Soprano Marie-Josée Lord is a force to be reckoned with. From her gusty laugh to her deeply-held convictions about the power and mystery of the human voice, she radiates passion and demonstrates wisdom beyond her years. This stunning soprano who looks every inch the diva and counts former Governor General Michaëlle Jean among her friends had very humble beginnings — as an orphan in Haiti.
At the age of six, Marie-Josée was adopted by a white couple from Lévis, a town in rural Quebec. She quickly learned to acclimatize to her new country. “I had to learn everything all over again: the language, the culture — even how to eat, since I was malnourished; I was a third world child! So I became very good at adapting to new things. On top of that, my adoptive parents were involved in humanitarian aid work, so we moved around constantly.”
Marie-Josée came to singing relatively late. Though she had studied piano from childhood and chose the instrument as her major at the Conservatoire in Quebec city, she never felt entirely convinced that the instrument was her calling. “I was supposed to practise for six or seven hours a day but I started to lose interest and would only practise for a couple of hours. I didn’t feel connected to the instrument — it was almost an obstacle between me and the music itself.”
At the age of 22, Marie-Josée literally found her voice, stumbling across what would become her life’s passion by eavesdropping in a hallway at the Conservatoire. As her interest in the piano continued to wane, she became intrigued by the school’s Lyric Apprentice workshop, listening at the door as the students inside rehearsed Mozart’s opera Le Nozze di Figaro. The workshop director asked her why she was hanging around and finally invited her into the studio. She attended every rehearsal after that, which prompted a life-changing decision to drop piano in favour of voice studies.
“When I discovered singing, it was like finding something I didn’t realize I was looking for! It was a known language to me and I felt comfortable right away. There are no obstacles between emotion and the voice.”
Marie-Josée launched her professional career in 2003 singing the role of Liù in Puccini’s Turandot at the Opéra de Québec. Her renditions of Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème and the title role of Puccini’s Suor Angelica at Opéra de Montréal confirmed her formidable acting talent and musical sensitivity. Marie-Josée’s 2008 breakout role — Marie-Jeanne in the world premiere of the operatic version of Starmania at the Opéra de Québec — was reprised at the Opéra de Montréal last season, where she also portrayed Nedda in I Pagliacci.
The release of Marie-Josée’s first solo CD is a thrilling prospect for the singer, who had routinely turned down requests from record labels because she believed she was not ready for the legacy-making commitment a recording implies. “When I considered the recordings of major artists like Cecelia Bartoli or José Carreras, I didn’t feel I had anything unique or comparable to contribute. I was really scared and insecure.” With her mother’s encouragement, she accepted ATMA’s proposal and relished the opportunity to work with the label’s team. “I really enjoyed working with them — they were very hands on, very human and enthusiastic. I felt involved every step of the way and I felt they were as excited as I was about making this CD.”
With the accomplishment of her first solo recording under her belt, Marie-Josée has set her sights on a far more challenging project: visiting her birthplace in Haiti for the first time since the age of six and giving something back to her native country, which continues to struggle — most recently with an outbreak of cholera — in the aftermath of last January’s devastating earthquake.
As one of the only black children in her town in rural Quebec, she did not encounter others who shared her native/cultural heritage until she was in her late teens. Because of her chameleon-like ability to adapt quickly and thoroughly to new surroundings, she integrated completely into Quebec culture and didn’t feel emotionally tied to Haiti. Until the earthquake. “After the quake, I began to feel a connection and I realized that Haiti is in my blood. Returning to Haiti is something I have to do.”
That her position of privilege is underlined by her success in an art-form that is associated with privilege is not lost on her. “It was such a gift to have a second start in life, so I want to go back to Haiti and bring this gift that life gave me. I had the opportunity to receive knowledge, to open my mind. Singing is what helped me grow the most. I want to bring this back and help others in Haiti, especially the younger generation.”
In 2007, an even more compelling reason to return to Haiti emerged: her parents were able to locate her brother, whom she has not seen in more than 30 years.
“Education is the biggest need in Haiti. It may be too late for me to help my brother this way, but by being an ambassador for teaching and education, maybe I can help his children.”
Marie-Josée credits her voice as the instrument of her own inner journey of discovery. “Singing is the expression of my entire being. The voice is the instrument that teaches you to be humble. You don’t choose your voice, it chooses you.”
By Luisa Trisi