If there is one thing that Bernard Foccroulle is not, it’s a short-termist. For anything I can ask him – about opera productions, about composers, about building an audience, about changing attitudes, about the style of a festival – the answer is measured in numbers of years, or even decades. Foccroulle’s passion, he declares, is to make opera into “a living art form, not a museum art form”, and if that requires planning a project for five years – which is just one tiny component of that dream – he is unfazed.

Bernard Foccroulle © Pascal Victor
Bernard Foccroulle
© Pascal Victor

That term “a living art form” translates into three things: new works, new artists and new audiences. As General Director of the Aix Festival, Foccroulle’s strategy has been to bind these activities into a unified whole, using the Académie du Festival Aix, a comprehensive programme for developing young artists, as the glue. “We need several conditions, which are commissioning and creating new operas, giving them a chance to circulate and to be appreciated by many different audiences. We need to have living artists in residency within our institutions, we need to invite very creative artists to re-interpret the repertoire of the past, from the baroque until the 20th century, and also we need to enlarge the audience”.

“You really have to work with a vision of the long term. We have been able to give birth to 12 operas or interdisciplinary creations very close to opera. I'm not only happy with the quality of the works but also with the quality of the reception, because we have proved that we can find an audience for good new pieces today without compromise and without trying to be just popular. This makes me confident about opera today and about the future of opera.”

Francesco Cavalli <i>Erismena</i>, 2017 © Patrick Berger – artcompress
Francesco Cavalli Erismena, 2017
© Patrick Berger – artcompress

The key lies in the series of workshops, classes and artist engagements that are the everyday business of the Académie. “Year after year, this led to a very fruitful series of conversations where you could listen to young artists, you could exchange views, you could feel what are their expectations. And you know, it's much more than just commissioning a piece, it's about vivid dialogue with artists who are sometimes very far from opera. We have welcomed artists who were just asking ‘why am I here in an opera festival, I am not interested in opera’, but after a week of meeting with Kentridge, Tcherniakov, Katie Mitchell or Simon McBurney, they changed their views and opera became something much closer to them than they had expected.”

This includes catching them young. Jonathan Dove’s The Monster in the Maze was created for a combination of professional musicians and 300 amateur singers, including youth and children’s choruses, who were thrilled to be coached by Sir Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey, as well as performing “a brilliant regie from a young French director, Marie-Ève Signeyrole”. The project was “very seriously organised with seven months of rehearsals, and in a very intensive way, done very professionally by these amateurs. That was quite a lesson, to see how committed and how involved they were in the work.” The results were gratifying, “a big moment in the history of the Festival.”

Dmitry Shostakovich, <i>The Nose</i>, 2011 © Pascal Victor - Artcompress
Dmitry Shostakovich, The Nose, 2011
© Pascal Victor - Artcompress

Surely, I ask, it’s difficult to democratise opera in a region where many of the population have had little or no exposure to classical music at home or in schools, their music being hip-hop, rai, gnawa or other African-flavoured or pop-infused styles. “No, it's not difficult. We have to be aware that opera and classical music are not the culture of the youth today, or in Europe or in Africa – it's not any more, it probably never will be. But if we know that, the big advantage is that opera is offering so many doors to people who will come for the first time. And in my experience, this new audience is just wonderful, even though they know little about opera or sometimes nothing. It's important to give them a good programme, to give them some keys in hand so they can appropriate what they will come to listen and see, but I have seen no individual so far who was completely reluctant to go into this. We have had a lot of dress rehearsals, or pre-dress, with a majority of young people, sometimes with quite demanding productions, and we never had a failure. But at the same time, I think it's important that our programme included some Arabic music, some flamenco music, some popular music from the Mediterranean so that it was not a way to present opera as a superior art form, it was just a way to open the doors. We didn't have gnawa so far, but we had a lot of Moroccan musicians who had worked with gnawa and so on, and we have a choir who every week rehearses classical Arabic music, we have had two operas sung in Arabic, we will have a third one this season with Orfeo and Majnun. If you open the programme, it means that these people are welcome, and that changes the whole atmosphere.”

