Aviel Cahn © Nicolas Schopfer
Aviel Cahn
© Nicolas Schopfer

Aviel Cahn sees at least four different Genevas. There’s the city of humanitarian philosophy: the seat of the UNHCR, the birthplace of the Geneva Convention. There’s the city of bling, the headquarters of countless purveyors of high end jewellery and luxury watches. There’s the city of science, with CERN and its host of internationally famous scientists. And there’s the city of religion, the home of Calvin and Voltaire that was in the front line of the Reformation.

The Grand Théâtre de Genève’s 2019-20 season will speak to all these Genevas and more, Cahn explains. Although his tenure as General Director of the Grand Théâtre has only just officially started, he assures me that the season is fully his own and that he was given “a white sheet of paper” as the retirement of his predecessor, Tobias Richter, was announced three years ago. Cahn arrives in Geneva after a ten year spell at the helm of Opera Vlaanderen (which received the 2019 International Opera Award for Best Opera Company): he speaks in a lightly Dutch/Flemish-inflected accent, with a heavily Dutch-style dose of no-nonsense pragmatism. Things that would sound like lofty artistic ambition from most artistic directors come across as no more than plain common sense when Cahn relates them, which he does gently but firmly, displaying a polite but unmistakable exasperation at any questions that border on the trite.

The child of a father who was a journalist and cross-arts critic, Cahn got bitten by the opera bug at a very early age (his two brothers, incidentally, did not go down the same path, and his experience is that whether people do or do not acquire a passion for opera is largely a matter of coincidence). A year’s spell at the China National Symphony Orchestra, when he was just 26 years old, imparted a sense of the power of cultural diplomacy. “I understood that culture could really build bridges between people, between societies. To use the art forms as a means of communication, of integration or of understanding each other is a good way to start.”

The 2019-20 Geneva season contains three large scale modern works, a far cry from the relative conservatism of previous seasons, but Cahn makes this sound anything but risky. The season opens with Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, a clear nod to Geneva as the city of science. “Einstein on the Beach is an opera that speaks to a large and very diverse and also very young audience. With Philip Glass, the risk is always limited: if it would have been a Penderecki piece from the same period or a Wolfgang Rihm piece, things would have been more difficult.” The season ends with Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, for which the epithet “rarely performed” is a severe understatement. Cahn, however, sees this not as a risk but as an opportunity: “Saint François d’Assise is the major musical event, the French contemporary opera par excellence. Geneva is a city where religion and religious traditions play such an important role, and it's the first time it's been done in Switzerland, so it has the chance to attract a more commuting opera public.” Cahn also considers Saint François as the perfect opera to be conducted by Jonathan Nott: the house's collaboration with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (of which Nott is chief conductor) is one that he is keen to continue and intensify.

The fourth aspect of Geneva – as the humanitarian city that houses the UNHCR – is the trigger for the season’s one world première: Christian Jost’s Voyage vers l’espoir. It’s based on a 1990 movie by Xavier Kollo (“the only film from Switzerland that made the Oscars”) and on “a very contemporary subject, refugees, a subject which could not be more present in Geneva”. The opera is the story of a Kurdish family that abandons kin and country to try to get into the perceived paradise that is Switzerland, and it gives its name to the whole Grand Théâtre season, entitled “Oser l’espoir” (dare to hope). If there’s one opera in the season that one might hope would provoke discussions and resonance in the community, this is surely it.

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is a safer choice for a conservative audience, but even here, there’s an angle: where better to perform an opera whose crux is the clock striking midnight in a bling-filled party than the city which is the headquarters of Rolex?

I ask if Cahn perceives any difference between the audiences in Geneva and in Flanders. “It's a more international audience in Geneva, that's for sure, maybe an audience that has not been exposed to certain ways of doing opera. But I think it's an intellectually very ready audience and maybe intellectually even more ready than the Flemish audience, whereas maybe the Flemish audience is a more adventurous audience. But that's just first impressions: I could really answer well these questions in a year when I have spent a full season with that audience. But as a director of an opera house, you don't just have to please what you think is an audience, you have to take them by the hand to walk your path with you. If you do that rather than attack them, they might go with you along the way. It’s an educational mission and you can do it with all audiences in every city.”

But how receptive, I wonder, will the bulk of the Geneva audience be to the subtlety of such equations as Aida = treatment of prisoners = Geneva Convention? “I think everybody is aware of it, and that’s the point. This is really opera for Geneva, opera that speaks to the Geneva people, opera that reflects about Geneva. And I hope in a larger way that society can embrace this institution rather than looking at it as “the island of the happy few”. Of course, if opera is to reach more than the “happy few”, it has to be priced accordingly. Cahn has already made a start by finding a private sponsor who has enabled 100 tickets for every performance to be priced at CHF17 (“the price of a cinema ticket”) – the previous price of CHF30 was considered to be beyond a psychological barrier. Of course, there’s a risk: “we have to see that it's not just the old opera lovers who come anyway that will buy all those. It's a new project, we'll have to see how it goes.”

Cahn was a singer In his own performance career, so I ask him if he can share any insights into the casting of singers. “For me, it’s very important for there to be awareness of style, to have singers who are not just sound machines but have a sensibility to what the sing.” He takes care to match the right singer not only to the role but to the way the conductor or director is likely to shape it: “When you go with an adventurous director who really wants to go a very individual and subtle way with a production, you would not necessarily cast a Russian singer that hardly speaks any English and has not worked with any director that wanted more than traditional opera gestures. You would rather look for a singer who could answer in an intellectual way to the needs of that kind of director.”

He is happy to accommodate a wide variety of directorial styles but insists on one common feature: directing should be “rooted in our time”. That could take many forms: an aesthetic attitude, a political attitude, or simply a style. “When we did Pelléas et Mélisande in Antwerp with the two choreographers, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet, the point of departure was movement, it was how to bring dancers and singers together.”

When this first season is over, how will he judge its level of success? “First of all, that we really could state that we reached the audiences during that season: how many first timers, how many people we could get in contact with that have not been in contact with us or not for many many years. The other is of course the question of quality, what kind of quality results we reached, both in our own judgement and in the judgement of audiences and press, the whole perception of the institution. And I don't expect miracles overnight, but I expect to see a tendency.”