General Articles

Pierrette at the Met

This Montreal girl, who started out singing to her dolls, is a $25,000-a-year concert headliner and a diva at the Met

FRANK RASKY November 15 1947
General Articles

Pierrette at the Met

This Montreal girl, who started out singing to her dolls, is a $25,000-a-year concert headliner and a diva at the Met

FRANK RASKY November 15 1947

Pierrette at the Met

This Montreal girl, who started out singing to her dolls, is a $25,000-a-year concert headliner and a diva at the Met

FRANK RASKY

ONCE UPON a time there was a little blond girl, nine years old, who used to sing in a small theatre in the Saint Henri quarter of Montreal. As she stood on the stage she would hold a doll almost as big as herself and sing aloud in a piping voice the French lullaby, "Me Poupée Chérie.” Afterwards, while the applause of the audience was still crashing in her ears like a symphony, she would hug her poupée in her arms and speak to it.

“Some day,” she would tell it solemnly, “some day I will be a great singer.”

True to her own Cinderella prophecy Pierrette Alarie is today an international concert star and the only French-Canadian songstress to break into the Metropolitan Opera. At 24 she earns something like $500 a week. When she makes a concert tour of 20 engagements this season throughout Ontario, Quebec and the United States, reporters will interview her and local cities go into raptures. When she sings at the Met this year, as she has for the last two seasonsgoing dramatically insane, being throttled, heartbroken, tied in a sack or poisoned, and all with flawless vocal ornamentation the New York critics will diagnose each shading of her coloratura soprano voice.

She will shuttle like mad between Montreal and New York.

She will make guest apjiearances on the radio. Between the trying on of sillon gowns and t he popping of photo flash bulbs she will try to lunch with her opera tenor husband, Leopold Simoneau.

She will be very big business, a kind of amalgamated Cinderella Inc. She will have an advance agent to sell her, two Columbia Concert managers to plan her concert tours and a publicity director to ballyhoo her.

In short, “Leetle Pierrette” as they call her, is rich and famous and very much a celebrity. The folks back in Saint Henri may well be proud of her, ambitious young Canadian sopranos may well envy her. But no young artist ever worked for what she gained wit h such ferocious pertinacity and bull headed ness. The pocket-sized diva she’s five feet two in her high heels and manages to weigh 1.12 pounds only if she is careful to eat her potatoes—is one

of those little women with the will of a giant.

Spiteful people say Mademoiselle Alarie has an overriding egotism. Her associates at the Met agree she is spilling over with talent, that she has a disarming docility to discipline that is femininely French, and that she is willing to work like a Turk. She is a hard person to understand. When she made her debut at the Met two years ago in Verdi’s “Masked Ball,” the rest of the cast were amazed by her apparent lack of butterflies in the stomach.

“She took it as calmly as a hard-boiled trouper,” recalls Jan Peerce, the tenor, who took the lead role.

Pierrette herself says it was all a pose and a sham. She kept biting her lip to keep up her courage and muttered to herself as though it were a litany: “I weel not become nervous. Tiens! I weel not.”

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Pierrette at the Met

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She is not always so outwardly emotionless. Although she is generally patient, she can be goaded into a flaming fury. Soaring into a rage, she’s like a pinwheel throwing out sparks. When her patience gives out she clenches a newspaper, hurls it to the floor with all her strength, and explodes into a fury of French-Canadian invective. A minute later she will be her good-humored self. Cooling down, she picks up the newspaper and begins tanning herself.

On the other hand, while many a singer goes into hysterics over bad press notices, Pierrette is so self-contained that they leave herserenelynonchalant. Once, Francis D. Perkins of the New York Herald Tribune praised her voice but likened her acting to the creaking of an automaton. Pierrette merely sniffed and remembered the witticism attributed to Fritz Kreisler: “Eight out of 10 reviews are bad. As a profession, critics are always having wife trouble, indigestion, or both.”

This is not to imply that she is used to being panned by the press. Eight out of 10 reviews are outrageously extravagant in their praise. The New York Times’ Olin Downes singled her out in last year’s performance of Mozart’s “Abduction From The Seraglio.” He commented, “Pierrette Alarie was the only singer of personality on the stage.” Danton Walker, Daily News Broadway columnist, trumpeted “She is the best yet to wear the crown of Lily Pons.”

Back home in Quebec the FrenchCanadian reviewers soar into a cantata of positive lyricism at the mention of her name. Their attitude is that of a mother crooning a lullaby to a lost child. When she was giving a concert tour throughout the province last year after making good with the Met, a crit ic from the Montreal Le Jour wound up his full-column paen virtually in tears: “When we remember that she used to be one of our own native products, it’s enough to break your heart! That’s all!”

