To commemorate the birthday of the composer born on May 22, 1813, the young Wagnerian artist, Sébastien Comtois, who was also our scholarship winner from the Richard Wagner Foundation in Bayreuth, accepted our invitation for an interview on his fascinating journey.
We invite you to find it below in full.
1) Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you became interested in singing?
Before I was a teenager, I had very little interest in music. I was rather devoted to the theater. My musical awakening took place at the age of fourteen. At the time, I only listened to rock and metal music. Shortly thereafter, I wanted to get involved in the musical world but, having no experience with an instrument, I decided to become a singer because I had a natural ease on stage.
For two years, I was a singer for several rock bands. It was after a competition that a judge advised me to take singing lessons in order to refine my vocal technique.
I was advised to take classical singing lessons to better control my voice. It was one of the best decisions of my life since those first lessons got me hooked on opera. It was also during this period that I attended my first opera: Die Walküre by Richard Wagner. It was then that I knew I was going to become an opera singer.
2) How did you hear about the Richard Wagner Foundation Fellowship and what motivated you to apply?
Following the pandemic, my singing teacher recommended that I focus on the dramatic tenor repertoire and more particularly on the music of Richard Wagner.
It was my wife who did the research to find opportunities compatible with my new repertoire. So I applied for the master class with soprano Catherine Foster and also for the Richard Wagner Foundation scholarship. What was my joy to learn that I had been chosen for both projects!
3) How was the application process and how did you prepare for it?
The application process was clear, simple and easy to complete. In order to be chosen to participate in the scholarship concert in Bayreuth, one had to submit videos of three musical pieces (no Wagner pieces were allowed for singers).
4) Can you describe your competition experience and what it was like to win?
It gave me great pleasure to learn that I was not only going to have the chance to hear the works of Wagner in the theater that he himself conceptualized, but that I was also going to sing the air of Max in Der Freischütz in front of all the scholarship recipients.
It was an incredible experience to sing in front of all my colleagues, especially since the level was very high. There were not only singers, but also pianists, flautists and violinists. Afterwards, we were treated to a delicious meal offered by the foundation.
5) How do you think this scholarship will affect your career as a singer?
It is difficult for a singer of my age to convince people in the field that the Wagnerian repertoire is the most suitable for my type of voice. I think the scholarship gives me a clear gateway into the world of dramatic music.
Furthermore, after hearing Wagner's operas in the Festspielhaus, I returned to Canada with an even greater determination to be on this stage in the near future.
6) What are some of your favorite Wagnerian operas or plays and what do you admire in Wagner's music?
Rationally explaining the effects of Wagner's music on me is a daunting task. It is an experience that I would describe as spiritual. On one side we find: greatness, heroism, the supernatural and the divine. On the other hand, there is an undeniable humanity and a great emotionality. Richard Wagner affects me in a way that other composers fail to match.
I particularly cherish Die Walküre and Siegfried who were my first favorites. However, the Wagnerian repertoire is so rich that I always discover, with wonder, new dimensions to these masterpieces.
7) How do you approach preparing for a role in an opera and what challenges did you face?
In order to familiarize myself with the work, I always listen, a few months in advance, to the opera in its entirety. So, when it comes time to learn music, everything already feels very familiar to me. If the opera is taken from a literary work, I read it in order to know the context. Then, I look at the text and I translate it if any words are foreign to me. To complete the preparation, I assemble the text and the music.
The most demanding aspect is the memorization by heart of long operatic works.
8) What advice would you give to other young singers aspiring to win scholarships or prestigious competitions?
The advice that has made the biggest difference in my young career is to find the repertoire that highlights us the most and aim for competitions and scholarships that focus on this repertoire.
9) Do you have any upcoming performances or projects that you are particularly excited about?
The summer of 2023 promises to be very busy. I will be in Norway at the beginning of July to participate in the Kirsten Flagstad Masterclass. I will have the chance to work on my Wagnerian arias with soprano Turid Karlsen and to stay in the former home of legendary Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad.
In 2024, I will sing the solo tenor part for the first time in Beethoven's 9th Symphony.
10) Finally, what are your long-term goals as a singer and how do you see yourself growing and evolving as an artist in the years to come?
As a young Heldentenor, my goal is to sing all the great tenor roles of the Wagnerian repertoire, especially Tristan and Siegfried. These roles require impeccable vocal technique and an excellent command of German.
The next few years will be spent perfecting my vocal technique and learning German. In addition, a large part of my time will be dedicated to preparing, with my mentors, for my participation in major competitions.