Note from William: The following is a new feature for the website, comprised of conversations between myself and various artists and administrators involved in live operatic performances. The first of these is with the Opéra de Montréal’s General Manager, Pierre Dufour.
[Below: Opéra de Montréal General Manager Pierre Dufour; edited image of a publicity photograph.]
Wm: You became general manager during a time of financial crisis for the Opéra de Montréal. Your previous administrative position had been head of productions. It would seem to me that an experienced production chief would have a grasp of the cost structure and technical problems in mounting each opera, and that this would be a very useful background for a opera company’s chief executive. Did you find that to be true?
PD: Oh, very much so. Recall that Peter Volpe began his work at the Metropolitan Opera as a stagehand and worked himself up to general director. In fact, a very important part of an opera company’s budget is devoted to production costs. Having a handle on these costs is absolutely essential to the general manager role.
Wm: For several years I have watched with great interest the artistic collaboration between the Opéra de Montréal, and the Opera Australia. How did this collaboration come to be?
PD: When I was production director at Montreal Opera, I started to talk to my counterpart with the Opera of South Australia. I had the idea that Montreal could be the North American “turntable” for what I thought were the very exciting Opera Australia productions being produced.
We discussed the possibilities with that company in 2004. Then, in 2005, the Australians asked if we would be interested in co-producing a production of Delibes’ “Lakmé” with them.
Wm: What was your initial reaction to that idea?
PD: I must admit that I rediscovered “Lakmé”. It is a a wonderful French opera which has been unfairly neglected, including by important opera companies in French-speaking cities. I understood immediately that this would be a significant work for us to perform in Montreal, the leading French-speaking city in North America. So, all the stars were in line.
[Below: Nilakantha (Burak Bilgili, left) and Lakmé (Audrey Luna, right), disguised as itinerant beggars enter the town’s marketplace; edited image, based on an Yves Renaud photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal.]
In January 2006, we signed the production agreement and became the first company in North America to co-produce operas with the Opera Australia, which performs both in Sydney and Melbourne. That was the first step for the Opera de Montreal opera to participate in a great collaboration.
Wm: You committed to a relatively unfamiliar French work in the depths of a worldwide financial crises when most companies were favoring the best known repertory operas. How did this work out?
PD: We presented “Lakmé” in 2007 during a time when we had to reduce a 26 person staff down to 12. But instead of narrowing our repertory, we decided to trust our artistic judgment. We took a bold creative step – a joint venture with a company that was ten times our size.
It produced a positive vibe. Our local media became very interested. How could they be doing this when they were struggling financially?
Yet, “Lakmé”, during this first year of our financial reconstruction, was our most profitable production. It had never been presented in Montreal before. It has created a huge buzz in the company.
Wm: One notes how popular Bizet’s exotic “Pearlfishers” has become with North American audiences, it would invite more opera managements to explore “Lakme”.
PD: Yes, “Lakmé”, “Pearlfishers” and Massenet’s “Thais” are all operas on exotic themes that prove popular with audiences and are all less expensive to produce than the two most famous French operas, Bizet’s “Carmen” and Gounod’s “Faust”, both of which are much longer and have much larger casts.
Wm: Did you find that creating a production with a company literally on the opposite side of the world creating special challenges?
PD: Because we did accept the production, we became involved in sharing knowledge about the different approaches to producing opera between Australia and Quebec. There were huge technical challenges to creating a show that would be performed in Sydney, Melbourne and Montreal.
However the “Lakmé” creative team consisted of Australians. We knew we needed to launch a collaborative production that used a Canadian creative team. In 2009 we took lead responsibility fo a co-production of Verdi’s “Macbeth”.
[Below: Malcolm and Macduff join forces in the Rene Richard Cyr production of Verdi’s “Macbeth”; edited image, based on an Yves Renaud photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal.]
Thus, for “Lakmé” all the work on the production took place in Australia. For “Macbeth” everything was done in Quebec.
By coordinating our efforts, we created the idea of what we call our “turntable”. Since the productions are conceived for each of the participating opera houses – Sydney, Melbourne and Montreal – we know we don’t have to restage the production for each city.
Wm: The collaboration also encouraged your importation of some of the great Opera Australia productions.
