Is There a Definition for Opera — Opera Director Bernard Uzan

Bernard Uzan

Conductor Steven Mercurio
and Bernard Uzan in Detroit
during rehearsals of Pagliacci
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE DIRECTOR

That is fascinating. Do you think this is common in most opera directing? One would imagine that all choices sprung from the music, not the characters.

Yes, the music dictates a lot of the mood and actions, but the music leaves enough possible interpretation for characters, and possibilities of interpretation, even in a frame, are endless. This choice of interpretation is left to the singer in association with the director, and sometimes the conductor. If the music was dictating everything, why go to see an opera again? With different interpreters, each production brings something new as an experience.

Speaking of music and drama, how do you feel about the Wagnerian ideals?

Entire essays and doctoral theses have been written about this subject. To answer in a few lines is a huge challenge, and almost impossible. Let’s just say that as a director, it is a wonderful opportunity to be able to truly use music and words as equal and as totally intertwined elements. Too often in Italian operas, the libretto contradicts the music or vice versa, and we have to make a choice. This is not the case for Wagner.

What in your background as a Parisian informs your aesthetic today?

…all these in the midst of Paris, surrounded by its beauty, by its legend, by its history, by life…. All these, I believe, made me what I am today: a mix of old traditions (Jew from Tunis) and the search for a new world (Paris in the sixties).

First, let me clarify something: I am not Parisian-born, but a Tunisian Jew. I was raised in Tunisia and lived there until 1960 when my family left the country to emigrate to Paris, like the other 100,000 Jews from Tunisia who emigrated from Tunisia to Paris or Israel. (A huge majority emigrated to France.) When we arrived in France, we were not French citizens but Tunisians. And the French government, while accepting us, did not help us.
So my aesthetics are more of a self-taught individual than a “Parisian.” Of course I was influenced by my life in Paris during my twenties, and the French Nouvelle vague in cinema with Truffault, Godard, Chabrol, Resnais… and in the theater working with Jean-Louis Barrault.

Paris in the sixties was the center of the world, and the leftist movement was the beginning of a new era. My days at the Sorbonne in May 1968, my daily visits to the Cinémathèque at Palais Chaillot, my “rebuilding the world” all night with my artist friends, the beginning of Musée Beaubourg, the endless conversations at cafés every day, and all these in the midst of Paris, surrounded by its beauty, by its legend, by its history, by life….
All these, I believe, made me what I am today: a mix of old traditions (Jew from Tunis) and the search for a new world (Paris in the sixties).

In this autobiographical context, do you believe politics influence directing choices, even in a fairly traditional genre such as opera? And how has your childhood experience as an immigrant influenced your aesthetic choices?

Yes, definitely. Politics not only influences but also sometimes dictates directing choices. After all, we are one in all we do — remember the impactful line of Sartre, Je suis ce que je fais (I am what I do).

My childhood and life experiences made me what I am now. How can I suppress or deny my early years in Tunis when to drink water we had to help ourselves to a big clay pot? Or in the summer to go to the beach for three months, we had to prepare ourselves for three weeks when the beach was actually ten miles away! And then suddenly to be thrown into Paris — into a complete different civilization… from the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth in a few days… What a shock!

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