Why the announcement of the disappearance of a personality that we have never met in a personal capacity, can it, if only for a brief moment, stop the course of our thoughts to make us take the measure of the legacy which he leaves in the field which was his especially if it is about music and more precisely of song?
This art is based on the breath, a term which, in the languages which found our culture, refers as well to a natural element (the wind) as to a vital function (breathing) and to a spiritual dimension (the life of the soul). In this, through the emotion it gives rise to, singing remains the surest way to open up horizons previously overlooked to its listener. It is by this yardstick that the genius of a great singer is measured.
Gabriel Bacquier has just left us, four days before his ninety-sixth birthday. His voice, without being exceptional, he said at the end of his life that he had never been “vocally gifted“, lamenting “a moderate moderate and a slightly pinched treble” -, was essential by the quality of his timbre that the singer modified, with rare intelligence, according to the scores and librettos to express an emotion and bring a character to life. Because on stage, the fine musician took flesh in the great actor that he was tied to.
Born in 1924, in Béziers (South of France), whose tasty accent and verbal earthiness he will always keep, nothing prepared him for a lyrical career except listening on the family phonograph, of the 78 rpm sound collection. Attracted by drawing and studying at the School of Fine Arts in Montpellier, he joined the SNCF (French railways company), at the instigation of his parents who were employed there, in the hope of escaping the S.T.O., in 1942. (Germans occupation troops compelled French workers to work in Germany)
It is then that, to forget a particularly thankless job, in his moments of freedom, he followed singing lessons with a teacher, director of a music school in his hometown, in Béziers, singing the role of Ourrias in Mireille by Gounod – that encouraged him, at the end of the war, to appear at the National Superior Music Conservatory of Paris.
Five years later, in 1950, he won the three First Prizes for singing, opera and comic opera. In the final year of his studies, he had been allowed to perform at the Nice Opera, as he had appeared on a few cabaret stages or during intermission in cinemas. To feed the family he had already founded, he performed songs there like operetta or opera tunes. He was often asked to appear as Figaro’s entry into Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, which he feared because of high notes that were dangerous for him
Rough learning of the scene, if any, for a beginner. But, whoever comes out victorious will no longer have any trouble adapting to all the surprises of a stage performance and, above all, he will have learned to immediately capture the attention of the most reticent audience, which will not be the slightest talent from our baritone. He said, one day when he sang Rigoletto, that the bass, who played Sparafucile, had never entered the stage; so, turning his back on the audience, he decided to sing the lines of the two characters.
Despite his laurels, the young artist could not get a commitment on a national scene in Paris. From 1950 to 1953, the young Bacquier participated in tours, more or less chaotic, in particular with the troupe of José Beckmans. This famous baritone of Belgian origin had founded, in 1951, La Compagnie Lyrique Française, with which he organized countless performances, in France, Algeria and Morocco, thus giving young soloists a chance to perform on stage and to get acquainted with all the lyric genres.
This is how Bacquier came into contact with Joseph Rogatchevsky, a Ukrainian tenor who had a successful career in Paris, Brussels and Vienna, before becoming, in 1953, director of the Brussels Monnaie. He hired the young baritone for three years during which he would sing many operettas and works, now forgotten, by Adolphe Adam, Audran, Louis Ganne, but also Les Pêcheurs de Perles de Bizet, whose role he played Zurga alongside Leila by Martha Angelici, resident of the Paris Opera-Comic.
After the performances, her partner asked him if he would like to sing on this French stage; dreading a proposal for a new barber, he made himself clear for which work and was answered: “To be a boarder there.” Although unexpected, the proposal was serious: the soprano was the wife of François Agostini, then director of the Salle Favart (Opéra Comique) that Bacquier joined in 1956 … where he will refuse to sing the role of Figaro when it is offered to him
He also appeared soon, and more and more often, on the stage of the Paris Opera. It was there, in 1960, that he participated, for the first time, in a prestigious performance: he interpreted, in an Italian version, which was still exceptional at the time in France, the role of Scarpia alongside Tosca by Renata Tebaldi, for the Parisian debut of the latter. A few weeks later, he was Riccardo in The Puritans by Bellini, alongside the young, and already highly sought after, Joan Sutherland, at Covent Garden in London, with whom and under the direction of Richard Bonynge, husband of the soprano, he will record several operas .
These performances attract the attention of Gabriel Dussurget, creator of the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1948. He hired Bacquier to sing the title role of Don Giovanni by Mozart. The representation of July 9, 1960, broadcast in Eurovision by French television, will definitively launch the international career of the French baritone because his performance immediately aroused engagements for Vienna, London, Italy, the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the United States. From now on, all the major international scenes asked for him. He remained one of the public’s favorite artists at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for eighteen years.
This lasting enthusiasm of the public can be explained by the singer’s constant work on himself and on the works performed. With a form of humility towards his colleagues, he affirmed: “I found my voice only when I had to fight with the big guys“. This means that far from locking himself into the routine of a few roles, he has never ceased to multiply them, sometimes passing, in the same work, from one character to another. Thus, in the mid-1970s, he abandoned that of Don Giovanni, for Leporello, with identical success, while the two characters correspond to two diametrically opposed temperaments. Which makes Richard Martet, director of the Opéra Magazine say, speaking of Bacquier, that “he had everything of a Fregoli“.