PD: Yes, in 2008 we mounted Moffatt Oxenbould’s production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”
[Below: Hiroma Omura as Butterfly in Opera Australia’s 2011 revival of the 1997 Moffatt Oxenbould production; resized image, based on a production photograph for Opera Australia.]
Wm: I reviewed Oxenbould’s “Butterfly” at Pittsburgh Opera in October 2007. It is one of the most beautiful productions of “Butterfly” I have ever seen.
PD: For another French opera, in 2010 we imported the Elijah Moshinsky conceptualization of Massenet’s “Werther” whose sets are by Michael Yeargan.
Wm: “Werther” was yet another absolutely fascinating Opera Australia production. I was able to see Washington National Opera perform it at the Kennedy Center!
[Below: Michael Yeargan’s sets and costumes for the first scene of Massenet’s “Werther”; resized image of an Yves Renaud photograph, courtesy of the Opera de Montreal]
PD: Later in 2014, we will be performing Opera Australia’s classic Graeme Murphy production of Puccini’s “Turandot”.
Wm: A decade has passed since your initial discussions with the Australia folks. What are your current thoughts about this collaboration?
PD: I think initially people thought that Australia and Quebec were opposite cultures in so many ways. But, over time, I have begun to understand that there are underlying relationships between the French Canadians and the Australians. I flew to Melbourne to spend four and a half days. I felt a kinship there. I also found there are schools in Australia that study the French comic books Asterix and Obelix.
I am very impressed by Robert Hughes’ popular account of the colonization of Australia, The Fatal Shore. Just as Britain unloaded its convicts and undesirables to colonize Australia, so did the French in colonizing Quebec. Yet, both cultures are unapologetic about the circumstances of their original colonization.
[Below: a scene from Graeme Murphy’s Opera Australia production of Puccini’s “Turandot”; resized image of a production photograph.]
Wm: In some of the production materials you make reference to Bollywood. Yet, Mark Thompson’s Opera Australia sets and costumes really have tried to have a authentic 19th century view.
PD: Mark Thompson’s designs indeed were inspired by the arts and culture of India. His scenery is so realistic that during the technical week before rehearsals began I was looking for midges to fly out of the florally decorative sets.
Mark had spent a long time collecting authentic old silk cloth from vintage saris and the like to create the colorful costumes worn by the principals and chorus.
The Bollywood movies ard dancing have interested some cinema audiences in musical stories based in India. The aesthetics of these movies are a more naïve approach to presenting the stories than Delibes’ opera. However, from the beginning the word has stuck to the production, but has not discouraged the audiences from coming.
Wm: And what has been the audience reaction?
PD: Let me relate an interesting story about the first Montreal audience to see it. For our final dress rehearsals we always host some 2000 teenagers free of charge three times a year. All of these kids are ages 12 to 17.
We were quite anxious about what their reaction would be to a story about a virgin Indian priestess and a young British soldier.
We were scared that the young would unplug after 20 mintues. We were wrong. They got it! They were hysterical! At the close of every act and at the end of the show you would have thought it was an ovation for Britney Spears at Montreal’s Bell Center.
The story has a currency with the young that could be right out of Walt Disney. It’s about a dream world. The young audiences are sophisticated. We were shocked at how popular it was with them.
Wm: How did the 2007 opening night of your first Lakmé ever go?
PD: The opening night, which was a Saturday evening, was stunning. Prior to the first performance, we had been selling individual tickets at the rate of 180 a day. The word of mouth audience praise caused a surge in ticket sales. By Sunday we were selling 500 tickets a day and had sold out three days later.
The original cast was more predominantly Canadian than in 2013, although there are Canadian singers, such as John Tessier, the Gérald, in key roles. Each cast had a different vocal color and I can’t say that one is preferable to the other.
Wm: It does seem you are fulfilling a mission in promoting an inappropriately neglected French opera in a French-speaking city.
PD: We do feel we have a mandate as the largest Francophone opera company in North America to present at least one French opera every season, including, occasionally, a new French piece. In fact, we will be presenting a world premiere of a new French work later this decade.
I have been so pleased with our revival of “Lakmé”, whose beauties are evident on its first hearing. I promise that we will be seeking out other unfairly neglected French works in future seasons.