Explore Les Feluettes
With Les Feluettes, an acclaimed Canadian play has found new life as an opera. Co-commissioned by Pacific Opera Victoria and Opéra de Montréal, and staged in 2016 and 2017, Les Feluettes brought a major work of theatre to the opera stage.
Here are articles from our Keynotes Newsletter, notes from the composer, conductor, librettist, and director, and selections from media reviews.
Enjoy this recently added video excerpt from our 2017 production of Les Feluettes. This early scene showcases the fiery fervor of new love – and the torture of being told it is wicked and wrong when you know in your heart it’s right. As figures of authority act in a fury to reprimand Simon and Vallier, Vallier composes a love letter to Simon.
What Theatre Can Do
Thus I was fortunate to be in the audience at Place des Arts on May 28, 2016, to see the final performance of Opéra de Montréal’s co-production (with Pacific Opera) of Les Feluettes. Many years before, I had rented, watched, and enjoyed the film version of Lilies, the play upon which this opera is based. Although this award-winning movie is (probably) still available for rental at Pic-a-flic, seeing it is no more a prerequisite for understanding Kevin March’s and Michel Marc Bouchard’s opera than reading Beaumarchais or Dumas fils to understanding Mozart or Verdi. Like Figaro and Traviata, Les Feluettes stands very confidently on its own as a work of art.
Everything about the performance was captivating and engrossing – ultimately deeply moving – and the audience responded ecstatically (the only word). As the applause began to subside, I chatted briefly with the lady seated beside me, who wondered how a story so drenched in Catholicism would go over in our Protestant western culture. I assured her that we had our fair share of hang-ups.
First and foremost – to me, at least – Les Feluettes is a story about gay male love at a time when – and in a place where – it was met with revulsion and hostility.
True, there have been other forbidden loves, and many of them have been treated dramatically in plays, novels, musicals, and operas, but each of these resonates within society in its own way; the love between Simon Doucet and Count Vallier de Tilly is very definitely between two men and does not need to stand in for or “symbolize” anything else.
Start with specifics, advised critic John Simon, with the personal and the intimate. If this is well enough imagined and felt, you can trust it to become universal by itself.
Assuming (safely, I think) that the majority of the audience that night in Montreal were not gay men, it is clear that Les Feluettes did, indeed, become universal.
Composer Kevin March has explained his eclectic musical choices: the score contains quotes from or stylistic allusions to Debussy’s incidental music to Le Martyre de saint Sébastien, – this is actually a crucial plot point – American ragtime, French belle-époque-style cabaret, traditional Québecoise folk music, and even a 19th-century Napoleonic anthem.
Each of these choices illuminates something about the time and place of the story, and even the personalities and thoughts of the characters. And of course they are individual dramatic elements in March’s richly imaginative score, which is beautiful, evocative, and dramatically apt at every turn. And rich also in colour: the composer’s orchestration always seems to find exactly the right colour for what is being sung, thought of, felt by the characters.
(I’d say that these characters were played by a dream cast, except that these singing actors exceeded my dreams. No Victoria operagoer needs to be told that the entire ensemble was led with deep commitment and expertise by Timothy Vernon. Everything about the production – including direction, sets, lighting, costumes – seemed dedicated to one thing only: the telling, in music, of this great story.)
Les Feluettes left me tearful and emotionally shattered, but eager to experience it again at the Royal Theatre. That night I walked many blocks in the wrong direction, all the while aware that this is what theatre can do!
The Revival of a Romantic Drama
Finally, in 2016, Les Feluettes had its première as an opera, co-commissioned and co-produced by Pacific Opera Victoria and Opéra de Montréal, with music by Kevin March. The libretto was written by Bouchard, who distilled the poetry of his play into a riveting musical drama.
Pacific Opera’s Artistic Director Timothy Vernon conducted both the 2016 Montreal première and the 2017 staging in Victoria. A subsequent staging in Edmonton in fall 2017 was conducted by Giuseppe Pietraroia and directed by Jacques Lemay.
