By Jill Girgulis
Interview completed in January 2021
Published in March 2021
For Toronto-born baroque flutist Dov Houle, her first introduction to music was actually through singing, not flute. “From a very young age, I was just singing along to opera on the radio or on the TV. I didn’t have words, but I would just make vowels,” she says. “My parents tried to encourage that — neither of them are musical at all, but they put me in choirs and got me piano lessons, so music was always a part of my life growing up.”
Her first exposure to specifically baroque music was happenstance — “My dad took me to a museum, and Tafelmusik Orchestra happened to be playing in the lobby...From there, it’s just always been in the back of my mind.”
Houle spent years in the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, only transitioning to her current instrument in later high school years. The switch was necessitated by vocal strain she had started to develop, as well as Houle’s increasing discomfort with opera’s suitability for her as a trans woman.
“The kind of roles that I could expect didn’t appeal to me at all,” she says. “But I was always drawn to the baroque repertoire in singing because there’s a lot for high voices that’s not really explicitly gendered either way.”
It took a while for Houle to step away from singing, but she eventually came to embrace the security of the flute. “You’re in an orchestra setting, sitting down behind a stand, with an instrument, in all black — a bit more neutral.”
Photo credit: Sergio Veranes
Photo credit: Sergio Veranes
For university, Houle pursued a bachelor’s at the University of Toronto, but was surprised by the limited interest in historical performance. “Everyone else saw that repertoire like an exercise more than a piece that’s valuable to perform.”
Fortunately, Houle’s teacher, Camille Watts, gave her freedom to choose repertoire and encouraged participation in summer programs, including the Tafelmusik Baroque Summer Institute (TBSI), where she first encountered Mount Parnassus founder Catalina Guevara Klein.
“The people in the community are just so lovely — baroque specifically is a band of misfits,” Houle enthuses. “There’s this stigma that we’re ultra-geeky, by-the-book people, but the community is full of so many young, queer people who just feel disenfranchised by mainstream classical music.”
Houle’s next teacher, Allison Melville, recommended that she look elsewhere for her subsequent degree, citing valuable experiences that came from studying abroad. “I didn’t feel quite comfortable enough to go ‘abroad’ abroad, so I did the next best thing and picked Montreal,” she says about her master’s degree. Following that, she began a doctorate degree, but encountered dissatisfaction with performance opportunities due to the city’s insular nature.
“For baroque flute specifically, it’s a ‘garnish’ instrument, not the meat and potatoes of the orchestra, so a lot of the time we’re not necessary,” she explains in reference to only playing one orchestral performance in her entire first year of her doctorate. “I was just starting to feel really distanced from the community.”
Houle faced additional challenges in pursuit of her PhD — her teacher at the time, Claire Guimond, was planning to move to Europe, and she was also struggling to find a research direction that spoke to her. Ultimately, she elected to discontinue in 2019, “both a blessing and a curse.”
As Houle explains, “When you step away from school, immediately a lot of your performance opportunities dry up. As a student, venues and rehearsal spaces and facilities are all there for you to use.” She did attempt the arduous task of organizing concerts herself, to reduced success. “It was so much work, and it just felt like the returns were not ideal.”
Recognizing the financial realities of the artistic life, Houle reluctantly shifted her efforts towards more straightforward positions in administration and teaching for income sources — at a personal cost. “To say I don’t miss performing would be a very big lie,” she reveals. “Probably my favorite part, especially baroque music, is that you gravitate towards people who get your approach to the music, with similar philosophies on expression and the place of the musician and liberties that you can take.”
Houle was first approached for Mount Parnassus in early 2021, which came at the perfect time. “Catalina reached out to me and it was such a lovely moment — it was honestly something that I felt myself unconsciously hoping for, that someone would see what I was doing and appreciate it enough to ask me to collaborate.”
As part of Mount Parnassus, Houle selected the muse of tragedy, Melpomene, which she was drawn to by the nature of the flute. “It can portray emptiness, like a very deep sadness — it lends itself to expressing those slower, languid affects...And sadness is just such a universal thing, but there’s a lot of beauty in it, too — it balances out. There’s no baroque piece that’s entirely sad. When performing, I really try to think about not feeling the depth of despair in myself, but being able to communicate with the audience.”
Photo credit: Sergio Veranes
Houle is excited to be involved with MPF and admires the efforts being made to include musicians facing discrimination or systematic challenges.
Houle admits that she hesitated to reveal her gender identity in this interview, but ultimately reasoned that this opportunity arose because someone valued her unique perspective. “This project is giving me a chance to be different, and to be in the spotlight, so I’m really grateful for that.” She also hopes to help others realize that they can have a classical music career and be openly queer.
“When you’re a performer, there’s no point in hiding any part of you — you want to put your whole self into the music. To do that authentically, you have to be authentic yourself.”