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SHEILA JOHNSTON visits with the singular soprano, Patricia Petibon, who will cast her spell at the Aix Festival this season as Handel’s Alcina.

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Photographed by Fernando Pinheiro in Paris
Gown by Elie Saab; Bulgari Parentesi diamond earrings; Piaget Altiplano diamond watch; bracelet by Van Cleef & Arpels; diamond rings by De Beers

Clothes styled by Natalie Yuksel with Sarah Delannoy; Makeup by Christèle Lintz; Hair by Hélène Balderas
© Fernando Pinheiro 2015
FROM THE ARCHIVES   Double Bar 250
Red Spacer 1213 “French Expressionist” Petibon, a soprano full of emotion (Jessica Duchen, August 2010)
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In Ariodante at the Aix Festival, 2014
© Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images 2015
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As Lulu in Salzburg, 2010, with Thomas Piffka (Alwa)
© Marion Kalter/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2015

It must be because of her mane of bright auburn hair that Patricia Petibon is regularly described as flamboyant. She certainly has a burning energy. In a career spanning two decades, she has sung everything from Purcell to Poulenc, recorded more than two dozen CDs, hosted her own television talk show and established herself as one of France’s stellar coloratura sopranos.

Starting out in the Baroque, she has recently embraced more contemporary music — in Berg’s Lulu, a landmark, game-changing role, which she sang in productions by Vera Nemirova and Olivier Py, both in 2010, and in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites in 2013, also directed by Py. 

These two productions stretched her dramatically — especially Py’s Lulu, with its physical demands and multiple wig and costume changes tracking Lulu’s protean descent into the abyss. It was hailed by The Guardian as the “performance of a lifetime.”  

Vocally, too, these new roles propelled her into an uncharted deeper, textured register. “With life and its tests, the voice acquires wrinkles,” Petibon tells me. “And you mustn’t try to rub them out. It’s with that acceptance of the weight of life that the voice strengthens and becomes more complex.”

Waiting for our interview in a borrowed apartment in central Paris, near the Place de la Bastille, I expect the unexpected, and so it proves for both of us. Petibon calls: she may be late — because, on this gray, ordinary, suddenly terrifying day in early January, gunmen have stormed the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo less than half a mile down the road, ushering in three days of bloodshed in the French capital. 

Sirens are wailing and the streets sealed off, but the show must go on, and Petibon arrives shortly, alone and without fuss. “Fate is fate,” she says. “When you’re in a certain place, there are things you can’t avoid. You just mustn’t let yourself get obsessed or invaded by fear. Then you can’t move. You can’t do anything.” 

The apartment’s one tiny bedroom has no chairs, so we perch side by side on the unmade bed, while the photographer and a small army of stylists camp out in the salon next door. They will make Petibon look fabulous, judging by previous photo shoots — not that she really needs it. 

For the moment, she’s au naturel — free of make-up, simply dressed in jeans and a loose checked blouse, hair ruffled by the wind. Petite, trim, with a handsome, expressive face, direct gaze and down-to-earth manner, she speaks (in French) rapidly, decisively, openly and — though the events unrolling as we talk cast a somber shadow — laughing loudly and often.

“We’re living in an antiseptic era. Today everything is controlled, nothing must go over the top. I’m trying to blow the dust off, turning up with a personality that maybe people don’t expect in a certain style or repertoire. I take up my pickax and go for it. Art is meant to be excessive. I never wanted to follow this profession, or rather this passion, in order to remain well-behaved.”

You’d better not forget to switch off your cell phone at a Petibon recital, because if it rings, she may well put her shoe up to her ear and pretend to take the call. “I’m a farceuse, a practical joker,” she says. “But a very reasonable and meticulous joker, not a crazy one. You mustn’t always take yourself too seriously as a classical singer. There’s a lack of humor in the world at the moment.”

Petibon, forty-five, grew up in Montargis, a small town south of Paris. Her parents were teachers, and while the family wasn’t wealthy, the arts were always part of daily life. Her great uncle was a painter who, among other things, worked with Marc Chagall on the repainting of the ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris in 1964; her great grandmother’s lovely singing voice was in demand for weddings and other public celebrations. Petibon recalls being taken regularly to operettas as a small girl, and she demanded piano lessons at the age of four. “But the piano wasn’t my fullest means of expression,” she says. “I needed to sing.” 

She studied at the Paris Conservatoire, graduating at the top of her class, then made her debut in 1996 in Paris in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie. “I learned from Rachel Yakar, my professor, that you have to have confidence in yourself, dare to do things and above all take decisions and make choices. Because you can’t go around with your singing teacher in your suitcase. She takes up a lot of space. And the lid won’t shut!”

American-born harpsichordist and conductor William Christie, now based in France, where he founded the Baroque ensemble Les Arts Florissants, was another early mentor. “He took me under his wing and taught me to use my imagination and move toward a sort of improvisation. There’s technique, obviously, but beyond that there’s knowing how to let go when you’re onstage — how to give yourself up to the audience.

“I studied musicology but didn’t want that to hold me back from my instincts as a performer. Nikolaus Harnoncourt taught me a lot there too. He’s a great musicologist, and at the same time a great musical visionary. I have a deep attachment to the French repertoire, and those two men have revolutionized that school of music since the time of Karajan. It’s important not to forget that you must be constantly seeking modernity. We can’t sing in the same way people did fifty years ago.”

