L’Opera National de Paris, the Paris National Opera, is considered one of the world’s greatest cultural institutions and a French national treasure. Founded in 1669, the Paris Opera is divided between two venues, the Palais Garnier, built in 1875 and the Opera Bastille, built in 1989; offering over 400 performances of opera, ballet and concerts. This fall, Film Movement (a distribution of independent films) is bringing Jean-Stéphane Bron’s feature-length film The Paris Opera to Los Angeles; opening on October 20, 2017 at The Laemmle Cinemas (information listed below).
Jean-Stéphane Bron is a Swiss film director, born in Lausanne and schooled at the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne. His list of documentary films includes L’Expérience Blocher (The Blocher Experience); Cleveland contre Wall Street (Cleveland versus Wall Street; Mais im Bundeshuus – Le génie helvétique, (Corn in Parliament); La bonne conduite (5 histoires d’auto-école) (The Way I Look at You) and Connu de nos services (Known to Our Departments).
The Paris Opera is a beautiful film that should interest anyone who has ever worked in any capacity for the performing arts. It provides a peek into the lives and careers of those who keep The Paris Opera in business and the artists who create what is presented onstage. It exposes the conflicts between directors, the work involved backstage to produce the performances, as well as the outreach to the donors and the public for financial support. It even exposes conflicts between the administration staff and French national unions.
Stephane Lissner took on the position of Director in 2014 after 10 years at the head of La Scala in Milan. The film examines the first full season under his creative direction. It follows his meeting with the Opera’s administrative and production staff as they discuss the pros and cons of certain press releases and ponder lowering ticket prices to make performances more affordable for a wider audience. Lissner has chosen Moses und Aron (Moses and Aaron) as the season’s first opera. It is a huge and expensive undertaking that requires singers to agree to a year’s commitment, and he must justify his selection financially to the opera’s Board of Directors.
The Los Angeles connection to this film is with the Director of Dance, Benjamin Millepied. LA dance audiences know Millepied from his choreography with the Los Angeles Dance Project which he founded in 2011 and currently directs. The world knows him because of his choreography for the 2009 movie Black Swan. In 2014, Millepied also became the Artistic Advisor of the new Dance Academy at the Colburn School in Downtown Los Angeles, joining fellow former-principal dancers with the New York City Ballet, Jenifer Ringer and James Fayette.
This film does not paint a very nice picture of Millepied as an amenable co-worker or team player. He is portrayed as someone who is disliked by many of the corps de ballet, The Paris Opera staff and the French press. Indeed, the film covers a telephone conversation between Millepied and the director during which Lissner voices his displeasure with Millepied’s indecisiveness about staying on at the Paris Opera, his speaking publicly about it and Lissner is forced to give Millepied an ultimatum; stay or go.
The main dance section in the film shows Millepied in rehearsal with the cast of his new ballet, and shots from the wings of its performance. We witness Millepied telling the dancers of his decision to leave the opera as their director, and there is a brief section with the backstage view of a performance of the ballet La Bayadère.
The film’s primary focus is on the producing of operas, the training of its singers and musicians and the production staff; all the way down to the theater’s maintenance staff. It focuses on what makes the institution run smoothly. There are wonderful shots of an attendant to a lead female singer as she watches from the wings with water and towels at the ready. Costumers dash back and forth between dressing rooms and the stage. Hair dressers put wigs on the performers and we witness the costume staff clean and iron costumes. There is even an animal handler hosing down a very large bull who appears onstage in Moses und Aron.
My favorite scenes are with the young musicians who are part of an outreach training program called The Little Violins. The film follows their training and progress up through their first performance at the opera. It is filled with touching and humorous encounters between the children and their teachers.
The film gives a closeup view of Musical Director, Philippe Jordan auditioning the 21-year-old Russian bass-baritone Mikhail Timoshenko and the decision to invite him to join The Paris Opera. It follows this young artist through his training and his difficulty with learning French. The camera focuses on his face as he stands in the wings watching the performance of a world-famous bass-baritone, and we see moments of his first recital. It is a wonderful look at the life of an inspiring artist working in a foreign country.
Near the end of the film there are touching scenes following a terrorist attack at the Bataclan where many young people were murdered. The attack plunges the city into mourning but the company recognizes that the show must go on to help the public recover, have hope and to move forward. By speaking directly to the audience and going on with the performance, they demonstrated how art can help heal a nation.
The Paris Opera is filled with drama, cruelty and humor related to what it takes to keep a national art institution like The Paris National Opera afloat and moving into the 21st century. It tells the story of life within the belly of this world famous and essential performing arts institution. I highly recommend seeing this film.
The Paris Opera opens in New York on October 18 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center & Quad Cinema, and will have 20 plus U.S. Markets including Boston, Washington, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Boyd van Hoeij of the Hollywood Reporter wrote – “Always fascinating…there’s a lot to appreciate here — and not only for opera and classical music buffs but also for the more generally culturally curious”
THE PARIS OPERA (2016) is a documentary written and directed by Jean-Stéphane Bron and features Benjamin Millepied, Stéphane Lissner, Philippe Jordan, Bryn Terfel, Olga Peretyatko-Mariotti, and Gerald Finley. It is in French with English subtitles.
Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Bande a Part Films, Orange Studio, L’Opera National de Paris. Producers: Philippe Martin, David Thion
Director of photography: Blaise Harrison
Editor: Julie Lena
Sales: Les Films du Losange
Running time: 110 minutes
Showings in Los Angeles Area:
10/20: Laemmle Royal – West LA CA
10/20: Laemmle Town Center – Encino CA
10/20: Laemmle Playhouse – Pasadena CA
10/27: Palm Desert 10 – CA
Additional showings in California: http://www.filmmovement.com/theatrical/index.asp?MerchandiseID=567