• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Laurent Pelly

    [Opera Lively interview # 116] Opera Lively is thrilled to present to our members and readers the words of one of the most brilliant operatic stage directors in activity, Mr. Laurent Pelly. His answers to our questions are very entertaining and enjoyable.

    Photo Polo Garat, Odessa Photographies

    Artistic Biography

    French-born Laurent Pelly directs and designs costumes for productions that are detailed, satirical, often surreal, exquisite in taste and wonderfully imaginative in both conception and execution. He is particularly renowned for his work in French repertoire, and has a particular skill for revealing the serious side of comedy; however he is increasingly in demand as a director of more weighty music-dramas. He underlines his interpretation of characters through his skilful and inspired costume designs.

    Laurent Pelly enjoys a distinguished career in the theatre – in 2007 he was appointed Director of Théâtre National de Toulouse, having previously been Director of Cargo / Centre Dramatique National des Alpes in Grenoble from 1997 through 2007. Highlights in Toulouse include Victor Hugo’s Mille cents francs de récompense (also at l’Odéon in Paris and winner of the 2011 french critics “best director” award, as well as “best set design”), Hanokh Levin’s Funérailles d’hiver, Carlo Goldoni’s Le Menteur, Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, a staged recital of songs by Michel Legrand, featuring Natalie Dessay and most recently Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for which he also designed both sets and costumes. In 12/13 he directs and designs Victor Hugo’s Mangeront-ils?

    Current opera productions include Ravel’s L'enfant et les sortilèges and L'heure espagnole for the Glyndebourne and Saito Kinen Festivals, Robert le Diable for the Royal Opera House and Grand Théâtre de Genève and Bellini’s I Puritani for L’Opéra national de Paris. Other current work includes a new version of Les contes d’Hoffmann for San Francisco Opera and Teatro del Liceu, a revival of Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges in Amsterdam, Manon at Covent Garden (also in Japan in September 2010), Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala Milan and Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse and Cendrillon (originally created in Santa Fe) at Covent Garden, Teatro del Liceu Barcelona, La Monnaie Brussels and Opéra de Lillle.
    Other recent successes include Handel’s Guilio Cesare for L’Opéra national de Paris, Kurt Weil’s Threepenny Opera for la Comédie-Française, Massenet’s Don Quichotte at La Monnaie, Mahagonny for Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse, Offenbach’s La Vie Parisienne for Opéra de Lyon and Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse, Hansel und Gretel for Glyndebourne Festival (also revived in Lyon) and Verdi’s La traviata at Santa Fe and Teatro Regio di Torino.

    His celebrated production of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment (Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, Metropolitan Opera) received world-wide acclaim, and enjoys constant revival, whilst other productions include Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen (Saito Kinen Festival and Maggio Musicale Florence), Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Mozart’s La finta semplice (Theater an der Wien), Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges (Netherlands Opera), L’elisir d’amore (Opéra national de Paris, Teatro alla Scala Milan, Mariinsky Theatre St Petersburg and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden), Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Weill’s Les Sept péchés Capitaux (Opéra national de Paris), Poulenc’s La Voix humaine and Bartók's Duke Bluebeard's Castle (Opéra National de Lyon), Rameau’s Platée (Opéra national de Paris, Santa Fe), Chabrier’s Le roi malgré lui for Opéra National de Lyon and L’Opéra Comique Offenbach’s La Grande Duchesse at Théâtre du Châtelet and La Belle Hélène (Théâtre du Châtelet, Santa Fe, English National Opera).


    Numerous Laurent Pelly productions are available on DVD and blu-ray disc. Some examples:

    Ravel: L'heure espagnole & L'enfant et les sortilèges

    Elliot Madore, François Piolino, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Alek Shrader, Paul Gay, Khatouna Gadelia, Elodie Mechain, Julie Pasturaud, Kathleen Kim, Natalia Brzezinska,Hila Fahima, Kirsty Stokes

    The Glyndebourne Chorus; London Philharmonic Orchestra; Kazushi Ono (Conductor)

    DVD/blu-ray Release on FRA Musica, 2013

    Meyerbeer: Robert le diable

    Bryan Hymel, Patrizia Ciofi, John Relyea, Marina Poplavskaya, Nicolas Courjal, David Butt Philip, Pablo Bemsch, Ashley Riches,Jihoon Kim, Jean-Francois Borras
    Dušica Bijelic.

