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© Constance Proux

The Loving Gaze

Peter de Caluwe presents the new 2021-22 season

Peter de Caluwe
Reading time
9 min.

New creations, reinvented classics and the return of iconic productions, all together no less than 12 operas; but also the 250th anniversary of our Symphony Orchestra, the full expressive spectrum of the voice in our recitals and the best of dance: this is the La Monnaie season 2021-22, as presented by General Director Peter de Caluwe.

The audience’s gaze. The artist’s gaze. Gazes that meet in a theatre reserved for the imagination. It is the very essence of a performance. In this month that promises the arrival of spring, we are venturing to present you with a normal opera season abounding in loving gazes. But what is normal these days?

In these first few pages of our new season brochure it would be all too easy to speak of ‘turning a page’. And yet the 2021-22 cultural season can nevertheless be seen as a new beginning. Perhaps not yet the jubilant comeback we still hold out hope of, but nevertheless a programme glowing with optimism and positivism. Because we dare to believe, indeed to assume, that you will be able to experience ten whole months of live opera again from September.

I don’t need to explain to anyone just how disruptive the last twelve months have been. The social and psychosocial consequences of the pandemic are immense. We have been forced to sit on our cultural hunger for months. From the outset of the crisis, we decided to keep La Monnaie’s wheels turning, continuing to work actively behind the scenes – by teleworking or, for those whose profession didn’t allow it, corona-secure in the workshops; carrying on with the projects into which resources had already been poured; honouring as far as possible the contracts we had signed with musicians, singers, directors and other artists. We worked tirelessly towards a new beginning, only to have the ratchet strap tightened time and time again. We lived on hope, notwithstanding the endless cancellations, which always came as a slap in the face even for the most optimistic souls. The last year has required tremendous resilience from every member of the La Monnaie team. Once again I would like to thank all my colleagues from the bottom of my heart for their remarkable performance during this crisis. By continuing to believe in our mission and in our raison d’être.

Of course, these almost opera-less months have a knock-on effect for our programme in the 2021-22 season. What is more, they jumbled together all the remaining seasons of my mandate at La Monnaie. Some shows have been tweaked over the last few months, allowing artistic teams to continue working on them, but many other projects were postponed to later, to now. So I am delighted that we are still able to stage the world creation of The Time of Our Singing and our two concert operas, De Kinderen der Zee (Children of the Sea) and Parsifal, albeit with some slight delay.

“I have used the word ‘attention’ [...]
to express the idea of a just and loving gaze
directed upon individual reality.
I believe this to be the characteristic and
proper mark of the active moral agent”
Iris Murdoch

In the 2021-22 season we are concentrating on familiar repertoire – Carmen, Norma, Lulu and Mozart’s Requiem –, all works of infinite emotional power. That emotion is a crucial part of the experience we have had to learn to live without for so long. But at the same time they are prisms through which to shed light on our own society. For months all the political and social themes that art ought to touch on in normal circumstances have been submerged in a torrent of COVID priorities. Now at last we can return to our artistic mission and question the world around us through the power of opera.

We hope that our productions will stimulate your creative imagination and not just your mechanical fantasy, if I may borrow the formulation of the British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, whose writing has become so relevant to our situation today. Indeed, she sees the art experience as having the potential to furnish us with important tools for personal development. She refers to art bringing us into contact with the world and with other lives. Art that exhorts us to break out of the circle of our own ego. Becoming a better person through such confrontations is something I believe in. For too long culture was not a priority in government policy, even though the need was there. Now we must fill that void and we must do so with conviction.

In this respect Norma and Les Huguenots are a passionate plea for greater tolerance, or rather a warning about the poison of intolerance. In Norma, director-scenographer Christophe Coppens sets Vincenzo Bellini’s Roman love triangle in a closed world of identity in which the bel canto contrasts ominously with the cold threat of war and the lacerating emotions of the libretto.

Then, using Giacomo Meyerbeer’s music as his brush, stage director Olivier Py paints a portrait of religious fanatism in Les Huguenots, set in sixteenth-century France. For La Monnaie’s faithful audiences, it will be a rediscovery of this grand opéra, which contributed internationally to the Meyerbeer revival when it was premièred in Brussels exactly ten years ago.

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s 2012 take on Lulu is another successful production, which deserves to be discovered by a new generation of opera lovers. The Polish director distilled Alban Berg’s opera into a confrontational story of emancipation, surrender and transgression. Once again the phenomenal Barbara Hannigan takes on the lead role of a femme fatale who grapples with herself, her fate and her position in a world dominated by men.

