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“I filmed a Utopia.”

Interview with Jean-Stéphane Bron, film director of “L’Opéra”

“I filmed a Utopia.”

For the past sixteen months, film director Jean-Stéphane Bron has been exploring the corridors and backstage areas of the Opéra Bastille and the Palais Garnier with his camera and his sharp-eyed gaze. The result? A documentary that captures the vital pulse of an institution. The film is being released on April 5th and he has granted us an interview to discuss the results of the experiment.


When did you first venture inside the Opera?

Jean-Stéphane Bron: I ventured inside it in my head the day my producer Philippe Martin told me about the idea of making a film about the Opera. He hadn’t finished his sentence before I felt a desire to do this film, an instinct as to what it could be like. I wanted to film the Opera as one would film a society, by trying to understand what it is. In concrete terms, my starting point was to follow the first season of the new management team. This idea opened up a number of possibilities in dramatic terms. But before physically entering the theatre, I had to convince Stéphane Lissner. In his first season, the artistic and political stakes were high. I couldn’t assume that he would agree to the presence of a camera at that particular moment, but in the end he was convinced. A relationship based on trust was formed. That was necessary for me to be free.


Did you go in through the stage door?

J-S.B.: Yes, because, as paradoxical as it may seem, I had never seen an opera in my life. To discover a world from the viewpoint of a novice, - that was also the challenge of the film.

 

At what point did the camera come into play?

J-S.B.: I spent a lot of time at the Opera before I began filming; I watched performances in order to try and find a form, a structure, which in my films always precedes the shooting period. Here, the object is to turn the backstage area into the show itself. And to follow protagonists with whom the spectator could identify.


My quest ended where the performance began.

How does your approach fit in with that of the Opera?

J-S.B.: The Paris Opera is a seat of excellence in which everything converges towards a final product, that is, the performance – what the audience sees and hears. Of course, that’s not what interested me. I wanted to show the work: the period in which difficulties and, sometimes, conflicts emerge. When it comes down to it, my quest ended where the performance began. I was lucky in that the filming was spread over more than sixteen months, allowing me to develop bonds of trust with all the protagonists, which is an essential element in any documentary approach.


How did you articulate different time scales, establish the time of the film in counterpoint to daily events, to the regular rhythm of production…?

J-S.B.: I thought first of all in terms of characters and dramaturgy. Then in terms of visual spectacle. I always tried to follow my protagonists as I advanced, whilst building large-scale movements, like the acts of a play, based on the major productions of the season. There are also things that I dreamed of and that happened. One of the principle characters of the film is a young Russian singer from the Academy. I longed for him to meet a big star, and this encounter did take place, by chance, in a corridor, with Bryn Terfel.


How did you decide when and where to film?

J-S.B.: A very small team of us were present for a hundred and twenty days and I went wherever my characters and my intuition led me.


When you make a documentary, you think in an obsessive way about what could contribute to the film.

Were your eyes riveted on the daily schedule of each theatre, your ears attentive to the murmur from the auditorium?

J-S.B.: When you make a documentary, you think in an obsessive way about what could contribute to the film. Every encounter, every exchange, even the most ordinary, everything you see and hear, is coloured by this permanent attentiveness to what could contribute to the film and enrich it. From the very moment we entered the theatre, we started work, which doesn’t necessarily mean filming…


Do you have a particular memory of the area stage left?

J-S.B.: The off-stage chorus in Rigoletto: firstly because it is magnificent. But also because it creates an “off-camera” effect, which is rare at the Opera.


And a stage right memory?

J-S.B.: The off-stage chorus at the beginning of Moses and Aaron, which contains in a restrained way, all the amplitude and the violence of the drama that ensues. And the breathlessness of Fanny Gorse* as she exited the stage during La Bayadère, which touched me greatly.


What story did the faces you encountered tell you?

J-S.B.: I wanted them to tell me about the state of a society in which you can still believe that together, collectively, something is possible.


The number of rushes is monumental, the editing drastic.

J-S.B.: The film took sixteen months to shoot, but I filmed relatively little in that I was trailing my characters and my aim was to show precise things that I’d seen or observed; also to be present at chosen moments, like the sequence during which management discusses ticket prices.


What did you choose to show in the final cut?

J-S.B.: A utopia.


How does the opera fit into your filmography?

J-S.B.: To quote François Truffaut’s celebrated phrase, you always make one film to counteract another. Before embarking on the filming of L’Opera, I had spent two years on a portrait of Christoph Blocher, the right-wing extremist leader in Switzerland. It’s a very sombre, pessimistic film about the future of democracy. I wanted to counteract this sentiment, the inevitability of populism, which banks on the worst scenario. I wanted to make a joyful film, in which collectivism and the vital impulse of music would predominate.


What impression do you have now of this adventure?

J-S.B.: The film is being released in two weeks. It no longer belongs to me… It represents four years of my life, discovering music in an enchanted house: being shut inside here all your life would be a dream.



* Fanny Gorse : Sujet of Paris Opera Ballet


Watch trailer of "l'Opéra"

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