Kevin March’s score for Les Feluettes draws out the rich strands of the libretto and evokes a tapestry of musical styles. It flirts with atonality, yet also falls into nostalgic forms of waltz, down-home French-Canadian folk, and the sophisticated lushness and delicacy of Debussy, all of it grounded in the splendour of Bouchard’s language.
The Play's the Thing
Les Feluettes is a romantic drama set in a prison, where inmates dramatize a decades-old tragedy. The drama revolves round the consequences of a moment in 1912. A group of boys at a Quebec college rehearse Gabriele D’Annunzio’s sensual play The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. As a devastating love triangle unfolds, one boy dies, one is sent to prison, one becomes a bishop.
Decades later, the bishop is made to watch as prisoners re-enact the past to draw out the truth, re-creating a panoply of vivid characters – a young pyromaniac; an old man hunting the missing pieces of his past; a brutal alcoholic; an exiled countess; a beautiful Frenchwoman who pilots a hot-air balloon.
The story opens in 1952 with the arrival of Bishop Bilodeau to hear the confession of his old classmate Simon Doucet, who has been an inmate for 40 years. Instead, Simon and his fellow prisoners force the bishop to watch as they put on a theatrical performance depicting the events that led to Simon’s incarceration.
The play within the play begins with a flashback to Roberval College, Quebec, in 1912, as young Simon and Vallier de Tilly rehearse a school production of Le Martyre de saint Sébastien (The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian). Simon plays Sebastian, who has been sentenced by the Roman Emperor Diocletian to be executed by his own archers, one of whom is Sanaé, played by Vallier. Sebastian urges Sanaé to prove his love – to go ahead and kill him so that he may be reborn.
As they rehearse the ardent words, the boys’ acting becomes more real, and they kiss. They are interrupted by young Bilodeau who accuses them of depravity. In the ensuing quarrel, Simon forces a kiss on Bilodeau just as Vallier’s mother enters and applauds, thinking she has witnessed a daringly well-acted scene from the play.
That kiss has devastating consequences. Simon receives a severe beating from his father, after which he plunges into a more “suitable” relationship with Lydie-Anne de Rozier, a wealthy French woman on holiday. Even as Simon and Vallier find their way back to one another, reiterating the words of Sebastian and Sanaé to express their love, Bilodeau’s jealous, unadmitted longing for Simon sets in motion the inevitable tragedy.
The opera is based closely on Michel Marc Bouchard’s dazzling 1987 play Les Feluettes: La Répétition d’un drame romantique. The English – Lilies, or The Revival of a Romantic Drama – like many translations, both adds and subtracts meaning.
‘Feluette’ is a word someone of an older generation might use, a Quebec distortion of the word ‘fluet’ or ‘fluette’ which means frail or delicate. A mother might say it about a consumptive child, but it could mean effeminate or effete. lt isn’t necessarily pejorative…I went back to the play…and saw how many Biblical allusions there were.
I began thinking of lilies of the field, the ‘fleur de lys’, and lilies as the flower of royalty … The play has a lot of the flamboyance of Oscar Wilde, who created a cult for lilies. Artists … have drawn sexual imagery from lilies. It seemed to capture the same kind of allusive meaning as ‘feluette’.
In both play and opera, Feluette is the nickname given to Vallier by Bilodeau; it is translated as Lily-white (and, in the play, lily-livered sissy). Yet Vallier is arguably the character with the most inner strength: he works himself to exhaustion to support his mother and himself and he is clear, always, about his own feelings for Simon.
The subtitle of the play hints at its hall-of-mirrors structure. Répétition can refer to the reiteration of an experience; the revival of a theatrical production (the play within the play that dramatizes the events of 1912); and the rehearsal of a play (Le Martyre de saint Sébastien, the inner play within the play within the play).
These nested dramas create a mise en abyme that draws the characters into an abyss of discovery and memory.
The play within the play, the inmates’ re-enactment of the past, recalls Hamlet’s use of theatre to reveal Claudius’ guilt (The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king). Simon’s dramatic re-enactment is intended to elicit confession, mete out justice, and unearth truth.
The innermost play, Le Martyre, becomes a recursive theme, its text a counterpoint weaving through the opera, giving Simon and Vallier the words to uncover and express their love.
