Traveling the World with Cirque du Soleil

By John Perkinson, Senior Staff Writer
Capt. Raphael Brassard (Air Canada), left, appears with the other band members from “Alegria” by Cirque du Soleil. He’s holding a cavaquinho, a small Portuguese stringed instrument.

While it’s not uncommon for ALPA members to have pursued other opportunities before making their way to an airline flight deck, Capt. Raphael Brassard (Air Canada) has a particularly unusual background. Prior to becoming an A320 pilot, he performed as a musician and bandleader with Cirque du Soleil. Brassard acknowledged that in 2007 when he joined the largest contemporary circus in the world, he had no interest in aviation. “I was absolutely afraid of flying,” he admitted.

Growing up, Brassard led a somewhat sheltered life in central Québec, Canada. He went to high school during the day and attended a music conservatory at night, where he earned college credits studying the piano. On a whim, he applied for a job with Montréal-based Cirque du Soleil. “I didn’t expect much because I was only 17 at the time and most of the musicians were much older,” he said.

Two years later, Brassard was hired and immediately assigned to “Alegria” by Cirque du Soleil, which at the time was performing in Brazil. While some of the company’s differently themed programs are stationed in specific cities, Alegria is a traveling circus. Brassard performed in 32 countries during his five years with the ensemble. The troupe’s constant relocation eventually helped him overcome any apprehensions he had about flying.

“For me, it was a big learning experience,” he recalled, having to navigate the cultures and customs he encountered in the many countries where the circus stopped. In addition, he was the only bandmember who spoke French. Fortunately, he and the other musicians had music in common.

Brassard, who’s now fluent in English, noted that another challenge was learning how to dress in the elaborate costumes and the required makeup that Cirque du Soleil is known for. What initially took an hour to manage soon became a task he could accomplish in minutes. “When you do this for five years, you learn the shortcuts,” he observed.

Each show began with the band members entering the theater, playing their instruments as they walked down the aisles where the audience sat. Brassard played the accordion during this phase, switching to the keyboard as the musicians seated themselves near the performance area.

Brassard plays the accordion during the beginning of a performance. He’s seen with his fellow musicians entering a theatre at the beginning of a performance.

Alegria, the Spanish word for “joy,” is carefully choreographed, so the music and routines never change. However, the musicians were compelled to sometimes improvise during moments when acrobats experienced mishaps. Two years into his tenure, Brassard became the bandleader, in part, because of his natural musical abilities. “By the end of my five years, I could play the entire program with any of the instruments in the band,” he said.

While Brassard was part of the tour, Alegria covered South America countries like Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Uruguay. In Asia, they traveled to China, South Korea, and Taiwan. The troupe also performed in locations in Africa, Europe, and the United States. A chartered A320 and flight crew transported the troupe’s musicians, acrobats, and stagehands.

Moving from one location to another, Brassard often sat on the jumpseat and chatted with the pilots. He soon made friends with them and, over time, became fascinated with the flight deck experience. Recognizing this transformation in the musician, the pilots encouraged him to take flying lessons.

While in South Korea, Brassard met a Canadian woman teaching English there. The two married, and she left her job to travel with Brassard and the rest of the troupe. They eventually decided to settle down, and, after five years and nearly 2,300 shows, Brassard quit Cirque du Soleil.

The couple moved to Montréal where Brassard earned his pilot’s license and necessary type ratings. He instructed and flew corporate aircraft for several years before being hired by Air Canada, where he’s been for the last six years. While Brassard no longer performs as a musician professionally, he played last summer for the Air Canada Foundation, a charity that supports children’s health and wellness issues.

Although his time with Cirque du Soleil is over, Brassard has made it a point to stay in touch with his circus friends. In fact, he occasionally uses pass benefits to travel to locations around the world to watch them perform.

This article was originally published in the December 2023 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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