    The Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House; Daniel Oren (Conductor)

    DVD/blu-ray Release on Opus Arte, 2013

    Handel: Giulio Cesare

    Natalie Dessay, Lawrence Zazzo, Isabel Leonard, Varduhi Abrahamya, Christophe Dumaux, Nathan Berg, Dominique Visse, Aimery Lefèvre

    Le Concert d'Astrée; Chœur de l'Opéra national de Paris; Emmanuelle Haïm (Conductor)

    DVD Release on Virgin Classics, 2012

    Massenet: Cendrillon

    Jean-Philippe Lafont, Ewa Podles, Madeleine Pierard, Joyce DiDonato, Eglise Gluttierez, Alice Coote

    The Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House; Bertrand De Billy (Conductor)

    DVD Release on Virgin Classics, 2011

    Donizetti: La Fille du Régiment

    Natalie Dessay, Juan Diego , Felicity Palmer, Alessandro Corbelli and Dawn French

    Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House; Bruno Campanella (Conductor)

    DVD released on Virgin Classics, 2007

    Jacques Offenbach: La Belle Hélène

    Dame Felicity Lott, Yann Beuron, Michel Senechal, Laurent Naouri

    Les Musiciens du Louvre; Marc Minkowski (Conductor)

    DVD released on Arthaus Musik, December 2001

    Rameau: Platée

    Paul Agnew, Mireille Delunsch, Yann Beuron, Laurent Naouri

    Les Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble; Marc Minkowski (Conductor)

    DVD released on TDK, 2004

    ... and many others:
    Offenbach's Orphée aux Enfers performed at the Opéra national de Lyon (1997)
    Offenbach's La Grande-duchesse de Gérolstein performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet (2004)
    Prokofiev's L'Amour des Trois Oranges performed at De Nederlandse Opera (2005)
    Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore performed at the Opéra national de Paris (2006)
    Offenbach's La Vie parisienne performed at the Opéra de Lyon (2007)
    Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel performed at the Glyndebourne Festival (2008)
    Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande performed at the Theater an der Wien (2009)
    Massenet's Don Quichotte performed at La Monnaie (2011)


    Here is a partial list of Mr. Pelly's famous productions:

    L'Amour des Trois Oranges for DNO
    La Vie Parisienne for Lyon
    La Fille du Régiment for the ROH
    Cendrillon for Santa Fe and the ROH
    La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein for Grenoble
    Manon for the Met
    L'Enfant et les Sacrilèges for Glyndebourne
    L'Heure Espagnole for Glyndebourne
    Platée for Grenoble
    La Belle Hélène for the Châtelet
    Giulio Cesare for Paris
    Pelléas et Mélisande for the Theater and der Wien
    L'Elisir d'Amore for Paris
    Robert le Diable for the ROH
    Hänsel und Gretel for Glyndebourne
    Orphée aux Enfers for Lyon
    Don Quichotte for La Monnaie
    La Traviata for Santa Fe and Torino
    Les Contes d'Hoffmann for San Francisco and the Liceu
    The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny for Toulouse
    The Cunning Little Vixen for Florence
    Ariadne auf Naxos for Paris
    Threepeny Opera for La Comédie Française
    La Voix Humaine for Lyon
    Bluebeard's Castle for Lyon
    Le Roi Malgré Lui for Lyon and L'Opéra Comique
    Les Sept Péchés Capitaux for Paris
    La Finta Semplice for the Theater and der Wien
    I Puritani for Paris


    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Laurent Pelly

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.

    Credits - Questions by Opera Lively journalists and staff. Photos of the artist were sent to us by his PR and/or were recovered from his website; photo credits given when known; fair promotional use.

    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – So you are at Santa Fe for La Traviata. Please talk about this production that you are doing for them for the second time.

    Laurent Pelly – First of all, I’m very happy about reviving this production, because four years ago it was the first time I staged La Traviata, and also the first time I did any Verdi. Usually we don’t get too much of an opportunity to rework a production in a revival, because there is a need to be very fast in rehearsals and we only have the time to do exactly the same thing. In Santa Fe however I had the time to revise the second act completely and I was actually able to do a brand new design, which is quite rare. When you approach a masterpiece like La Traviata, doing it again and having the time to rework it is never too much, because for this kind of piece, the work never ends.

    OL – Has the concept changed?

    LP – No, I’m using the same concept, with a very figurative setting that is at the same modern and dreamy. I don’t have any intention of doing this piece in a traditional way. Have you seen any pictures?

    OL – Not really, but I’ll see the production in person, next week.
    [Editor's note: read Opera Lively's review of this production, with more pictures, by clicking (here)]

    LP – Ah, OK. What I used is a set of blocs that look a little bit like a cemetery. The opening scene is mirrored on the novel La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, because as you know the novel, unlike the opera, starts with Marguerite Gautier’s funeral. Our cemetery is evoked but not realistic. The same blocs also look like a model of a city, and can function as furniture as well. Then, this setting is useful in all four acts. After the funeral opening, the set becomes a plateau where the party at Flora’s home happens.

    Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Opera Press Department

    When I did the production in 2009, the second act, the countryside scene, had some fake grass and it wasn’t really successful. Therefore, this time I decided to use the same blocs for the second scene, but they open up and change from looking like tombstones being backdrops of the sky with clouds and air that evoke liberty and are much more coherent for the scene. I think this new set is dreamlike and poetic and more appropriate to the arc of Violetta’s story.