In keeping with the reputed Old World charm of the French-Canadians, the cavalier Louis Du Bois, critic for the Montreal Devoir, closed one of his hosannas with a verse whipped up on the spot. It ran:

Poupée qui chantes si gentiment Ah! reviens nous charmer . . .

Or, in English—

“Little doll who sings so tenderly,

Ah ! You come back to charm us . . .”

As a Metropolitan Opera singer Pierrette is in a fiercely competitive big league. So far her batting average is excellent. She stepped out of the minor league, or supporting role, division last season. That was when she and Elenor Steher were the only two female singers, and therefore both classed as stars, in the Met’s premier American performance of Mozart’s “Abduction From The Seraglio.”

She is now classed among the Met’s 30 leading sopranos. In the profession this sorority is jocularly known as the “stable” and the sopranos as “goldplate fillies,” because they are by tradition backbiting and nipping for supremacy on the track. The Met, which operates on a repertory basis, bids for the services of each thoroughbred depending on what kind of soprano the season’s new repertoire of operas demand. Pierrette’s present contract will offer her roles of the kind which Lily Pons commonly sings—that is to say “soubrette” roles, or those calling for a lithe and attractive figure and a light coloratura soprano. People at the Met contend that with the proper breaks, enough publicity and a continuation of her rigid training, there is no reason why Pierrette should not fulfill Danton Walker’s prophecy and cause Mademoiselle Pons to worry about her golden crown.

Met’s “New Look”

Physically Mademoiselle Alarie looks not unlike a trim little doll. In this sense she typifies the new streamlined school of corsetless Met sopranos. In the old days it was not uncommon for the fearless hero of “Siegfried” to climb through a path of fire, rip a corselet of mail from a sleeping Brünnehilde of hefty, billowing curves—then cry out in delicious understatement, “Das ist kein Mann!" (“That is not a man!”)

But apparently the day when you judge the artistry of a Met singer by her resemblance to an elephant is on the wane. While Luisa Tetrazzini tipped the scales at 160 pounds, Marcella Sembrich varied between 160 and a delicate 170, and Amelita GalliCurci was thought frail at 145. Pierrette Alarie’s minute 112 doesn’t worry her at all. Indeed only recently Edward Johnson warned a continental soprano that she would have to ration herself before she could sing at the Met.

Pierrette is, by any standard, a beautiful girl. She is a honey blond

with blue eyes, evenly ehiseled features, a hipless, sweater-girl figure and a spirit of Gallic vivaciousness. Off stage she looks like a rather high-spirited, bouncy bobby soxer on her way to the corner jukebox joint to buy a hamburger—a delicacy, in fact, which she frequently devours with huge smotherings of onions, pickle and relish. She dresses simply, her only jewelry being pearl earrings and a little silver violin which she pins on her lapel.

Pierrette dislikes intensely the notion that Met divas are screwball eccentrics, but her most likeable quality is her animated air, the sort of exhilarating flamboyancy that makes people turn and stare at a drum majorette prancing at the head of a parade. On her stage entrance, this air of excitement electrifies any audience.

In backstage parlance, envious colleagues call this stacking the house, or putting the audience in your pocket. Wilfred Pelletier, the French-Canadian conductor, has likened her to a wild oriole enjoying herself in song. Bruno Walter, the Austrian conductor, recently exclaimed of hertoa friend,“My good fellow, I tell you she is one of the outstanding young talents of today. And I but an ardent admirer.”

Actually Pierrette combines the character of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. On stage she may romantically shatter windmills, but off stage she is shrewdly practical. In her business transactions with Charles Goulet, her Canadian manager, and Walter Brown, one of her two Columbia Concert managers, there is little that is personalized. She becomes transformed into a businesswoman with a cold, mathematical understanding of cash.

Although she advisesyoungersingers, “Don’t be in a beeg hurree for success,” she herself is a high-tension dynamo of ambition. One of her colleagues, woo sometimes spends his time analyzing the Alarie psyche, once said not unkindly, “Pierrette is a pony and mule. As long as the reins direct her along the path she wants to travel, she is the most amiable of ponies. But let those reins turn her off somewhere, then watch out—she is the stubbornest of mules.”

This mulishness has always been unswerving. Two years ago when she was on an operatic tour with “Daughter Of The Regiment,” she was suddenly afflicted with bronchitis. Her friends told her to beg off. But rather than admit defeat she persisted in playing for 10 performances and won a flock of excellent reviews.

Another time, when si»; was a teenage hopeful in Montreal, she got a midnight telephone call from the manager of a theatre.

“My ingénue is ill,” he said. “I need somebody to take over for a performance at 2.30 p.m. tomorrow. Would you like to gamble on the chance of being able to learn the role by then?”

