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‘If you do not know your Shakespeare, you cannot be a politician’: The curtain goes up at La Monnaie

17:17 05/06/2021
As the director of La Monnaie gears up for the opera house’s first live performances since last autumn, he reflects on a year of burgeoning creativity and frustrating political decisions

The curtain will soon rise at La Monnaie for the first time in eight months. The Brussels opera house is staging a new production of Tosca, the passionate and tragic tale of an opera singer doing everything she can to save her lover from the firing squad.

“I’m looking forward to welcoming audiences again,” says Peter de Caluwe (pictured), the general and artistic director of La Monnaie, “and I can tell you that the artists are so, so eager to perform.”

While La Monnaie got in some performances of Die Tote Stadt last autumn before venues were closed again in the midst of the second wave of coronavirus infections, it had to close part way through the run. Until then, and since, it has created operas for online streaming – not simply recording the stage performances that would have happened if an audience had been present, but creating cinematic operas.

It took to spaces all around the historical building to shoot such productions as Der Schauspieldirektor, Is This the End and The Turn of the Screw. La Monnaie had already been streaming some of the performances after the live audience run was over, so it was a natural step to recreate the stage pieces as video performance.

‘I learned to be patient’

“We had to reinvent how to work, how to social distance, how to narrate the story in a different way,” says De Caluwe. “We learned that we can make products that are different, that are not stage but which can be also made for another kind of format.”

Is This the End, a new pop opera about a teenage girl caught between life and death, was a perfect production for this experiment. “It’s about losing people, not being able to say goodbye. Being in limbo between life and death, not really knowing what’s going on.”

La Monnaie seemed to never miss a beat during the pandemic, continuing putting out productions, inviting the audience when it could, streaming when it couldn’t. “I learned to be patient,” says De Caluwe. “You cannot force things.”

And the streamed productions have brought a new audience to the opera house. In fact, more people saw their productions over the last year than ever before. “Between April 2020 and May 2021, we have had over 600,000 views for projects that already existed – we put them online for free – along with the new content. Considering we normally have 130,000 in the opera house in a normal year, it’s really an amazing number of people.”

Visual aspects of the new production of Tosca make something very ugly into something very beautiful

He realises some of them might never step foot into La Monnaie, and that’s OK. He has a solid audience for live performances. “The traditional audience likes to be in the theatre, we like to feel the live vibration of the singing, the music, to feel that intensity of being part of a community of artists and the public. It’s a feeling that is addictive.”

De Caluwe is one of many directors of theatres and culture centres who has been dismayed by the government’s handling of the crisis when it comes to the culture sector. He feels they could have been an example of how to handle crowds in a safe manner long before now.

“They don’t trust us,” he says. “And the reason they don’t trust our sector is because they don’t know it, they don’t come. Politicians do not participate in the arts. Which is a huge mistake. I always say, if you do not know your Shakespeare, you cannot be a good politician. You need to go to the theatre to know which mistakes to avoid. Unfortunately, we now have a generation of politicians who no longer have that inclination. They don’t participate in cultural life, they have no idea what our sector stands for. If they did, they would trust us. And they would not throw open the football stadiums, but they would open the theatres.”

Opera makes people aware of their mistakes, he says. “We are here to confront people with a very rich history. The stories we are telling are stories that have existed for centuries. It’s the same with the music, it has existed for decades, for centuries. And it’s still alive and still has something to tell us. But you have to listen to it.”

20th-century Tosca

So politicians are very much invited to Tosca, a new production of a piece that opera fans adore. The title character is a typical Puccini woman in the vein of Manon Lescaut, Turandot and Madame Butterfly – beautiful, passionate and determined.

Originally set in 1800, De Caluwe and Spanish opera director Rafael Villalobos have brought it into the post-Mussolini 20th century. One rotating set has references to the Mussolini-built EUR district of Rome, another to the films of Pasolini. They link both to the Tosca character Scarpia, a fascist police chief obsessed with power. “The murder of Pasolini will be present in the piece, so these two worlds are connected,” explains de Caluwe.

Finally, Caravaggio is thrown into the mix. He lived a few centuries earlier, but the set includes new works of art inspired by the painter’s light, passion – “and bloodiness” – notes de Caluwe.

“We want to estheticize the fact that people can be brutal to each other, to introduce through the visuals – like Puccini did in his music – an aspect that makes something very ugly into something very beautiful. Like the paintings of Caravaggio. So all of this is connected; it’s a very intriguing way of reading the piece. There is nothing for me which is strange, because it all fits together somehow. Of course we are asking the public to look at this piece in a different way. But they will recognise it, because the music has not changed.”

Tickets to Tosca are on sale now. Tickets are not being sold in bubbles; all seats are separated by one seat. Currently, only 200 tickets are being sold for each show, but should the situation change, as expected, more tickets will be released

Photos, from top: Siska Vandecasteele, ©Santiago Ydanez/La Monnaie


Written by Lisa Bradshaw