    Photo courtesy of Santa Fe Opera Press Department

    OL – This sounds fascinating. It is true that the novel proceeds in the opposite chronological order of the opera, something that Verdi tried to acknowledge by doing his overture also in reverse chronological order, with the death theme right at the beginning; so it is very interesting that you picked it up in your staging. Now, we have a completely different cast from 2009, so tell me about it. Natalie Dessay is so energetic on stage; does it work the same way with a different singer?

    LP – Yes, the cast is not the same. On one hand, certainly this production was conceived for Natalie Dessay, and Brenda Rae is very different. On the other hand, I’ve done many productions with Natalie that were revived by other singers, and they worked fine. Of course, Natalie has her own style and creates a whole universe. We have an enormous rapport – she knows very well what I love and what kind of style of movement I appreciate, and she adheres to this.

    It is true that this production forces Violetta to be very physically active, especially in the first act, and I didn’t alter this for this revival; I kept almost exactly the same physicality. We changed the costumes for the second act because the old ones didn’t go well with the new sets, but we kept the other costumes almost the same. But Brenda’s personality is very different; therefore even though we use the same costumes, having a singer with another personality affects the emotional perfection of the show a lot.

    Michael Fabiano who is doing Alfredo is also very different from Saimir Pirgu, but the chemistry between these two young singers, Michael and Brenda, is fantastic. I’m very happy with this part, because the emotional exchanges between them are very strong.

    Brenda Rae and Michael Fabiano - Photo Santa Fe Opera

    They are not exactly beginners, but they are at the start of their careers and have a wonderful energy. I’m very pleased to be reviving this with them. When I got to Santa Fe, I was thinking to myself, “Oh my, I’ll have to revive this production, it won’t be easy” – but in the end, it was a real pleasure.

    OL – Talking about Ms. Dessay’s unique talent, I’d say that your La Fille du Régiment seems to fit her like a glove.

    Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez in La Fille du Régiment

    LP – Yes. The entire production was planned specifically for Natalie, and even the adaptation of the libretto done by Agathe Mélinand [co-director of the Théâtre National de Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées] took into consideration Natalie’s personality. However later the same production was done with three different singers, Patricia Ciofi, Diana Damrau, and Aleksandra Kurzak, and it worked, because we had very precise instructions for all the playful movements. The only problem might be the language, because necessarily in La Fille du Régiment when the singers are not French, it might be more difficult. But with someone like Patricia Ciofi who is also a magnificent actress, there is no problem.

    Diana Damrau in La Fille du Régiment - photo Beth Bergman / Met

    I believe that Natalie Dessay has left a legacy in this regard, and now, more and more I meet young singers who are very interested in theatrical acting. Even though I say that it is the music that takes priority in my productions, the inner workings of a character can often contribute to the evolution of the artist’s singing. When a singer is not just fixated on the musical line but also interprets and builds up the character, the interpretation influences the singing.

    OL – Perfect! Every time I see one of your productions, I notice that the music is always in close relationship with the character. When you are the stage director, it seems like you are able to obtain from your singers a style of performance in which, for example, when they sing a coloratura passage, it’s not just for the sake of decoration, but if feels motivated by a clear dramatic justification. I believe that you have the means to work with the singers in finding or producing this motivation that links the music to the dramatic elements.

    LP – What you are saying of my productions is very kind and gives me a lot of pleasure.

    OL – Oh, I really love your productions. I have many of your DVDs; you are great.

    LP – Thank you.

    OL – I imagine that unlike spoken theater, when you are directing opera you might encounter differences of point of view between the stage director and the singers. You were first a stage director for spoken theater. This aptitude for finding the drama in the music, does it come naturally to you, or is it particularly difficult and the biggest challenge in staging an opera?

    LP – Indeed, I always say that I primarily stage the music. What interests me is to tell a story, to make theater out of the music, to turn the music into something as lively as possible. It works for certain pieces, but it works less well for others. We can’t use the same recipe every time, because the pieces are very different from each other. I always consider myself a craftsman who is a servant of the piece; the piece is not my servant. This is very important. I mean by this that I do not try to forcibly introduce a concept into the piece.

    There are operas that need a new concept because they are a bit dated and dusty. This is particularly true of comedies because they don’t age well, given that the public is no longer privy to the same culture that generated those comedic moments, so sometimes we need to find different ways to be effective. But I never try to imprint a forced concept onto the work; it’s rather the other way around: it is the piece that inspires me. Most often, the music inspires me.

    I don’t really like the idea of tradition. I don’t experience a need to make something traditional, but I don’t fear it either. One needs to always be as sincere as possible. I have read the questions you sent me for this interview in advance, and this is part of one of your later questions: I always think about the kind of public that doesn’t have a frame of reference. I don’t think about the opera connoisseur, those who know all the works by heart and have seen ten thousand versions. I rather think of the public that has never seen the piece and is coming to an opera house for the first time. This kind of public might think “this is old and dated and not something that interests me today.” For the sake of this segment of the audience, I try to ask myself how to deliver the most sensitive, the most lively emotion, and how to turn it into something that is contemporary, but without forcing anything.

