listeners, and mostly while we were in the car, so I grew up with all the French hits of the 80s, a mix of music from Quebec, where I’m from, and of course France. At the same time I was studying music, so I did play classical pieces on the piano but I scarcely listened to any of them.

What was it got you started singing?

It was kind of an accident. I was studying jazz piano in what we call CEGEP, it’s between high school and university in the province of Quebec. I didn’t quite enjoy it, so I was thinking I could maybe become a pop singer, like an Elton John or a Billy Joel type guy who plays piano at the same time. I started studying jazz singing but I didn’t really enjoy it either because it was mostly the study of improvisation, which I had learned from the piano playing. So I went into classical singing and then got stuck because I fell in love with the whole acting thing and becoming a character.

Etienne Dupuis, Opera AustraliaFrench-Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis will sing Athanaël in Opera Australia’s Thaïs.

As a young singer, who were the classical voices that excited you?

The first one that stuck with me was Jussi Björling. have tonnes of respect for guys like Thomas Hampson, Bryn Terfel – these guys I love listening to them – and for older ones like Leonard Warren or guys like Bastianini with that solid technique, great knowledge of line and of legato. But my favourites were Jussi Björling and Franco Corelli – I was a very avid tenor listener – I could listen to those two forever.

Did you have something in your career that felt like a big break for you?

Yeah, I guess it’s an old story. A friend asked me to audition once in Monaco and that triggered a whole set of jobs. I did a Schaunard in Monaco, then a director recommended me for a Barbiere. That production came from Berlin, and then the Deutsche Oper hired me and that job triggered the whole thing. It was a concert version of Pearlfishers with Joseph Calleja and Patrizia Ciofi, and it was on the radio. They have kept rehiring me since then. The artistic director of the Deutsche Oper is Christoph Seuferle, and Christoph has helped me so much because he would come to me and say he had recommended me to that person, or that agent. He didn’t have to do that but he believed in me from day one.

What are your tastes when it comes to operatic repertoire?

Mostly any role that has a meaty psychological journey. I like to take a character from point A to point Z in a dramatic fashion, even if it’s comedy. I’ve always enjoyed singing Figaro in Barbiere because he never ends the same as when he started. The same is true for Posa in Don Carlo. I was amazed by the journey he goes through. I have had the good fortune of being called on when new works come along. I did Dead Man Walking in Montreal. The Joe de Rocher character is another intense, dramatic journey that got me two new works. The first is called Les Feluettes [The Lilies] and the guy who wrote it – Kevin March – lives in Melbourne. That opera is phenomenal because it’s accessible and the story is incredible. More recently I did The Wall, which was amazing.

Let’s talk a little bit about Thaïs, which you’re singing here. Is Massenet a favourite of yours?

Yes, absolutely. Massenet is basically the French Verdi – the long lines, the big dramatic scenes. I don’t think anyone else in France went as far as Verdi did.

Maybe as little as 30 years ago, when we thought of Massenet we only thought of Manon and Werther but now we realise there is an extraordinary range of work, especially the later operas.

Yes, Massenet was in love with an alto towards the end of his life, and so most of his heroines in the later operas became altos or mezzos and he changed drastically the way he wrote. Also the subjects that he was attracted to. Before that, you see a lot more major sopranos roles.

Athanaël in Thaïs is a psychologically complicated and conflicted character. How are you finding it?

It’s funny, because at first you kind of don’t like the guy. He’s really annoying. He’s got this righteousness, like he is God himself. It’s like a policeman who because they represent the law they think they are the law. Not every policeman is like that, but there are some that do behave that way and so I feel Athanaël is like that. He’s become a monk and now he believes that his word is the only truth. Even I get annoyed by the way he opens his mouth and goes, “No, no! I need to be heard. I need to say this, and you need to respond to me.” People in the opera kind of indulge him in that. The most interesting thing happens when he gets faced with internal proof that he was wrong all along, and that destroys his personality. If the opera would keep going, I don’t know what would happen to him. But one thing for sure is that he’s not a monk anymore.

