FERNAND ANSSEAU had a richly-varied lyric-dramatic tenor voice with plenty of thrust, well placed on the breath, the high notes free and ringing. His voice was extremely beautiful, well-suited to lyrical roles, yet with an inner animal drive and dramatic verve that enabled him to give vivid stage performances of heavier roles, such as Tannhäuser and Don Alvaro.

A basically shy person, although graced with an inner drive that emerged during his stage performances, Ansseau was highly regarded by his colleagues. There is no trace of scandal, nor any report of excessive ego, attached to the tenor. While he sang with both passion and fire, he apparently left the off-stage operatic intrigues to others.

Fernand Ansseau was born on 6 March 1890 (some sources say 9 March) in Bussu-Bois, near Mons in the Borinage region of Belgium. His father played the organ in the village church, where young Ansseau sang in the choir. Despite planning for a career as a typographer, Ansseau became deeply interested in singing, and studied at l'ecole de Musique in Dour. At age 17, Ansseau auditioned for the Conservatoire de Mons, but was accepted only as a solfège student. Not content with this, he went to Brussels and auditioned for the Conservatory there; he was admitted on a trial basis as a baritone voice student in the class of Désiré Demest. After two years of hard work, and despite winning a second prize in competition, the young baritone felt he was making too little progress, and considered a return to printing. Demest, however, had begun noticing his student's increasing ease with high notes, and wisely directed him to change to tenor.

After Demest, Ansseau worked with famous Belgian tenor Ernest van Dijk. After three more years of study, he won a first prize at the Conservatory in summer 1913, singing "Total eclipse!" from Händel's Samson. Having made his public debut in summer 1912, singing the tenor solo in Mozart's Requiem, Ansseau made his operatic debut in Dijon in autumn 1913, as Jean in Massenet's Hérodiade, which remained a favourite role throughout his career. Reviews of that performance - and those throughout his career - applauded his brilliant voice, musicianship, and theatrical skill. Ansseau remained in Dijon for the next year and a half, appearing as Don José in Carmen, Sigurd, Faust, and Julien in Louise. He also sang the tenor lead in the Dijon premiere of Saint-Saëns's Les Barbares, a role created by Charles Rousselière at the Paris Opéra.

Although he was on the verge of an international career, when the Great War began, Ansseau demonstrated his disapproval of "entertainments" by ceasing his operatic activities and concentrating on concerts, charity performances, and whatever other singing work he could find; this made him very popular in Belgium and France. After the war, he resumed his operatic career at newly-reopened Théâtre de La Monnaie in Brussels, as Canio in Pagliacci on 21 December 1918, and in the patriotic Act I duet, "Amour sacré de la patrie" from Auber's La Muette de Portici, with baritone Henri Albers. The audience's wild enthusiasm expressed more than nationalistic fervour, and Ansseau's success from that time on was assured.

La Monnaie would remain the centre of Ansseau's activities throughout a career concentrated in the French repertoire and Puccini. Through the remainder of the 1918-1918 season, he began to establish his main repertoire: Canio in I Pagliacci, the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto, and Radamès in Aïda. In the next season, he added Samson, and Roméo, and also repeated the role of Jean in Hérodiade. Cavaradossi in Tosca, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, and Samson.

23 May 1919 saw his Covent Garden debut, singing his first des Grieux in Massenet's Manon, with Edvina as Manon, Maguenat as Lescaut, Huberdeau as le Comte des Grieux, and Thomas Beecham conducting. He was considered the "find" of the season, with a bright, secure voice, stylistic proficiency, and effective acting ability. This performance was followed soon after, on 3 June, by Ansseau's first Faust (Gounod), with Nellie Melba as Marguerite, Gustave Huberdeau as Méphistophélès, and Robert Couzinau as Valentin. The season also saw his first Julien in Louise (6 June), with Edvina, Bérat, and Contreuil; Roméo (10 July), with Melba, Couzinou, and Contreuil; and Canio, with Mignon Nevada and D. Gilly - his first-ever opera sung in Italian, and then, as a cover for the scheduled tenor at only a few hours notice. On 31 July, he sang in a gala performance attended by King George V and Queen Mary, in aid of the Housing Association for Officers' Families; in this performance he sang Roméo in Act II of Roméo et Juliette with Melba, Bérat, and Alban Grand, with Pitt conducting, and Julien in Act III of Louise with Edvina, A. Gilly, and de Valois, with Coates conducting.

