Education and Early Career
Rouleau privately studied with Edouard J. Woolley and Albert Cornellier in Montreal and with Martial Singher at the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal (1949–52). He won the Prix Archambault in 1949 and was a semifinalist in the CBC’s Singing Stars of Tomorrow (1950–51). A concert tour of Eastern Canada with Jeunesses Musicales du Canada followed in 1951.
From 1952 to 1954, with the help of a Quebec government bursary, Rouleau studied in Milan under Mario Basiola and Antonio Narducci. By 1950, he had sung small roles with the Opéra national du Québec and the Minute Opera in Montreal. He sang Colline to Irene Salemka’s Mimi in the New Orleans Opera's La Bohème in 1955. He made his Opera Guild of Montreal debut in 1956 as Philip II in Don Carlos. He also appeared regularly in concert and on radio and television.
International Career Highlights
Rouleau made his first appearance with Covent Garden in London in 1956. He sang with the company in Cardiff, Manchester, and Southampton prior to his London debut as Colline on 23 April 1957. During the next 20 years, he held leading roles in more than 40 productions. His Count Rodolfo in Bellini’s La Sonnambula, with Joan Sutherland in 1960, led to a collaboration with the soprano that included Rouleau’s debut at the Paris Opera that year as Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor. He won high praise during an Australian tour in 1965–66, particularly for his Assur in Rossini’s Semiramide. In Sydney, The Sun observed: “Joseph Rouleau, as Assur, grew into magnificent stature, sang his fourth aria with outstanding artistic expression and intelligence.” Rouleau sang in South America, South Africa, and Israel. His tours of the USSR (1965–66; 1966–67; 1969–70), singing Faust, Don Carlos, and Boris Godunov, brought great acclaim. He made his New York City Opera debut as Méphistophélès in Faust in 1968.
Between 1974 and 1976, Rouleau gave 55 performances at the Paris Opera, including the title role in Massenet’s Don Quichotte. He was praised for his singing of the title roles of Rossini’s Mosè and Boito’s Mefistofele in concert performances at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. Rouleau’s interpretation of Judas in Massenet’s Marie-Magdeleine in New York City in 1976 was a triumph. He made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera as the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi's Don Carlos under James Levine on 13 Apr 1984.
Canadian Career Highlights
In Canada, Rouleau appeared often with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Quebec Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras. For the Canadian Opera Company (COC) in 1967, he sang Basilio in The Barber of Seville and premiered the role of Monseigneur Taché in Harry Somers’s Louis Riel. He sang Ramfis in the COC’s Aida in 1968.
Rouleau’s performing career reached a crowning point in the 1980s. In 1982, he played the lead role in the NFB’s musical film Au pays de Zom, with music by Jacques Hétu. In January 1983, the CBC presented a portrait of his career as part of the program Les Beaux dimanches. With the Quebec Symphony Orchestra in March 1984, Rouleau premiered Les Abîmes du rêve, which he had commissioned from Hétu. Rouleau’sconcert performance of the title role of Boris Godunov, conducted by Semyon Vekshtein at the St-Jean-Baptiste church of Montreal in February 1988, was broadcast live on the CBC. This performance was presented again at the Festival international de Lanaudière the next summer.
In 1990, Rouleau made an LP recording of songs by Félix Leclerc that were then featured in recitals and concerts, including one with the Trois-Rivières Symphony Orchestra. It attracted an audience of 4,000 at the amphitheatre of the Festival international de Lanaudière. An untiring performer, Rouleau continued to perform in his later years, including as Kalman Zsupan in Johann Strauss’s The Gypsy Baron at the National Arts Centre in 2000.
Orchestras and Organizations
Rouleau appeared with the Israel Philharmonic and with several European and US orchestras, among them the Philharmonia in London, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the New York Philharmonic, and the Orchestre de la Suisse romande. Rouleau made Montreal his home again in the late 1970s. In 1977, he was one of the founders and president of the Mouvement d'action pour l'art lyrique du Québec, a group of singers whose efforts resulted in the creation of the Opéra de Montréal in 1980. That same year, he began to teach voice at the Université du Québec à Montréal, where he founded an opera workshop.
Rouleau served as national president of Jeunesses Musicales du Canada beginning in 1989. The organization instituted a national voice competition in his name. He also acted as a juror at international voice competitions.
Honours and Awards
Joseph Rouleau received the Prix de musique Calixa-Lavallée in 1967 and the Prix Denise-Pelletier in 1990. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1977 and was promoted to Companion in 2010. In 1989, he became president of the JMC and was a jury member of the Montreal International Music Competition. He was inducted into the Canadian Opera Hall of Fame in 1992. He was made an Officer of the Ordre national du Québec in 1999 and was promoted to Grand Officer in 2004. In 2004, he received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.
A version of this article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.