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Honorary degree citation - Robert Savoie*

By: Nancy Helms, June 2001

Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you the distinguished opera singer, author, arts administrator, voice teacher, founder or co-founder of numerous arts organizations in Montreal, including l'Orchestre Metropolitain and l'Opéra de Montréal, Mr. Robert Savoie.

A native of Montreal, Mr. Savoie has been an active and vital participant in the international performing arts community for more than half a century. He studied with Pauline Donalda, founder and director of the Opera Guild of Montreal, and with Antonio Narducci, Chef d'orchestre, in Milan, Italy. He enjoyed an international reputation as an operatic baritone in such roles as Leporello in Don Giovanni, the title role of Falstaff, Scarpia in Tosca and Figaro in The Barber of Seville. Regarding his interpretation of Scarpia with the Welsh National Opera, one reviewer commented: "His powerful voice matched his commanding presence, and made Italian sound the true language of opera."

In 1953, he won the Premier Prix Baryton at the Conservatoire Giuseppe Verdi in Milan. In 1965, he received the Emmy International for his Figaro in The Barber of Seville, about which Eric McLean of the Montreal Star commented: "I have only to say that the Figaro was Robert Savoie for you to know that the barber was expertly done. He is one of the best singing actors that this country has produced."

In 1957, he began his career as arts administrator, co-founding and serving as artistic director of the Grand Opéra de Montreal, created in collaboration with the honorable Jean Drapeau.

He continued his international career in Italy from 1958 to 1960, singing baritone roles under the name Roberto Savoia (this was because he needed to have an Italian name to continue singing there). However his identity was revealed by another baritone. When his agent called in the middle of the night to say he must leave immediately, he drove straight through Europe to London. There his friends helped him find an agent, and 3 weeks later he sang the role of Marcello in La Boheme at Covent Garden Royal Opera House, where he performed until 1967.

During the period 1954-1958, he played 33 opera roles and 22 operetta roles televised live on l'Heure de Concert on Radio-Canada. In Great Britain, at Covent Garden, Saddler's Wells Opera and the Scottish Opera, he interpreted 22 operas, giving 90 performances a year, including leading roles in Carmen, Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, Boris Godounov, La Bohème, Madame Butterfly, Aida, Rigoletto, Lohengrin and Der Rosenkavalier (a tremendous wealth of composers and different styles of opera).

In 1981, after a 31-year international career in which he sang 92 roles and gave 3,000 performances in America and Europe, he retired from performance and dedicated himself to the teaching of young artists and to the promotion and administration of the arts.

I first met Robert in 1986 when he was Artistic Director for the City of Lachine. There, during a period of 20 years, he developed a highly successful international summer music festival and produced regular artistic events to showcase new singers, orchestral performers and chamber groups. This work led directly to the creation of the Orchestre Metropolitain and the orchestre symphonique Comusica. In 1980, he became Co-Founder of Opéra de Montréal and served on its board of directors until 1987. During this period he also created a community music conservatory and classical ballet school.

In 1988, he received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Moncton in New Brunswick for his exceptional contribution to the arts.

He has taught at Yale University, Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and in Montreal at UQAM and McGill University. In 1996, he began a private studio and continues to teach. Several of his singers are now performing internationally.

In 1998, assisted by Michèle Gaudreau, he published his memoirs under the title Figaro-ci, Figaro-la, stories from his many years on the operatic stage, told with love and humour. The book reviewer, commenting on the many amusing anecdotes in these memoirs, cited one of his favorites:

"Dans une production de Tosca à Marseille,ou les partenaires de son Scarpia n'étaient pas des meilleurs, juste au moment ou son personnage s'écroule, frappé au coeur par un poignard du soprano, un spectateur installé au poulailler lance d'une voix forte et avec son plus bel accent marseillais: "Quel dommage, on a tué le meilleur!" (from the 3rd balcony).

My own special moment in the memoirs is a passage which explains why Robert Savoie has been loved and appreciated by so many people all over the world, not only as an outstanding performer, but also as a truly generous soul, who inspires through his leadership. In his words, "Pour moi, chanter a toujours été un métier aussi bien qu'un art. Un métier extraordinaire, passionnant, le plus beau des métiers du monde, mais un métier quand même. Voilà pourquoi, sans doute, je l'ai exercé toute ma vie dans la bonne humeur, sans me faire de soucis graves ni en causer autour de moi. Le drame, le pathos, même la nervosité sont étrangers à ma nature..."

For me he embodies the true spirit of teaching -- that of sharing from a place of profound understanding and generosity that which you love doing more than anything else.

Mr. Chancellor, it is my privilege and honour to present to you, on behalf of Senate and the Board of Governors, Mr. Robert Savoie, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

* deceased

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