Legend has it that he was a member of the elite Praetorian Guard in the late 3rd Century, a secret Christian who used his position as a Roman soldier to help Christians and to convert more to the cause.
When the Emperor Diocletian eventually found out, he reproached Sebastian for his ingratitude and had him shot by archers. Miraculously, Sebastian survived.
But rather than play it safe, he proceeded to harangue Diocletian for his persecution of Christians. Not surprisingly, Diocletian didn’t take this well. Sebastian was martyred a second time, this time by being beaten to death.
Sebastian is the patron saint of soldiers and athletes. Long beloved by artists, he found his way into paintings by Botticelli, Rubens, El Greco, Titian, Dali, and many others. Sebastian was one of the few religiously acceptable subjects for depiction of the male nude; he provided opportunities for pious homoeroticism and has long been a gay icon – this despite the fact that the real Sebastian is more likely to have been a burly, middle-aged bruiser. Indeed, the earliest images of Sebastian – mosaics dating from the 6th and 7th centuries (long after his death, c. 288) – show him fully dressed, with a grey beard, and nary an arrow in sight.
Le Martyre de St. Sébastien
Debussy’s contribution to Le Martyre was about an hour of music, and it is the work’s saving grace. His contract stipulated that the play could never be performed without his music. Fortunately, the music is almost always performed without the play, either in various drastically shortened versions or in a set of Symphonic Fragments that Debussy had the foresight to extract from the score in 1912, and some of which is quoted in Les Feluettes.
D’Annunzio wrote the part of St. Sebastian for the notorious Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, who has been called the Lady Gaga of her era. A dancer and producer, Rubinstein was renowned for her beauty and enormous wealth and notorious for her provocative performances, her androgynous physique, and her bisexual lifestyle. After two years with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, she left to start her own ballet company. She commissioned several works, including Ravel’s Boléro.
Rubinstein’s 1910 performance in Paris as Schéhérazade with the Ballets Russes reportedly caused D’Annunzio to declare, Here are the legs of St. Sebastian, for which I have been searching in vain all these years!
Later, after the première of Le Martyre de saint Sébastien, the writer Marcel Proust wrote to Reynaldo Hahn: I found the legs of Mme Rubinstein … sublime. That was about it for me. I found the piece rather boring apart from the odd moment.
Martyre makes the most of the homoerotic appeal of Sebastian, conflating him with the pagan figure of Adonis. However, that is not the main reason it was banned by the Church before it even opened. D’Annunzio’s writing was already scandalous, but Martyre was the last straw for the Vatican. On May 8, 1911, just two weeks before the première, the Vatican placed on its Index of Prohibited Books all of D’Annunzio’s plays, short stories, and novels. This was followed almost immediately by a statement from the Archbishop of Paris forbidding Catholics from attending the production, on pain of excommunication.
Surprisingly, the problem wasn’t so much the homoerotic and sadomasochistic elements as the fact that St. Sebastian was played by a woman – and, what was more shocking, a Jewish woman (who also happened to be bisexual).
Given the scandalous context of Le Martyre de saint Sébastien, it is noteworthy that In Les Feluettes, a priest in rural 1912 Quebec has his students perform the play. Father St. Michel may live in the boonies (Roberval is 250 km north of Quebec City), but he is clearly au courant with the latest European theatrical sensation, and it is surprisingly bold of him to program this forbidden work.
D’Annunzio first made a name for himself as a poet, branched out into erotic novels, bedded hundreds of women (he claimed 1000), lived on credit, and became a fighter pilot and war hero in WWI.
After the war, in a fit of Italian nationalism, D’Annunzio captured the displuted Adriatic port of Fiume from Yugoslavia to give to Italy (Fiume is now the city of Rijeka, in Croatia). When Italy refused his offer, he set himself up as dictator (Il Duce) of Fiume, occupied the city for 15 months of drugs, debauchery, and thuggery, and eventually declared war on Italy. Only after the Italian navy shelled the city did he finally surrender. As Allan Massie observed in The Telegraph, The occupation of Fiume itself was comic opera which degenerated into orgies.
