The Aix Factor

These days, the eyes of the international opera world are on the Aix-en-Provence Festival, which has earned a reputation for high musical standards and challenging stage productions. BRIAN KELLOW speaks with the festival's enterprising general director, Bernard Foccroulle.

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Bernard Foccroulle, general director of the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence
© ArtcomArt / Pascal Victor

The 2013 Aix-en-Provence Festival offered some bold opera programming: there were brand-new productions by two world-class directors — Patrice Chéreau's magnificently simple but deep and disturbing Elektra; and Robert Carsen's provocative, brutal, circus-themed Rigoletto. There was also Jean-Yves Ruf's staging of Cavalli's Elena, a revival of the Dmitri Tcherniakov Don Giovanni, which received a mixed reception at its Aix premiere three seasons ago, and the world premiere of The House Taken Over, by Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça, staged by Katie Mitchell. The festival is a chance to see some of the best that international opera theater has to offer, in an entrancing Roman city that is just a short drive from the Mediterranean and beautifully tended fields of lavender and sunflowers. In early July, OPERA NEWS sat down with the festival's general director, Bernard Foccroulle, while his staff waited patiently outside the door of his office, desperate to engage him in a conversation about whether rain might disrupt that night's performance of Rigoletto in the 1,200-seat open-air Théâtre de l'Ancien Archevêché.  

OPERA NEWS: I was at Don Giovanni last night. At the intermission, Marc Minkowski turned to the audience and said something about the rain that had started during the first act, but I was talking to someone and couldn't quite catch it. What exactly did he say?

BERNARD FOCCROULLE: Minkowski said, "Thanks to the London Symphony Orchestra that didn't stop during the rain. They were very courageous."  

ON: It was just a tiny bit of rain.

BF: Yes, but for the violins and cellos, it can be perturbing. Usually an orchestra stops immediately. When I arrived as head of the festival in 2007, my first night of Le Nozze di Figaro was canceled because of rain! Since then, no performance was canceled. 

ON: You had been in Brussels, at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, for fifteen years. What was it that drew you to this position at the Aix-en-Provence Festival? Was it something about the openness of the audience, the depth and breadth of work you felt it might be possible to do here?

BF: That's a large question. I stayed in Brussels longer than I had expected. In 2005, I announced that I would leave the house in 2007, and I was dreaming of a sabbatical period to have more time to compose and to guest-conduct concerts. A few months later, [my predecessor in Aix] Stéphane Lissner was appointed at La Scala, and I had been the first coproducer with Lissner. I did the Orfeo with René Jacobs, Trisha Brown. I took the Peter Brook Don Giovanni to Brussels, and we had a lot of nice collaborations. He told me, "You should be my successor." So it was very hard to say no. The first reason to say was fifteen years in Brussels was enough. But still, I was close to many artists, like Trisha Brown, William Kentridge, some good conductors. And there were others I had dreamed to work with — Patrice Chéreau, Pierre Boulez, Robert Lepage. (I had already done The Rake's Progress with Lepage in Brussels.) I didn't want to stop that connection. 

Now, it is much easier for me to assess the potential of this position. The festival is quite important in its own way. We have a very good Academy, and we invite 250 young artists from all five continents all year. They play a very active role onstage, this season, in  Elena and The House Taken Over. They are coached, and the best of them are re-invited in concert during the year. We have permanent activity around the Academy. We have a lot of education and community projects during the year, and we are co-producing and touring a lot, and that activity will increase. In the history of the festival, people are used to coming to Aix, but we also tour a lot with the best of the productions. Last year, we had George Benjamin's Written on Skin, which was very successful. That will be in New York in two years' time. We are almost every year in a collaboration with the Met, or Brooklyn Academy of Music or Lincoln Center. I want to increase the festival's presence in Asia. We have contact with South Africa and Australia. So I think over a few years' time I would like to have a few cities where we have a permanent relationship, so the identity of the festival is a little more international. 

ON: When you came here in 2007, what did you see immediately that you wanted to change, in terms of both repertoire and singers?

