An ‘Actor at Heart,’ Baritone Etienne Dupuis Forges His Own Path

An ‘Actor at Heart,’ Baritone Etienne Dupuis Forges His Own Path

Etienne DupuisIt was the day after France declared war, its president taking to the airwaves to announce the battle against an invisible enemy: the coronavirus pandemic. March 17, 2020, marked France’s first official day in lockdown. It was also the day baritone Etienne Dupuis picked up his guitar and hit “record.”

Dupuis had assigned himself a challenge. The Paris-based opera singer, originally from Montreal, had decided that he would write original songs, one per day for at least two weeks. What’s more, he would perform each one online—even if the result wasn’t good.

But the challenge wasn’t simply to write the music or pen the lyrics. It was also to confront that nagging voice every person has in the back of their head: the voice of doubt.

“Talk about a lifetime job for any human being: to learn to like yourself,” Dupuis says with an easy laugh, a lightheartedness that belies the weight of his words.

One of the premier baritones in the opera world today, Dupuis is a regular on stages in France, Germany, and New York. His debut in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2018 La Bohème led the New York Times to hail the arrival of a “refined and charismatic” voice on the American opera stage. This summer, he makes his first appearance with San Francisco Opera in Don Giovanni.

But even as someone who can boast a lifetime of musicianship—not to mention a cheeky sense of humor—Dupuis is not immune to the trap of self-doubt. He continues to stare it down, even to this day.

“For artists, it's critical to at least respect how you do things. Otherwise you're constantly judging yourself. And because you're also being constantly judged, then it piles on, and people go crazy—almost literally,” he told San Francisco Opera in a recent interview.

And yet, music has been the one thing that has always come naturally to Dupuis, starting as a young child.

“When I was three years old, I would go on the piano. We had a piano in the house. And with one finger, I would start plunking melodies I had heard, watching cartoons,” Dupuis explains.

Music felt instinctive. When his mother was pregnant with him, she even pressed her headphones to her stomach, hoping her future child would be a musician. “It probably helped,” Dupuis laughs.

His first attempt at songwriting, however, was “horrible,” he says. It was his grandparents’ 40th wedding anniversary, and a 9-year-old Dupuis was struggling to find the right gift. His mother, an elementary school teacher-turned-real estate agent, suggested he compose something.

“It was boring. It was horrible,” Dupuis chuckles. He remembers he struggled to commit to his piano lessons at the time, describing himself as lazy. “I could have gone farther, but I didn't because I stuck to what was easy to me.”

As a young artist, Dupuis was hurtling toward a career as a jazz pianist, but he wasn’t finding the passion in it. In cégep—a publicly funded college system in Quebec that serves as a stepping stone between high school and university—Dupuis noticed his attention straying from the keyboard toward singing.

“I thought I want to be a pop singer, like a Billy Joel guy who sings at the piano, who sings and plays,” he says. “I was like, ‘I already know how to play piano. So now I need to learn how to sing.’ So I switched to classical voice.”

But at 18 years old, he was a newcomer to the world of classical singing. He auditioned by imitating what he thought a typical opera voice sounded like: by crooning like tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

“If you were to make a parody, let's say, of an opera singer, quite often it would look very much like Pavarotti: It would be a big guy with beard and not a lot of hair singing very high for a very long time,” Dupuis says. “So yeah, I was like most people, influenced by the stereotype.”

It earned him a spot in the voice program at the Cégep de Saint-Laurent. Dupuis had very little exposure to opera: His first live performance had been a Montreal performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, and it left him feeling disappointed.

“I think I’ll remember for the rest of my life that I thought it all was a bit weird, except the Azucena,” he says, referencing one of the characters. “I didn't know that the singers mattered, you know what I mean? That it mattered who you saw—that that would change your experience of the show. I didn't know that.”

Still, almost as soon as he started to study classical singing, he was enlisted to perform in the Cégep de Saint-Laurent’s first opera production.

“I was literally the only guy in the program,” Dupuis laughs. “I kinda got a role by default.”

The program emphasized acting as well as singing, and early on, the cégep’s stage director pushed him to use his performance as a way of commenting on the scene at hand. “It’s funny because the way she taught me was by saying that I wasn’t acting when I thought I was,” he says. “You’re just imitating what you think you should be doing.”

The experience was frustrating—but also invigorating. For the first time in his life, Dupuis remembers he wanted to practice his craft. He wanted to be a better singer, a better actor, a better collaborator. It was a passion he never knew just sitting at the piano.

Dupuis sees himself as part of a bigger, generational shift in opera: a rising tide of performers who prize acting ability as much as vocal chops.

There were always great actor-singers, he says, but in the past, “all you had to do was sing well. They didn't really care if you acted well.” Big, gaudy gestures were par for the course: After all, how else were the nosebleed seats supposed to read the emotions on stage?

Dupuis says he always resisted that mindset. “I came in and I thought, ‘But what if instead I wanted to be so true to the emotion and to the words I'm saying that people will feel it differently?’ That was always my plan.”

Doors started opening up to him. At age 23, right out of university, he entered a young artist program in Montreal. He started picking up small roles in Vancouver and Quebec City. He even landed a principal role in Israel after a stint in the International Vocal Arts Institute. Auditions in Paris and Marseille led to even more roles, even more contracts.

“The biggest challenge is to learn to adapt to any situation. That’s valid onstage and offstage,” Dupuis says. Far from home, he had to navigate foreign currencies and apartment hunting before the advent of online services like Airbnb.

To escape the pressures of the industry, Dupuis says he turned to games. “I kill zombies online,” he laughs. “It's really about disconnecting from any form of judgment, may it be bad or good. That's why I like games so much.”