Indeed, one rather wishes for an opera to be written about D’Annunzio (several operas might be required!). Unfortunately, such operas would not be entirely comic, for D’Annunzio brought a proto-fascist approach to his governance of Fiume (a straight-armed salute, blackshirted followers, inflammatory balcony speeches, violence,) that inspired imitation by Mussolini and by the Nazis, setting dangerous precedents for 20th century history.
Arthur Massie provides an overview of D’Annunzio’s career and personality in a 1998 article in The Telegraph – which includes a wonderfully acid summary of D’Annunzio’s character:
Gabriele D’Annunzio was a horror: a cad, a bore, a buffoon; supremely selfish, egotistic and callous; without humour, brutal in his treatment of women; a spendthrift, a sponger; ultimately, a cocaine-addict, a fantasist and a very dirty old man. He was also, as Hemingway put it, “a bald-headed, perhaps a little insane but thoroughly sincere, divinely brave swashbuckler”. He was the author of several novels, now all but unreadable, and several plays, all but unstageable; he was a plagiarist, and, just occasionally, a great poet.
Gender Bending in Les Feluettes
Operagoers are used to mezzo sopranos performing trouser roles, and we’re growing accustomed to the strange beauty of a countertenor voice in a masculine leading role. Les Feluettes is merely a new – but intriguing – chapter in opera’s long tradition of gender bending.
The entire cast is male (reasonable given that the opera is set in a men’s prison and a boys’ college). The two female roles are taken by a countertenor and a baritone; each plays a man playing a woman, adding another labyrinthine twist to this fascinating and dramatic exploration of the intricacies of love and theatre.
Daniel Cabena, the countertenor who played Lydie-Anne de Rozier in the première production, commented on this in an interview with Catherine Doyle of Opera With Pearls:
I’d say that gender fluidity is an important and beautiful feature of opera’s heritage, a tradition which, after all, reflects and explores all the dimensions of human experience. I also feel that that fluidity is a gift to performers, that it provides a unique opportunity through which deeply and freely to explore themselves and the characters that they are embodying. So, that’s all by way of saying two things: that cross-dressing in opera is not “a big deal,” that it is entirely part of the richness of the tradition; and that – not at all conversely! – it’s a very “big deal,” a gift to performers and a celebration of the variety and fluidity of the human experience, which opera so beautifully celebrates. I should also say, though, for the sake of precision, that in Les Feluettes I’m not exactly playing the role of a woman but, rather, that of a male prisoner who’s playing a woman in a play-within-a-play. I think that that extra layer adds a fascinating dimension to the discussion of gender roles, while at the same time rendering it moot!
Notes from the Artistic Director
I remember my first encounter with Les Feluettes in its English version Lilies; the movie subsequently made from it reinforced my initial reaction: this piece is an opera manqué! But did I act on that impulse? No – another failure not of interest but of nerve.
Not so composer Kevin Marsh, an American living and teaching in Melbourne, who when he saw the film, wrote to the play’s author, Michel Marc Bouchard, with a request for his permission to set the text. Michel Marc took the idea to Opéra de Montréal. Already in the commissioning process, our colleagues there, learning of Pacific Opera’s interest, invited us into the agreement as co-producers, and, some five years later, here we are with the result.
Les Feluettes began in the theatre, performed as a play in several languages around the world (recently – 2015 – as a musical in Antwerp).
The story is compelling, vivid, heartbreaking. It is informed by a deep sense of Quebec history and tradition, with its long story of Catholic domination, But at its heart is a story of true love, whose course, another great playwright has observed, never did run smooth. It is embodied in exquisite but never precious language which blurs with poetry at many points; it also shows the (literal) whiplash of brutality, yet can break an awkward or a poignant mood with wit, often mordant. The characters are present in their speech, their relationships layered, their very different psychologies precisely observed. It is a classic of Canadian theatre, which is to say of theatre outright.
Kevin, inspired but innocent of French, persevered through weeks – months – of constant adjustments to find the idiomatic rhythms of this beautiful text. He has met the central challenge of contemporary opera (what is an appropriate musical idiom for opera today?) in his own way head-on.
