Dramatic tenor René Maison achieved stature in several major opera houses more from his physical size (six feet four inches) and dramatic force rather than from a sensuous vocal timbre. He was a discreet actor in roles which were often crudely sketched and an accomplished, purposeful musician as well. These qualities made him valuable as an alternate to Melchior in all but the most heroic parts, and his character assumptions were often genuinely distinctive.
Maison performed from a very early age, singing treble in the local church. When Belgium was overrun by the Germans in WWI, the enemy forces frequently pressed the young René, barely out of his teens, into giving concerts for the wounded and singing at services for the dead. His family soon sent him first to Brussels, then to the Paris Conservatoire to study voice. His debut took place in Geneva in 1920 when he sang Rodolfo in La bohème. Beginning in 1925, he sang for three seasons at Monte Carlo where his roles, such as Hoffman and Faust, were primarily in the lyric repertory. Only Huon (in Weber's Oberon) suggested the heavier division into which he soon moved.
A performance of Alfano's Risurrezione at the Opéra-Comique in Paris found him singing with Mary Garden. Impressed, she urged the Chicago Civic Opera to put the young tenor under contract. From 1927 to 1932, Maison sang at the Chicago Opera, adding light dramatic roles such as Florestan, Lohengrin and the title figure in Parsifal, sung before a completely sold-out house in December 1931.
Maison was introduced to London with a May 18 Lohengrin in 1931, but the strong impression he made was not repeated when, for reasons left unexplained, he was replaced by an altogether inferior German tenor for two remaining performances. In 1936, Maison returned for a Julien in Louise, brandishing an instrument described as "a true tenor voice" of ample power and the lyrical quality needed to bring the score to life.
In the period following his Chicago years, Maison sang throughout Europe and South America, appearing for several seasons at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. On February 3, 1936, Maison appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as Walter von Stolzing, beginning an eight-season relationship there. His performance was deemed commendable, but some critics complained that his voice had lost its freshness and sounded somewhat thin. A March 7 Fidelio, however, brought the verdict of an excellent Florestan and, at all times, Maison's musicianship was found first-rate. Critic Olin Downes, after being disappointed by his Stolzing, had high praise for his Loge in Das Rheingold. He wrote that it was "far superior to his Walther. He was ironical, fantastic, without exaggeration of the gestures and flirting of the red robe, significant in the treatment of the text."
Among other roles animated by Maison during his Metropolitan years was Samson in Saint-Saëns' usually static opera. The tenor's imposing physique lent credibility to a character too often undersized. His Hoffman was unreservedly described as excellent and his Erik in Wagner's Fliegende Holländer was appreciated for both dramatic realization and vocal distinction. During the 1937 - 1938 season, Maison offered a powerful Herodes in Salome. When Louise was revived for soprano and motion picture star Grace Moore, Maison's Julien was regarded as the one truly French performance.
In 1931, Maison became the youngest singer to have received the Order of Leopold, awarded by the Belgian nation.