“I weel hop into a cab and pick up the script from you tout desuite,” she replied.

Till four o’clock that morning she desperately memorized her lines. She slept for a few hours and was up again at dawn. At noon she arrived at the theatre expecting at least a brief rehearsal. Helas! The stage was dark and bare and nobody had yet arrived to set up the scenery. At last the curtain went up and she went on cold, hoping at least to be guided by the prompter.

As she faltered over her first line, she paused. Then she turned and stared at the prompter’s box. The prompter wasn’t there. On sheer will power she came through handsomely and played that matinee and 13 more performances.

Although she speaks with a pronounced French accent, Pierrette sings

a flawless German, Italian, French, ; English, Spanish and Czech. Opinion | about her voice is divided. Muriel ! Francis, who used to be her agent when j she first came to New York, maintains ' she has a small voice rather than a j large one and it is apt to be lost in the | capacious Metropolitan Opera House. | Others point out she can easily reach F above high C, that she has absolute pitch, can sing equally true with a pit.no opened or closed, and that she has a richness reminiscent of the late Jenny Lind.

The Musical Alaries

Pierrette Alarie did not jump to the upper regions of the operatic heap with one leap, but she was lucky in that she comes from a musical family. She was born on Nov. 9, 1923, in a modest onestory home on Saint Henri Street, Montreal. Her father, besides working as translater for the Montreal daily, La Presse, was a distinguished conductor for the Société Canadienne d'Opérettc, for which her mother sang as leading soprano.

Her two brothers and one sister are also musically inclined and when she now visits home they are apt to burst into a miniature choral society. Bernard, 33, who is a radio engineer by trade, sings and plays the clarinet. Roland, 31, a Christian Brother, is a voice teacher. And Maria-Thérèse, 20. sings on the Montreal radio and hopes to break into the Met some day like her big sister.

“Tome,” Pierrette recently recalled, “singing is dansant—in my blood. Our house was always alive with music.”

A tiny girl with a single-minded determination, Pierrette studied piano and sight reading when she was nine. Her first teacher was a Miss MarieLouise Boisvert. At nights, hugging her dolls in her arms, Pierrette would sing at vaudeville theatres and for Rotary and Kiwanis shows.

Her childhood friends said she had a natural flair for the theatre. While attending school she directed plays on a bare stage.

When school got in the way of her career she studied school work three days weekly with a tutor and devoted j the rest of her time entirely to singing. When 13 she had already switched to music lessons from Madame Eléonore j Hamel. When 16 she studied voice from Albert Roberval, at the same time taking dramatic coaching from his wife, Jeanne Mauberge.

The young Pierrette was never a I second late for a singing lesson and her appetite for memorizing scores was phenomenal. When she was 14 she made her radio debut. For singing a half-hour show over Montreal’s station CKAC she was paid eight dollars. Being practical, she immediately cashed the cheque, bought the opera score to learn “Romeo and Juliet,” and gave the remaining couple of dollars to her I mother for safekeeping. The CKAC j people were apparently satisfied with her young voice. They raised her salary to $16 and she conducted the program “Rhythm and Melodies” all by herself, doing both singing and j announcing.

Adding to her activities, she began j singing with a Montreal company, I : "Varieties Lyriques," w’hich performed j a new operetta each month. She also ¡ began acting with the noted Montreal | drama organization, “Les Comédiens Associétés,” which staged a new play j every week. She played so many | ingénue roles, she recalls, that falling in j love each week became as automatic as | applying grease paint.

After each performance the actors j would retire to a corner cafe for coffee. ! I But while the others would talk of great [

actors she would have thoughts only for the giants of the Met—Kirsten Flagstad, Rosa Ponselle, Giovanni Martinelli and Beniamino Gigli. “Some day,” she would burst out explosively to her friends, “I will be at the top like they.” And she spoke with such fervor that they believed her.

When she was 19 she won a two-year scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In between hectic sessions of trilling her scales, she used to commute to Montreal to earn pocket money and further local acclaim.

Her confidence grew boundless until in January, 1945, with the prodding of Wilfred Pelletier, she entered the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air. Her test song was the “Bell Song” from “Lakmé.”

Winning out over 500 other contestants, then 40 semifinalists, she won a $500 award and an option. Four months later her doll-age ambition came true. She received a contract from the Metropolitan Opera and orders to get ready to sing the role of Oscar in Verdi’s “Masked Ball.”

On the night of Dec. 8,1945, Pierret te made her how to the American public. The mammoth Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway was packed. Diamond-crusted women and »cosmopolitan gentlemen in tails rustled their programs out front. Backstage Pierrette Alarie squirmed into her tightly formfitting page boy’s costume, only the gentle trembling of the large feathered plume on her pale blue hat betraying her inward alarm.

