The “Peau de Chagrin” Opera

Philippe Thanh 29/03/2016
Cost cutting is the watchword of the times in all sectors; and it is only too obvious that Music is no exception. After the recent territorial reform, which merged the number of regions from 22 to 13, heads of four opera houses in the new region that includes Alsace, Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine recently published proposals to pool their resources.
This approach is full of common sense: the status quo is doomed, so one might as well take the initiative in the implementation of a reform that might otherwise be imposed by technocrats. We could almost quote Cocteau in the Mariés de la tour Eiffel, "Since these mysteries are beyond us, let’s pretend that we ourselves organise them."

For the moment, their project only marginally affects the artistic aspects, each house keeping its specificity and its productions. But doesn’t this open the door to reducing the number of productions, a show from Strasbourg could also be presented to the public in Reims or Metz?

The example of the Opéra du Rhine, born in 1972 from the merger of the theatres of Strasbourg, Colmar and Mulhouse, is revealing. Thise organization now works to the satisfaction of everyone, but it offers jobs to fewer singers than the three Alsatian theatres that each previously produced their own seasons. Today is a singer hired for more performances, but fewer singers are actually hired.

Other opera companies might be tempted to follow the same path (or might even be encouraged to do so). Why not imagine a merger of Angers, Nantes and Rennes? Or bring back the sea serpent that was the merger between Avignon, Toulon and Marseille? With noticeable savings, but a certain risk of standardization and impoverishment of the repertory.

Just a few decades ago the situation was different; the smallest prefecture had its own theatre in good running order, not to mention the spa towns or resorts, each flanked by a casino and a theatre. True, the shows were often haphazard productions, with singers often arriving with their own costumes... All this seems a long time ago and there is certainly no question of backtracking. But job prospects for singers who, back then, were not competing with their counterparts from the world over, were far more numerous than they are today.

And finally, for the public, the local opera used to offer a kind of proximity. Of course, audiences are now offered high quality productions, but in a much smaller number of theatres. A resident of Bayonne is more than two and a half hours from Toulouse or Bordeaux, a spectator of Bourges is two hours from the nearest opera house. Yet, through their taxes, they all contribute to the production of opera.

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