    OL – So, you’ve been directing opera since 1998, after a remarkable career in spoken theater, which continues to this day, in your capacity as director of the Théâtre National de Toulouse. Recently, you have directed Mangeront-ils? by Victor Hugo. I imagine that there is much more freedom when you stage spoken theater, without the constraints of a composer’s recommendations and the musical requirements. What are the differences and similarities between directing spoken theater and opera?

    LP – First, I just want to make sure that it is understood that I am primarily a spoken theater director. Your question says “after a career…” which might imply that one thing took over the other, but I define myself as a man of the theater.

    OL – Yes, yes, I know that you continue to do both.

    LP – That’s it. I share my life between the theater and the opera. For me, I think I’d have anyway a hard time doing one without the other. Certainly I’d have trouble doing opera if I weren’t a man of theater. The spoken theater allows me to question my own work, to challenge myself. When we have such a magnificent tool like the theater in Toulouse with all the means at our disposition, we have the time and the ability to invent new forms and to create experimental things and take more risks than in opera, which needs to be more efficient. In opera time is shorter. I say that in spoken theater we can look for something while in opera we have to find it! In opera given the musical, technical, and time constraints, one needs very strict planning. But I love to take advantage of the constraints and make of them sources for invention. This is why I feel so good in opera.

    OL – Very good. But singers, I believe, arrive with a more fixed idea about their roles, as compared to theatrical actors. Does it affect the relationship between singers and stage directors?

    LP – Yes, it is at the same time pleasant and complicated, the fact that singers may often know their role and the opera better than the director probably does, by virtue of the fact that they have played the role two, three, ten times, whereas the director is usually tackling the piece for the first time. But most singers are intelligent and experience a need for new suggestions and for hearing new ideas and another viewpoint about a piece, therefore in general it all goes down very well. For me, working with singers who master a role and have a very well constructed take on it but are also flexible, is very interesting. Sometimes there is some tension and some difficulty because there are more risks for the singer, but it is possible to relax and share those risks.

    OL – In spoken theater you have recently directed Macbeth. Would you like to also direct Verdi’s opera based on it? If you were to direct the opera, it would be the same tragedy but in another genre – what would have to change?

    LP – Regarding the Scottish play, I don’t know very well how to reply to this question. The play is a piece that I love in the theater; I find it extraordinary; but I have never approached Verdi's opera as a director. It was rather the other way around. It was when I saw Richard Jones’ production of Verdi’s opera at Glyndebourne that I experienced the need to read the play again and approach it in the theater. Traviata was my first Verdi. The opera Macbeth frightens me a little; I don’t know if it is for me.

    What I found extraordinary in Richard Jones’staging was that it was simultaneously heavy and somber, but funny. There was an element of derision that was wonderful. I said to myself “oh, OK, we can dare to do this!” At the same time, it was very respectful, painful, and very musical.

    OL – We have talked about the relationship between the stage director and the singers. Now, let’s talk about the conductor. When you approach a new production, what happens between these two artists who are the principal creators who have control over the final product, the conductor and the stage director? How do you manage the issue of creative control over the product? Are there frequent conflicts of artistic vision? Are there conductors you prefer to work with?

    LP – In general, it all goes very smoothly. My operatic career started with Marc Minkowski. My very first operatic production fifteen years ago, Orphée aux enfers, was with him, as well as the next two, Platée and La Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein. Marc is a wonderful conductor and a good friend. I trust him. He loves theater and makes music theatrically even when he is conducting symphonic pieces. Platée is an extraordinary work, an absolute masterpiece that is very complex, and Marc Minkowskyi was the one who taught me how to see what is in the music.

    The relationship with a conductor was the starting point for me, in opera. Today most of the time this relationship goes very well because I am very respectful of the music. I don’t ask singers to sing with their back to the conductor when I know that it is a very difficult passage. I know how singing works technically so as a result, when a conductor realizes that I respect the musical work, it all goes very well. There were a couple of occasions when it wasn’t as smooth, but I don’t feel bad about it. For me, a good relationship between the stage director and the conductor is essential.

    OL – In my interviews, I heard from different artists – conductors, singers, video directors – that they love to work with you because you understand the musical side of the opera. Have you received musical education?

    LP – Yes, I had a lot of musical education when I was young. I was a chorus singer for ten years, and an oboe player for five or six years. Later I took singing lessons – not that I consider myself to be a singer, but I wanted to learn how it all worked, so I took lessons for three or four years. Now I have no more time for lessons, but I would have loved to continue. I think it is important, and that’s why things go well between the singers and myself. Today, for example, it’s the general rehearsal for La Traviata and I have an appointment with Brenda Rae to talk about her character, not only from the standpoint of acting, but also from the musical standpoint, and I feel close to her because I’m able to listen to the music.

