LYON, France (Reuters) - It's not often that an opera house has to scramble around last minute to find a new director for the biggest production of the year, but Opera de Lyon's general director Serge Dorny did, and came up trumps.
Less than a year ago -- which is microseconds in opera time -- Dorny said he was told by German-born director Jossi Wieler he would be unable to do a new production of Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," which had its premiere last Saturday, because he was taking over the Stuttgart opera.
"I was upset," the 49-year-old, Belgium-born Dorny told Reuters.
"Why was I upset? Because it was 'Tristan' and finding a new director for 'Tristan' is not like finding a new director for (Mozart's) 'Cosi fan Tutte'. It is a very complicated opera and as intendant (general director) you do it once in a mandate...it takes time to get into it and it is something that is part of your legacy, something you will leave behind."
As it turned out, the production that Dorny has provided is every bit the winner he will be proud to leave behind.
The French newspaper Le Monde said it was a "Tristan" that "reached almost to the heavens" while Le Temps said that Danish soprano Ann Petersen, singing the fiendishly challenging role of Isolde for the first time, was "a revelation."
They are the kind of rave reviews and it was the kind of production that should help Dorny in his goal of assuring Opera de Lyon is implanted on the world opera map so there is as much interest in its season as there is in London's Covent Garden, New York's Metropolitan Opera or that bigger, better-funded operation just up the road in a city called Paris.
Here's what else he had to say about the opera's links to Lyon and the underprivileged parts of the city, its budget and the scene outside the opera doors, where hip-hop dancers meet the opening night audience dressed for the opera:
Q: So what is different about Opera de Lyon?
A: "What's important for me is that an opera house should have a kind of identity and here it is the idea of a contemporary repertoire where the element of choice is far more important. A big proportion of our repertoire is either rarely performed or is being rediscovered...In the history of music and opera there are some 50-60,000 titles...and between 50 and 100 get performed over and over again. So I choose a theme which, rather than saying we need a Wagner, a Mozart or a Verdi...allows me to come up with an interesting mix.
Q: These are tough times for cultural institutions, particularly expensive operations like an opera house, due to budget cuts. How are you making out?
A: "We have a budget of roughly 40 million euros ($59 million) and of this about 79 percent is public spending and of that 60 percent is from the city. The thing is that for Lyon, the opera is a very important ambassador, a very important protagonist in cultural life. Lyon is a 'second city', like Birmingham or Frankfurt and therefore they want to manifest themselves and one of the ways they do it is they invest in the arts.
Q: There are a lot of people in this city -- like the hip-hop dancers practicing on the sidewalks surrounding the building -- who will never see an opera. How do you connect?
A: "Community outreach didn't exist before 2003 when I came here but we now invest an enormous amount of time and work in the local community, in deprived areas. We have a 'maitrise' (training program) for students to come eight hours a week for opera singing or piano lessons and now 30 of the 110 children are from two very deprived areas -- and they are some of the best students.
"For the hip-hop dancers, we've created an association for them and we give them space so they can come here day and night to practice. It helps build a relationship between the population of the city and the opera. It doesn't mean everybody will come to the opera, but it makes everybody feel they have some kind of ownership of the opera, and this is important."
Editing by Paul Casciato