Denys Arcand & His Passion for Operaby Caroline Rodgers
/ June 1, 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
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.
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.
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