Joan Patenaude-Yarnell, recalling the early days of the McGill Opera Studio


Following her debut with the Canadian Opera Company as Micaela in Carmen in 1964, Joan Patenaude-Yarnell went on to perform many of the lyric-coloratura soprano roles throughout North America (New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera, among others) and with many leading conductors of our time (Charles Mackerras, Seiji Ozawa, Julius Rudel). Her roles have included Violetta in La Traviata, Alice Ford in Falstaff, Gilda in Rigoletto, Nedda in I Pagliacci, the title role in Suor Angelica, Mimì in La Bohème, Juliette in Roméo et Juliette, Elle in La Voix Humaine, and Héro in Béatrice et Bénédict. Her recordings may be heard on the Vanguard, Musical Heritage Society, and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation record labels.

Ms. Patenaude-Yarnell is currently on the voice faculty at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia as well as the Manhattan School of Music. Her students are currently performing with the major international opera houses – including the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden Opera, Salzburg Festival, Deutsche Oper, San Francisco Opera, and Chicago Lyric Opera – and several are recent winners at major voice competitions such as the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, George London Awards, and the Richard Tucker Foundation. Joan Patenaude-Yarnell studied voice in Montreal with Raoul Jobin and Bernard Diamant and coached with Charles Reiner, attending the McGill Opera Studio from 1961-3.  She recently returned to McGill to serve as a judge for the 2016-17 Wirth Prize.

“There were three Faculty members who influenced my life greatly: Edith and Luciano Della Pergola, and accompanist and coach Charles Reiner. These were the very first European artists I had ever met. They were, in fact, refugees from, the 2nd World War which they had fled. They brought with them the cultural values of their countries – Italy, Hungary and, I believe, Bulgaria. Their influence on music in Canada during the 50’s and 60’s, even early 70’s was indelible. I learned to love languages, musical styles, and history from them. Their influence on me as a student was immense and opened up doors which I may never have discovered.

I met Charles Reiner when I auditioned to take part in McGill University Master Class with the famed German soprano, Lotte Lehmann. I was just a student in Ottawa who had the nerve to audition. I will never forget what he said to me after I sang for him: “Young lady, you are going to make your life in music as a singer.” He then offered to coach me, although I was still living in Ottawa. When I told him my family could not afford it he said “There are some things in life one has to do – and for me coaching you without charge is one of those things” Thus started my association with McGill and ultimately the Opera Department.

The Della Pergolas brought the opera world to me by assigning me repertoire which ultimately became my favorite roles in my career. At McGill I performed Suor Angelica, Mimi, Gretel, and numerous scenes for opera that, quite frankly were a bit beyond my young age. But they taught me how to reach higher and to push the envelope. Above all they taught me the Bel Canto style which became the focal point of my performing and now of my teaching.

Not only did they teach me style and gave me performance opportunities at McGill, but they also encouraged me to enter the top competitions in Canada at the time — Les Jeunesses Musicales, CBC Talent Festival, and others. They were more than teachers; they were mentors.

One of Reiner’s piano students was a young Danish Canadian, Mikael Eliasen. He was invited to a soiree Charles arranged so that I could sing my competition repertoire at his home. Mikael and I instantly became friends. We travelled the world together doing recitals – Australia, Korea, Poland, Hong Kong and a Canada Council Touring Office concert tour across Canada. It was Mikael who, at the beginning of my teaching career, invited me to join the voice faculty at the Curtis Institute where we work together right up to today. That was the biggest career boost anyone could have asked for as a new teacher. So the influences we both experienced at McGill are in full swing at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Several years later, when I was in full preforming career, I wanted to work new repertoire and review my technical skills. I met [McGill professors] Dr. Robert Evans and his wife Lucille teaching at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Austria. Lucille proved to be the finest voice teacher I had had both as a student and as a professional. Robert played my recital at Pollack Hall on the Alumni Concert Series. Lucille remains my dear friend today at the age of 93; we lost Dr. Evans a few years ago. They spent some 10 years or so on the McGill Faculty.

It was a particular pleasure for me to return to McGill and Pollack Hall recently to judge a very important vocal competition, the Wirth Prize. I felt that I had come full circle – now able to bring the knowledge I learned in that very hall to young singers of today.”