Casting Call
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Casting Call

Casting director Ilias Tzempetonidis chooses the singers at the Paris Opera. 
By Stephen J. Mudge 

Casting Call Rigoletto hdl 1217
Rigoletto at the Bastille, 2017
© Charles Duprat/Opéra National de Paris
“Above all, opera is the expression of the of the human voice.”
Casting Call Tzempetonidis lg 1217
© C. Pelé/Opéra National de Paris

ILIAS TZEMPETONIDIS, the casting director for Opéra National de Paris, holds forth with enthusiasm and authority in his spare modernist office in the warren of the Bastille Opera House. Previously casting director at Greek National Opera (2006–10) and at La Scala (2010–13), Tzempetonidis moved to Paris at the invitation of the Opéra’s general director, Stéphane Lissner, who had also been his boss in Milan.

OPERA NEWS: What do you find is the biggest difference between La Scala and the Paris Opera?

Ilias Tzempetonidis: In Milan, like here—and this is very important to me—you have to respect the paying public. In La Scala, they are voice fetishists. In Italy, whoever appears, they have to conform to what, in their imagination, the role should sound like. In Paris, this is only half true. Of course they want to hear voices, but they must be dramatically credible in the production.

ON: I am always rather suspicious of the need to look like the role. No Madama Butterfly is likely to look fifteen, and why not a Tosca who is a little portly?

IT: It is possible, but the second act, with Scarpia, has to be credible. If it is not possible, I try and find the best possible solution. I have to do my best. Not everybody will look like Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros, but even the smallest roles—for instance, in our Rigoletto—are cast with the character in mind. Opera is a grandiose art form, which can produce something you will remember for a long time or something ridiculous. I am always pragmatic and try to bring music and dramatic elements together, but always remembering that above all it is the expression of the human voice.

ON: French singers always complain that they are not used enough at the Paris Opera.

IT: They said the same about Greek singers when I was in Greece! I use the singers who I am convinced are the best artistically and vocally, and also to convince them to take on roles which are not necessarily the principal parts, especially among the young singers.

ON: The casting of French opera is always difficult.

IT: Look, this is the French national house, so my priority is to look for French singers, but if I don’t find one, I will look internationally. If I ask a French singer to take on a second role when Jonas Kaufmann is singing the leading role, this isn’t downgrading them. This is a new reality, new times. They should do it.

ON: The improvement in the casting has been remarkable after a period when the production seemed to rule.

IT: I am a voice man, without forgetting the theater, and I try to maintain a high level of consistency. People have different tastes—some people like milk chocolate, some people like dark chocolate.

ON: Do you travel much to audition singers, or do they come here?

IT: I audition singers here that I particularly want to hear in the house—singers in particular roles, to see if they sound as my imagination suggests they will sound in the Bastille. The Bastille is not a good house for smaller voices.

ON: What do you think is the most difficult repertoire to cast at the moment?

IT: Bel canto, the true bel canto repertoire. In the past, Karajan conducted Lucia di Lammermoor with Callas, but nowadays it is more difficult. Most of the important directors and maestros are reluctant to take on this repertoire, and you often need to find a true diva soprano. 

I am somebody who values continuity in my work with singers. I have very clear, professional discussions with the artists and their agents on long-term projects. I will never compromise, and unless I am sure of the quality, for even the smallest of roles, I will not sign a contract. It’s still only the beginning here in Paris. I am very happy about how it is going, but the real results will show after three or four years.

ON: Do you have to plan and book a long time in advance?

IT: Yes, but I am very much against this. Look, one season Anna Netrebko was singing Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore, and a couple of seasons later Lady Macbeth. Voices change and develop. We have to grow up with the artists and have the sensibility to be flexible. You have to care for artists—and I do care for them—be with them, support them, guide them. I had to be there every night for the singers at La Scala. I remember somebody taking exception to Jonas Kaufmann in Tosca because he didn’t breathe in the same place as Corelli!

ON: In Paris, there are always some people who boo and some who cheer any new production.

IT: Well, people often see an opera in a particular way and may disagree, but what we can try and assure is that the singing is always top-class. spacer 

Stephen J. Mudge is opera news’s correspondent in France. 

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