Winter 2023 Print Issue Masterclass: Movement of Singing

by | Feb 14, 2024 | Featured, News, Winter 2023 Print Issue


*this text originally appeared in our
2023 winter print issue

Jessica Muirhead remembers Lucile Villeneuve Evans (1923-2021)

A voice teacher’s legacy is defined by their student’s success, and the passing along of their wisdom. Lucile Villeneuve Evans taught over a period of more than 50 years and inspired generations of singers. Famous past students like Barbara Daniels who sang on all the greatest stages of the world, and Helene Schneidermann, who Toronto audiences love from recent Canadian Opera Company productions (and whose 40-year international career is still thriving) both told me they wouldn’t have had singing careers were it not for Evans. I met her at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in 1999, and continued to study with her up until her recent passing in December, 2021. I am one of the last ‘cookies’ she put on the map (18 years on stage so far), and I credit her technique with keeping my voice healthy through the rigorous schedule I have had, especially as a full-time Prima Donna at the Aalto Theater in Essen, Germany.


Born in Roberval, Lac St. Jean (Québec) in 1923, a young Lucile Villeneuve moved to New York to further her already budding singing career. Working as a private chef to pay for lessons, she studied with Wilfrid Pelletier’s wife Rose Bampton, tenor Paul Althaus, and mezzo soprano Jennie Tourel. During this period she also met her husband Dr. Robert K. Evans, pianist, composer, linguist, and conductor. Unfortunately, in those early years a goiter the size of a lemon near her vocal cords needed to be surgically removed, crushing her aspirations of singing on the stage. Her large bright mezzo soprano voice had originally come quite naturally to her, but after the surgery she had to relearn how to sing. It was this process of asking herself how she made those sounds before, and how could she make them again that made her understand the mechanics of the operatic voice. For many singers this would have been a tragedy, but Madame Evans’s wit and joie de vivre turned that lemon into lemonade, and she embarked on a new journey as a professor of voice.

Evans began teaching in 1964 at the University of Cincinnati and quickly saw her students winning the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, George London Competition, and landing contracts in European opera houses. She would later join the faculties of the University of Indiana, Columbia University, the AIMS program in Graz, Austria, and the University of Miami’s summer programme in Salzburg. From 1989 until her retirement in 2009 she returned to Canada and taught at the Schulich School of Music at McGill University in Montréal, along with her husband Robert.

When it came to lessons, Evans expected students to arrive ready to perform: appropriately dressed, texts translated, with arias and lieder preferably memorized. Good singing technique wasn’t just about the sounds coming out of the student’s mouth, but also body movement, and facial expressions. Singing is a physical sport, and she was incredibly hands on when it came to teaching. She would give a tap to the lower jaw to release tension, a firm pat on the back to encourage rib expansion, and sometimes the ever-dreaded finger in the mouth to show a student where to put their tongue when singing. John Wiens, B.Mus 2000, McGill University remembers she focused on “elongating and energizing” the body, and keeping the spine in alignment. With hindsight he realizes a lot of what she taught was in line with Alexander Technique, whether consciously or unconsciously.

Most lessons would be spent learning through repertoire, rather than repetitious vocalises. “For those grappling with flexibility, she would urge them to sing Handel arias. To master legato… Mimi’s arias” laughs Lesia Mackowycz, (M. Mus. McGill, 2001) since it wasn’t particularly her repertoire as a high coloratura soprano. Although to outsiders it might have seemed risky, there was always a purpose to the repertoire she assigned. French repertoire was chosen to help loosen the jaw, because the lack of final consonants allowed the voice to flow. Puccini helped with legato and expanding the back. Strauss let the voice soar.

Evans “possessed a remarkable talent for unraveling the complexities of vocal technique, employing simplification, vivid imagery, and the power of movement” says Lesia Mackowycz, now an Adjunct Professor of Voice in Frankfurt, Germany, after a 25 year operatic career. Working on breathing and support were where she would get her most creative with imagery, since they are tricky concepts to understand. Some of those images included expanding the back “like bellows” on the inhale. “Imagine you are a skier with a strong back”, “It’s like you are a diver jumping in a pool”, or even “Imagine you are about to throw up”. Mackowyzc relies on many of the movements and images taught by Mme Evans as she teaches her own students. “As  I delve deeper and use a more functional and sciencebased teaching method, I discover how her teaching concepts from over 25 years ago align with today’s latest research.” When it all came down to it, she realized that believing in her students and teaching them to believe in themselves was just as important as technique. She would tell her students to be like a horse with blinders on at auditions, and just have a good time. This might explain why so many of Evans’s students still sing all over the world, have long healthy careers and teach her methods to their own students. The list of her students is already a long one, but the family keeps on growing.

Jessica Muirhead is a British-Canadian soprano; she completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at McGill University under the tutelage of Lucile Villeneuve Evans,and was immediately launched into a solo career on concert and opera stages across Europe and North America.

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Jessica Muirhead

British-Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at McGill University under the tutelage of Mrs. Lucile Villeneuve Evans, and was immediately launched into a solo career on concert and opera stages across Europe and North America. She writes the ‘Masterclass’ column for the print issue.



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