Ansseau's success during his first Covent Garden season assured return invitations, and he remained with the company through 1928. During the 1920 season, Ansseau sang Cavaradossi to Tina Poli-Randaccio's Tosca, plus six performances of Louise with Edvina, Bérat alternating with Clegg, and Cotreuil; Coates and Pitt alternated as conductor; three performances of Manon with Maguenat and Cotreuil, Pitt conducting; and four performances of I Pagliacci with Ellinger and Badini, Bavagnoli conducting (the "B" cast included Collins, Lappas as Canio, and D. Gilly).

Later Covent Garden seasons saw Ansseau as Des Grieux (most notably with Fanny Heldy in three performances in June 1926, when his mezza voce was cited as "one of the most exquisite things imaginable"), Cavaradossi in three performances in June 1927 with Ljungberg, Hislop, and Stabile; Bellezza conducting, and also that season, Julien and Canio. He was an authoritative Don José in three June 1924 performances of Carmen, with Marcel Journet as Escamillo (with whom Ansseau recorded the Don José/Escamillo duet), Osczewska as Carmen, Reinhardt as Micaëla, and Bellezza conducting. In May 1928, he was "in splendid voice" as Samson, with Georgette Frozier-Manot, Kelsey, and Servars; Pitt conducting (also noteworthy: Georges Thill took over the role on 30 May). June saw three performances of Carmen, to his usual rave reviews, with Jane Bourginon as Carmen, Journet as Escamillo, and Joy McArden as Micaëla.

During the 1920-1921 season, Gunsbourg brought Ansseau to Monte Carlo, where the tenor sang Jean in Hérodiade. Critics were reminded by Ansseau's clarion tone of Tamagno, who had sung Jean there 17 years earlier, while agreeing that Ansseau had a beauty of timbre that the other tenor could not have matched. Ansseau followed his Jean with his first Faust in Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust, Gounod's Faust (with Melba), and his first Hoffmann. In the last work, Edith Mason, who would become one of his partners in Chicago, sang the three soprano roles. Despite sharing the Monte Carlo roster with Dmitri Smirnov, John McCormack, Miguel Fleta, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Paul Franz, Dino Borioli, and Ulysses Lappas, Ansseau more than held his own in this company and was welcomed back to Monte Carlo in the next season. He returned again, for the last time, in 1925, singing Jean and adding Prinzivalle in Février's Monna Vanna to his repertoire.

Ansseau's made his Opéra-Comique (Paris) debut as Werther in 1920. On 11 October, he sang Orphée there that season - the first time a tenor had sung the French edition of the opera in Paris since Berlioz and Saint-Saëns altered it for Pauline Viardot. For the Opéra-Comique production, Paul Vidal created a new adaptation that included music from both the Paris and Vienna versions; Albert Wolff directed. (The extraordinary success he achieved as Orphée was repeated at La Monnaie in the 1921-22 season). During that season in Paris, Ansseau also sang Massenet's des Grieux, Cavaradossi, Julien, and Don José.

In mid-October 1922, Ansseau made his Paris Opéra debut, again as Jean in Hérodiade. On 29 November, he gave the first of eight performances of Alain in Massenet's Grisélidis; in the Opéra's premiere of the work. He also appeared that season as Roméo. The next season, he sang Samson, Berlioz's Faust, Canio, and Lohengrin. He returned to Paris to sing Admète in Gluck's Alceste with Lubin, and Prinzivalle in 1929, and again in 1934, to add Tannhäuser to his Opéra-Comique repertoire.

