After months as the most open secret in classical music, it was recently formally announced that Serge Dorny, intendant of Opéra de Lyon, will take over as artistic director of the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2021. Dorny has been at Lyon since 2003 during which time he has been widely credited for reinvigorating the company. I met him during its Verdi Festival, a few hours after the 2018-19 season was launched, and asked him to reflect on his time in Lyon as well as the challenges ahead.

Serge Dorny © Blandine Soulage
Serge Dorny
© Blandine Soulage

MP: You started out as assistant to Gerard Mortier at La Monnaie. What did you learn from working with him?

SD: It was Mortier's first post as an intendant and we collaborators were all very young. Time was not an issue – art was the only thing which existed in our world. It was almost a sect with a guru. Mortier was capable of galvanizing everyone around a project. He was a very passionate man and I learnt that this job is not possible without passion. I also learnt the urgency of art and how essential art is in society. We would have articulated it in different ways, but what I really learnt from him was this sense of Notwendigkeit (urgency). Everything was programmed for a reason. These were the founding elements. Opera is essential to today’s society, even more today than yesterday. We are living in a society that is in search of its identity; we are missing perspective, we are missing depth, we are missing orientation. The Arts can give depth to a middle-of-the-road society that seems to be satisfied with consuming and consumerism. It’s window-shopping. We’re a society that doesn’t want to be involved in decisions. We are a society that is incapable of questioning the past to move into the future. It’s a society that really prefers to blame and to mourn and to point fingers rather than a society that is willing to take its destiny into its own hands.

We cannot simply experience the Arts as goods to be consumed. The Arts should oblige people to think and ask questions and maybe fundamentally change people's perceptions. It doesn’t mean we give answers but I hope the way you emerge from a performance has made a difference to your life and that it has changed your perception. These are the elements that I learnt in those early days with Mortier. We were friends for a lifetime – we spoke just three days before he died – and I cannot imagine approaching what I do any differently and I think it’s because this founding element was so strong.

<i>Macbeth</i> (2018) © Stofleth
Macbeth (2018)
© Stofleth

Look at our production of Macbeth which is about the abuse of power and how people are manipulated. Leaders are capable of abandoning their true convictions in reaction to an opinion poll. You see how the witches make Macbeth commit the worst of crimes, but this happens today in the business world, the political world. To transfer the storytelling to Occupy Wall Street and see how completely politics are ruled by financial stakes is very clever. Politicians and business leaders want to stay in power and are capable of committing a crime, eliminating opponents, to hang on to power. It was Václav Havel who said that when you drink from power you become drunk on power.

Opéra de Lyon won the Opera Company of the Year at the International Opera Awards last year. To what do you subscribe the company’s success?

I would hope that us being recipients for this extraordinary award, for which we are very grateful, is that it was not due to the actions of one year. Since 2003 we have tried to establish a real identity for this company – a DNA based on repertoire outside the usual and for new works. Secondly, based on giving the pieces we present a contemporary view, making opera a contemporary genre and not a genre stuck in a mausoleum awaiting the moment when we put the key under the carpet and close the door. I would also hope it’s related to our access policy, with the way we’ve brought people into the house, but have also gone out of the opera house to give opera a political meaning in the primary sense of the word.

Is opera seen as elitist in France?

This depends on us and how accessible we make it. If I look at some ticket prices, it’s sometimes a daunting reality. If you have to pay £400-500 for two tickets then, honestly, I wouldn’t be able to go, even with all the love I have for the art form. When we talk about making it popular, it’s not just about going out into the city, it’s also about creating the capacity to come inside the building. We’re talking about a financial reality – at Lyon tickets cost from 5 Euros to 100 Euros and this allows a more diverse audience to get into the opera. You make it as elitist as you want. You create access yourself.

Nothing can substitute hearing opera live: the collective concentration, the silence, that you share in the applause, the boos, the bravos – this is something that nothing can replace. Your hifi equipment can be as extraordinary as you want, but you don’t have the same listening capacity or viewing capacity as when you’re in the house with these artists. The physicality of it is overwhelming.

<i>Persephone</i> (2016) © Javier del Real | Teatro del Real
Persephone (2016)
© Javier del Real | Teatro del Real

Lyon's new season lacks the staples which are often seen as a gateway into opera – no Traviatas, Bohèmes, Rigolettos. It's brave programming.

