Is There a Definition for Opera — Opera Director Bernard Uzan

Bernard Uzan

Bernard Uzan

A native of France, Bernard Uzan is a graduate of the University of Paris, with doctorates in literature, theatrical studies and philosophy. He began his career as an actor and director, and appeared in leading theaters throughout Europe. After emigrating to the United States in 1972, he established French Theater in America, which toured for ten years giving two hundred performances per year of classic French plays.

In addition to his work as an actor and director, he was Professor of Literature, Acting, and Directing at Wellesley and Middlebury Colleges. Uzan also served as General and Artistic Director for L’Opera de Montreal from 1988-2002, expanding the number of productions and extending the company’s repertoire to include new works. Uzan’s 377 productions have graced the stages of one hundred opera companies in North America, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and South America. He has also co-designed more than fifty productions.

As a librettist and director, Uzan collaborated with composer David DiChiera and conductor Mark Flint on Cyrano, which made its world premiere at the Michigan Opera Theatre and Opera Company of Philadelphia. In 2008, Uzan’s first novel, The Shattered Sky, was published in both French and English. In 2010 he returned to the stage to direct Ultraviolet’s Adolf and Andy in New York City. In 2011 he started Uzan International Artists with his daughter, Vanessa Uzan.

Faust by Gounod

Faust by Gounod

Manon Lescaut

Manon Lescaut by Puccini

The Shattered Sky

The Shattered Sky
BY Bernard Uzan
BY Robert L. Miller
(Enigma Books, 2008)

Tell us what led you to a career in directing opera.

In 1963, while still a student in Paris at the University of Nanterre (I was nineteen), I was involved with the theater (actually we started theater during my first year) and performed as an actor for the next two years… Then I became a member of the professional acting studio of Tania Balachova in Paris. There, I also started to direct with other students and colleagues.

I said Yes… I had never been to an opera in my life and did not read music… but I fell in love with it…

For the next few years I performed many roles in plays by Chekhov, Molière, Musset, Pirandello, Beckett, Ionesco, Sartre, Camus, Pinter and Brecht in different theaters in Paris as well as on tour all over France and even abroad. At the same time, I directed several plays for various theaters. I was also dubbing foreign movies. This went on until 1972 when I was invited by Middlebury Summer Graduate School in Vermont to teach and direct three French plays for their summer program.

In 1973, the French Consul visited Middlebury and convinced me to try creating a French theater company in America. The following fall, I arrived in Boston and founded what became the French Theater in America two years later. We were giving around two hundred performances a year and I was the director, the leading actor, the administrator, the driver of the van, the lighting designer, the guy who picked up the programs during the intermission to reuse them and save money, etc…. That folie went on until 1981.

In the fall of 1981, Sarah Caldwell, who was then the director of Opera Boston, was producing Faust by Gounod with original dialogues in French. She invited me to direct the dialogue scenes, and after a few days, she asked me if I could help stage the entire production. I said yes. I had never been to an opera in my life and did not read music… but I fell in love with it…

After that experience I was asked to direct Pagliacci for the Lake George Festival. In the summer of 1982, I learned how to read a vocal score! A few months later, I directed for Detroit, Philadelphia etc. So it turned out that in the 1982/83 season, I directed five productions. Soon, I became totally involved in opera, and stopped working on the French Theater in America.

You are also a novelist. What similarities (if any) do you find in both theater and writing?

The similarities for me are numerous. When I write I have images, and when I direct I bring my knowledge of literature back to the discipline. I am a very visual person and if I write or direct, or prepare a new opera, I have the sense of images invading me. Also, my emotions are always involved in both — the feelings I have for my characters in my writing or in my directing are dictating what I do: to direct is to write a story, and to write is to direct the evolution of the characters.

Bernard Uzan

Conductor Steven Mercurio
and Bernard Uzan in Detroit
during rehearsals of Pagliacci

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!

Which opera is your favorite as a director and why?

Mefistofele by Boito

I really do not have a favorite opera to direct. I am always passionate when the singers involved are real artists, because that is what really makes the work interesting. But “real artists” — what does that mean? For me, if the singers bring into rehearsals their desire to know more every day about who they are through the characters they are portraying, if they are ready to question what they already know, if they engage with their own emotions, their own beings, I’d consider such artistry “real.”

Of course, I wish I could direct some operas I have never done, like The Rake’s Progress, Wozzeck, Lulu, and new commissioned operas. However, I am also happy that I have never directed some operas like Trovatore!

How have new technologies impacted opera, performers and audiences?

The impact is enormous. I think the era of what we once knew as “Grand Opera” is gone, unfortunately, because of money and changing tastes. If I were to watch one more production with one platform and projections, I’d scream — which means I will scream a lot.

I believe that audiences are shrinking because we do not bring onto the stage what they expect. New technologies imitating movies are not yet enough to satisfy a new public.

Too many performers suffer the same dilemma. They are using tools for knowledge instead of an acquired culture based on personal experience, study, and acquisition of knowledge.

Do you think a “contemporary opera” exists?

Cyrano by Dichiara and Uzan

Cyrano by Dichiara and Uzan

There are both bad operas and good operas in the nineteenth century and now.

At times, we have the feeling that too many bad operas are written today, but let’s just think how many operas were written in the past and how many composers in history wrote operas and how many masterpieces were left. They are just very few in comparison. Time will tell us which operas from our present times are good operas.

Subjects create contemporary operas in some cases, and music in others. Unfortunately, too many works are written with the intention of being operas when they simply aren’t. But who really knows the definition of opera: what is an opera? What makes a work an opera? I do not know anymore!

As a stage director and theater artist, what are some specific choices in terms of directing that are often aesthetically at stake in your work?

The list could be very long:

– singers who are just singers
– actors who are just actors
– designers who are just designers
– artistic directors who are just artistic directors


In other words, working with people who are just doing a job and who are not ready to take risks, to question themselves, or to rethink themselves through a theatrical experience. I include myself among them as well. Also, the fact remains that we are dealing more and more with an audience which is less educated than ever before. Too often, we have to choose between reaching out to the masses, or making decisions for an artistic elite. On the other hand, isn’t this the case with everything else in the cultural scene today?

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