Ansseau was engaged for the 1923-24 season of the Chicago Opera, where his audiences' response often verged on frenzy, and he quickly established himself as Chicago's finest French tenor since Muratore. He soon became a favourite partner of Mary Garden's, and appeared with her in 1925 as Prince Dimitri in the American premiere of Alfano's Résurrection. He remained a principal in Chicago through 1928, singing Hoffmann, Roméo, Don José, as well as starring opposite Garden again as Avito in L'Amore dei tre Re, and as Prinzivalle , Avito in L'Amore dei tre Re, Prinzivalle, and most notably as Cavaradossi in a linguistically bizarre Tosca. Ansseau began the opera (including "Recondita armonia") in Italian, but when Garden made her entrance in French, switched to that language for the love duet with Tosca (Garden, apparently, feeling it unnecessary to re-study the role in Italian). Upon Garden's exit, Ansseau returned to Italian, and continued in that language in Act II to accommodate Vanni Marcoux, who would sing Scarpia only in Italian - answering Tosca's "Combien?" with "Quanto?" Perhaps this is what triggered Garden's own shift to Italian in "Vissi d'arte", and she finished the act in that language - but reverted to French in Act III, and Ansseau obligingly followed suit.

Garden recorded fond memories of Ansseau in her autobiography:

Another tenor I sang with was Ansseau...this man Ansseau sang. What glorious tones were his! I believe singing with me ultimately gave him a new outlook in opera. "I don't know what I'd do on the stage without you," he said to me once. "Nonsense," I said, "you'd still be the finest tenor there is." "No, Mary," he said. "The truth is, I've become a different person on stage. I find myself forgetting I am Ansseau."

Ansseau made his San Francisco debut on 21 September 1925, as Samson. He impressed audiences there with "his impeccable French and handsome bearing." (Mary Garden later recalled that "Ansseau had the tiniest waist for a man. I used to say to him: 'Thank God I can put my arms around you! Don't ever get fat!'") His colleagues in that debut were Marguerite d'Alvarez as Dalila and Marcel Journet as the Grand-Prêtre. Despite the short three-week season, Ansseau also sang Avito in L'amore dei tre re with Rosina Torri and Riccardo Stracciari, and Cavaradossi to Claudia Muzio's Tosca and Stracciari's Scarpia.

Although he was encouraged by colleagues and managers to expand his career - his good friend Claudia Muzio invited him each season to join her in South America and at La Scala - he preferred to take on few responsibilities and leave himself time to relax. "I wish to be free to go where I please, and to sing with whom I please," he is quoted as saying. He did, howecver, agree to join an extensive tour with the Chicago Opera in the 1925-26 season, during which he appeared in many major U.S. cities. But despite his extraordinary American success, Ansseau decided not to return in 1929.

Ansseau made his last appearances outside France and Belgium in 1928, in Chicago and at Covent Garden. During the 1929-30 season, his work centered in Paris and Brussels, where he would sing exclusively until his retirement. On 24 August 1930, Ansseau sang the role of Masaniello in the La Monnaie revival of La muette de Portici, with baritone and fellow Borinage native, Louis Richard, in commemoration of the centenary of that opera's performance, which had set off the 1830 Belgian Revolution. The patriotic duet, with which the tenor had opened his La Monnaie career over a decade earlier, received thunderous applause. In 1931, Ansseau sang Don Alvaro in the Belgian premiere of La Forza del Destino. He remained a principal dramatic tenor at La Monnaie through the 1930s, singing Radamès to the Aïda of black American dramatic soprano Caterina Jarboro, Canio, Don José, des Grieux, Werther, Tannhäuser, and other roles.

Ansseau's final staged operatic performance was in I Pagliacci in February 1939, his powers largely undiminished. Just as his debut was delayed by the onset of the First World War, his retirement came in protest against the impending occupation of Belgium by the Germans - he retired on 5 May 1940, just five days before the German invasion, making his final bow in a gala operatic concert with soprano Clara Claibert.

From 1942-1944 he served as Professor of Voice at the Brussels Conservatory, then retired altogether from musical activities, devoting himself to fishing, gardening, and other recreational pastimes. After a long, contented retirement, Ansseau died in Brussels on 1 May 1972.