Every culture has a different background, its own history, its own traditions and if you’re appointed somewhere, you’re going to take this house on a journey. That means it’s something you have to gradually engage with. What I do now would have been totally impossible in 2003.

Now, audiences that are not familiar with the form do not necessarily like ‘popular’ operas any more than others because they are just not familiar with them; they do not belong to their collective memory. We did Thierry Escaich’s Claude, which had a libretto about the death penalty by Robert Badinter who was the French minister for justice under François Mitterrand. Claude is after a text by Victor Hugo (Claude Gueux) and I commissioned Badinter to write the libretto because he was the minister who abolished the death penalty. When we performed this [in March 2013], we had 100% attendance. It’s an issue that still resonates and is valid today. If there were to be a referendum on it today, I would not bet on the outcome.

Is there a danger that co-productions have an impact upon the identities of companies?

It does. We do a lot of co-productions but, with the exception of the two from London, they are created here and then they travel. It doesn’t distract from the identity of the Lyon Opera House, but if there is not a strong dramaturgy in the way you put programmes together, then you are at risk of entering a global opera environment where every season looks the same, where the only difference is the logo on the season brochure. Putting a programme together is not just a list of titles. It’s not just shopping around with your credit card. It’s about how one piece resonates with another. It’s a kind of dramaturgy. But yes, the risk is that for economic reasons we are forced into co-productions without any reason.

What have been your greatest achievements at the company?

I would hope others would say the company’s sustainability of the quality of productions we put on here which has gradually built up. I’m also proud of our accessibility, putting opera in a central position in the city and giving it a real meaning. And I would say the third thing would be the risks we’ve taken – risks in repertoire but also risks in who we’ve invited: Castellucci for Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc, Wajdi Mouawad for Die Entführung, David Marton for Capriccio as a few examples. 

<i>Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher</i> (2017) © Stofleth
Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (2017)
© Stofleth

In September, Daniele Rustioni joined the company as Principal Conductor. What sort of impact has he already had on music-making here?

Whenever you change a principal conductor, you should never try to substitute somebody by what they had, because the organisation you have at the end of a tenure is always going to be different to how it was at the start. The question is, how do you take that institution to different horizons. Daniele comes from a very different background to Kazushi Ono or Kent Nagano with a repertoire that has not exactly been our repertoire. We have not done so much Verdi so I find it interesting to have someone with an entirely different cultural background and repertoire and with a different concept to the sound of the orchestra.

And it is very interesting for Daniele to come to this house because we offer also a culture that is not his – the War Requiem is not something he would naturally have done, nor is Tchaikovsky’s The Enchantress, so we also open his horizons – he is a young conductor and we have an enormous responsibility to him to engage him onto a journey.

You take up your new post at Bayerische Staatsoper in September 2021. Why Munich?

Munich is an extraordinary house, one of the top houses in the world because, away from politics, the Arts is really at the centre of this institution. If you look at its history, the continuity of its output is amazing. Its DNA is Mozart, Wagner and Strauss but the aesthetic curiosity is remarkable. For me, it’s a dream but it’s daunting too.

You were instrumental in bringing Vladimir Jurowski to the LPO. What are his qualities and why did you want to secure him for Munich?

He's very profound and serious. He’s extremely open-minded in terms of repertoire and has an enormous versatility, defending all that repertoire with the same energy. He is a musician’s musician. He is refined, highly cultivated with an enormous curiosity, a man who breathes theatre.

Respighi's rarity <i>La bella dormente nel bosco</i> (2018) © Blandine Soulage
Respighi's rarity La bella dormente nel bosco (2018)
© Blandine Soulage

And what do you still wish to achieve at Lyon in your remaining seasons here?

Our plans are almost finalised for the next three seasons, but my main ambition is to help Daniele Rustioni settle into his job. I signed his contract and committed myself to him, so I have to nurture him and give the company solid roots and wings to fly in different directions.

Of course there is excitement about Bayerische Staatsoper and I will have to spend more time preparing for this post, but I want to make sure that the same treatment is given to Lyon Opera House. It’s not about me. I’m only a little link in the chain and this chain is important. Our institutions need this passion – to come full circle back to Mortier – commitment and time. I teach a little and I often say to students that the three very important letters at the heart of what I am doing are TLC: tender, loving care, but they also mean time, labour and commitment. So I want to give that to Lyon.