A voice for her home, a voice for her people

Innu soprano and recent McGill graduate brings the soul of Saguenay to the Berlin Opera Academy stage, and beyond.
Innu soprano Elisabeth St-Gelais performing at the Canadian Opera Academy’s Annual Ensemble Studio Competition, where she was awarded First Prize and the Audience Choice Award

When she sings, Elisabeth St-Gelais, BMus’21, MMus’23, takes inspiration from her hometown of Saguenay and its natural marvels: its fjord, the forest, the water, the valleys, the cliffs… The unique nature of where she is from is an integral part of her and her voice.

“Saguenay isn’t immutable. It’s explosive by its nature; it’s just overwhelming and beautiful” says St-Gelais. “When I sing, I remember how all of the soul of where I’m coming from is touching my heart. It reminds me of where I’m from. It connects me deeply to my youth and my memories. Being from this tiny but extraordinary, special place is meaningful. I was raised around such beauty, and my work is just full of it.”

Her passion started when she was young. Back in her native city, a young St-Gelais was encouraged to sing by her mother.

“My mother registered me in a singing class where we practiced classical singing. I have done it all my life since I was seven years old. From the beginning, it was classical singing. My interest in classical music began like that.”

Taking risks to grow as an artist

Coming from a primarily francophone background, St-Gelais began her undergraduate studies at McGill with a certain amount of apprehension. Besides the language challenges, she was a little nervous about moving to the big city. She didn’t speak English very well and only knew a few people. But that didn’t stop her from choosing to pursue her studies at McGill’s prestigious Schulich School of Music.

Soon enough, “Montreal became a second home for me,” she says. “[The] music life in a vibrant city like Montreal is so fun.”

A lot of that fun was experienced at Schulich itself. While she spent her days diligently working with her voice coaches and studying opera, musical theory and languages – all an ambitious opera performer needs to do – she became a big jazz fan at McGill, befriending students in the jazz program and regularly attending jam sessions and concerts.

St-Gelais credits her teachers and mentors at McGill, especially vocal coach and pianist Louise Pelletier and voice instructor Aline Kutan, for making her a better singer.

“I’m working with them; they are my team. I trust them completely. They take care of my voice. My voice is my job; it’s my diamond. It’s my career. So, it’s imperative that when people work with my voice, I can trust them fully and have complete confidence in their [ability]. These people have my back, and I have theirs.”

Celebrating Indigenous culture

While her experiences at McGill have helped her determine her path as a performer, her roots and heritage also play essential roles in her approach to her art.

Elisabeth St-Gelais draws inspiration from the unique natural landscape of her hometown near Saguenay, Quebec

The Innu soprano regards her Indigenous culture as the foundation stone for her art. She has said multiple times that she wants to showcase through her music the incredible talent found in her community.

“It’s important for me that my artistry, music, and interpretation represent my deep connection with my culture,” she says. “So, when I sing, am in an interview, and talk about the history behind my art, I always bring up that I am Indigenous. It is the most important aspect of my art.”

St-Gelais collaborates with other Indigenous artists and hopes to bring attention to their work. She has performed compositions by Barbara Assiginaak (Anishinaabekwe) and Ian Cusson (Georgian Bay Métis), accompanied on the piano by Alex Vollant (Innu), and actively participates in events featuring Indigenous talents.

McGill vocal instructor Aline Kutan, herself an award-winning soprano who has performed on stages around the world, has worked with St-Gelais since 2017 and says the young soprano possesses “a rich and sombre voice with depth and strength, a voice I would liken to the one of Margaret Price or Jessye Norman.”

“Not only does Elisabeth conquer the ears with her beautiful voice, but she conquers the heart with her sincere interpretations, her generous spirit and her desire to share her soul with her audience,” says Kutan, “This young singer is a natural performer through and through and one whose name we’ll get to see frequently in the near future.”

A prediction coming true

Following her bachelor’s degree, St-Gelais pursued a master’s at McGill in voice performance. The talented young soprano has gone on to win several accolades.

During her master’s studies, St-Gelais was among five McGillians named to the CBC Music 30 Under 30 list of emerging classical musicians — and it hasn’t stopped there. Since then, the virtuoso has been recognized as one of the most promising talents in classical music in Quebec and the country.

Her melodic voice has been receiving the attention it deserves. In March 2022, St-Gelais won the Schulich School of Music’s annual competition for the $25,000 Wirth Vocal Prize. She went on to win the grand prize in the 19-to-30-year-old category of the Canadian Music Competition. The same year, she took on the role of Rosalinde in a Berlin Opera Company production of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.

This year, St-Gelais won the Prix d’Europe and Canadian Opera Company Centre Stage competition, on top of being named Révélation Classique 2023-2024 by Radio-Canada. She points to her new vocal coach, the acclaimed Ariane Girard (a Schulich graduate herself), whose guidance is helping her reach new heights.

And while her schedule is filled with multiple performances for 2024, she’s heading to regionals for the prestigious Metropolitan Opera’s Laffont Competition in January after being named winner of the Western Canada district.

As St-Gelais continues to make her mark in the world of classical music, her future shines as brightly as her voice.

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