But even as he climbed the opera ladder, performing on greater and greater stages, Dupuis was determined to remain his own person—and foster his own private passions. “The Billy Joel dream? I mean, it never fully vanished,” he says.

His pandemic-inspired project—to write a new song each day and perform it—forced him to face the judgments he placed upon himself.

“I judge myself too much with music,” Dupuis explains. “So that's what started it. I stopped judging myself about writing simple songs.”

He decided to start small, writing lyrics about what happened during the day or using phrases he heard as inspiration. Some songs were odes to frontline workers. Others channeled the wide-eyed wonder—and pent-up energy—of his five-year-old son Noah.

But the greatest validation came from his wife, renowned Australian soprano Nicole Car. Dupuis knew he had struck upon something beautiful when Car asked to join in.

“She would sometimes turn around and be like, ‘I really like this one.’ So those became duets,” he says. “I tried to impress her every day.”

Car and Dupuis first met in Berlin in 2015, when Dupuis was scheduled to make back-to-back debuts in two new roles: He was going to sing the character of Rodrigo in Don Carlo, then the title role in Eugene Onegin.

“I accepted both because I was dumb and single at the time,” Dupuis laughs. “I thought of quitting about 50,000 times. It was the hardest thing I did in my adult life.” First up was Don Carlo, a revival production that Dupuis had only a week and a half to rehearse.

“When I got to the Deutsche Oper, my mind was racing at a billion rotations an hour, just trying to figure out how to pace myself.” Dupuis’s role as Rodrigo was a lot bigger than he anticipated. “What I didn’t realize is that he sings all the time. He is on stage all the time.”

Opening night was the first time Dupuis would sing the opera in order: Rehearsals had been done scene by scene, never chronologically. Dupuis remembers the relief he felt when the audience roared in approval at the curtain’s fall. “We got a huge reaction from the audience, one of the biggest I’d ever gotten.”

But his first day on stage as Rodrigo was also his first day of rehearsals for Eugene Onegin. He had never sung a Russian opera before.

Still, Dupuis swaggered into rehearsals high on the acclaim of his Don Carlo premiere. Car later revealed that she remarked, “Wow, that guy really thinks a lot of himself.”

Still, she and Dupuis grew close over their time together in Berlin. “We kept feeling like we didn't want to separate ever, ever, ever,” Dupuis said. “Eventually we had to depart from each other and it was so heartbreaking. It was excruciating.”

They ultimately married and moved to Paris together, where they now live with their son. And it was there in 2019 that Dupuis performed his first Don Giovanni, the Mozart opera he is set to reprise this month in San Francisco.

Then, as now, Car was his co-star, playing the role of Donna Elvira, a noblewoman from Spain that the predatory Don Giovanni has seduced and abandoned. Dupuis says working with his wife allows him to achieve a sense of intimacy that takes longer to achieve with strangers.

“It's rare to be able to have that kind of trust onstage with another partner. It doesn't develop that quickly. I mean, we develop relationships quickly, but that quickly? It's impossible,” Dupuis says. He describes Car as “the person I trust the most in the world.”

But while their bond was strong, Car didn’t hold back when it came to playing the vengeful Donna Elvira, who swears she will tear out Don Giovanni’s heart. In the Paris production, Car was tasked with rushing at Don Giovanni from across the stage, pushing him off a prospective victim.

She came at the assignment with unexpected gusto. As Dupuis recalls, the director, Ivo van Hove, instructed her to “come in like a ton of bricks.” And so she did. Her strength sent Dupuis flying.

“I literally rolled almost off the stage in the rehearsal space,” Dupuis says. “They all started laughing. Ivo just said, ‘Whatever is going on at home needs to stay at home,’ and we all had a big laugh.”

Dupuis had never been offered the role of Don Giovanni, Mozart’s famous libertine, before that Paris production. “I was as nervous as the first time I had ever been on stage,” Dupuis explains. “People learn these roles and sing in them when they're in their twenties and thirties. And I turned 40 when I was doing my first one.”

But Dupuis turned the circumstances to his advantage. “Because I was such a blank slate, having never performed Don Giovanni before, I think it really allowed me to just be as truthful to the text as I could.”

And what the text indicates to Dupuis is that his character is not some jovial pleasure-seeker but an outright sociopath, protected by the divine rights associated with nobility in the 18th century.

“It's so clear to me that Mozart and Da Ponte knew that about the character,” Dupuis asserts. “This character couldn't care less about the aftermath of anything he does. The only thing that matters to him is what he's doing at the moment he's doing it.”

In Michael Cavanagh’s new production for San Francisco Opera, Dupuis plays Don Giovanni as if he were a supernatural being, sent to earth to test the other characters’ resolve. Nothing seems to faze him: Don Giovanni remains unrepentant—and unconcerned about his own fate—up until the final scene.

“It’s fun to be that disconnected from reality,” Dupuis says. “He is just there as a mirror to everyone around him. People see in him their flaws. And if they don't like who they are, they are even more attracted to him because he's just so self-confident.”

Dupuis prides himself on creating characters. He counts his performances in new and rare operas—like Les Feluettes—among his most prized accomplishments.

“I'm not one to make concessions about my true nature. I believe that, when people hire me, it's because they like what I do with the roles that I'm hired for—that I put my personal touch on it.”

And with characters like Don Giovanni, he has his sights set on making the character his own. And that means leaning into a darker side of the character that some “have chosen to ignore.”

“He is absolutely a predator,” Dupuis says. That uncompromising vision is a point of pride: Dupuis is determined to stay true to who he is, an “actor at heart”—dedicated to fleshing out characters like only he can.

Baritone Etienne Dupuis takes the stage at San Francisco Opera in Don Giovanni, running June 4 through July 3, 2022. Follow him on social media or visit his website to learn more.

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