André Courville lives two minutes from the Atchafalaya Basin, America’s largest river swamp. At nearly one million acres, the Basin is a wildlife wonderland, home to 65 species of reptiles and amphibians and 100 different species of fish.
More than 20 million pounds of crawfish are harvested from Basin waters every year, and Courville joyfully pulls as many he can for his boiling and étouffée purposes.
But this avid fisherman often departs from his rod, reel and crawfish nets. He’s off to Carnegie Hall, a recording session in Italy or a date at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe in Germany.
Courville, 32, a French-speaking Cajun who lives next door to his parents in Henderson, Louisiana, is a rising star in opera. He loves the human voice as much as he loves catching an ice chest full of crabs at Grand Chenier.
“There’s an intimacy with the human voice, my voice going into your ears, filling your body with the emotion I’m sending through the song,” said Courville. “Somebody singing on a stage, before three-or four-thousand people, can make every single one of these people feel something.
“If you think about the vocal cords, they’re just about an inch long. They’re just two little flaps of flesh. They’re so delicate, but they can create so much power.”
Courville has been using his vocal chords to create a bass-baritone that’s been delighting the emotions for more than a decade. Opera News described Courville as “jaw-dropping” with “unleashed charm and confidence for days.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer said his performance as the operatic demon Méphistophélès [from Gounod’s “Faust”] “had a rich, enormous sound, and was deliciously evil.” Opera magazine of the UK praised him as “one of AVA’s most gifted singers, the role of Mustafa [Rossini’s “L’italiana in Algeri”] showed off his fine timbre and technique.”
Courville has won top awards in national and international contests, including first prize in the Loren L. Zachary National Vocal Competition and top prize in the Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition.
The honors and praise are ironic for a rising star who had dreams of being a lawyer. Courville was soundly discouraged when he decided to pursue opera.
The bug bit at the age of 16, after Courville’s childhood as a singer and pianist at St. Joseph Church in Cecilia, Louisiana. He was determined to take opera lessons after seeing a touring company in nearby Lafayette.
Courville was valedictorian of the 2004 class at Cecilia High School. He enrolled at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he heard a bass student sing the old Negro spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
“His voice was so powerful, it penetrated my heart, in a way that nothing had ever made me feel that way,” said Courville. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I want to be able to make people feel that way.’ I want to be able to touch people like that. That’s something that the human voice can only do.”
Courville dismissed life as a lawyer. But as a new opera student, he was told to go back to the swamp. “My voice teacher at Loyola said ‘Oh, I don’t think you really have the voice to sing opera,’” said Courville. “‘You can do a few things, but I don’t think you’re going to have an opera career.’”
“Unfortunately, he’s dead now, so I can’t tell him. I had that little voice in my head wanting to prove all these people wrong.”
Courville stopped singing after Hurricane Katrina upended his life in New Orleans. He eventually landed in Philadelphia and trained at the Academy of Vocal Arts, renowned as an opera boot camp.
His performances began to receive critical acclaim. Competitions brought him more success until he graduated and earned contracts with the Dallas Opera.
Courville continues to build his reputation as one of opera’s top voices on stages stretching from South Carolina to Kazakhstan. Yet he prefers to live in St. Martin Parish, in a family home that he remodeled. His Atchafalaya retreat is minutes away.
“I just sit out in the boat and have peace. My life is so noisy, with horns in the ear and the director yelling. I go out in the Basin and have complete silence.
“You can see the stars. It’s my peace. It’s my happiness. It’s really special for me.”
Courville’s upcoming performances include Handel’s “Messiah,” December 1 at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona; Figaro in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” April 5-14 with the Arizona Opera in Phoenix and Tucson; and Zuniga in Bizet’s “Carmen” with Opera Louisiane April 26 and 28 in Baton Rouge.
Courville looks forward to a long career of touching lives with his voice.
“Basses have really long careers. They can sing into their seventies, if they choose. Some sopranos and lighter voices maybe don’t have as long a life span.
“But my career is just beginning. I’m hitting my prime very soon. I’m excited. I plan to sing as long as I can. It’s my passion. It’s fun. It’s always new, always different. It keeps life interesting.”