Founded in Montréal in 1893, the mission of the Société d’opéra français was to showcase seasons of operas and plays at the Théâtre français, located at the corner of Sainte-Catherine and Saint-Dominique streets. Among the shareholders of the company, which was capitalized at $10,000, were businessmen Joseph-Marie Fortier and Alfred Vidal, notaries Joseph Melançon and André-Julien-Hormidas Saint-Denis, music dealer and musician Edmond Hardy, and lawyer Archibald Dunbar Taylor, who owned the theatre; all save Melançon sat on the first steering committee.
First Season (1893–94)
Artistic director Maurice Robineau Sallard recruited a troupe of singers and actors from France, who opened the 1893–94 season with Offenbach’s La fille du tambour-major on 2 October. Gabriel Dorel conducted the orchestra of 18 musicians and chorus of 20 singers. There were seven performances per week during the ensuing season, and an extensive repertoire of comedies, dramas and operettas was performed, including La mascotte, Le petit duc, Boccace and Les cloches de Corneville, as well as the operas Carmen and La fille du régiment. The troupe included featured players Cécile de Goyon, Emma Blonville, Rose Giraud, Berthe Bellisson, Henri Giraud, Paul Portalier, Julien Montfort and Georges Delafontaine.
Second Season (1894–95)
The operatic repertoire played a larger role in the 1894–95 season, when Edmond Hardy succeeded Sallard as director. In addition to repeat performances of Carmen and La fille du régiment, there were also productions of Faust, Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor, La favorite, La traviata, Le trouvère and Mignon. Many of the performers from the previous season returned, but some new faces also came on the scene, including Virginia Bouit, Cécile Dargissonne, Mme Géraizer, Elim Vissière, Charles Desfassiaux, as well as six singers recruited in New Orleans: Berthe Dupuy-Mourawieff, Marguerite Saint-Laurent, Jennie Auger, Pierre Boon, Maxime Soum and Victor Lamarche. This was the first time the Opéra français gave a contract to a French Canadian singer, chorister Germaine Duvernay.
Third and Final Season (1895–96)
The 1895–96 season was the most ambitious. Director Arthur Durieu, who replaced Hardy as of 25 March 1895, increased the orchestra to 21 musicians and changed the repertoire. Operas such as William Tell, Les huguenots and Romeo and Juliet were featured for the first time in the company’s history. The operas Jérusalem, La juive, Mireille, Les pêcheurs de perles and Le prophète also had their Canadian premiers. The entire troupe was shuffled, making Anne Vandiric-Essiani, Conti-Bossy, de Montrieux, Julia Bennati and Alice Cléry its leading ladies, and Adrien Barbe, Armand Mary, Ferdinand Déo, Castel, Vérard, Geoffray and Préval its leading men.
However, the season ended prematurely in a scandal. There was already talk of the venture’s financial difficulties early in 1896. On the evening of 12 February, the curtain failed to rise on The Barber of Seville and, after a long delay, tenor Armand Mary explained to the audience that the artists refused to perform because they had not been paid in 40 days. The indignant spectators gradually left the hall. The press reported widely on the affair, including the distress of those artists who sought to return home. The Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste offered the hall at the Monument-National, where the company performed Le prophète and held a fundraiser on 25 February. Ernest Lavigne offered the artists one week of engagements at the Sohmer Park concerts. Although a few, including Mme Bennati, settled in Montréal, most returned to France in June of that year.
After the Société d’opéra français closed, two citizens’ groups made plans for a revival that ultimately failed. The Théâtre français, which had been renovated and equipped with electricity the previous year, was destroyed by fire on 26 February 1900. It reopened on 8 April 1901 with a focus on variety shows and cinema. The Métropolis performing arts centre currently stands on the site.