BF: When I arrived, Stéphane Lissner had planned a new Ring with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. My first priority was to realize that. We opened the new theater in 2007, and because of the big impact of that on the budget, we had to be a little bit more careful with the rest of the program, and the Ring was first priority. After that, I invited Lepage to direct The Nightingale, I introduced William Kentridge to Peter Gelb. I started speaking to Patrice Chéreau, telling him that the Elektra should be a piece for him. It took him two years to answer yes. I visited Esa-Pekka Salonen in New York when he was conducting the Janáček, and told him the same. I went to see Natalie Dessay in 2006 to find something for us, which was Traviata. But generally speaking, in the festival, you have a few lines that are coming back year after year. Mozart is always present in the festival since 1948. An Aix Festival without Mozart is impossible. I think Baroque opera has been very well presented here. I love Baroque music. We have Elena this year. Even though we have works from the past here, we are not a museum; we are giving life to them. You will see in the Rigoletto that it is not a traditional Rigoletto at all, not a point of view from the past. It is very alive. 

ON: I have never seen a Rigoletto that fully captures the darkness of the piece, and I'm hoping this is the one.

BF: It's extremely dark. 

ON: Michael Mayer's production at the Met was a good idea, but I didn't think it went far enough. It felt very superficial.

BF: Yes, I was told that. This one is not superficial. It's quite strong. 

ON: When you are in the business of partnering with companies all over the world, how much discussion is there about the varying audiences in those places? Do you talk a lot about how something may go in France, but not necessarily in New York, for instance? 

BF: It was a concern for the Carsen Rigoletto, because we were in touch with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Anthony Freud, and Carsen told me no — that's not a production to be presented in a house like Chicago, because the house is not ready to see it. Now that I see it, I understand. I think the American audience would probably be shocked by some of the things on the stage. I was expecting the Aix audience to be shocked by it, but it seems they are quite alive. For the rest, I am quite optimistic about audiences. If we have good tools of communication, if the pieces are good.... I will tell you one story. Last year we did Written on Skin. I have been in touch with George for twenty-one years. I offered him to make an opera in 1992, and it was too early. I invited him to conduct Pelléas for the Monnaie, I commissioned a piece for dancers, and then finally I convinced him to write an opera here. As soon as he said yes, I started discussing that with colleagues all over Europe. And we did it here last year. Incredible success. A few weeks before the opening, it was only sixty percent sold, or something like that. But after the dress rehearsal, wow! Then Amsterdam was a triumph, Toulouse was very successful, London was gorgeous, Vienna — five stars in each newspaper. Now, Munich, coming back to Paris, and going to New York. The production is probably regarded differently in each because of the language, but it works. So I don't think we should pay too much attention to the difference in audience. Personally, I like very much some German directors, but I am not so fond of some extreme Regietheater. I think in Germany they are going a little too far without real necessity. In Germany, it seems to be accepted, but I don't think it would be accepted here. I am willing to take risks if I completely believe in it. When we did Dmitri Tcherniakov's Don Giovanni three years ago, it was highly controversial. Now we revive it, and I think part of the audience is changing. I think it deserved to be revived. I think we have to take the audience seriously, but I don't think we have to please it. I respect my audience, but to please and respect is not the same thing. And I think the Aix audience is much more wide and diverse than it was ten years ago. For sure. I very often use the image of a tree. To have a big tree, you need big roots. Profound roots. This is a way of anchoring the festival in the region, and then we can be very ambitious.

In Aix, French opera is not the main accent. Last year, we had Charpentier [David et Jonathas]. But I don't feel a great obligation to French operas, and certainly not nineteenth-century operas. I think it's really Mozart, Baroque opera, new pieces, and to select a few, like Rigoletto and Elektra this year. 

ON: How do you feel about the current climate for music in the French education system. It's not good in England at the moment.

BF: It's worse here. It's probably better in Germany and Austria, but in France, the level is not good. What's good is that the conservatoire — the level of young professional musicians is not coming very good. You have good professional orchestra players, a lot of good young string quartets, some fine new voices — but the musical education at school, pre-conservatory, is not good. One of our musical missions is to open windows and doors for schools and colleges, so that people can discover opera. We do a lot of that. In France, you have two national-level conservatoires — Paris and Lyon. Then you have regional conservatoire. In Aix, we will have a new building in a short time. It's almost finished. But I would not say that the level is that high. In Paris and Lyon, yes — but not elsewhere.

