Patrice Chéreau, opera director

Encounter with the curators of the exhibition

Patrice Chéreau, opera director

This winter, the French National Library and the Paris Opera are presenting an exhibition devoted to Patrice Chéreau, from his Parisian childhood, a period marked by the artistic activities of his parents who were painters, to the eleven operas that he directed for various international opera houses. In a selection of a hundred and sixty exhibits, some of which are from the Patrice Chéreau archives housed at the Institut Mémoires de l’Edition Contemporaine, the exhibition retraces the major stages of his career as an opera director. Encounter with the two curators of the exhibition, Sarah Barbedette and Pénélope Driant.

How is the exhibition structured?

Sarah Barbedette et Pénélope Driant: The exhibition is divided into three sections. First, an introductory section evoking the pictorial world in which Chéreau grew up, as well as his first experience of theatre at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. Next there is a large chronological frieze, which allows the visitor to explore the different creative processes used by Chéreau and his scenographer Richard Peduzzi for each production. Finally, at the centre of the Rotunda, a grand thematic conclusion entitled “La Fabrique de l’opéra” (the Opera Factory) highlights Chéreau’s ambivalent relationship with opera, the importance of his directional work with singers as well as his ideas on the rapport between music and stage direction. In order to lead the visitor behind the creative scenes, we have chosen exhibits of different types: working notes, correspondence, scores and annotated libretti, studies for costumes and sets, models for scenery, photographs and audio-visual extracts. A sketch for the Radeau de la Méduse by Théodore Géricault, a painting Chéreau was particularly fond of, is also a richly significant piece in this exhibition.

The son of artists, both painters, Patrice Chéreau - actor, theatre and opera director and film maker, had a very rich personality… What is his hallmark as an opera director?

Chéreau really tackled opera as a man of the theatre. When he agreed to direct his first opera, he was nurturing the dream that opera could be “a form even more theatrical than theatre itself”, a sort of “white-hot theatre”, brought to a state of incandescence by the music. There is indubitably a before and after Chéreau with regard to the direction of singers: he pushed them “to their limits as singers”, directing them in a veritable full-body encounter in order to lead them towards ever more sensitive interpretation, similar to that of real actors. Finally, he fought hard for the singers to appear not to be looking at the conductor. In his view, the singer’s gaze should be directed according to the situation his character is experiencing, and not according to the technical demands of singing.   

When he directed an opera, Patrice Chéreau used to say that he was working with the “dynamic writing” of the music. How did he articulate the text and the music?

Chéreau associated the text and the music very precisely: he believed that the stage action should provoke and justify the music and not the opposite. To avoid any tautology between the musical line and the stage action, he sometimes went so far as to “contradict” the score, choosing to stage an aspect of the drama which is not dealt with by the music.

Vue d’ensemble de l’exposition
Vue d’ensemble de l’exposition © Christophe Pelé / OnP

What can one retain today of the operas that Chéreau staged for the Paris Opera?

One must remember that his three productions for the Paris Opera were performed on the stage of the Palais Garnier. Chéreau made his debut at the Paris Opera in 1974 with The Tales of Hoffmann, of which he modified the libretto, giving rise to some adverse criticism. His most legendary production for the Paris Opera was Lulu (1979), conducted by Pierre Boulez, particularly because it was the world premiere of the third act, the orchestration of which was completed after Alban Berg’s death. Così fan tutte in 2005 was his third Mozart opera, a co-production with the Festival of Aix-en-Provence. Ultimately, Chéreau’s work for the Paris Opera testifies to different, contrasting approaches to the repertoire. As for From the House of the Dead, this is his only production performed at the Opéra Bastille – although he had other projects for the opera house when it opened. The entire cast was conceived with Patrice Chéreau before he died in 2013.   

After The Tales of Hoffmann, Rolf Liebermann described Patrice Chéreau as “the man who brings scandal in his wake, but the right scandal: scandal that strips down and pares away bad habits”. How were Chéreau’s productions received by opera audiences?

Chéreau’s first confrontation with the public, including that of the Paris Opera, was far from simple. In his view, opera audiences were too conservative and opera did not attract enough new spectators: at the time, many people came to the Opera not to be surprised but to reassure themselves with a comfortable, and untouchable, preconceived idea of the work. This is one of the reasons why Chéreau regularly declared he would never touch opera again. In the exhibition, we have devoted a display case to the critical reception of his Wagner Ring Cycle: the resounding scandal of its first year in 1976, when Chéreau received dozens of insulting letters and even a death threat, was followed in 1980 by international success, the final performance being hailed by an hour-long ovation.

Finally, what were Patrice Chéreau’s relationships with his conductors?

With conductors like Boulez, Barenboim or Salonen, he maintained a very close collaboration, nourished by fecund and fruitful dialogue, and great mutual respect. These conductors – among the greatest ever- were also ardent defenders of the theatrical issue in opera, working towards the same objective as Chèreau. For Chéreau, the question of the conductor he was to work with was a primordial consideration in his decision as to whether to agree to stage an opera or not. For the final part of the exhibition, we have chosen several letters from his correspondence with conductors in order to underline the extent to which the production of an opera is a work for four hands.

Patrice Chéreau, mettre en scène l’opéra
Patrice Chéreau, mettre en scène l’opéra 4 images

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