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Grand tradition: Emile Belcourt.

When 23-year-old Emile Belcourt set off for England from Saskatchewan in 1949 to try his luck as a singer, his cautious father continued to pay his son's pharmacy-college fees so the young man would have a career to fall back on. But music was to be his true calling. Belcourt's beautifully expressive voice and wonderful diction have been praised in Europe, North America and Japan, and his glittering career has embraced opera, oratorio, lieder recitals, operetta and musicals. Considered one of the finest singing actors of his generation, Belcourt has also appeared in straight dramas. In addition, he is regarded as a gifted singing teacher and vocal coach.

Belcourt was born in 1926 in Lafieche, Saskatchewan, to a French-Canadian family. His mother was a church organist and piano teacher, and all seven children were musical. Belcourt studied both the violin and clarinet, and was a talented boy soprano. His service in the navy during World War II meant he didn't begin his pharmacy studies at the University of Saskatoon until 1946. However, his mother insisted he keep up his music by taking voice lessons. Belcourt's first teacher, Helen Davies Sherry, had been an oratorio singer in England. "Her methodology was studying music, rather than technique," explains Belcourt, "and each new piece kept pushing my voice higher into the tenor range. Madame Sherry felt it was a mistake to deliberately try to learn singing, because it can create problems for your voice. She turned out to be right."

As well as appearing in leading roles in university operettas, Belcourt won the Justice Brown Award in 1949 as the best amateur singer in Saskatchewan. British adjudicator Helen Henschel advised the young winner to consider a professional singing career. Despite his lack of formal training, an audition in London with conductor John Pritchard led to the Glyndebourne Opera Chorus and comprimario and cover roles.

In 1951, and now married to university sweetheart Margaret Eagle, Belcourt set out for Vienna. "I fell in love with the sweet, beautiful sound of the Austrian singers at Glyndebourne," Belcourt says. "I felt Vienna held the key to unlock the voice." At Vienna's music academy, Belcourt studied technique with Edita Fleischer, who encouraged him to try the baritone repertoire as well as establish a career as an oratorio and lieder singer. Three years later, Belcourt accepted a baritone contract at the opera house in Ulm, Germany, where he spent three and a half seasons, followed by another in Bonn.

However, by this point, Belcourt's voice was in total disarray, and baritone roles such as Sharpless were giving him difficulty. He and his family relocated to France, where Belcourt studied with famed soprano Germaine Lubin in Paris and relearned how to be a tenor. Says Belcourt: "I found my voice and career again. My voice lies between the tenor and baritone range. High tenor roles like Herod in Salome have been a struggle, but because I could reach high G, Loge and Sieground, for example, sat very well. I was also able to do the high baritone rep like Pellaas, and operetta roles like Eisenstein and Danilo."

Through Lubin, he met coach Irene Aitoff. She encouraged Belcourt to learn the role of Pelleas, and his performance in the opera was broadcast by Radio-Television Francaise. On the strength of that tape, Alexander Gibson hired Belcourt for the Scottish Opera, which led, in 1963, to Edmund Tracey's invitation to the Sadler's Wells Opera, now the English National Opera. London became Belcourt's base of operations, and the ENO his home company for the next 20 years. In 1970, he appeared in Reginald Goodall's Ring at the ENO, inaugurating his signature role as Loge in Das Rheingold, which he performed with distinction in both London and Seattle for over a decade. His Shuisky in Boris Godunov in London, Glasgow, San Francisco and Toronto was also memorable.

Belcourt's career includes such world premieres as the role of Dr. Oliver Sachs in Michael Nyman's 1986 opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. In musicals, his 1988 performance as Emile de Becque in Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific packed a West End theatre in London for over a year. He has also appeared in the title roles of Man of La Mancha and Sweeney Todd.

In 1992, Belcourt became a vocal coach at the University of Saskatoon, where he was joined by current wife, Irish soprano Norma Burrowes, and their children. However, when the promised post as head of the vocal department didn't materialize, the couple decided to resettle in Toronto in 1994.

These days, the 73-year-old Belcourt, who is still robust and ruggedly handsome, continues to maintain a performing and teaching career, with no signs of slowing down. He recently recorded for the soundtrack of Mike Newell's film Pushing Tin. He is the father of nine children, seven from his first marriage and two with Burrowes. The pair enjoys performing recitals together and they are establishing themselves in Toronto as teachers and coaches. As Burrowes rightly points out, the wealth of their combined international experience, as well as the knowledge gleaned from working with the likes of Solti, Richter and Goodall, makes them an invaluable resource. "You know," says Belcourt, "I'm more ambitious now than I ever was when I was younger."
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Author:Citron, Paula
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Mar 22, 2000
Words:880
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