Aix has also been successful at the other end of the scale, with the conservative traditional audience brought up on bel canto. “It's very important because I would not like to open opera just to newcomers and to lose the traditional audience – we need both. Eventually, you get the audience you deserve. If you have just a traditional programme based on the star system, the audience will never change. But if you are curious, if you are doing some experimentation, if you offer good things, at a certain point, they will be part of it and they will trust you.” Foccroulle points to their espousal of baroque opera, with an extremely successful Cavalli series, as an example of how to cater to traditional operagoers without pandering to their preconceptions, and that audience loved Shostakovich’s The Nose, “which is not such an easy piece. I think step by step you open the repertoire, and I have quite a number of spectators who were not fans of contemporary opera and who adored George Benjamin or Philippe Boesmans’ Pinnocchio, for example, so I think things are changing. But I think it's important to work with a certain sense of how the audience will find a way into the piece. It's not a question of demagogy or compromise, I think it's important to think about opera and the public future of opera in terms of relation with an audience, working with. And of course, this is what Jonathan Dove did in a splendid way.”

Philippe Boesmans' <i>Pinocchio</i>, July 2015 © Patrick Berger
Philippe Boesmans' Pinocchio, July 2015
© Patrick Berger

Pricing policy plays a part: “not unimportant, but it's certainly not enough. The danger, if you organise a lot of free events, is to get the same audience that's coming anyway. A third, now, of our spectators come for free activities at the festival, a third come for prices that are absolutely acceptable, I would say, under €50-60, and a third is paying for tickets which are much more expensive, which are very important for our income. This kind of balance didn't exist when I arrived at the festival.” Media distribution also has its role, with free screenings in over 30 cities in Provence, and collaborations with  Radio France-Musique, Arte and France Télévision (streams of the festival’s events are available free for six months).

The longest term endeavour of all has also been the Aix Festival’s greatest hit: the fusion of Martin Crimp’s libretto rendering of an ancient tale of murder and adultery, Katie Mitchell’s ancient-modern split staging, George Benjamin’s extraordinary vocal writing and Barbara Hannigan’s unique performing ability that is Written on Skin. Foccroulle started working on Benjamin in Belgium in 1992: the young composer declared himself not ready to write a full length opera, but even then, Foccroulle was convinced that his music was of an incredible quality. As the years went by and Benjamin gained experience, he was gradually reeled into the net – first as a conductor, then as composer of a dance piece for Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, and eventually, in 2007, to embark on Written on Skin. The degree of interest from around Europe was an indicator that something special was happening, and as he became involved with the step by step creation of the piece, Foccroulle became increasingly convinced of this. “The most moving moments were when the singers and the orchestra made the first run-through of the piece – I was there – and then the first orchestral rehearsal. Even before the first night, I was personally absolutely confident that we were going to have a masterpiece – and yes, that's exactly what happened.”

George Benjamin's <i>Written on Skin</i>, 2012 © Pascal Victor – Artcompress
George Benjamin's Written on Skin, 2012
© Pascal Victor – Artcompress

This year’s Festival d’Aix will be Foccroulle’s twelfth and last at the helm: Pierre Audi takes over for the 2019 edition. Foccroulle stresses the combination of continuity and new impulses: back in 2007, he arrived in the second year of a four year Ring cycle which had been planned and set up by his predecessor, Stéphane Lissner (now head of the Opéra National de Paris). This constrained the shape of Foccroulle’s first three festivals, but in any case, he was a long time collaborator of Lissner’s and felt great affinity with his artistic direction. He clearly feels a similar affinity with Audi, with whom he has been discussing ideas for the future and whose tenure in Amsterdam “has been amazing in every sense, especially in terms of new pieces and new directors”. He also thinks that 12 years has been a good length for his tenure at Aix and that it’s the right time for new blood.

He is leaving, it has been widely reported, to step back from arts administration and take the time to compose. Is there a Foccroulle opera in the works, I ask? The response is characteristically straightforward and measured: “Yes, but not immediately. Now I'm finishing a composition on texts by Martin Crimp that are echoing the Schumann Dichterliebe. That will be created at the Bouffes du Nord next year, but it's not an opera: it's for one singer and piano but it will be quite a full evening with Schumann and my music combined, so very exciting to have that first staged experience. I'm going to write a cello concerto for La Monnaie, and I am starting now thinking about a full evening opera, which I still to have to study very carefully, so that will require some time.”