Simon Chaput / OnP
The professions

Interview with François Roussillon

François Roussillon
© Christophe Pelé / ONP

How is it that opera, this strictly coded art, an enemy of all that is natural, can rouse incredible emotions in us? This is the paradox that Francois Roussillon has chosen to explore in his films; an interview of a film-director who has not reached the end of his questioning.

You are an acknowledged opera and ballet filmmaker and producer. Did your career begin with filming live performances?

I have always been passionately interested in music, opera and dance and I believe that my love of the stage directed me towards filmmaking. As I am also very drawn to the fictional dimension, I have of course worked on other projects. However, I consider that my cinematographic birth certificate dates from the founding of this company, François Roussillon and Associates (FRA Productions). We founded this production company and began to make documentaries, film performances and take on projects that we considered important at a time when the circumstances surrounding television were not in our favour.

The codes of theatre are very different from those of filmmaking. As a filmmaker, what fascinates you about live performance?

Within the artifice of a performance lies a particular truth that I find puzzling: something that follows strict codes and about which there is nothing natural, yet is capable of communicating extraordinary emotions. I comment on and explore this paradox in my films and recordings of performances. I nurture a great passion for filmmakers who work on this artificiality, who assert the non-natural dimension of their art: it is true that realism in films interests me, but my heart tends more towards someone like Fellini.

You talk about filmmaking, but by filming performances written and staged by others, do you not feel dispossessed of the story, this fictional dimension you evoked just now?

No, because I continue exploring this dimension. When you film a performance, there is a sense whereby you become the narrator. You create a frame for your picture with your camera and this frame confers a certain meaning on the action: you tell a story by means of someone else’s story. As far as I am concerned, the determining stage is not the filming, but the preparatory stage, in other words, during the rehearsals. We organise a script, put together a scenario for filming, something which resembles a narrative. Of course, on the day of the performance, we sometimes expect something to happen, which in the event does not, as it is a live performance and cannot be stopped for us to redo a take. However, this is offset by an irreplaceable emotion, something takes form before our eyes, comes to life and is given to us at that very moment and that is what makes filming a live performance a unique experience.

For this documentary series, you abandon the stage to set up your camera in the workshops: by filming the pre-existence of a performance and gathering film material in view of making a documentary, are you not thereby dealing with two totally contradictory approaches?

There is definitely a fundamental difference: on the one hand, we are dealing with representation, and on the other, with life. However, if these approaches are radically different, they are no less complementary: one constantly reflects the other. When, long before a performance, you are invited to that performance’s conception, your commitment is different: you can fantasize about it, unleash your imagination and envisage what is to come. Moreover, when you see the result on stage, your understanding of it is greater since you know the origins of every last detail. You grasp issues that are not tangible for the spectator: he can only perceive what is obvious about what is presented to him. Of course, this is how the theatre works: when you eat in an excellent restaurant, you do not necessarily wish to explore the kitchen. However, as far as opera is concerned, there is something else: seeing the sets taking form, being built and erected, is magical. Behind the scenes of a performance is a performance in itself.

In this performance played behind the scenes, what was it that captured was your attention?

What I wish to convey is, that what takes place in the workshops does not just concern technical matters. When you are present at the construction and elaboration of the costumes and sets, you realise that creativity intervenes at every level. There is synergy between the artistic team invited for the production, who contributes their thoughts on the performance, and the Opera’s technical teams who also have their own vision. Preparatory documents are provided for the latter, on which they are invited to reflect and from which they form their own idea, which is not just a cold technical analysis. They have to penetrate into the thoughts of the scenographer or the costume or set designer in order to understand his/her intentions and find solutions, which fall in with the creative vision. It is far more subtle than merely carrying out orders or following a plan. A dialogue is established between the creators and the technical teams, which makes things very lively.

Is this the dialogue you filmed where, in one episode, the head of the painting department, asks Pierre-André Weitz whether the tanks to be seen in Mathis le Peintre have already been at war?

Absolutely. What’s more, this question led Olivier Py’s set designer to expand on his reflexion: “The tanks stand up like totems above the destruction”. Thanks to this constant dialogue between the guest team and the Opera’s technical teams, we gain further understanding of the creators’ thought processes, at times provoked by necessity, at others, preconceived: when you work with Olivier Py’s team, you totally enter into the reflexion around his theatre, into this mysticism of light. In the end of the day, it is rarely technical, very artistic and profoundly human.

Each episode of the documentary highlights two names: one in the artistic guest team, the other in the Opera’s technical team.

Yes. The public must understand just how exceptional it is to have this expertise, these technicians’ talent, their creative spirit, their commitment and their energy within the Opera house. The Paris Opera is almost a unique example in the world: most theatres, even amongst the most prestigious, no longer have the means for their teams to be in house. Moreover, the Paris Opera’s teams are absolutely amazing, owing to the quality of their understanding, their imagination and also their past, enriched by legendary productions, which were made in house. It is part of the production that remains invisible for spectators like ourselves. When we see the result, everything seems extremely simple. One of the next documentaries will concentrate on Akhmatova: when surveying the elegant austerity of its sets, we could never guess at their incredible intricacy, or the time it took to think up this box symbolising Akhmatova’s mental universe, which simultaneously conveys grandeur, poetry and the character’s nobility and through which everything passes. How can the different elements in the sets be made to slide over each other with great ease? It is a bit like a thriller: what solution will we find which will manage to convey the scenographer’s wishes on stage?