The score is eclectic, with hummable tunes, recognizable themes (signifying more emotional states associated with, rather than simply identifying, characters), but draws too on modern orchestral soundscapes. He writes with great fluidity for the ensemble, and keeps the vocal lines grateful and singable. There are moments of tremendous musical drama, but also of simple, radiant beauty. That a third Canadian company – Edmonton opens its 2017 season with Les Feluettes – has seen the strength in this work bodes well for its future in the repertoire.
Gradually we have come as a society to acknowledge, and even to celebrate, that love can well up between any two people. Such understanding is of course far from universal. Les Feluettes portrays bigotry, struggle, intolerance, tragedy, but soaring above all, innocent, triumphant love.
Notes from the Composer
Over the course of the next eight years, Michel Marc and I worked on the opera over email in between other projects. We finally met for the first time in January 2006 while I was attending a conference in Montréal with my husband. The meeting, though brief, was a delight. Michel Marc is a brilliant writer and a joy to work with, someone with a deeply trustworthy artistic intuition.
In March 2011, Michel Beaulac, the Artistic Director of Opéra de Montréal, contacted Michel Marc to discuss commissioning an opera based on one of Michel Marc’s plays. The play he wanted to adapt was Les Feluettes. As Michel Marc related to me in an email, It was a rather spectacular moment when I presented to him [the work we’d already done]. He couldn’t believe his eyes… Someone once told me, All you need is to be in the right place at the right time with a good idea. It seemed this was our time and place and that we weren’t the only ones who thought it was a good idea.
Another convergence of ideas occurred when Patrick Corrigan (then CEO of Pacific Opera Victoria) and Ian Rye heard that Opéra de Montréal was looking at commissioning an opera based on Les Feluettes. They too had been discussing the commissioning of an opera based on the same play. Pacific Opera Victoria joined Opéra de Montréal to bring Les Feluettes to the opera stage.
Over the course of the next 5 years the libretto was written, the music composed, and scenes workshopped. Les Feluettes was premiered by Opéra de Montréal May 21, 2016, to critical acclaim.
Vallier’s and Simon’s love is framed by D’Annunzio’s infamous Le Martyre de saint Sebastien. The play’s stage directions even call for Debussy’s incidental music to be used. Simon’s re-enactments are set in 1912 when the music of the Belle Epoch and the exoticism of American ragtime would have appealed to a segment of Quebec society keen to demonstrate its sophistication. La musique traditionnelle Québécoise (traditional music of Quebec) would have been commonplace. Even Québécois folk music is itself an eclectic product of the Irish and French settlers. In creating the sound of Les Feluettes, I felt it necessary that all of these musical references be respected and represented.
Perhaps one of the biggest influences on the music happens to be the play’s subtitle: La Répétition d’un drame romantique, The Revival of a Romantic Drama. The word “repetition,” can mean both “rehearsal” as in the rehearsal of a play (which is the first scene of the opera) or “revival” as in to produce something again or bring something back. The memories and events of 1912 are being brought back, revived, and part of that story involves the central characters’ rehearsal of Le Martyre de saint Sébastien.
Les Feluettes possesses both the intimacy and epic-ness of grand, tragic, romantic opera, and the music seeks to capture and portray those fragile, powerful sentiments of love, loss, desire, determination, and obsession.
Notes from the Librettist and the Director
Tonight we will sing of desire and love. Tonight, thanks to the marvelous music of Kevin March, we will be swept away with emotion. Tonight, thanks to Pacific Opera Victoria and l’Opéra de Montréal, we will tell you an imagined story set in a time when the protagonists would surely have been locked up for sexual deviance and mental illness.
In recent weeks, more than 100 homosexuals have been savagely tortured or killed in Chechnya. Tonight let us dream together that this opera may one day be presented in Grozny and throughout Russia. But above all, let us celebrate tonight the tolerance and greatness of our country.
Ce soir nous chanterons le désir et l’amour. Ce soir, grâce à la merveilleuse musique de Kevin March nous porterons les émotions à leur paroxysme. Ce soir, grâce au Pacific Opera de Victoria et à l’Opera de Montréal, nous allons vous raconter une histoire fantasmée dans une époque où les protagonistes auraient été sûrement enfermés pour déviances sexuelles et maladies mentales.
