Agustarello Affre (1858-1931) was born Auguste Affre in Saint-Chinian in the south of France. He began his working life as a carpenter but also sang in the local chorale. When the choir entered a singing competition in Narbonne in 1883, Affre was the tenor soloist. So impressed were the judges that they introduced the 25-year-old singer to the mayor of Narbonne, himself a great music lover. The mayor arranged for a stipend that would cover the expenses of Affre’s vocal studies. The fledgling opera singer studied privately in Narbonne before taking up studies in Toulouse in 1885. In 1887, Affre enrolled in the Conservatoire de Paris, where he worked with baritone Edmond Duvernoy and bass Pierre Gailhard. Gailhard, then director of the Opéra de Paris, was so taken with Affre’s talent, that he underwrote his tuition and offered him a position at the Opéra upon the completion of his studies.
Affre’s official debut came about on January 22, 1890 as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor. With the exception of a few brief absences, the Opéra de Paris remained Affre’s artistic home until his departure in 1908. During his 18 seasons there, Affre sang some 30 roles such as Raoul in Les Huguenots, Vasco da Gama in L’Africaine, Jean of Leyden in Le Prophète, both Eléazar and Léopold in La Juive, Fernand La Favorite, Don Gomez in Henri VIII, Laërtes in Hamlet, Don José in Carmen, both Roméo and Tybalt in Roméo et Juliette, Arnold in Guillaume Tell, Radames in Aïda, the Duke in Rigoletto as well as the title roles in Samson et Dalila, Ascanio, Lohengrin, Sigurd and Faust. He also created the role of the Touranien prisoner in the world premiere of Massenet’s Le Mage in Paris in 1891, as well as Polyeucte in the first performance of Saint-Saëns’ La Gloire de Corneille in Paris in 1906. In addition, Affre sang the role of Renaud in the Opéra’s revival of Gluck’s Armide in 1905.
In addition to his long association with the Opéra, Affre appeared to great acclaim in Lyon, Marseilles, Aix-les-Bains, Brussels and London. Following his retirement from the Opéra de Paris, the tenor decided that he wanted to end his career with an extended tour a land he had not yet seen, the Americas. Affre landed in the U.S. in 1911 and spent the next three seasons in San Francisco, New Orleans and Havana. These appearances (sadly, not well documented) seem to have been Affre’s final operatic performances. Following a two-year stint as director of the French Opera House in New Orleans, the tenor returned to France in 1915, where he offered his services by singing special concerts for soldiers at the French front. He then retired, still at the peak of his powers, not wanting advancing age or vocal decline to tarnish his reputation. Wealthy from a lucrative career of 25 years, Affre retreated to his estate on the French Riviera, where he enjoyed the next decade and a half as a man of leisure. Although much of his time was devoted to his favorite hobby…fishing…he continued to offer his voice for the occasional charity event or church service. In 1931, while attending Christmas services at the parish church, the septuagenarian tenor sang Adam’s “Cantique de Noël”. Those in attendance marveled at the still magnificent voice and ringing high notes. At the conclusion of his solo, however, Affre fainted and was taken home, unconscious, by friends and family. The victim of an apparent stroke, Affre died two days later on December 27, at the age of 73.
Affre made over 300 recordings for G&T, Zonophone, Odeon, Columbia, Pathé and other labels between 1902 and 1912, including complete recordings of Carmen and Roméo et Juliette. His voice, to judge from his records, was a massive instrument, dark and robust with trumpet-like high notes (he was, after all, referred to as “The French Tamagno”). According to his daughter, the power of his top notes was so intense that a handkerchief was placed over the recording horn to reduce distortion! As an interpreter, however, he comes across as one dimensional at times (his stage deportment was sometimes described as such), but his ability to thrill is omnipresent. Here, Affre sings "Asile héréditaire" from Rossini's Guillaume Tell. This recording was made in Paris for Pathé in 1911.