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INTERVIEW: NICOLAS JOËL

By Joel Kasow

TOULOUSE, France. 21 April 2000 - Nicolas Joël not only stages operas all over the world, he also runs the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse, which this year inaugurates a new series at the Théâtre du Chatelêt in Paris, the Festival des Régions. Not only will M. Joël's stunning production of Gustave Charpentier's Louise be revived, this time with Renée Fleming , Martine Dupuy, Marcus Haddock and Alain Vernhes, but he is staging a new production of Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet with Natalie Dessay and Thomas Hampson in the leading roles. Both operas will be conducted by Joël's long-time collaborator, Michel Plasson. We interviewed Nicolas Joël in his office at the Capitole two years ago just prior to the premiere of his new staging of Boris Godunov.

Nicolas Joel
Nicolas Joël
Photo: Charlotte Oswald

OperaNet: Looking back, you began your career as an assistant to Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

Nicolas Joël: I met him through various friends when I was very young in Salzburg where I was studying German - I was 15 at the time. I bought myself a ticket - I don't know with what money - and saw the Barbiere di Siviglia which was absolutely thrilling. I thought, this is what I want to do and I was lucky enough to meet him. Three years later, when I got my baccalauréat, which is virtually obligatory for any French kid, I wrote to Ponnelle in Munich and immediately received an answer inviting me to come and see him during the rehearsals for Clemenza di Tito, which I did. Then I was hired by the Opéra du Rhin in Strasbourg as an assistant director, and later went with Ponnelle to San Francisco and Salzburg and at the same timed worked with Patrice Chéreau on his Bayreuth Ring. I was a lucky young man, 22 or 23 years old, with a permanent job in a good French house and also helping Jean-Pierre restage for San Francisco some of the Puccini he had produced in Strasbourg (Turandot, Tosca, Bohème). I would spend June and July assisting Chéreau in Bayreuth, then off to Salzburg to work on Karl Böhm's last Giovanni and a revival of Nozze di Figaro with von Karajan, present at rehearsals with Boulez or Böhm or Karajan. Then I started my own career with a Ring in Strasbourg. I never understood why they ended up giving it to me, as they must have been thinking of someone else. All the "adult" stage directors at that time were panic-stricken by the idea of touching the Ring. As I had already spent three summers in Bayreuth, they realized that I knew the work inside out. I talked to Chéreau and he said, "Of course you can do it. You've been working on mine and now you'll work on yours." Of course, I did it, and Rheingold was successful enough that they let me continue. The cycle was only given in its entirety later in Lyons, and then a few years after I staged a new version in Wiesbaden.

Operanet: Were there many similarities?

NJ: No, we really changed it. I worked with the same designer, Pet Halmen (who now is also a director), but it was different.

Operanet: And soon you will be doing Walküre? Will it be "traditional"?

NJ: I don't think so.
[and it was not - see review and picture elsewhere in OperaNet]

I don't think it's possible. The problem is that so much of what we see now - such as changing the period which I have nothing against, I just want to believe in it and 99 percent of the time I don't - is an empty hole, generally a very traditional staging in pseudo-modern dress, often done by people who have no métier, who are literally incompetent at mere directing. I don't pretend to be the greatest director in the world, but I know my trade. There is no scandal at the opera any more, other than mediocrity which is generally what you see. Of course, the choice of designer is important - I worked with Halmen in my early days, then Hubert Monloup and Carlo Tommasi and Ezio Frigerio which is one straight line. We've explored various ways. A question that is always put to you by American opera managers if they want to hire you, and I am very lucky and grateful because it is a country where I do a lot, is will the production be "traditional" or "modern" (or sometimes "conceptual"). For me that doesn't say or mean anything.

La Forza del delstino
La Forza del destino (1999)
Photo: Gilles Bouquillon

Operanet: You recently have started working on the sets for your productions, such as Il Trittico or Boris Godunov.

NJ: Yes. The Boris is very special: it has a technical setup but otherwise uses the bare stage. It is more a lighting design than a stage design, and I did collaborate on the Trittico. I certainly do not consider myself a designer, that is not my area of competence. Working with a designer is a difficult process. You must be lucky, as I have been with the designers I already mentioned, but you must also accept the designer's work - which is important and enriches the end result - just as you profit from the views of the conductor (if he has any) and some of the singers (if they do). The Boris has an extraordinary cast of intelligent artists. Sometimes, when I think my vision is so precise that it doesn't need someone else's approach, I'll do it myself. It is an additional way of expressing myself, but it is certainly not a new direction I plan to take.

Operanet: We've noticed that over the years we haven't always been particularly kind. The first time I reviewed your work was a conceptual Cavalleria and Pagliacci in Amsterdam. If you were to do those operas today, would your approach be the same?

NJ: It was naïve. I don't think it was wrong. It didn't say much for the piece itself or help the piece.

Operanet: People often speak today of direction d'acteurs. This should of course always be the goal, but I'm not sure that it's always possible with singers.

NJ: Things have changed enormously and many singers have become extraordinary actors. With some you can even work as you would with a theatrical actor. Of course, the techniques are completely different and probably the most important thing a theater or movie director does is work on timing, whereas in opera the timing is already there. As Chéreau said, "A l'opéra, le premier metteur-en-scène est le compositeur" [At the opera, the primary director is the composer], which is obvious, but doesn't mean that you have to put a door in a certain place. The most important thing is the timing. What direction d'acteurs often comes down to at the opera is a hysterical choreography, which is apparently considered directing but often is not.