It should come as no surprise that Petibon is highly proactive in her work with collaborators. “I suggest a lot of ideas. That’s the deal. It allows you to grow along with the other person, and the directors expect it too. Sometimes they reject my suggestions, but not often.” She is also, she says, “pretty free” with her choice of repertory in her recordings for Deutsche Grammophon. “It’s still a label with an artisanal side. And my aesthetic is not at all Botoxed.” Her discography is as eclectic as the rest of her choices: her most recent CD, La Belle Excentrique, named after a piece by Erik Satie, is a collection of songs ranging from (Gabriel) Fauré to (Léo) Ferré.

This summer, Petibon will go to the Aix-en-Provence festival for the third time, to sing the title role in Handel’s Alcina under the direction of Katie Mitchell and musical direction of André Marcon. (She previously appeared there as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro in 2012 and as Ginevra in Ariodante in 2014.) 

“Aix emphasizes in-depth creation,” she says. “Being able to work every day with a director on a specific role for a month and a half and watch the costumes and sets being made is a real luxury for opera, especially with la crise [France’s deep economic crisis] here. You can see a house style, a lacework of fine finishing touches. 

“When I did Manon in Vienna [in September 2014], I worked for three days in a studio and then — pouf! — I joined Andrei Serban’s production. But it’s good to try the two processes, and you learn something from each one. When you have a lot of time available, you make the most of it, and it’s enriching, but sometimes in the end you’d almost like to have less. A sense of urgency can yield results too.”

At the time of our meeting, Petibon hasn’t yet started work on Alcina but she has been mulling over her character. “She’s both heavenly and shadowy, beautiful and manipulative. And there’s also something moving about her, in her pain. She has a huge number of arias, incredibly contemporary ones — bel cantiste and visionary. But I’m not yet in the heart of the character.”

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As Camille in Hérold’s Zampa at the Opéra-Comique in 2008, with Richard Troxell (Zampa)
© Roger-Viollet/ArenaPAL 2015

This is a testing moment for France and for French culture. Even before the country was chilled to the bone by that terrorist assault on personal and artistic freedom, the long crise had been eating away at funding for the arts. Last summer, Aix, along with other festivals, was hit by protests from intermittents, self-employed performers and technicians who have been in a long stand-off with the government over plans to prune back their benefits.

Staged at the open-air Théâtre de lArchevêché, Ariodante was particularly afflicted by noisy pickets, and British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who sang the title role, has written about the experience as shocking and dispiriting. But, like many French artists, Petibon says any exasperation she might have felt is outweighed by sympathy for the cause. “Yes, there was some disruption. But no bombs fell on us. And you have to see things in perspective. We are living in very difficult times, when people don’t want to lose their rights.

“France is a country of culture. But we have less and less means at our disposal. Some newspapers barely cover the arts. When you turn on the television, you see that the essential things just aren’t being talked about. Artists used to appear constantly, but now they cut you short. There’s very little devoted to classical music. People think culture is just a leisure activity. But it is a lifebuoy and should be available to everyone. That’s why I sing, why I wanted to sing. I find something in song that offers transcendence.”

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Dress by Andrew Gn; Bulgari Sapphire Flora earrings;
Piaget Altiplano watch

© Fernando Pinheiro 2015

Still, viewed from an Anglo­–American perspective, French television does seem to have a huge number of highbrow talk shows. In 2012, Petibon squeezed in the time to host four ninety-minute programs under the title Berlingot. (The berlingot is a fruity, brightly striped acid drop that’s a specialty of Provence.) “My idea was for all art forms to have a dialogue,” she says. An episode might discuss the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, astrophysics and — this being France, where the culinary arts are just as vital — how to bake the perfect Sachertorte. “I did it very simply and freely. It was a way of talking about many things.

“I’ve also started giving master classes, because I feel the arts are not sufficiently present in French schools. When an opera virgin sees an intelligent production such as Michael Haneke’s Don Giovanni at the Bastille, he says, ‘Wow, it’s extraordinary!’ We have to create that feeling for a kid of nineteen.”

Petibon has a son, Léonard, age seven. Will he follow in the family tradition?“He’s extremely curious and lively, with a strong personality,” she says. (A chip off the old block, then.) “He can pick up a melody, but he’ll replace the words with his own ones, and when we visit the theater, he wants to go into the box-office and sell tickets — he loves to go behind the scenes. I can’t make him learn an instrument. But maybe that will come one day.”

Does she have plans to collaborate with her husband? Petibon laughs heartily one last time. “Which husband?” Previous interviews mention the composer Éric Tanguy, Léonard’s father, but, she says, “I don’t live with him now. I’m with Didier Lockwood, a very well-known jazz violinist.

“It’s a crazy world, jazz, a lot more playful than ours, very free. It can bring a lot to music to learn to work with different tonalities and forget the score. I do that in my own way with classical music, since I rewrite certain roles to improvise a little, but jazz is another sound universe.” On cue, her cell phone goes off: the ring tone is the American jazz singer Rose Murphy’s “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” 

Our time is up. Petibon thinks she will probably walk home after the photo shoot — she lives nearby — to avoid taking the metro. It has become a cliché to praise a singer or actor as “fearless.” But it’s Petibon’s performance on this darkest of days that commands real respect. spacer 

SHEILA JOHNSTON is an arts and travel journalist who writes for a wide range of international publications. She divides her time between London and Marseille. 

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