    OL – So, as you’ve been saying, you approach an opera first musically, therefore the libretto is not your starting point, right?

    LP – Certainly it’s always the music that is my starting point. Anyway, there are certain librettos that are just impossible. In November I’m doing I Puritani at Opéra Bastille, and that libretto is atrocious. It is of such a degree of silliness! But the music is sublime. It is true that one needs to make use of the libretto to stage an opera, but I’m planning to approach I Puritani rather musically.

    OL – How much familiarity do you need to have with an opera before you start to work on your concept for the staging?

    LP – It depends. Certain pieces, I don’t need to listen to them one hundred times before I get my ideas. Sometimes it all happens very fast, in an instant. Certainly one needs to know an opera very well, its history, and its dramaturgy, but there are occasions when it all falls in place a bit simultaneously.

    OL – Let’s talk a bit more about Mme. Natalie Dessay. Many of your productions have her as the leading singer. Is it just a coincidence, or do you personally invite her and you insist with the opera company management that they need to have her come?

    LP – It’s not a coincidence, it’s a shared choice. It’s a well-established relationship. For La Fille du Régiment, for example, she was the one who insisted that I should be the stage director.

    OL – Interesting!

    LP – Yes. On the other hand, there were productions like Pelléas where it was the other way around. I had heard Natalie, Laurent Naouri, and Stéphane Degout in concert in Bourges, I think, and I proposed to the Theater an der Wien to do Pelléas, and next I suggested to them that we needed Natalie, Laurent, and Stéphane. But frequently, singers are hired earlier than the stage director. Singers at this level are very busy people, busier than I am, and their schedule is established years in advance, so often the stage director and the conductor are hired last.

    OL – Is she active in the realm of ideas? Do you discuss the production with her, in advance?

    LP – No. Natalie doesn’t have preconceived ideas. She is very much a listener. Certainly we do discuss a lot, but not necessarily in advance.

    OL – She is saying that she is about to retire from opera. Do you see other singers with whom you’d have a similar rapport, in the future?

    LP – No, it’s true that it will be a loss. But I’ve been lucky to meet extraordinary artists like Natalie and Anna Netrebko, and several others. This is one of the best parts of my profession. It is true that she will retire from opera after the Manon we are doing at the Capitole in September, but we have other projects. We experience the need to do spoken theater and musical comedy together. I think she is a bit sad about it, but we’ll continue to work together.

    OL – Let’s talk about revivals. One of our staff members at Opera Lively bought your DVD of L’Amour des Trois Oranges and then went to see it live in Amsterdam. She liked it so much that she saw it again twice more. So, while comparing these four performances – the one recorded on DVD and the three she saw live at the theater – she noticed subtle differences each time. So, to what degree does a revival enjoy creative liberty over the original? Do you ask your singers to come up with new ideas? Do you try to work on your revivals in order to always make something new out of them? I heard that you aim at making productions that can withstand the test of time. Several of your productions have been revived, like La Fille du Régiment, Cendrillon, L’Amour des Trois Oranges, Hoffmann… Do you keep thinking about your past productions in an attempt to make them evolve?

    LP – Regarding L’Amour des Trois Oranges, it is a show that I love. Productions disappear, they get destroyed, but this one we were successful in getting it picked up elsewhere. So, seven years later, it necessarily changes. L’Amour des Trois Oranges is a masterpiece like La Traviata, so we can redo it without any problem, without getting bored. This is not the case for La Fille du Régiment. I have trouble redoing it over and over, because it is not a very deep and powerful work [he laughs]. Cendrillon is magnificent, and each time I work with the singers to change some small things. I realize that there were some details that weren’t right at the time of the creation, or were a bit awkward because we didn't have enough time to work them out, which is often the case. So, necessarily, things change.

    OL – So, let’s leave the revivals behind and talk about new productions. How much artistic freedom do you have when an opera company asks you to do a new production? Is it important to you to have the most complete freedom, or do you make concessions? Does it happen that they ask of you something excessive, and you end up refusing to continue the project?

    LP – Most of the time there is complete freedom, certainly. It’s the only way I can work. We have discussions when I show the mock-up, and there are concessions of a technical and economic nature that need to be made because you can’t just do whatever you want, but artistically, it is essential to have freedom. Luckily, now I often am the one who makes the initial proposition to an opera house even of what operas to stage – they ask me “what do you feel the need to stage?” so for me it has been like this. I can’t say how it happens for other directors.

    OL – I’d say that for opera companies and video recording companies, to have the name Laurent Pelly on the poster or on the cover is an indication that they’ll do good business, so I understand that in this prestigious phase of your career you are given the liberty of choosing your pieces. How do you make this choice?

