The virtual disappearance of classical music

As France moves into Nicolas Sarkozy's new Presidency here is an exclusive report from Paris by Antoine Leboyer on the worrying changes at a historic music venue:

If we are to be offended by the appearance of West End star Michael Ball for one evening at the BBC Proms, what should we say about the virtual disappearance of classical music from Paris’ historic Le Châtelet? Built in the second half of the 19th century, Le Châtelet used to be a venue that presented all types of music, from operas, ballet, and operettas to classical music concerts. Mahler conducted there and the theatre hosted several seasons of the Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes.

Le Châtelet then focused on light music and operettas until the 1980s when the City of Paris administration ran it as a “competitor” to the Paris Opera. The theatre was run by Stéphane Lissner before he moved to the Aix Festival, the Wiener Festwochen and then La Scala, and by Jean-Pierre Brossman after his time at the Lyon Opera. Very quickly, thanks to these directors, Le Châtelet became internationally recognised as a place of excellence.

Long-lasting relations with ensembles, orchestras, conductors, directors and soloists were established. Le Châtelet was the place where John Eliot Gardiner came every year to perform Mozart, Gluck, Verdi, and he found ideal working conditions there for his complete Berlioz Troyens (header image). For this occasion, national TV even broadcast live a Sunday performance. Ensembles like the Philharmonia Orchestra held long residencies, and performed concerts while still having the time to rehearse operas. This allowed Christoph von Dohnányi to stage many ambitious Strauss works. The Peter SellarsKent Nagano team came to premiere works by John Adams (El Nino above) and Kaija Saariaho (L'Amour de loin below), and foreign opera houses including the Berlin Staatsoper under Barenboim and the Kirov under Gergiev stayed for long residencies.

More importantly for French audiences, Le Châtelet became a showcase for regional opera houses from Lyon, Toulouse and other cities to present their best works each year. The programmes had classical music at their core, but found space for other genres.

Everything from Baroque to wonderful Offenbach operettas was given equal prominence, and the team of Marc Minkowsi and Laurent Pelly did wonders for the "Mozart des Champs-Elysées" (which to the French means Offenbach - his La Grand-Duchesse de Gérolstein is below). Jazz and non-classical singers were also invited, and, between operas, the hall was used for recitals and orchestral concerts.

Many halls offer cheap seats but these are often are of poor quality. Le Châtelet offered a wide range of ticket prices, and although the affordable seats were high up they offered satisfactory sound and sight-lines. The theatre became the most egalitarian venue for classical music in Paris, attracting audiences of all ages and from all backgrounds that would not have came to the more elitist Salle Pleyel and Theatre des Champs-Elysées.

All of this has gone. Le Châtelet is now in the second year under a new director, Jean-Luc Choplin, who is repositioning the theatre as a venue for light entertainment. To everyone’s surprise, his main production last year was Francis Lopez’s musical the Singer of Mexico, an insipid outdated operetta. Core programmes (not counting the two seasons of “Sunday Morning concerts” and the “Piano 4 étoiles” series which are hosted by, but not run by, Le Châtelet) included some classical music with Renée Fleming in Thais, a new work from French composer Pascal Dusapin and a staged Bach Passion with Emmanuelle Haïm and Robert Wilson. Given the need to book artists long in advance, it is safe to assume that these performances were planned by Brossman before he left. Orchestral concerts and recitals were almost non-existent, and, for the first time, amplification was used for non-operatic productions.

Many regular patrons were surprised, and assumed that the programmes were due to the transition of management. Choplin however made some controversial statements which seemed to reflect his personal tastes, praising the patience of French audiences who had to contend with “Germanic-like directors, and productions overburdened with meaning”. (For the interview in French follow this link.)

The 2007-8 season leaves no doubt about the future. Le Châtelet will now major one musicals with West Side Story being performed no less than 50 times, and there will be a Zarzuela and popular works from China and Africa. It is no longer Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler being played at orchestral concerts, but film music from Lord of the Rings. A few singers such as Felicity Lott and Simon Keenlyside are listed next to crooners who made their careers in the 70s.

There are no real operas save, perhaps, a rarity by Roussel which looks more like a vehicle for Bollywood director Sanjay Bhansali. Maybe this reflects the new director’s vision for classical music, but, for Parisian audiences, Le Châtelet is becoming the temple of crossover and mass-market entertainment. For years, the theatre’s directors held an open conference to present the forthcoming season. In keeping with his management style Choplin has decided to stop this tradition.

There is nothing basically wrong with performing popular works, and there must be room for all tastes. Where Parisian concert-goers are taking issue however, is that the music Le Châtelet is focussing on is already being performed at many other venues in Paris, as well as on mainstream TV, whereas classical music is having to fight for its existence. Le Châtelet was the venue where audiences went to enjoy quality classical music like the production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt below. But sadly that is no longer the case.

Now read Antoine Leboyer on French orchestras
Production shots from Le Châtelet, most by M.N. Roberts who does such an excellent job of documenting the house's fine productions, in descending order are Berlioz Les Troyens, John Adams' El Nino, Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de loin, Offenbach's La Grand-Duchesse de Gérolstein, Schoenberg's Erwartung , and Erich Korngold's Die tote Stadt . Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


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