Opera welcomes back esteemed performer from the Met in Manon

“Sex and murder is basically how we communicate in opera,” said Philippe Castagner, who will be singing the role of Le Chevalier des Grieux in UBC Opera’s production of Manon.

Manon begins with the Chevalier who meets and falls passionately in love with Manon Lescaut — an innocent, but lively, girl who has been brought to the “safety” of a convent for schooling. The two agree to elope and the couple’s families intervene to part the two lovers. A tale of kidnapping, loss and gambling, the couple’s parting and reunion lead to Manon’s eventual downfall.

Jules Massenet’s most famous opera, Manon, includes both lyrical and melodramatic styles — a perfect example of French Romanticism with its charm and culture.

Castagner, the lead tenor in UBC Opera’s female-led production, began his UBC degree over 10 years ago. During his degree, he was selected for the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists Development Program in New York after winning their international competition. Since his selection for the program, he has performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, among others. 

Although the Chevalier is his first lead male role, Castagner has performed numerous supporting roles across the opera world — a particularly memorable one involved entering on stage while on horseback and dressed as a harlequin clown.

“I’m now at the stage in my life where the voice has settled,” he said. “It’s gone through some changes that happen sometimes in your mid 30s and so I emerged as this lyric tenor.” 

On his character in Manon, Castagner acknowledged the lyrical and French-stylistic elements.

“He’s the lover boy, but maybe he’s got a sword.”

The role is challenging in terms of lyric operatic repertoire — lengthy, dramatic leaps and smooth lines are key to portraying the Chevalier’s role.

“You have to be able to deliver a very natural style that sounds very French,” he said. “There are some very specific aspects of French classical music that are part of that, including a very smooth line where you try to not to show where all the beats are. It’s supposed to sound like the language.”

Although Manon was written in the 1800s, Castagner believes it to be extremely relevant to society and culture today.

“Today, we have slut shaming and unequal consequences for men and women,” he said. “There’s class issues too — the heroine, Manon, is kind of looked down upon by the other characters as making bad choices when actually she’s acting quite rationally and doing the smartest thing she could do in order to get ahead in the culture that she lives in.”

The consequences for the female Manon at the end of the opera are devastating, whereas the men are able to continue living on in their hometown. The aim is to get people discussing these moral issues after the performance.

Directed by UBC Voice & Opera Division Head Nancy Hermiston and conducted by Okanagan Symphony Orchestra Director Rosemary Thompson, the female-led Manon has two separate casts each performing twice out of the four performances.

“In the professional world, time and money are breathing down everyone’s necks,” said Castagner, clicking his fingers in a frantic metronome. “Everything tends to be moving pretty quickly and there’s no room for error or for being slow. Here, you’re watching as much as you’re doing.”

Manon, like La Traviata of last semester, is a tale of love and luxury. Performed in French with English subtitles, it promises to inspire its audience to think about diversity and class issues prevalent as much today as they were in the 18th century novel on which the opera is based.

Ten years on, Castagner is excited to finish his degree at UBC with Manon. Costume, sets and musicians are all ready to transport audiences back to small-town French life. With such talented cast and direction, Manon will be a performance to remember.

UBC Opera's performance begins on November 5 and runs for four performances at the Old Auditorium.