- Karen Mercedes (Copyright © 2000 by Karen Mercedes)


Role Opera Composer Venue Year
Jean Hérodiade Massenet Opéra Municipale de Dijon 1913
Don José Carmen Bizet Opéra Municipale de Dijon 1913-4
Turiddù Cavalleria Rusticana Mascagni Opéra Municipale de Dijon 1913-4
Fernand La Favorite Donizetti Opéra Municipale de Dijon 1913-4
Duca di Mantova Rigoletto Verdi Opéra Municipale de Dijon 1913-4
Faust Faust Gounod Opéra Municipale de Dijon 1913-4
Julien Louise Charpentier Opéra Municipale de Dijon 1913-4
Marcomir Les Barbares Saint-Saëns Opéra Municipale de Dijon 1913-4
Canio Paillase Leoncavallo Théâtre des Galeries, Brussels 1914-18
Samson Samson et Dalila Saint-Saëns Théâtre des Galeries, Brussels 1914-18
Helion Messaline de Lara Théâtre des Galeries, Brussels 1914-18
Des Grieux Manon Massenet Théâtre des Galeries, Brussels 1914-18
Werther Werther Massenet Théâtre des Galeries, Brussels 1914-18
Cavaradossi Tosca Puccini Théâtre des Galeries, Brussels 1914-18
Alfonso La Muette de Portici Auber Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels 1918
Roméo Roméo et Juliette Gounod Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels 1918-20
Admetus Alceste Gluck Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels 1918-20
Radamès Aïda Verdi Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels 1918-20
Hoffmann Les Contes d'Hoffmann Offenbach Salle Garnier, Monte Carlo 12 Feb 1921
Faust La Damnation de Faust Berlioz Salle Garnier, Monte Carlo 15 Feb 1921
Orphée* Orphée et Eurydice Daniel-Lesur Opéra-Comique, Paris 11 Oct 1921
? Le Cantique des Cantiques** ? Salle Garnier, Monte Carlo 18 Feb 1922
Lohengrin Lohengrin Wagner Paris-Opéra 1922
Tannhäuser Tannhäuser Wagner Paris-Opéra 1922
Alain Grisélidis Massenet Paris-Opéra 29 Nov 1922
Princevalle Monna Vanna Février Chicago Auditorium 1923
Avito L'amour des trois rois Montemezzi Chicago Auditorium 1924-25
Dimitri Resurrection Alfano Chicago Auditorium 1925-26
Phaon Sapho Gounod Chicago Auditorium 1927-8
Alvaro La Force du Destin Verdi Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels 24 Oct 1931
Judas Judas Macchabée Handel Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels 1935

*Ansseau created the tenor version of the role.

**Given the performance date, this can be neither the oratorio by Daniel-Lesur (composed 1935-36) nor the ballet for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra by Honegger (composed 1936-37). If anyone has more information about the work Ansseau sang in 1922, please email me at: singwiththespirit [at] yahoo [dot] com

- Les Grandes Voix du Hainaut, à l'époque du 78 tours (Belgium, 1985) - and - Richard T. Soper: Belgian Opera Houses and Singers (Spartanburg, South Carolina: The Reprint, 1999)

as Werther


The Morning Post (1919) on Ansseau's Covent Garden debut as des Grieux:

As the Chevalier des Grieux, Monsieur Fernand Ansseau showed himself to be an operatic tenor of the foremost rank. His voice has a brightness and sureness all its own, his style is good, and his work well directed. The impression he made was very marked, and it is clear that with his help, fresh records will be created at the Royal Opera.

The Daily Telegraph (1919) on Ansseau's Faust at Covent Garden:

We had a Faust in Monsieur Ansseau who combines in his voice in most delightful fashion all the attributes of a lyrical tenor with those of a French dramatic tenor. Not many nights ago he moved his audience to ecstasy by the sheer beauty of his singing in the Dream Song in Manon. Now, in Faust, he exhibited in an exalted degree precisely the same characteristics, yet even in his more dramatic moments, Monsieur Ansseau never loses by a hair's breadth the beautiful lyric quality of his voice, and whether worried by Mephistopheles, or enamoured by Marguerite, his singing was delightful.

Le Menéstrel on Ansseau:

M. Ansseau is a remarkable tenor, whose voice of a superb quality possesses a fullness and flexibility which puts him in the first rank for the interpretation of those works which demand, above all, vocal effects.


"Elle et à moi" from Février's Monna Vanna


Fernand Ansseau
Ansseau Fernand PHOTO: with Andriani (Werther?)

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