Just as conductor Bruno Walter struck up the opening chord the quaking Pierrette was handed a note from her musical godfather, Wilfred Pelletier: “Keep your eye on the conductor

and your voice in the balcony and all will he well.” Pierrette smiled and her nervousness vanished.

The lights dimmed. The curtain rose. And defiantly into the bright glare of the orange spotlight stepped Leetle Pierrette to make her debut at the Met.

Praise From Pons

During the second act, when she appeared as a sailor—wearing red and grey striped pants and a scarlet cap on her curls—the entire house cheered her singing of the aria, “Saper Vorreste.” But when it was all over one thing most exalted her. That was when Lily Pons herself came backstage and stretched out her hand and said simply, “Good work, Pierrette.”

The Alarie legend spiraled dizzily. Five times at the Met she sang “The Masked Ball,” four performances of “Tales of Hoffman.” Soon her repertoire included “The Daughter of The Regiment,” “The Barber of Seville,” “Lucia,” “Rigoletto,” and “The MagicFlute.”

The next season she did a concert tour in French Canada and an American tour with the Metropolitan company—which included singing before President Truman in Washington— before returning to the Met stage in New York for new operatic roles.

A year ago June, Pierrette returned to Montreal for an old-fashioned church wedding and honeymoon with the lyric opera tenor, Leopold Simoneau. A handsome quiet fellow of 35 with curly black hair, the son of a Montreal choirmaster, Leopold met Pierrette five years ago in Montreal. He sang last season with the New Orleans Opera Company and is now a leading tenor with the Philadelphia Opera Company. Only once have they sung together so far—on May 4 this year on a CBC performance of the Czechoslovakian opera, **Hubitchka.” Although their careers

understandably separate them, they ' always manage to get together for a few weeks summer holiday in the Gaspé Peninsula.

When both are in New York they combine their domestic and professional lives at a neat, if harassed, pace. Pierrette has a comfortable four-room apartment, stacked with Met programs and music magazines, on the seventh floor of a skyscraper overlooking the Hudson River near Columbia University.

Living to Music

The Canadian Met star begins her day at 8 a.m.—a day that is entirely wired for sound. She combs her hair before one of the mirrors of a distinctly feminine bedroom, then bursts into a caterwauling of some raucous French melody to rouse her husband. She continues to sing as she pads into the kitchenette to prepare a breakfast of grapefruit, toast and coffee.

Later she hops into a lukewarm shower still singing. She gets dressed, makes the bed, washes the dishes— still singing. Finally, as a tour de force, she and her husband both peal into an amalgamated appassionato of tra-la-lalas. This is for the most part a merry sound and so far seems to have bothered only a minority of the neighbors. The scale-trilling continues for 20 minutes, after which each delivers a brisk criticism of the other’s morning voice.

Maintaining a strained silence Pierrette rides a subway to the Met for 10 o’clock rehearsal, where the singing gets down to earnest. At noon she and her friends from the cast revive their tonsils at a Times Square restaurant with milk and hamburgers, during which period the vocalizing is restricted to a running patter on who sang what aria at what concert, and wasn t. his voice marvellous and wasn t she a flop?

Pierrette returns to rehearsals, pausing only to try on one of her brocaded costumes with Jenny, the wardrobe mistress. If she hasn’t a ballet lesson that afternoon with Grace Christie she may go to see Roger Hall, her publicity agent, to arrange for new publicity stills. This will be followed by an intense dialogue with Walter Brown, her concert manager. A canny, fast-talking chap, he will help her select the arias for her concert programs.

Mademoiselle Alarie usually arrives home by 6 p.m. If her husband has beat her home, he will rustle up one of his succulent meals of steak or pork chops, although Pierrette herself is an expert hand at cooking filet mignon, roast chicken and lobster. After supper they rarely entertain. If they don’t go out to hear somebody else sing, Pierrette likes to stay home listening to classical records or perhaps reading. She loves the French classics—including Molière, Racine and Romain Rolland — and is currently studying Shakespeare to improve her English vocabulary. She has a late snack of a glass of milk and toasted ham sandwich and retires, an understandably weary coloratura soprano, at 11.30 p.m.

Pierrette’s future seems pretty rosy. Shewould like to sing in Paris some day. More than that she intends making numerous cross-Canadian concert tours with her husband.

After all, the applause at the Met may have a tonier ring but somehow it can’t compare to the ovation they give her whenever she returns to sing in the Chalet high up on Montreal’s Mt.. Royal. Somehow les Canadiens expend more heart-felt emotion as they pound their feet and holler, “Bravo, Mademoiselle Alarie! Bravo!” -je