A plea for a great repertoire

A conversation with Marc Minkowski about French 19th century opera

The French conductor Marc Minkowski is a champion of the French operatic repertoire of the 19th century. In a conversation, he explains his love of this repertoire and makes plans for a renaissance.

Besides the baroque and classical repertoire you have always had a particular interest in the French 19th century repertoire, especially as far as opera is concerned. Why do you think this genre has been so long neglected, apart from some real repertoire pieces such as Carmen, Werther and Faust?

This raises many questions, and there isn’t a single or satisfactory answer. A number of explanations are needed for us to understand the profound changes in taste in opera audiences at the turn of the 20th century, in the context of an internationalisation of music practices and careers. I’m of the opinion that the success of Verdi’s and Wagner’s operas in Europe in the second half of the 19th century played an important role in this. In a genre where librettists and musicians had previously adapted to the social conventions and economic considerations of each theatre producer, these two composers imposed their own dramaturgy whilst placing importance on a humane treatment of their subjects. Reviving the spirit of Gluck, these two artists made themselves masters of the drama and subjugated it to the musical language and the operatic forms. When they were performed in Paris, their masterpieces completely changed the concept of opera for young musicians and excited an increasing number of the public. With hindsight, the works of Meyerbeer, which were still performed in opera houses, seemed more and more artificial towards the end of the 19th century. While art was essential to drama, especially with the emergence of stage direction in the early 20th century, people no longer knew how to stage these operas. In this transition period, taste began to change with the parameters of the performances. Opera ceased to satisfy a social need and now arose in accordance with the artists’ desires. All this represents a break between the French Romantic repertoire (except for Faust, which was premiered in 1859) and modern operatic productions after Verdi and Wagner. This modern opera theatre is that of the generation of Bizet and Massenet, who were born about thirty years later and profited from these changes.

What are the reasons for the current rediscovery of this repertoire?

We are living today in a period of intense curiosity about both the past and the future. There is a passion in the 20th and 21st century for Baroque art. However, an interest in early music began much earlier: let’s not forget that musicians such as Saint-Saëns, d’Indy, Romain Rolland and others were intensely interested in this repertoire. Monographs, the great monumental scholarly editions and theatrical revivals marked the beginning of the 20th century in France. There was already the beginnings of a new awareness, the wish to hold on to an artistic heritage, the pursuit of authenticity. Our interest in the following period, the Romantic, is more recent and began with the fine arts: the conversion of the Gare d’Orsay into a museum in 1986 is emblematic of this. In our time of retrospectives, the public is ready for a rediscovery of the music of the time of Ingres or Courbet and the Impressionists, a repertoire which at a stroke made the fortunes of the Parisian opera houses, from which we are still profiting today, and helped the city, which was truly the musical centre of Europe in the Romantic period, to exert its influence.

You have been one of the pioneers of this rediscovery since the 1980s. Which operas have you conducted and which are your favourites?

It is absolutely impossible for me to name favourites amongst the huge number of operas which I’ve already conducted, between such marvellous and diverse works as La Dame blanche by Boïeldieu, Le Domino noir by Auber, Robert le diable by Meyerbeer, La Favorite by Donizetti, Le Belle Hélène, La Grand-Duchesse de Gerolstein, Orphée aux Enfers and Les Contes d’Hoffmann by Offenbach – not forgetting his Fée du Rhein, a truly French Romantic opera, although it was premiered in Dresden – Carmen by Bizet and finally Cendrillon and Manon by Massenet. I’ve also recorded a recital with Magdalena Kožená for Deutsche Grammophon, including wonderful French opera arias by Gounod and Ambroise Thomas.

What have been your experiences with the performance materials of these works?

One very often encounters great difficulties in obtaining orchestral material for these works, even if authoritative critical editions are available. The orchestral parts contain too many mistakes and can in no sense be considered as definitive. When you have to work with original parts unearthed in libraries, you run the risk of losing a great deal of time just a few months or weeks before the performance.

Based on your personal experience in this matter, which surely will be shared by many of your colleagues, how do you gauge the importance of our new editorial project “L’Opéra français”?

This project is highly desirable! We now have available to us wonderful editions of Rossini, Wagner, Verdi and Offenbach. It is high time that something similar happened for French Romantic opera if we want it to be performable and to allow a new public to discover it under the best conditions. I’d also like to mention that, in parallel with your publishing project, there is beginning to be an interest in this repertoire in official quarters. In 2005 the role of the Opéra Comique in this area was newly defined by the French government and since 2007, these forgotten works have been given prominence in the season’s calendar of performances. In Venice, the Palazzetto Bru-Zane is home to the Centre for French Romantic Music, financed by a Swiss foundation; its activities will begin in 2009.

French 19th century operatic repertoire, which at its time was exported all over the operatic world, has currently been facing problems of acceptance. Grand opera is regarded by many as hyper-spectacular and at the same time superficial; the genre of Opéra Comique, with its spoken dialogues, is difficult to cast with today’s international ensembles of singers and hard to comprehend by audiences who often don’t know French well enough to understand and enjoy the subtleties of the comic opera librettos. How do you see the future of French 19th century opera and the chance of reintroducing some of the works in this genre to the stage with the help of our editorial project?

We will only succeed in convincing the opera-going public of the value and charm of these works which have been neglected for the last several decades if your efforts as publishers, coupled with the curiosity of programme planners and conductors, coincide with well-trained singers, with voices suitable for both bel canto and lyric singing. This repertoire is not unsingable if the interpreters develop a feeling for this style. The fact that these scores are becoming more easily available can only help people to familiarise themselves with these works by studying them. As far as comic opera goes – and let’s remember that Carmen, the most frequently performed French work in the world, is one such work – it’s essential that the singers re-learn how to speak on the stage, as well as sing. This change of register is delicate and the mastery of this discipline in the 19th century was indispensable. It is regrettable that the Conservatoire national supérieur in Paris closed its Opéra Comique classes in 1991.

May we know which French operas we might expect to hear from you in the future?

In the near future I’m preparing to conduct Mireille by Gounod, Don Quichotte by Massenet and Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer – and I’m greatly looking forward to all of these.

Questions devised by Ulrich Etscheit

› To top ‹