La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Once upon Now

Peter de Caluwe presents the 2020-21 season of La Monnaie

Peter de Caluwe
Reading time
10 min.

A new decade got under way just a little while ago. That sort of ten-year milestone may seem arbitrary, but it is already clear that we face major changes in the near future. If recent years are anything to go by, we can expect a turbulent period in both politics and society, in the context of an ultra-rapidly changing world. That kind of climate forces us to move with the times. We must not, we cannot, sidestep the burning issues in society today.

This season, we seek to face these challenges in two ways: both by tackling contemporary subjects and by taking a look back at the great works of the past. So that their timeless themes can help us to learn lessons for our own time. In these pages, I will set out to guide you through the programming that emerged from those reflections. Once again, there is no single overarching theme; there is, however, a luxuriant tangle of underlying connections that make for a rich and meaningful season.

This will take place within the framework that we have set out for the years ahead in my third term as General Director. The result is a skeleton with two key vertebrae: two contemporary works at the start of the season, and a challenging undertaking in which different operas by the same composer are brought together in a single new project.

A Struggle With Identity and Racism
The New York Times, 4.1.2013

How better to get the cultural year under way than with the world premiere of a newly composed work? Kris Defoort has spent just about a whole decade working on his fourth opera, The Time of Our Singing. A time-consuming project, understandably. Transforming the six hundred or so pages of Richard Powers’ novel of the same name, an epic family saga set in the racism-plagued United States of the twentieth century, into a workable libretto is not the work of a moment. Studded with musical references, this substantial literary tome offered Kris a highly varied palette of sounds with which to construct his score, ranging from the earliest Flemish polyphony to the wildest free jazz.
In the US director Ted Huffman, we have got hold of a driven artist to bring the historical novel’s political undercurrents to the stage. He is himself the child of a mixed marriage and the book deals with issues of race that affect him directly.

Our second contemporary work is also politically charged: The Sleeping Thousand, an opera in Hebrew about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In a sci-fi treatment, whose libretto reads like a Philip K Dick novel. Here, too, the work deals with issues that directly affect the artistic team. The composer Adam Maor spent years in prison as a refusenik, for refusing to do his military service. The opera is first and foremost about the underlying feelings and personal struggles associated with oppression. The Sleeping Thousand, which marks the Israeli composer’s operatic debut, will be performed by talented young musicians from the European Network of Opera Academies (enoa), of which La Monnaie is proud to be a partner.

L’avenir du Royaume-Uni n’a jamais été aussi incertain
Le Soir, 4.9.2019

In the two-part project Bastarda!, we let history speak as an answer to a question that confronts our leaders more today than ever before: that of the extraordinarily difficult balance between public image, personal life choices, and social responsibility. Bastarda! is a musical-theatrical tour de force that combines Elisabetta al castello di Kenilworth, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, Gaetano Donizetti’s four Tudor operas, in a brand-new two-part production. With an entirely revisited score, too, arranged and conducted by Francesco Lanzillotta. Even singers who are familiar with Donizetti’s originals will find themselves having to reinvent their roles for this new work.

The sequence will present the turbulent life story of the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, child of the allegedly invalid marriage between Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. In the concept that we have developed in collaboration with Olivier Fredj, the spectator is sucked into the power struggles, characterised by intrigue and murder, that Elizabeth inherited from her father. In order to recreate the Tudor era as vividly as possible, we have brought in the Oscar-winning designer Colleen Atwood – you can expect opulent costumes in a setting in which stage and auditorium, fiction and reality blend seamlessly. The entire chronicle unfolds over two successive opera evenings, which you should ideally both attend to get the most out of the production.

We return to the Tudor family tree with a new production of Henry VIII by Saint-Saëns. In 2021, it will be a hundred years since the composer’s death. The director Olivier Py, in the wake of Les Huguenots and Hamlet, immerses himself once more in an underrated French opera, this time in collaboration with our Music Director, Alain Altinoglu. The work focuses on the annulment of the marriage of the English king to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The thematic link to our Elizabethan Donizetti project means that this opera forms part of a Tudor ‘cluster’ that dominates much of our programming.

Our end-of-year production is also connected to that cluster. If it had been up to Shakespeare, no more would have been heard of the character of Sir John Falstaff from his Henry IV. But Elizabeth I herself insisted that the Bard should bring back the uncouth, pot-bellied knight in The Merry Wives of Windsor, thus indirectly providing Giuseppe Verdi with the material for his swan song. In line with what is now an annual tradition, Alain Altinoglu conducts our December production; he and Laurent Pelly will give their imaginations free reign in this commedia lirica, which the French director seasons just enough to give the farce a bittersweet flavour.

