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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 20, No. 7 June 2015

Denys Arcand & His Passion for Opera

by Caroline Rodgers / June 1, 2015

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Wah Keung Chan, Denys Arcand, and Laurent Patenaude on stage on May 3, 2015.

On May 3, La Scena Musicale held a benefit event to raise funds for the refurbishment of its website. Filmmaker Denys Arcand, loyal friend and supporter of La Scena, generously donated his time to participate in a public discussion about the opera that he staged for Les Violons du Roy, Zémire et Azor. His passionate presentation, framed by performances by soprano Florie Valiquette, was attended by about 180 people.

Wah Keung Chan, Founder and Co-Editor in Chief of La Scena Musicale, and Laurent Patenaude, Head of Artistic Administration for Les Violons du Roy, spoke with Denys Arcand about his film L’âge des ténèbres, about Zémire et Azor, and about his love of opera in general.

WKC: In L’âge des ténèbres, Rufus Wainwright performs Du moment qu’on aime from Zémire et Azor. Why did you choose Rufus to sing this rather than a trained operatic tenor?

Denys Arcand: Yes, I could have. The character of Jean-Marc is someone who is not an intellectual, who would have a tendency to be more familiar with pop stars, so I thought Rufus would be perfect because I was looking for someone who would be a popular singer but at the same time who had a good knowledge of music. Rufus, because of his family, has been brought up singing. He also made a recording with American pop singer David Byrne, Au fond du temple saint, the famous duet from Les Pêcheurs de perles; Rufus sang the baritone part, so I knew he was able to do it.

Laurent Patenaude: What I find interesting about that choice of music and the stage direction is that we enter immediately into the fantasy world of Jean-Marc.

Denys Arcand: Yes, he’s a person who lives in his dreams and fantasies. But in any case, Zémire et Azor  is also a fantasy, it’s a fairy tale, it’s Beauty and the Beast, which was written in the seventeenth century by Madame Leprince de Beaumont, and Grétry set it to music a century later. But it’s a magical story that belongs to the collective unconscious of the whole Western world, a bit like “Tom Thumb.”

WKC: Zémire et Azor contains some well-known arias, and there were a lot of recordings from this opera in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Why do you think that we’ve kind of lost interest?

Denys Arcand: It’s an opera that is almost impossible to stage, because first it’s an opéra comique, which means there’s a lot of spoken lines, and many that are exceedingly bad. So I took part of the vocabulary, transformed it, and rewrote the recitatives. Mathieu [Lussier] composed the music, and we kept only the arias with new recitatives. And I think it turned out great, but you be the judge when we show it. Otherwise, you can’t stage it; it’s so dated, it’s impossible.

Laurent Patenaude: Before Zémire et Azor, did you ever think of directing an opera?

Denys Arcand: I thought about it vaguely.  I had already received an offer from the Canadian Opera Company to direct Wagner’s Ring Cycle. They had chosen Robert Lepage to do the first, François Girard the second, Atom Egoyan the third, and they needed someone to do the end, “Twilight of the Gods.” I refused because I hate Wagner with a passion. I had also discussed it with Opéra de Montréal. But I don’t like the way things are done in opera. If I put on a play, the most important part of my work is choosing the performers.  Whereas generally in opera, except in Europe, the directors don’t choose the singers. And that leads to situations that I don’t enjoy. In the case of Zémire et Azor, Mathieu Lussier and I chose all the performers together.

WKC: There are different interpretations of Beauty and the Beast. What is your vision of that legend?

Denys Arcand: I think it is popular because all through the late Middle Ages and later, you had lots of arranged marriages, so very often the parents would try to marry their daughter to some rich old guy. So one of the ways to deal with this would be to accept the idea of Beauty and the Beast that someone might have a very ungainly appearance, and underneath might lie a heart of gold, a wonderful personality.

WKC: Now that you’ve had the first taste of staging an opera, are you hooked? Do you want to do more operas?

Denys Arcand: If I could have roughly the same conditions as this, I would do it again tomorrow. But these conditions are exceptional. Maybe it will turn out to be possible, who knows?

WKC: Have you ever thought of writing the libretto for an opera?

Denys Arcand: I already tried with François Dompierre, we worked on it for a long time. But, nowadays, it’s complicated to write an opera. I teased François saying: "Come on, Don Giovanni was composed in three weeks, what are you waiting for?" He replied: "Yes, but for Mozart it was easy, because it came after Bach and Bach established the canon of Western music, so Mozart was not to question the style to use." Today, what style of music do you write? Do you use a computer? Try serialism? Minimalism? Today’s composer faces these questions before even starting. Now that he has a host of musical styles and a host of possible paths to take, it's more complicated. And François never resolved this question.

Translation: Rona Nadler

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