Barbara Hannigan (Lulu, 2012)
Barbara Hannigan (Lulu, 2012) © Bernd Uhlig

Carmen also revolves around a self-assured, liberated young woman. In his controversial interpretation, director Dmitri Tcherniakov recontextualized Georges Bizet’s box-office hit and, using rewritten dialogues, created a new framework. The well-known libretto about the voluptuous gypsy is embedded in a fascinating story, whereby a man tries to overcome his relational troubles through an extraordinary therapeutic role play. This Carmen was certainly one of the most intriguing productions I have seen at the Aix-en-Provence festival in recent years, and so I am delighted that La Monnaie can introduce the Brussels public to it as its coproducer.

Romeo Castellucci’s staged version of Mozart’s Requiem, conducted by Raphaël Pichon, deserves the same accolade and it allows us to bring one of our core directors back to Brussels with work by one of the most frequently performed composers in our theatre. The visionary multi-artist makes the iconic requiem a valedictory letter to the fauna, flora, culture and heritage that mankind has destroyed. A poignant history lesson, dictated for once not by the winners, but by the losers... and which leaves the audience with a chastening sense of guilt.

As you will have noticed, this season there are notably more revivals and coproductions on the programme than you are used to at La Monnaie. We are now enjoying the fruits of our investment in coproductions with our partners. Not only are La Monnaie projects going to other theatres, but their creations are also coming to us. And as regards revivals, I would like to emphasize that the intrinsic quality of a production always takes precedence. When we decide to bring back top-notch interpretations, it is because we firmly believe that these productions will not lose one iota of their creative power a decade after the première. The excellent casting of the original series has partially been retained in the case of Lulu and Requiem, while Carmen’s première cast will appear alongside a brilliant revival cast, and Les Huguenots has a new conductor, Evelino Pidò, and an outstanding, brand-new team of soloists.

Yet we are still first and foremost a house of creation. Commitment to commissioned works is fundamental to my current mandate. Even in the disastrous corona year, we managed to fulfil that commitment with our virtual world creation Is this the End?. At the start of the season in September, we will also be playing this role with Kris Defoort’s new opera The Time of Our Singing, based on the masterly novel by Richard Powers. Now that the Black Lives Matter movement has jolted awake the world, it is difficult to imagine a more topical theme. But that aside, it is also an intimate story about a racially mixed family in the USA that is bound together and driven apart by music. We consider ourselves fortunate that we can now hold this rollercoaster between jazz, hip hop and classical over the baptismal font.

Apart from that creation, in the spring we will also be staging Here’s the Woman!, which is the second part of Jean-Luc FafchampsIs this the End?, and, as part of our collaboration with the European Network of Opera Academies (enoa), also composer Jamie Man’s project Zelle.

“In theatre, there are certain fixed laws:
to captivate, to surprise and move,
or to make people laugh.”
Giacomo Puccini

And then we still have Puccini. Though he may not make very regular appearances at La Monnaie, in the spring of 2022 – so after the Tosca that closes the 2020-21 season –, there will be a new production of his Trittico which brings together the well-known one-act operas Il tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Three periods, three settings and three ‘colours’ in which Puccini sought unity. We do that, too, by presenting the trilogy all in the same evening. In the second opera he is to direct at La Monnaie, Tobias Kratzer retains the order of the pieces intended by Puccini and unifies the stories, like a circle without end but with references to each other. With this trilogy, Alain Altinoglu will continue his exploration of the Puccini repertoire with us at La Monnaie. Earlier in the season he will also be conducting Lulu and both concert operas: Parsifal and Kinderen der Zee (Children of the Sea).

As well as our opera productions, we are of course continuing to work on the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie’s other mainstays: a whole range of dance performances – as part of the Troika partnership with KVS and the Théâtre National –, original Lieder evenings, intimate chamber music concerts and this season a ‘historical’ series of concerts by our symphony orchestra. Indeed, in 2022 the La Monnaie orchestra is celebrating its two-hundred-and-fiftieth (!) birthday. Naturally, this will not go unheeded by music director Alain Altinoglu. All the jubilee concerts until the end of 2022 are presented in this website.

Let us conclude by returning to Iris Murdoch for a moment. Her philosophy relates to how individuals become involved in each other’s lives through specific human experiences. This I feel encapsulates beautifully what we do at La Monnaie. Offer intense encounters by staging performing arts. Over the years we have created a close-knit team of artists with whom you are also on first name terms. After a turbulent year, we cannot wait to reunite our La Monnaie family: on stage a mix of familiar faces and a number of newcomers and hopefully the same in the auditorium!

I very much look forward to seeing you again.

Photo : © Constance Proux – Courtesy Nathalie Salamero