While this cluster accounts for a considerable proportion of our season’s programme, that is not a matter of taking a position in relation to the protracted political malaise affecting our British neighbours – although … With these productions, we aim to convey our own values as an opera house. As one that breaks through borders. For most of the new productions in the cluster, we have found a variety of co-production partners all over the continent. In that way, we wish to promote cohesion across national frontiers, in the hope that an exploration of the cultural and political past can be enlightening for the Europe we live in today.

In the dark winter months, we also present Benjamin Britten’s gloriously macabre chamber opera The Turn of the Screw. This is a musical setting of the sinister ghostly novella by Henry James, which, ever since its publication, has been interpreted in conflicting ways: from a poetic expression of youthful rebellion to a covert denunciation of paedophilia. We leave it to the director Andrea Breth and the British conductor Ben Glassberg to distil their own interpretation from the multitude of readings of the work. In the rich weave of our season, this Gothic horror story connects our Anglo-Saxon cluster with The Sleeping Thousand, whose existence we owe in part to the Aldeburgh festival held in the town where Britten lived for many years.

From a ghost story to a ghost town. Next season, we will mark not only the hundredth anniversary of the death of Camille Saint-Saëns, but also the centenary of Die tote Stadt, the operatic hit with which the Austrian wunderkind Erich Wolfgang Korngold made his international breakthrough at just 23 years of age. The cinematic style of his music, thanks to which Korngold would later become a star in Hollywood, can already be detected in this early work. We roll out the red carpet for the director Mariusz Treliński, whose own background in the cinema makes him ideal for this task. The symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte, which inspired the libretto, moreover, makes an important connection with our concert season.

De comeback van het patriottisme
De Standaard, 18.11.2016

Belgian post-Romantic music is at its heart. In each of this season’s concerts, our Symphony Orchestra plays a work by a composer from this country. The highlight is a unique event: we will present Lodewijk Mortelmans’ opera De Kinderen der Zee (The Children of the Sea) for the first time in our opera house, in a concert version. One hundred years – centenaries are, in fact, another thread running through our season – after its premiere, the definitive edition of the score still hasn’t been published. For this production, we are working closely with the Mortelmans family. We are an opera house in the heart of Europe, looking out at the wider world. In our role as a federal cultural institution, however, we also avail of opportunities to let you discover a number of neglected composers from the musical history of Belgium.

This season, once again, we can offer you a lieder cycle of the highest quality. This offers regular performers on our opera stage a more intimate platform. And we will also continue to build on our considerable record as dance promotors. Following the successful debut year of Troika, we once more supplement our own productions with the programming of our partners in the KVS and the Théâtre National. This enables us to offer dance-lovers an unprecedentedly varied and extensive range of events, all while continuing our fruitful, long-term collaboration with Rosas and Kaaitheater. We will turn the spotlight on this Troika-partnership with the theatres of Belgium’s main linguistic communities in a highly symbolic move: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s new show, Vlaemsch, whose title speaks for itself – will deliberately not be premiered in ‘his’ Antwerp, but in the capital of Flanders, Brussels.

Jugendliche halten Klimaschutz und Bildungswesen für größte Probleme
Die Welt, 16.08.2019

Our visitor numbers show that we are evolving. More and more young people are finding their way to our opera house. We aim to further arouse their enthusiasm and this season we are inviting under-thirties to attend four dress rehearsals. In addition, we are also keen to offer this new generation an opportunity to discover some successful productions from La Monnaie’s recent past. To that end, we conclude the season with the much-talked-about Parsifal that launched Romeo Castellucci’s opera-directing career almost ten years ago. Not exactly a revival, as Romeo intends getting involved again. Like you, I am curious to see what the result will be like.

If we aim to be a forward-thinking institution, we must also take a good look at ourselves. In the past, there were times when our ecological footprint was subordinated to the creative end product. So we are now trying to make up lost ground as quickly as we can, as we take concrete steps towards becoming a green, climate-responsible opera house. Over recent seasons, major progress has been made in that respect during our renovation works: the construction of a tunnel between the stage and the Workshops, for example, has rendered a lot of unnecessary heavy-goods traffic superfluous. This year, even the aesthetic reflections on our Bastarda! project have been influenced by the goal, indeed the absolute necessity, of reducing our impact on the climate and the environment as much as possible.

Whatever the future may hold in store – for our opera house, for our society, for vulnerable spheres such as welfare, education, and culture – it is my hope that we are ready to face it. Not by blindly going along with a groundless optimism about progress and with an unrestrained pursuit of development, but by continuing to build on the foundations of our cultural history. May this richly varied season offer scope for reflection on those foundations, so that together we may emerge from it wiser.