Operanet: And then you have a problem when one of these productions comes to us for revival, with far less rehearsal time available.

NJ: But then, and this is the problem, it's the responsibility of the managers. I run an opera company and I am faced constantly with the problem of my own productions being revived here or those of other directors, and I try to give the right amount of time. If I know that an artist will not fit into the concept, I will not hire him or her.

Operanet: The setup in Toulouse is not the same as in, say, Paris or London or New York where there is much greater emphasis on the star system.

NJ: We do have stars here, but they're not running the system, though we have recently seen in New York that the stars are not running the system there and the management is adamant in imposing its views.

Operanet: You've worked a great deal with singers like Pavarotti and other stars who may not be the most mobile onstage. How does this affect the way you work on a production?

NJ: This is a different approach. When you do a production with a star like Pavarotti, you are - and I think it's a very interesting way of working - in the position of a Hollywood director in the golden era who is working for a studio and is asked to make a movie with Dietrich or Garbo. What you must do is a Dietrich or Garbo picture, but if you are clever and intelligent you also want to have your own personality come through. It is an exciting game actually. The wonderful thing about running Toulouse is that when I come back it's to a show that I have cast. But I have immense affection for Pavarotti, a great artist. Over the years, even with the unbelievable pressure on his shoulders, he was always professional, within his own parameters. I've always liked and respected him-Aida in Chicago and Vienna, Chenier in New York, Ballo in Paris-and he's enormous fun to work with.

Operanet: When you have done several productions of an opera, there seem to be certain images that remain, like Faust where Siebel is on crutches....

NJ: : ...or the big book for the opening scene, and above all the Mephisto being a French devil, directly taken from Pierre Renoir's character in La Règle du Jeu. I've done Faust here in Toulouse, in Orange, San Francisco, even Bercy, which was lots of fun. Those things stayed, but a lot of things changed, and I'm still not bored by what is a wonderful opera.

Lucia di Lammermoor
Lucia di Lammermoor (October 1998)
Photo: Patrice Nin

Operanet: Do you think that places like Orange or Bercy are beneficial to opera?

NJ: You can't compare Bercy and Orange because they're completely different: Orange was built by the Romans as a theater, one which certainly has its problems but at the same time a certain grandeur. Places like Bercy, I have my doubts, but I don't mind. I've done it once but I don't think I'd be interesting in doing it again.

Operanet: Do you think it's building an audience for the future, which is what people say about the Three Tenors concerts?

NJ: No - but it doesn't do any harm. And the Three Tenors is pure entertainment. It's perfectly legitimate, but I don't think it's building an audience. They don't need an excuse - they're making big money and they're making people happy.

Operanet: Would you say that there are certain operas that could only be done in a realistic setting, such as Louise as you did it here? Could you see it done in another fashion?

NJ: It's very tricky to give a precise definition of realism at the opera, which is opera's biggest problem. Our Louise was partly realistic, partly not. The only important thing is that the characters come alive, are believable, and there are many approaches. You have to like them, like the singing, the music, but there are many different surroundings you can think of. I am always naïvely amazed when the curtain opens - I'm speaking about my own shows - and I get the feeling that I'm coming as close as possible - with today's means - to what the composer has in mind.

Operanet: At the start of this conversation, we spoke about the Samson et Dalila that you staged in San Francisco. You said that because the music had such a strong element of kitsch, it had to be reflected in the staging.

NJ: Absolutely.

Operanet: Why then didn't you do the same thing when you staged Thaïs?

NJ: Because I partly based my ideas on the novel by Anatole France as well as Massenet's music. I think that Thaïs is great drama

Operanet: But it also has all the effects described by Massenet and his librettists, like the vision of Alexandria.

NJ: Yes, but I think you get closer to the character of Thaïs by not doing that, which is my way of not being traditional. It was a very sober production.

Operanet: You've done your own forms of détournement: the Cav/Pag in Amsterdam, a 20th century Boccanegra...

NJ:: ...and now Boris. This is my second production of the opera, but this time it is the first version. When I did it in Wuppertal nine or ten years ago, it was the customary mixture of all the versions, and I was not satisfied. It was too long for one thing. While preparing for this new production, I decided to look into the early version, which has been done recently in Geneva and Chicago. I got a piano score and I was thrilled. Of course the Polish Act and Kromy Forest scene are also Mussorgsky, but the first version is what he first wrote and was satisfied with. Everything that came afterwards was because he was told that those scenes were needed. He did it and there's no question that it is Mussorgsky, and some of it is splendid, but this version is much more modern in its theatrical structure than, for instance, Wozzeck. Wozzeck in its musical language is of the 20th century, but is otherwise a quasi-romantic drama, but very few have come close to the sharpness, the violence, the strength of Mussorgsky. There's no intermission. One of the reasons I chose to take care of the scenic aspect myself was to be able to find a way to get from one tableau to the next extremely rapidly.

Operanet: Another advantage to the early version is that Boris remains the focal point, and no one else is as prominent. Dmitri only comes in twice, and then there are Shuisky and Pimen...

NJ: ...Yes, the confrontation between Boris and Pimen becomes more significant. It's a different work. Michel Plasson is conducting the work for the first time. I like to ask him to do operas he hasn't done before, like the Hamlet that's in the works.

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