Obituary: Opera star Bernard Turgeon, baritone who led UVic voice program

Acclaimed opera singer Bernard Turgeon has died at the age of 85, leaving behind a rich legacy both as a performer and a teacher.

Among his accomplishments as an educator were developing the voice and opera division at the University of Victoria’s school of music, as well as creating opera programs at McGill University. He led the voice and opera departments at the University of Alberta and ran a program in voice and opera at what was then known as the Banff School of Fine Arts.

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He was inducted into the Canadian Opera Hall of Fame in 2012 for his prodigious talent as a baritone and his “exceptional contribution” to the art form.

The Edmonton-born father of three also enjoyed time away from the stage and the classroom, and he and his wife, Teresa — an operatic coach — spent many years running Star Hill Farm at Elk Lake.

“His asparagus was sold all over the southern Island,” said his nephew, David Turgeon. “He was both one of Canada’s most renowned singers and also our ‘asparaguy.’ ”

Apples, blueberries and figs are also cultivated at the farm.

David Turgeon said his uncle, whom he saw in performance many times, had an amazing voice that took him to numerous places, including to the Soviet Union, where he did three tours in the 1970s.

“That’s the nature of an opera singer,” he said. “He, of course, had opportunities in Europe and in Great Britain, but he ways wanted to come back to Canada.”

That same outlook kept him from pursuing a career in the U.S., where many of his peers found success, David Turgeon said.

“I always said to him ‘Why did you never go to the United States?’ He said ‘I’m a Canadian and that’s where I live and that’s where I was born and that’s where I will stay.’ ”

Bernard Turgeon’s signature performance came in 1967 with the title role in the Canadian Opera Company’s original production of Harry Somers’s Louis Riel.

Pacific Opera Victoria artistic director Timothy Vernon said that Bernard Turgeon had hoped to be in the audience next year when the Canadian Opera Company remounts Louis Riel, 50 years after its debut, for Canada’s 150th anniversary.

“He was going to be an honoured guest.”

Vernon said Turgeon was “a terrific colleague” and helped Pacific Opera Victoria through some difficult years in the 1980s with his performances.

“He was very special,” he said. “He was very, very strong on the stage. He gave really convincing, strong performances, he could carry the day.”

Vernon said the range of roles Turgeon sang in his life was impressive.

“Apart from the voice, which was quite special, I think what distinguished him was he was a very strong actor.

“He had an ability to tap into his own emotions and to bring them right into making the character.”

One area he delved into later in life was health and wellness, David Turgeon said, which came while doing research and working with medical professionals during a long experience with prostate cancer. “He was diagnosed and had his first treatment in the early 1990s.”

There has been an outpouring of reaction to his uncle’s death, David Turgeon said.

“It’s just amazing what has happened since he passed. All of the people have been coming out of the woodwork.

“He affected a lot of people very positively.”

Benjamin Butterfield, who leads the voice department at UVic as Bernard Turgeon once did, said he has great admiraton for his predecessor.

“He was a force,” Butterfield said. “He was a serious-minded, fun, engaged human being.”

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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