    LP – I have a very curious nature. I like to work with some pieces that aren’t very well known or have been a bit forgotten.

    OL – I have noticed that although you’ve done some 20th century operas, you haven’t done any contemporary pieces – and by this, I mean 21st century works. Would you want to create a world premiere of a new opera? You’ve recently created a recital Parlez Moi d’Amour with Dame Felicity Lott. Doing a brand new piece must be pleasurable in terms of creative liberty.

    LP – I dream of directing contemporary opera. It’s a matter of opportunity. I haven’t had the opportunity yet. I’d love to do it. For example, right now there is in Santa Fe the new opera Oscar about the life of Oscar Wilde, and I find it great to be able to invent something completely new.

    OL – I very much liked your Ravel double bill at Glyndebourne – L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, and L’Heure Espagnole. Do you have good memories of it to share with us? This production of L’Enfant is one of those that have survived, given that it will be given soon at the Saito Kinen festival, and will be revived at Glyndebourne in 2015.

    L'Enfant et les sortilèges, Photo Simon Annand, courtesy of Glyndebourne

    LP – I love Glyndebourne. I am crazy about L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. I was the one who proposed it, because I think it fits Glyndebourne very well. I love places like Santa Fe and Glyndebourne because unlike at the large repertory houses, we don’t need to work as fast. We have time. At Glyndebourne we get great young singers and the chorus is made of young soloists. The conditions for set building are great. Like many people, I heard L’Enfant for the first time when I was a child. I think I was ten years old; it was one of my very first operas, so it’s very emotional for me, to be able to direct it. I also feel much honored to work with Seiji Ozawa to revive it at the Saito Kinen. I have done two productions with Ozawa, and when he conducts, he displays great technique, extraordinary sensitivity, and he has an eye for opera that is of great intelligence and purity, like the way a child approaches something. So, I’m very happy about reviving this with Seiji.

    OL – Your productions have been acclaimed by critics and by the public, but some of your colleagues haven’t encountered as much unanimity, especially those who belong to the Regie movement. I wouldn’t want to ask you to talk specifically about individual colleagues which would be uncomfortable, but what are your general views o the Regie movement and its legitimacy?

    LP – It is a bit difficult to talk about this. I admire very much certain colleagues of mine. I have already mentioned Richard Jones, who is someone I like. I adore Robert Carsen; I have never met him personally. I adore Willy Decker as well. On the other hand, what I don’t like is what I mentioned a while ago, when we have the person of the stage director enter the work, when we forget about the music, and when we impose a concept too forcefully upon a piece. But at the same time, like I said I am very curious, so I like the idea of being bold and taking risks.

    Sometimes I discuss these matters with some people – not necessarily about my own productions – and after the discussion I’m left with the impression that I’m not bold enough. I admire people who take risks. Sometimes, it works; at other times it doesn’t work at all. Actually, often it doesn’t work. But often when it doesn’t work, it’s not because of the concept that is being proposed, but rather because of a lack of understanding of the music; this is what I think.

    OL – Now we got to that question you’ve already partially answered, about the role of the audience, but maybe you will elaborate a bit more. Do you make art for the sake of art and this is enough for you, or do you make art for an audience? If it is the latter like you’ve already indicated it to be, then do you adapt your work to the prospective audience? In other words, are you more conservative or more avant-garde depending on the audience that will be attending the show?

    LP – Actually I sometimes I forget a bit that I'm working for an audience. Like I said, I prefer to think of the audience as people who aren’t jaded, who haven’t seen it all. Besides, this is why it is difficult for me to approach works like La Traviata, Carmen, or Figaro, because they get more complex for the stage director. It is absolutely necessary to find new ideas, something original, and when it is a piece that has been shown hundreds of times all over the world, it is not easy to find something new, and it becomes a bit oppressive and blocking. Now, would I do it differently for an audience that is more avant-garde? No. If you think like that, you’re screwed [laughs]. It’s not a good way, for me.

    OL – By the same token, does the fact that an opera will be recorded on video media influence the way you stage it? I’d imagine that certain space considerations on stage and the blocking would have to be a bit different to optimize the work for the small screen. Do you work with the video director and change the way your concepts are realized, when it’s filmed opera?

    LP – No, it doesn’t change anything for the production, most of the time. Many productions now are being recorded on video media, and I love to work with the video director. I’ve worked with people who are great film directors; others, less so. But yes, sometimes the video director even gets to change your view of a piece. I think that some operas on video are more successful than at the theater – not often, but it has happened to me, sometimes, when the video directors’ view was so good that it changed the rhythm of the production and delivered to it a supplementary breath. This is why I like to work with them. It is certainly very important to have them present during the rehearsals.

    OL – Can you give us examples of pieces that were more successful on video than at the theater?

    LP – For example, I loved what François Roussillon did with La Vie Parisienne. At the time, we did the piece three times, and François filmed the first one.