This interpretive plasticity stems from his conception of his art. Not without some provocation, he affirmed: “I am an actor-singer, I am not a singer-actor“.
In fact, his success with the public is due as much to his lyrical as to his dramatic qualities, but the musician never obscured the actor, any more than the latter served to mask any weaknesses of the former. In turn, he could have been a frightening Scarpia and a hilarious Baron de Gondremarck in La Vie Parisienne.
This is because he “always privileged the text and the dramatic situation over the sound“. For him, “we cannot sing Scarpia with a beautiful round voice, he must show aggressiveness“, recalling in passing that “Verdi expressly asked for an ugly voice for Lady Macbeth“. he added: “I am very strict with those who listen to singing“, because technique is not an end; the main thing is in the interpretation. Make no mistake, it is not a question of putting the quality of the song in the background but rather of making it clear that you cannot separate it from that of diction.
Bacquier recalled the work accomplished by previous generations: “Non-French-speaking singers – and even French-speaking singers – must learn to speak French well as we have learned Italian, German or other languages. Indeed, he added, “What is well conceived, is clearly stated! ” This attention to prosody explained the baritone’s interest in the French melody to which he devoted his concerts more particularly in the latter part of his career. We must also read the light analysis he made of the libretto of Pelléas et Mélisande to grasp the grandeur of Debussy’s score and understand Bacquier’s interpretation in Golaud and, at the end of his career, in Arkel. 
His notoriety, and the favor of the public, allowed him to escape the scandalous purge operated by Rolf Liebermann, upon his arrival in Paris in 1973. With a rare precipitation, the new director, encouraged by Marcel Landowski, responsible for music at Ministry of Culture, closed the Opéra-Comique, without state of mind, ordering the dissolution of its troop as well as that of the Opera Garnier. He forced prestigious French artists to pass new auditions and systematically hired international artists passing through. This policy of prestige, supported by the political power, was launched by a representation, at the Royal Opera of Versailles, of the Marriage of Figaro led by Sir Georg Solti, in which Gabriel Bacquier embodied Count Almaviva.
The French baritone, undoubtedly protected by his notoriety on the two continents, affirmed that he never felt so much “at home” at the Paris Opera as in this period.
However, this great artist had no words hard enough to denounce the management of our lyrical heritage, at that time. He didn’t hesitate to assert: “Rolf Liebermann was the gravedigger of French song”.
You have to listen to the recordings of Bacquier’s (and most of his contemporaries as well as his predecessors), to grasp the beauty of French song when music and words merge into perfect sound harmony. For a long time the great foreign singers had the same respect for French prosody when they approached our repertoire. We measure, alas, today the degradation of the French school of singing since the 70s. In the 1950s and 60s, Michel Dens, like Gabriel Bacquier, without forgetting Robert Massard – still among us at 94 years old – illustrated this quality of song that we hope to see reborn.
The great qualities of our famous Biterrois (i-e inhabitant in Béziers) had been recognized by the greatest conductors who had called on him on stage and in the studio, such as Sir Georg Solti  and James Levine. 
Joan Sutherland, his partner, on record, in Lakmé and Don Giovanni, used her influence to introduce him to Decca, the most prestigious label in the lyrical field.  Some of the operettas he played in his early days are reissued, such as The Musketeers at the convent (Universal). Two records, published by Accord in 2004, give an overview of some of his roles in opera, between 1965 and 1972, and in melodies and operetta, between 1957 and 1962.
After retiring from the scene in 1994, Gabriel Bacquier continued to perform in concerts, while teaching from the 1980s at the CNSM in Paris and giving master classes with inexhaustible energy. Until recently, he had been welcoming journalists for interviews where he spoke without filter.
This great artist devoured the pleasures of life as he devoured the scores, with the delicacy of a fine gourmet. But with the generosity of an artist who defended a work not for himself but to make it loved by the public. This undoubtedly explains his artistic longevity and the still current relevance of his interpretations.
When he played the role of Brissac in his early days in Les Mousquetaires au convent by Louis Varney, he sang with panache this provocative act of faith: “To make a brave musketeer / You must have a happy mind / Good heart and bad temper / Fight well and drink even better. ” Character, there was no lack of it, gaiety either, endurance and bravery, even less, to defend lyric art and French song in particular.
As for whether “As we change garrisons / It is fitting to change mistresses“, this does not belong to the appreciation of the lyricomane for whom will reason for a long time, and for his greatest happiness, the voice of this master of song .
Chez Decca : 1969, Mozart, Don Giovanni ; 1971, Léo Delibes, Lakmé; 1972, Meyerbeer, Les Huguenots ; Offenbach, Les Contes d’Hoffmann.
Rôle de Golaud : 1969, Opera d’Oro, dir. Lorin Maazel ; Eurodisc, 1978, dir. Serge Baudo ; Rôle d’Arkel : 1997, Naxos, dir. Jean-Claude Casadesus.
Decca, Verdi, Otello ;Falstaff ; Mozart, Cosi fan tutte; Don Giovanni.
RCA, Verdi, La Forza del destino.
Confidence de l’artiste, lui-même, à Benoit Duteurtre sur France-Musique.
Header illustration: photo ©Philippe Matsas/Opale/Leemage