What is interesting is that Thaïs goes in the opposite direction. Is there a point where they cross paths before she becomes a saint and he becomes a sinner?

I guess if it was written nowadays the story would be changed and there would be a moment of fiery passion between the two of them. What’s interesting is that when that switch happens, for him it’s too late. Athanaël tells us that in the past he’s actually stopped at her door. He was infatuated with her before becoming a monk and that infatuation is part of what draws him to become a monk. Once that happens, I think he feels strong enough for the first time to confront her. That’s why he’s so harsh with her – because he feels like he’s dominated by her. The cross happens when they spend time in the desert together. Before that I don’t think he allows his guard down. He might be touched or moved, but in the desert together, she really gets to him. But once she says to him, “Well that’s it then, we’ll never see each other again,” that’s it – he’s done.

What are the vocal challenges in the role?

I guess pacing. What I love about Massenet is that he’s unbelievably precise, so if you follow what he’s written, it’s actually easy. The difficulty is following what he’s written [laughs]. Sometimes you have a crescendo on the first two notes, and then it stops on the next three. If you follow it, it’s really beautifully written and it makes it easy for the voice. Massenet completely understood how to write for the voice. My personal challenge with him is that he sits just a little lower than I do. He likes to go up and then come back down for a few notes. You’re like, “Oh please,” with the orchestra behind you. If it was a tone or two higher it’d be great!

On your recent recital disc I notice that you sang Butterworth and Geoffrey Bush. Like, no one sings Geoffrey Bush! How does a French Canadian end up doing that?

Those pieces are my favourites on the entire album! I love these pieces – I thought they were really well written. Myself and the women in the string quartet were thinking of doing Barber’s Dover Beach in a concert and I said, “Why don’t we find a whole repertoire just for baritone and string quartet. We looked around, and the pieces we really liked were the Butterworth and the Bush. But the Bush pieces I thought were the better written for singer and string quartet. Bush literally creates a hole in the string quartet for the voice. When I was singing the Butterworth, I felt like it was a singer accompanied by string quartet. With the Bush it felt like a string quintet.

You also sing a lot of late-Romantic French repertoire – Meyerbeer’s Dinorah, and you’ve just done Massenet’s Thérèse. Is that a personal passion or is that simply what people have asked you to record?

I’ve recorded a few times for one specific company, Palazzetto Bru Zane who are based in Venezia. It’s run by two brothers [Benoît and Alexandre Dratwicki] and their passion is to record French operas that haven’t been recorded or performed much. I’m actually here in Paris doing this piece by Jacques Halévy called La Reine de Chypre, and they’re going to record it.

What next, apart from that when you’ve finished in Australia?

I tend to gravitate toward the Italian rep. I don’t know why, because my first language is French. We French-Canadians tend to have more open vowels than the French in France – maybe that’s the reason. People hire me for French repertoire, but even Opéra de Paris, when they hire me, it’s for Italian stuff. I do have a Pelléas coming up, but I also have Don Carlo and a bit more Verdi down the road. I’m going to do Bohème in Madrid and a few roles at the Met, but I can’t disclose all of them. My season is incredibly tight, but there’s a bit of role shifting happening – it will be my last Barbiere in Munich, and Onegin comes back a few times.

Have you sung Eugene Onegin with Nicole [Car]?

Yeah, that’s how we met. It was at Deutsche Oper – a very interesting production [laughs].

I’ve been hearing your son playing there in the background. How much does having a small child complicate your life as a pair of international opera singers?

It complicates it immeasurably, but before we even thought of having a child Nicole and I really wanted to spend as much time together as we could. That didn’t mean we needed to sing in the same productions, but if one person is singing the other one will be around, and vice versa. If possible, we want to sing in cities that are not too far from each other, or even better, in the same city. The next six months will be a bit harder, but we’re very blessed in the next few years as we’re going to be pretty much most of the time together. Of course, we need help from our parents and friends if we can, and we’re lucky they’re all retired and very happy to come and join us on some legs of our trips so that they can see their grandson grow as well.

Étienne Dupuis sings for Opera Australia in concert performances of Thaïs at the Sydney Town Hall from July 22 – 24.