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Discouraged by the many obstacles to becoming an opera singer in France, Alain Herriau almost gave up his passion. For three years, he had a go at other vocations. Then, in 2005, he decided that he liked the stage more than anything else. At 34, the baritone-bass singer has to prove once again that he has what it takes to be a solo artist. His will be a fresh start at this summer’s Saint-Céré festival in France. “I’m a newcomer again”, he says with a smile.
Nevertheless, Herriau’s track record is spotless. A graduate from the reputed Paris conservatory, he played a role in Mozart’s The Enchanted Flute at the opera festival in Aix en Provence. He then worked as an understudy at the Massy opera near Paris in a performance directed by Olivier Desbordes. The latter hired Herriau, who was 26 at the time, for the Saint-Céré festival. “There aren’t many directors in France who give a break to young singers”, says Heriau, “but Desbordes was an exception”.
The Saint-Céré festival is an opportunity for young singers to perform in a given show some thirty odd times, both at the festival and in other French towns. This was a common phenomenon forty years ago, but is now rare. “In general, opera houses do not host a performance more than three or four times. “That’s just not enough to gain experience!” says Olivier Desbordes, now artistic director of the festival.
“French opera is elitist, reserved for a handful of people. Unlike Germany, there isn’t a network of opera houses. (Germany has more than 100 opera houses, compared to only 26 in France). A lot has to be done to democratise opera in France, as was done with theatre at the Avignon festival”, says Desbordes. The Saint-Céré festival is living proof of ‘democratic’ opera – performances in towns without opera halls usually playing to packed houses.
French opera is facing a critical period. Music personalities like orchestra conductor Georges Prêtre and singer Roberto Alagna have signed a petition along with hundreds of classical music professionals denouncing the current system. The petition demands the creation of more opera companies and the implementation of policies to protect the opera scene in France. “As things stand now, a career as an opera singer is almost impossible,” claim Gabriel Bacquier and Michel Sénéchal, professors at the Paris conservatory. The petition also deplores the fact that only 12% of French singers residing in France were hired for the 2007-2008 season at the Paris opera.
Seven years ago already, a report by the French Ministry of Culture showed that opera companies in France were on the verge of extinction (six companies currently exist in France). The trend started in the 1970s, when the Paris opera abandoned the ‘company’ system in favour of short-term contracts aimed primarily at international stars. The move reinforced the ‘international’ stature of the institution, but made is difficult for local performers to find work.
The crisis in French opera is also heightened by the absence (except in baroque music) of orchestra conductors like Britain’s John Elliot Gardiner or Italy’s Claudio Abbado. According to Pascal Dumay, author of the ministerial report, “orchestra conductors like working with the singers they know.”
As a benchmark for reforming the professional opera scene in France, Dumay cites Germany, which counts roughly a hundred resident companies, and the opera studio of San Francisco. In this latter institution, where famous mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was trained, a graduate is automatically awarded a three-year contract with the San Francisco opera. “The Dumay report provides a good analysis of the situation, but nothing has been done since”, says Olivier Desbordes.
The problem does not merely concern France - many European singers face the same fate. “British opera houses end up auditioning the same singers each year. There is no more steady employment,” says Sabine Garrone, mezzo-soprano schooled in London and Belgium. “Wherever you may be, you have to meet someone who likes your voice.”
Still, the 33-year-old Garrone, who plays Niklaus in Hoffman’s fairy tales at the Saint-Céré festival, is one of the signatories of Bacquier and Sénéchal’s petition. “I have no hard feelings against the profession”, she says, “but I’d love to see more opera companies in France.”