    He gave to it a supplementary rhythm, some sort of madness that we were able to use for the subsequent shows, and the third time we got it really right. I love working with François Roussillon; he did something magnificent with our last one, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.

    OL – Indeed, he is very good. We’ve interviewed him as well and his words were very interesting. Now, usually we don’t see stage directors also designing the costumes, but you do it often. Is it out of a personal interest , or rather because you see them as an integral part of your artistic vision? What do you try to convey with your costumes? For example, you had a rather provocative costume for Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra in your production of Giulio Cesare.

    LP – I always design the costumes for all my shows, for spoken theater as well as for opera. Now I’ve been designing the sets too, mostly for theater but also for example for my next Le Comte Ory. For me, designing a costume helps me to get into the character’s head and to have a clearer view of the character’s history.

    Regarding Natalie Dessay’s costume, it’s funny, because we read a lot about Cleopatra, and the answer is very simple: there isn’t a single representation of her in the history of art where she doesn’t have a naked breast. For this production, we wanted to mix ancient history and works that were contemporary to the real Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, with the 19th century artistic representations of them in paintings and sculptures. And frankly, for me the fact that she always has one of her breasts naked is important because it makes of her a provocative character – and she was one. So, the nudity is not gratuitous.

    OL – Oh, interesting. We loved your Giulio Cesare presented like a night in the museum. It had a poignant quality, of these historical characters recreating their lives in the middle of marble statues and indifferent curators. This seems to appeal to the metaphor of the operatic art form itself, in its continuous effort to revive the ghosts of the past and present them to the public as something more lively and relevant than museum pieces.

    LP – Yes, that’s exactly it.

    OL – So, your Le Comte Ory in Lyon in January 2014 and at La Scala in July will have sets designed by you. Do you feel that it is important to design the sets yourself, in order to have a more direct expression of your visual concepts?

    LP – I’ve always been interested in set design and I adore working with the designers. I work preferentially with a couple of them. First of all, Chantal Thomas with whom I’ve done several productions, who authored the set designs notably for La Traviata, I Puritani, and Manon, which are my next pieces. There is also Barbara de Limburg with whom I did Cendrillon, and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.

    The set design for Le Comte Ory was actually a bit of a hassle, because neither Chantal nor Barbara where available and it is always difficult to find a new designer, because with the new one I won’t necessarily have the same intimacy and I won’t share the same vocabulary. While I was waiting for another designer, I suddenly found that I was having fun thinking about the set design and decided to do it myself, given that I love Le Comte Ory very much and it is a piece that I don’t fear.

    OL – How do you find inspiration for your productions? Do you start from some core idea?

    LP – The inspiration comes from the music, from deep listening. Next, it’s my personality. I love to tell stories. I love to have a view that has a certain dose of humor. I’ve always done it this way, but it is hard to explain. I’m also a big lover of theatrical literature and of prose as well. These have always nourished me, and have brought me a lot.

    OL – You seem to have enormous talent for comedic opera. But you have also successfully directed some magnificent pieces of serious opera, like Pelléas et Mélissande, La Voix Humaine, and Barbebleue. What is your preference, and why? After a series of comedies, your Pelléas et Mélissande was very tortured.

    LP – It is true that I prefer comedies. I love telling stories in a comic faction. But what interests me in comedy, is gravitas. It’s the somber, dark aspect. For me, a comedy is only funny if it is black. And reversely, in tragedies what I find interesting is to look for not necessarily humor, but at least a certain critical view of things.

    Pelléas, like Traviata, is a bit intimidating. It is heavy and affected me deeply. I would like to redo it, because these days I have a different view of it – not musically, but regarding Maeterlinck’s black complacency. It’s something I think about now, but hadn’t noticed five years ago. That’s why I’d like to redo it.

    OL – One of your biggest successes with the critics was your production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann in Barcelona and in San Francisco. This magnificent opera can be called a mix of comedy and tragedy. Is it ideal for you, given what you just said?

    LP – Yes, that’s it. Indeed I adore Les Contes d’Hoffmann precisely because of this. It is the same reason why I adore L’Amour des Trois Oranges, because it is also a very somber comedy. Hoffmann is an extraordinary piece and I find something new in it every time I stage it. Offenbach’s genius is in the mixture of gravitas and humor, and that’s why I love him so much.

    OL - Robert le Diable, on the other hand, had less favorable reviews. However, one of our staff members saw the production live at the Royal Opera House and loved it. I haven't seen it yet, but I'm planning to buy the blu-ray. It is rather rare to see a Laurent Pelly production that doesn't gather almost unanimous critical praise. It is true that one can't please everybody, but do you see something you'd have done differently, or plan to change in a revival? Or are you rather content with this production, and shrug off the criticism for the sake of what I've just said, that it is impossible to please everybody all the time?

