Les Rencontres de BNP Paribas

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					BNP Paribas conferences


Minutes of the meeting of June 21, 2007

Introduction Dominique Fiabane Director of the Paris branch network

Lecture: Gerard Mortier Director of the Paris National Opera House

Dominique Fiabane is Director of the Paris branch network

Dominique Fiabane outlined the career of Gerard Mortier, who was born in Gand in 1943. He studied classics at the town’s Jesuit College and then obtained a Doctorate in Law and a diploma in Press and communication. He opted for a career as an art director and his first job was as an assistant to the Director of the Festival of Flandres. In 1981, he was appointed Director of the ‘Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie’ in Brussels, which he transformed into one of Europe’s capitals of opera. Between 1988 and 1989, he actively participated in the preparation of the Opéra Bastille project. He has been director of the Paris National Opera House since July 2004. At the end of his term of office (summer 2009), Gérard Mortier will join the New York City Opera House as General Manager and Artistic Director. Dominique Fiabane evoked the patronage activities developed through the BNP Paribas Foundation. As an extension to the Foundation’s programmes to boost musical expression and contemporary dance, BNP Paribas joined forces with the Paris National Opera House in 2006 in order to promote the operatic and dance repertoire with a younger public. In addition to its support for the ‘Programme Jeunes de l’Opéra’ (Opera Programme for Young People), the bank invites 800 young clients (with an average age of 25) to attend shows at the Opera House each year, often for the first time.


Gerard Mortier discovered opera at the age of 11. He attended a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute and was immediately smitten. He felt a passion that has never left him and furthermore he has always attempted to share it and pass it on to others, convinced that this art-form can still, even today, say something about the world in which we live. For Gérard, opera is an art in which emotions have a right to exist, offering an ideal response to the cynicism and nihilism that so characterise our western societies. The Birth of Opera Opera appeared for the first time at the end of the 16th century. It is therefore a young art, 400 years old at the most. It came about as a result of a re-discovery of Greek theatre, which combined both music and singing. In fact, the Renaissance period marked a renewal of classical culture in the west, which was a profound inspiration for Opera. It was not by chance, moreover, that the first major heroes of opera were borrowed from Greek or Roman mythology. In its early days, opera was very much an ‘avant garde’ art. It was created during an era when polyphony was all the rage. The music was impregnated with a suffocating formalism that the public found hard to appreciate; a criticism that is today levelled against contemporary music. Opera was born of this determination to regain favour with the general public. It was Claudio Monteverdi, a composer of genius working at the Court of Mantua, who defined the main principles of opera and its most specific characteristics. He did this in a written text, when creating a fairly short piece, entitled Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. Monteverdi saw the potential for a union between music and poetry within a theatrical environment. And it is indeed this first term, i.e. ‘theatrical’, that we are often too quick to forget, preferring to emphasise the pre-eminence of the language or music. The great composer also introduced the fundamental concept of opera being a transcendent art. Indeed, rare are the operatic works that finish in death. There is still a moment of suspension in time. Opera is not a realist art. It is pure artifice. Opera is an art where a utopia can exist. Opera as a popular art Opera very quickly became popular with a wider audience, and was soon no longer the exclusive domain of the aristocracy. It developed in the large trading towns, such as Hamburg or Venice. In fact, more than 27 opera houses were built in Venice in the space of 50 years. In this respect, the development of opera can be compared to that of cinema in the Thirties. From the very outset, opera targeted a broad segment of the public. France was the only exception; here opera was considered a purely aristocratic art, and was supposed to represent the splendour of the court, a sentiment that still exists today… If opera was considered a popular art, it was because it was based around two primordial artistic expressions: song and dance. Song and dance are the two forms of artistic expression that do not require any instruments or mediation. They simply revolve around the mastering