The first chapter opens with Ezio Frigerio walking in front of the sets for La Dame du lac while declaring that he is the last set designer to use painted backdrops. Did you have the impression you were filming the last artisan of a dying craft?

Other than the preparation of performances, these films ask a larger question: “How do we do theatre nowadays?” Ezio Frigerio, who is monumentally renowned for his stage sets, who was Giorgio Strehler’s favoured collaborator, says with humour that he is acknowledged for being the last person who dares producing painted backdrops. What’s more, he sees it as an audacity at a time when sets impose on the stage the presence of realistic elements, very farfetched from his culture and artistic career. At the same time, as a set designer, he knows how to turn this time-lag to his advantage: there emanates from the sets that he contrived for La Dame du lac, these painted backdrops shaded by time, a sentiment of indescribable nostalgia: as if a whole chapter of the history of theatre was disappearing before our eyes. This is indeed true: nowadays we no longer work as we used to. When Frigerio tells of how they went looking in the sets’ workshops for very rare tissue paper for Li Nozze and spent hours remodelling the same chiselled jewels from that era, it no longer has anything to do with the modern conception of decor. We pay less attention to detail than we do to the exterior aspect. The poetry that emanated from the materials used is no longer the same; the fragility in the sets has disappeared. These films also tell the story of this evolution, another history of opera sets. I particularly like this historical perspective.

Yet the second chapter, which concentrates on the sets for Mathis, reflects on the first. We discover here an entirely different aesthetic, Pierre-André Weitz’s, Olivier Py’s set designer, who wants to show both the sets and behind the scenes. Did you intend for there to be an exchange between these two aesthetics?

Of course, I wanted to show these two conceptions of theatre since, as I understand it, these great creators offer two perceptions which are certainly different, but which also converge: Frigerio, by highlighting his painted backdrops and Weitz, who is always ready to uncover the machinery and the wings, are both at the service of theatre. This is because, putting aside the different aesthetic schools and opposite paths they have chosen, they both remind the spectator to “Remain conscious that all of this is but artifice. However, it is precisely because it is artifice, that it is sacred”.

Opera’s presence on television and now at the cinema has been increasing over the last few years. Do you understand this as a sign of opera entering into a phase of democratisation?

Yes, and I would add that the screen has always been a driving force behind making opera democratic. Even as I child, I watched Giorgio Strehler’s historic production of Simon Boccanegra on television. You could not see a thing. The only patches you made out on the screen were the torches in the first act, which did not stop me from being glued to my television set throughout. Since then, we have benefited from an extremely positive technical boom for recording live performances. There are absolutely fabulous machines which make filmed performances extremely appealing. I think television has in fact always been and continues to be a driving force. This craze nowadays for performances on the small and now large screens is marvellous since people have discovered a new pleasurable activity. Watching an opera filmed live on a big screen has become a new type of performance. Moreover, you discover during these performances, something akin to the collective experience of the theatre, we share something together: in the cinema, the person sitting next to you quite often turns round to let you know what he thinks. The camera also makes it possible to be more intimate with the singers, which you rarely find in a theatre, even in the first rows. You are submerged by the characters in the story. It is close to the emotion felt in reality. I think the biggest obstacle to penalise opera, however great the talents of the likes of Losey or Rosi, is that they lacked an essential ingredient: life.

You therefore make a distinction between operas filmed in a studio and those filmed live.

Yes. Studio films make for an interesting genre. However, so far all these films have been made using playback: the singers were not really singing, they were just pretending. That, I believe, is precisely where it differentiates from our approach: opera is a performing art and the audience feels it. As far as our films are concerned, even if they are not live, they are recorded live. The stakes are not the same for a performer when in front of an audience: they are engaged emotionally and there is a palpable energy that the spectators feel. Even in a cinema, they sometimes burst into applause as if they were in the performance hall. It is quite amazing.

You have been working with the Paris National Opera for a long time. How do you see the future?

We are exploring new leads. So far, the films have been made in 2D. They lack one dimension: depth. Last season, we made a film in 3D for the first time about Petrushka. I am convinced that it is important to film live performances in 3D. It is still complicated setting up the technical side, but we think it is worth the gamble. We are at present reflecting on a new genre of writing which would make it possible to integrate this procedure into the framework of a performance.

Would this genre liken it even more to a live performance?

Yes. There has always been something essentially different about the cinema and the theatre. At the cinema, the spectators gaze is strongly orientated by the camera’s lens. Whereas in the theatre, our gaze travels, we choose what to look at. Even if the staging beckons the eye through its lighting or movement, the close-ups or overall views are left up to the spectator; at the cinema, this work falls on the film-director. Moreover, the human eye is extraordinary: in a short space of time, it can grasp both detail and the overall view. In this way, at the theatre, the spectator is always in control of his gaze. It is necessary to understand this difference in order to understand what 3D is bringing to the cinema: it is recreating space, which gives back its freedom to the eye, and in this same way, the theatrical aspect to the pictures. You no longer read the picture, you are inside it. Of course, we are still taking our first steps in this field, but we have embarked along this path with enormous enthusiasm.

Interview by Simon Hatab