Swiss-American bass-baritone Francois Loup is marking a 50-year career in opera, which has seen him perform at top venues and alongside the likes of Luciano Pavarotti.
Now 71, Loup lives life to the full. He has three nationalities: Swiss, French and American, and has been married twice. His second wife is American.
With his stentorian voice, Loup has performed in operas by Mozart and Rossini, with the Metropolitan Opera of New York, the Opera Bastille of Paris, at the Albert Hall in London and the festivals of Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence and Spoleto.
He also loves teaching and is associate professor for voice at the University of Maryland School of Music.
Loup says he was inspired at an early age by looking out of his bedroom window over Lake Neuchâtel.
”I had that gorgeous lake in front of me, the Jura mountains on the horizon, the sunsets, the reeds swirling in the wind, Neuchâtel city lights glimmering in the evening, I spent hours looking and dreaming out my bedroom window and all of that gave me a sense of peace, intimacy, secrecy and goodness,” the singer told swissinfo.ch.
Loup lived in a house perched in the medieval ramparts of Estavayer-le-Lac. “A little paradise”, according to Loup, whose father – a playwright, local secondary school founder and friend of the French dramatist Claudel and the writer Colette - is commemorated by a statue in the town.
His father died when Francois was just 13. “My mother taught us to sing, there was me, my brother and my four sisters.” The siblings formed an a cappella group and sang for the poor, in hospitals and retirement homes.
The stress caused Loup to develop a stammer. Until the age of 26 he had difficulty speaking.
”I felt really bad about myself but when I sang, it was fine because when you sing, the voice just gets relaxed,” he said.
At age 19 he entered the Fribourg Conservatoire, where he gradually learned to control his stammer. Although he had been passionate about music for a long time, his decision to become a professional singer was in part a reaction to his speech impediment.
“ I said to myself: ‘I have to make something of myself, if not, I’ll be a failure because I can’t speak”, and from that moment on, I’ve had a tremendous energy.”
After his graduation, Loup was noticed by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti during a performance at the Geneva opera, and invited to attend the Spoleto festival in Charleston, South Carolina.
“All the opera directors in America were in the audience that night because they were holding their annual convention in Charleston. That, I didn’t know, so I sang and acted on stage in a totally natural way,” the singer said. The next day the New York agency, Columbia, offered to manage his career.
Bookings followed in the United States and for years the Metropolitan Opera was his base. He sang in La Bohème with Pavarotti under the direction of Placido Domingo, and specialised in comic roles. He played Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro and Bartolo in The Barber of Seville.
The increasingly frenetic world of opera produces many casualties, and many promising careers come to nothing, especially in the US. Loup dislikes the fact that these days “the conductor is the star of the evening”.
In American theatres orchestra pits are becoming larger and “the stage managers ask the singers to always face the audience, so that the voice covers the orchestra”.
“To cope with that, the singer has to sing forte all the time, practically, and there are not too many chances for the singers to sing pianissimo or with nuance. It’s only in Europe, and here, in the small opera houses, that singers can sing with the subtleties the composer wanted ,” he said.
Another complaint is that opera is not accessible to a wide public in the US because tickets are too expensive.
But having been welcomed in the States ”with open arms”, Loup does not see a return to Switzerland on the cards.
“They’re building their first opera theatre in Fribourg and you know, you would have thought that they would have invited me to come to the opening or to give my impressions because, after all, I’m the only opera singer from Fribourg and the only one with an international career, but no, nothing!”
“Unfortunately, there’s an attitude in Switzerland that if you are Swiss, the opera houses don’t support you,” he said, pointing out that many opera directors are German.
”If I go back to Switzerland, it’s to see my family and friends,” he said. The house in the ramparts is still in his family and the view from the bedroom window is still as wonderful as it was.
“When I go back to Switzerland, my childhood friends tell me, ‘you have not changed, you are just the way you were when you were ten’, and I love it, and I hope it’s true,” he said.
Born 1940 in Estavayer-le-Lac, canton Fribourg.
Holds Swiss, French and US citizenship.
Earned a Premier prix de virtuosité with Summa cum Laude degree from the Conservatoire de Fribourg and the Conservatoire de Genève.
Has made his career in Europe and North and South America.
Has lived in the US since 1974.
Gave around 100 performances at the Metropolitan Opera of New York between 1992 and 2002.
Between 1996 and 2011 taught at the University of Maryland School of Music.
(Adapted from French by Morven McLean), swissinfo.ch