Il y a quelques semaines, plus d’une centaine d’homosexuels ont été sauvagement torturés ou assassinés en Tchétchénie. Ce soir rêvons ensemble que cet opéra soit un jour présenté à Grozny et dans toute la Russie. Mais ce soir, célébrons avant tout la tolérance et la grandeur de notre pays.
Serge Denoncourt made his Pacific Opera debut directing Les Feluettes in both Montreal and Victoria. He has also directed the play on which the opera is based, in 2002 at Montreal’s Espace Go (winning the People’s Choice Masque and Masque for Best Production) and in 2005 in English, at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre. Serge Denoncourt is a dynamic presence on the theatre scene. The former director of Théâtre du Trident, co-founder and artistic director of Théâtre de l’Opsis for ten years, and a renowned stage director, he has combined his love of the great classics with his interest in the 20th century repertoire and Quebec theatre.
This is a fine, well-sung production, benefiting from the…romanticism of Bouchard’s tale of forbidden love and March’s score, which frames the melodrama with verve, intelligence and sensitivity…
In this opera, love and death are paired relentlessly and repeatedly. Bouchard makes such an intertwining powerful, poetic and unforgettable…
Powerful baritone Etienne Dupuis as the young Simon was a standout; tenor Jean-Michel Richer ably brought out Vallier’s Dionysian beauty; baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson successfully conveyed the affable nuttiness of Vallier’s mother, Countess de Tilly.
The creative team … has overseen the production with confidence and panache … each scene possesses a singular beauty.
Les Feluettes … is a rare case of a full-size and full-length contemporary opera that holds the stage while remaining artistically true to itself…. The all-Canadian cast … could hardly have been better chosen … Simon and Vallier, the young lovers, had ardent advocates in Étienne Dupuis, a ringing baritone, and tenor Jean-Michel Richer. Gino Quilico as old Simon (sitting stage left, opposite the horrified Bishop Bilodeau) managed even to look like his younger self. Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, another baritone, drew chuckles at first in the drag role of the Countess, but soon enough was a three-dimensional character whose fractured relationships drew our sympathy.
There was not a moment in the unfolding of the central romantic story that seemed less than universal … No subject matter could be more classically operatic.
The Orchestre Métropolitain was upstage rather than in the pit, often with starry skies above. The interesting effect was of an opera within an opera within an opera. Balance and pacing as overseen by Timothy Vernon (artistic director of Pacific Opera Victoria) … were excellent.
New operas with sufficient force and good fortune to become fully staged productions by a company of note are rare beasts … which makes Les Feluettes something precious indeed. The world première demonstrated that this work has the musical and dramatic appeal to continue well beyond Opéra de Montréal’s four performances, and those presented by co-producer Pacific Opera Victoria in 2017…
An American, now Australian-based composer … March has taken an eclectic approach that emphasises the opera’s layered timelines and characterisations, as well as Québec’s diverse cultural influences. Celtic folk, ragtime, liturgical music and generous quotations from Debussy’s Le Martyre de saint Sébastien embroider a score that tends toward lyricism and tradition (da capo arias, Verdian chorus), but which also explores the darker, more austere territory of 20th century composition…
Apart from the bishop’s liturgical robes and Vallier’s brief appearance in a swathe of scarlet, drab grey prison garb was all that the trio of costume designers had to work with, but the results impressed. Inmates were differentiated by details such as T-shirts, hats and shorter pants, while the two female characters’ draped skirts and fancy hats pointed to their improvisation with uniforms, blankets and any other materials to hand…
The set design also achieves a lot with very little: a double layer of high, black prison bars, frequently shifted to create a varied sense of space and confinement, are augmented by a few props, such as a bathtub and a big white balloon. Dramatic lighting and projections do the rest in a cohesive, uncomplicated production directed by Serge Denoncourt.
Les Feluettes may be rooted in Québec, but this powerful and darkly beautiful opera seems likely to flourish much further afield.