Canadian bass Joseph Rouleau, a Royal Opera House stalwart, has died in Montreal at the age of 90.

Joseph Rouleau

Born in Matane, Quebec in 1929, Rouleau began taking voice lessons from the age of 17. He studied with French baritone Martial Singher at the Conservatoire de musique du Québec à Montréal, completing further vocal study in Milan in 1952. In 1955, Rouleau travelled to New York City to take part in the New Orleans Experimental Theatre of America competition, winning a series of engagements with New Orleans Opera. After returning to New York, the bass auditioned for and was offered his first contract by the Royal Opera House’s visiting director. He sang with the company in Cardiff, Manchester and Southampton before his house debut as Colline in La Bohème in April 1957. It marked the beginning of an enduring association that would see the bass appear in 48 principal roles for the company over the next three decades. The company would later bestow on him its Silver Medal in recognition of his thirty years of service.

Joan Sutherland became a regular collaborator not long after Rouleau’s Covent Garden debut, which led to both singers embarking on an Australian tour in 1965. One of their most famous recordings would be Rossini’s Semiramide, also featuring Marilyn Horne and conducted by Richard Bonynge.

Rouleau would go on to sing in many of the world’s most prestigious houses, as well as participate in a number of important festivals, working with directors like Luchino Visconti and Patrice Chéreau. He took part in three grand tours of the Soviet Union, singing calling card roles like Boris Godounov, Philippe II, Basilio and Faust’s Mephistopheles.

Despite his international success, the bass maintained a strong connection to Canada throughout his career. An important figure in the founding of the Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal and l’Opéra de Montréal, Rouleau was also involved in the establishment of a not-for-profit organisation dedicated to nurturing young talent, and co-founded the Concours musical international de Montréal, an annual international music competition.

Rouleau was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1977, later made a Companion in 2010 in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding achievement and merit of the highest degree. In 2004, he was awarded the rank of Grand Officer of the National Order of Quebec as well as the Governor General’s Award for the Performing Arts.