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Thread: OTF – Nelligan: The Back Stories

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  1. #1
    Senior Member Involved Member itywltmt's Avatar
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    Cool OTF – Nelligan: The Back Stories

    My OTF Opera of the Month will be Nelligan, the “romantic” French-Canadian opera by André Gagnon, with a libretto by playwright Michel Tremblay. In order for most listeners (and readers) to get some of the background to this work, I thought it appropriate to provide a bit of a preamble to the actual OTF opera post. So, though there will be a few audio clips in this post to illustrate some of the written material, the actual opera will be commented and posted in a few days’ time.

    Emile Nelligan (1879-1941)

    We all have been tormented (and I use the word loosely…) at some point in our Language Arts classes with obligatory poetry reading and deep analysis. Be it Virgil’s poetry in Latin class, Robert Frost in English, but for those of us who grew up in French Canada, our curriculum included one poet in particular, something of a local legend, Emile Nelligan.

    Nelligan was born in Montreal on December 24 1879, the first child of David Nelligan (an Irish immigrant) and Émilie Amanda Hudon, a French-Canadian from Rimouski. He and his two sisters were raised in a bilingual household, as the father was not fluent in French, and the mother raised the children in her mother tongue. David Nelligan was an inspector for the Mail service, and the family lived well, in the Carré-Saint-Louis neighborhood of Montreal.

    Canada, as a country, was in its infancy but French-Canadian culture had been in place for almost 150 years. Writers and poets like Octave Crémazie and Louis Fréchette had their share of local success. Other French and English symbolists like Verlaine, Beaudelaire and Rimbaud were also widely published. These form the essence of Nelligan’s literary influences.

    He publishes his first poem at age 16 and befriended other poets - Arthur de Bussières and Charles Gill – both members of the École littéraire de Montréal, a French-Canadian literary club of which Nelligan will be briefly a member. Scholastically, Nelligan dropped out as a teenager to dedicate himself to poetry full-time, against his family’s wishes. At his father’s behest, he tried his hand at work (as an accountant), but to no avail.

    What makes Nelligan so unique – and tragic – is the fact that he wrote all his works between the ages of 16 and 19, and was then committed for life in an insane asylum, spending the bulk of his adult years at what is now known as the Louis-Hippolyte-Lafontaine Psychiatric institute, and was for a long-time known as the St-Jean-de-Dieu Hospice, or as the locals would call it “L’Université de l’Est” (trans. The University of the East End). The hospital was renamed in the latter part of the 20th century, and (coincidence, maybe) happens to be the first building people see when they emerge on the Montreal-side of the Bridge-Tunnel of the same name.

    Indeed, on May 26 1899, during a public reading organized by l’école littéraire, Nelligan will read three poems including La Romance du vin. This will be his last public engagement, as he is thereafter diagnosed as having "serious psychoses" and in August of the same year, at the request of his parents, he is remanded to the Retraite Saint-Benoît, and, in 1925, transferred to Saint-Jean-de-Dieu where he will remain until his death, November 18 1941.

    It was long believed that he went insane because of the vast cultural and language differences in his household. Some have even postulated that Nelligan was gay and suffered from inner conflict between his sexuality and his religious upbringing - this notion is hard to substantiate, however.

    The bulk of Nelligan’s oeuvre (107 poems in total) was assembled and published in 1903. This anthology was widely read in his native Québec, Belgium and France. At times, many people have visited Nelligan in hospital, as evidenced by this written interview (in French) published in the weekly newspaper La Patrie in 1937

    After his death in 1941, many scholars (and suffering High School students!) studied and deciphered his works. His poetry will be translated in English in 1960 by P. F. Widdows and, in 1983, by Fred Cogswell in The Complete Poems of Émile Nelligan. To this day, Nelligan is still considered one of the greatest poets ever produced by French Canada – no small feat considering the many writers that have followed since. The first few lines of two of his most famous poems, Soir d'hiver

    « Ah! comme la neige a neigé!
    Ma vitre est un jardin de givre »

    …and Le Vaisseau d'or
    « C'était un grand Vaisseau taillé dans l'or massif :
    Ses mâts touchaient l'azur, sur des mers inconnues »
    (Full text and translation here)

    … will haunt us forever: More of his poetry on line:

    André Gagnon (*1939)

    Pianist, composer, arranger and French-Canadian (if not World) musical personality André Gagnon is the youngest of 19 children (yes, nineteen!), born and raised in the sleepy hamlet of St-Pacôme in the Kamouraska region of Québec. After studies in piano, harmony and composition at the Conservatory in Montreal, he receives a grant to study with Yvonne Loriod (Mme. Olivier Messiaen). Early in his career, he worked as accompanist, conductor or arranger for some of the great names of the 1960s Québec mucic scene, a movement known as les chansonniers: Claude Léveillée, Pauline Julien, Renée Claude and Monique Leyrac.

    It is with her that Gagnon will set to music a number of Nelligan’s poems. Included in this YouTube playlist are not only Ms Leyrac, but also Léveillée.

    Starting in 1970, although he will continue to work as music director for some singers and for Radio-Canada’s French television service, Gagnon will mostly be viewed as a recording and touring musician, performing his own compositions, some of which may be appropriate as background music at your favourite dental office, but some being elaborate works for piano and small orchestra: Neiges, Le Saint-Laurent, Mouvements come to mind. There’s even a “disco” period in the mid-70s…

    Gagnon will further flirt with Nelligan’s history, moving into 3686 rue Laval, the house where Nelligan spent his youth and troubled teenage years (Read: " A greystone dwelling with history ", The Gazette, 11 october 2008). In his 1974 album Saga, Gagnon will write this stunning musical tribute to the poet:

    Michel Tremblay (*1942)

    The 1960s, which were marked in Québec by the so-called Quiet Revolution, delivered not only the afore-mentioned folk song movement, but also some seminal plays by the likes of Marcel Dubé and Michel Tremblay. The latter’s most famous play of the time Les Belles-Soeurs, stands out for its use of Joual, a form of Québec slang and plain-talk, which had not been used in mainstream theatre until then. Tremblay’s career has been varied, including 28 plays, 22 novels, 7 screenplays, 39 translations, and 2 musical comedies!

    Tremblay, like Gagnon, was raised in a busy household – his dwelling was shared by three families totaling 12 people! Also, he was raised in the Plateau district of Montreal, just a few blocks North from the area where Nelligan had lived.
    I remember seeing an interview with Tremblay around the time of the opera’s creation. He was in his study, surrounded by books upon books, neatly displayed around him. Tremblay is a true Renaissance man, who takes on every project with immense passion and conviction. He did his research, and his command of the French language (not plain-folk at all!) is in full display in his carefully crafted libretto for this opera.

    In my next post, I will comment on the opera, provide some background on the cast of the original staging, and provide both YouTube and Internet Archive links to the music.

  2. #2
    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Thanks! I look forward to your comments on the opera itself, given that I have a CD of it which I haven't listened to, yet, so your comments will inform my experience. Thanks again for your very interesting series of articles, which enhance the quality of Opera Lively.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

  3. #3
    Senior Member Involved Member itywltmt's Avatar
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    Synopsis and opera performance can be found on the OperaLively Forum @

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