of one’s body movements. They originate from a genuine existential dimension. From birth, an infant cries and moves its arms and legs, which is nothing more than a primitive form of song and dance. Song and dance accompany all the major events that take place in one’s life (births, weddings etc…), as well as one’s death. It is, moreover, not surprising that one of the original Greek myths, i.e. that of Orpheus, was also the first hero of opera. Orpheus crossed the Styx on his journey to Hades in search of his deceased lover Eurydice. And it is no coincidence, nor is it without significance, that the myth related to the transgression of death should be linked to song. This says a great deal about the power of opera. Opera reflects the dialectic between entertainment and thought The entire history of opera reflects a continuous movement between a search for entertainment and existential reflection, and consequently reflects a power struggle between these two concepts. Opera very rapidly descended into the realms of pure entertainment. It is also not without relevance that the root of the word ‘divert’ (i.e. entertainment) stems from the French ‘divertir’ and the Latin ‘devertere’, which means turning away, in other words a movement to escape reality. Technique gained pride of place, taking over from content. One should also note the success enjoyed in the 18th century by the “coloraturae” or “castratos”, despite the fact that the technical virtuosity involved with this type of singing is pure artifice. It was Gluck who was responsible for the first major reform of opera. It was thanks to him that opera became the favourite art of the bourgeois, a new social class in this era, which was responsible for bringing about the “Lumières” (the intellectual, cultural and philosophical transformation of the 18th century). But it was probably Mozart who provided opera with all the glory that it enjoys today. One should not forget, however, that he was heavily disparaged in his time. His works perfectly symbolise the symbiosis between the two concepts discussed above. Whilst his operas are perceived as entertainment, they nevertheless represent an initiation into the mysteries of life. In the 19th century, opera took on a political dimension, with Berlioz, unjustly criticised in France, and also Verdi, whose opera heroes are all “life’s delinquents”, i.e. individuals on the edge of society. In 1876, the Garnier palace and the Festspielhaus de Bayreuth were built. This in itself says a great deal about opera in the 19th century and the two architectural designs are both rich in information. At the Garnier, only an 1/8th of the entire surface area is dedicated to the show itself. The venue is consequently an eminently social one. The bourgeoisie finally had its own Versailles. The Garnier palace was a venue for “performances”. The Festspielhaus de Bayreuth, however, has no foyer. It was designed in the same way as a Greek amphitheatre and the focus seems to be entirely on the stage. Opera in the 20th century Wagner profoundly revolutionised opera. Perhaps he even precipitated its fall? The music became more complex in the 20th century and a gulf opened up between opera and the general public. Rare are the works created in the 20th century – which nevertheless include many masterpieces – that are now part of the repertoire. It is true that composers in the second half of the century moved away from this bourgeois and capitalist art form… It wasn’t until the Seventies that opera found a new audience, notably thanks to Maria Callas, one of the first

singers capable of demonstrating that singing could be linked to dramatic expression (in the way Gluck and Mozart would have liked). The future of opera Today opera faces several problems. It is clear that the general public has moved away from contemporary music. Furthermore, cinema has taken over the functions previously attributed to opera. Gérard Mortier’s objective, in his role as director of the Paris National Opera house, is two-pronged: firstly, to initiate the general public to opera on an ongoing basis, by promoting the political and existential meanings of the works and productions proposed; and secondly to improve the entire repertoire, in other words, including the works produced during the 20th century, which are also essential moments in the development of thought and art. Good examples of this would be Wozzeck by Berg, or the operas by Janacek. The aim of an institution such as the Paris Opera House is to introduce the audience to the essential message, by providing guidelines, when necessary, and by making opera more contemporary, in order to ensure that it retains all its original emotional impact. A good example of this is the new production of the “Traviata” currently being performed at the Garnier (produced by Christoph Marthaler and directed by Sylvain Cambreling). This production will undoubtedly mark the history of this work, applauded from the very first performances as a masterpiece by the French and international press. His task is an exceedingly difficult one. And yet, only innovation can keep an art-form alive. Numerous arts appear and disappear. In a century from now, it is highly probable that no new operas will be composed. Indeed, we have observed that fewer and fewer operas are being registered in the operatic repertoire. It is almost as if the new works are considered as aborted attempts. Is this a sad development? No, in the sense that opera will continue to nourish our emotions and our thoughts about our own present condition, in the same way as Greek tragedies and Elizabethan theatre. We are prepared to wager that this new century will see new forms of artistic expression and live entertainment that will take inspiration from opera but which will also take over from it …

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