    LP - Robert le Diable did not achieve unanimity; this much is certain. We can't please everybody; true. For one, it's a very complex and heavy piece. It is very long and full of constraints, musically very difficult, and requires considerable resources to put on. Regarding the sets and costumes, the creative process was complicated because we did not have the means to do any more than what we did. I don't think this work can be shown today, as it is, at face value. I tried to have some fun with it and to work on another layer, with some humor, because this nineteenth century piece is very excessive and outdated. We can't take it seriously. I was rather surprised that people blamed me for my approach. After all, it's such a complex work, and for me certain scenes in our production were more successful than others, but often this was because of a question of resources rather than due to our artistic choices.

    OL – You have focused most of your work on the French repertoire. Beyond the obvious fact that you are a Frenchman, what makes of this repertoire the ideal fit for you? Does your choice stem from some sort of mission to diffuse national culture, or from a special rapport with the literature, the theater, and the music of your homeland since childhood? Do you see any part of the non-French repertoire that you’d like to further explore in the future?

    LP – No, it isn’t a mission of diffusing national culture; it’s rather a matter of choice or taste. It is true that I prefer to work in French because I believe I can contribute more to the singers and to the production. I have the impression that in French I am more able to do my directorial work, just like I do for spoken theater. I don’t want to work, today, in a language that I don’t understand. I could work in English but I haven’t yet staged an English-language opera. I don’t want to stage Czech works any longer. I personally adore Janáček and the Russian repertoire, but I don’t want to stage their operas because I don’t speak their languages. It’s the same thing with Wagner. I don’t speak German and I think that to stage Wagner, one needs to speak fluent German. For me, to work with a translation is frustrating. I love being closer to the words. It’s a choice I’ve been exerting more and more.

    OL – What is in the horizon for the near future?

    LP – My next productions will be Le Comte Ory and I Puritani, then Don Pasquale in Santa Fe. I have a project of going back to Offenbach with Le Roi Carotte, which has a fairy tale quality. It will happen at L’Opéra de Lyon. Then, there is L’Étoile in Amsterdam. As for spoken theater, next season I have Le Songe d’une nuit d’été. We’ll redo the Scottish play [Macbeth] in Paris. Then, I’ll do a piece with Agathe Mélinand on Edgar Allan Poe. So, it will be a busy season.

    OL – For the last few questions of this interview I’d like to turn to the man underneath the artist. How was your journey towards opera? Did you have an interest for it since a young age, or did your taste for opera start later in life?

    LP – I have had an interest in opera for a long time. Before directing opera, I did a lot of musical theater. Theater that includes music is something that has always pleased me. The idea of directing opera came to me from Jean-Pierre Brossman who was at the time the director of L’Opéra de Lyon. It happened fifteen years ago. I was the director of the Centre Dramatique National in Grenoble, and Marc Minkowski was – and still is – the director of L’Orchestre de Grenoble. Jean-Pierre Brossman had the idea of getting Marc and me together to do Orphée aux Enfers. This is how everything started. So, I have to thank Jean-Pierre for this.

    OL – What are your other interests outside of opera, either in the artistic field, or in the realm of more personal pursuits?

    LP – What I like about opera and theater is that these are universal domains, and more so than other artistic genres. In opera and theater we approach painting and history and philosophy. I work a lot so I don’t have much time to pursue other interests, and I’m lucky that my field does touch on other artistic fields because I like the arts in general. My biggest hobby beyond the arts is nature. It’s a true passion. I love nature, hiking, and traveling.

    OL – How do you describe your personality?

    LP – Describing oneself is difficult. I have the impression that I love sharing. If I do theater, it’s to share it with others and be part of a company. A stage director can’t do anything on his own. What I love in theater is the team. What I find fascinating in opera is that when we work in a production of a grand opera with chorus, we have almost two hundred people who are together giving all their energies to the project. When we get to the point of showing the work to the public, it’s wonderful.

    OL – We’ve reached the end of our interview.

    LP – Yes, I barely saw the time passing. I talk and talk, and it’s been more than one hour!

    OL – Perfect. I loved the fact that you gave us enough time to reply to all the questions we had.

    LP – I thank you very much. When you come to see La Traviata, I hope you will like it.

    OL – Yes, I believe it will be formidable. I’ve seen many of your productions and each time, they are magnificent.

    LP – Ah, thank you so much!

    OL – Talking to you was an honor.

    LP – Thanks. Good bye.

    OL – Good bye.


    Let's see some video clips and trailers of the gifted stage director's productions:

    L'Enfant et les sortilèges at Glyndebourne, a gorgeous production:

    Brief video interview with Laurent Pelly about Robert le diable at the Royal Opera House:

    L'Amour des Trois Oranges at the Dutch National Opera:

    And for a fitting ending, to demonstrate Mr. Pelly's and Ms. Dessay's extraordinary comic flair, the extremely funny Fly Duet from their production of Orphée aux Enfers, which she sings with her husbant Laurent Naouri:


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