ON: You mentioned Robert Lepage. The Met Ring was met with many negative reviews. But he's a hugely talented man. His Bluebeard/Erwartung is still one of the great productions I've ever seen.

BF: I agree with you. When I was in Quebec a few years before the Ring, Robert showed me the model. I was fascinated by the model. I am not completely sure at the end that it was the best idea, because it's becoming too much of a machine. And if the technology is too sophisticated, the human components are a little bit reduced. Robert is at his best, in my opinion, when he is working on a little bit smaller scale. At the end, what moves us is to hear human voices, and to feel the energy coming out of human beings. If the human being is lost on a big stage, then you see an image, but it could be virtual. Maybe that's the problem. 

ON: I have to say the descent into the Nibelheim was one of the most astonishing stage pictures I've ever seen. 

BF: He's a magician. A true magician.

ON: Speaking of controversial productions, can you tell me a bit about Tcherniakov's Don Giovanni and how that concept evolved — the whole idea of not having the opera take place on a single night, and breaking it up into so many blacked-out scenes, and having so many of the characters related to each other?

BF: Did you see it?

ON: I saw it last night. 

BF: First of all, why I invited Mr. Tcherniakov? I think he is one of the best directors. He accepted the Don Giovanni, and we started making a cast, and then he was very clear in not wanting to have a young Giovanni but a more mature one.

ON: Yes, that worked really well. He's more like a sad older man you see at a bar trying to pick up young women.

BF: Yes. In the process of rehearsals, I saw he was going to pull down a lot of the curtains between the scenes, which I find a little bit irritating, I must say. What I like very much is not so much this kind of family telling — which is sort of a code he tries to explain to us. That's secondary. What is very strong is the way he presents each character, and the way he asks them to sing, very often, not to the usual one but to a third one. It's very, very subtle. When you take it literally, it seems in conflict with the libretto. But when you have a little distance — for instance, when the Commendatore comes back, it's clear that it's only a dream. Only Giovanni sees him.

ON: Leporello doesn't see him.

BF: That's right. Tcherniakov works at different levels of reality. In "Là ci darem la mano," I never saw a moment where Giovanni and Zerlina are in this sort of ambivalent situation where it's like her seducing him, you know? And the scene with Anna telling Ottavio her interpretation of what happened and being captivated by that and almost making love with Ottavio — a kind of madness. I think all of these strong individual moments are much more important than the family circle idea. Whether or not Zerlina is Donna Anna's daughter doesn't matter to me so much. I think he's trying to show a closed system of human relations, and the family is that. But I don't take the family literally — I take it as a metaphor of a very closed, introverted human circle.

ON: I was grappling with the whole idea of the class element, which pretty much goes out the window in this production.

BF: Yes, and maybe because Dmitri is Russian, that's not of interest to him. 

ON: Of course, it wasn't a strong element in the Peter Sellars production either. It was a brilliant production, but they were pretty much on the same level socially.

BF: If you see this festival, you will see directors working in such different ways. Chéreau is almost classical now — he wasn't years ago, but now it is sort of classicism at the highest level possible. You have Jean-Yves Ruf and Dmitri Tcherniakov and Robert Carsen, all completely different. Katie Mitchell [director of The House Taken Over], so obsessed with details and quite brilliant. So it's five sides — I like that diversity. I would never like to impose one style, aesthetically. I think we have to be open to the different visions. 

ON: What would you tell a singer who asked "What is the most important thing to show you in auditioning for the Aix-en-Provence Festival?"

BF: A technique that allows a great emotional reach. Emotion for me is absolutely central. But emotion for a singer is only possible if he has the technical capacity to control the voice. And we love beautiful voices, but sometimes it's not the most beautiful voice that is the most striking. It depends on the style of music. When you hear Callas, when you hear a lot of great singers, they were not maybe the most beautiful voices of their time, but what sort of emotion they were able to pull out of themselves. spacer

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