Q&A with The Paris Opera Filmmaker, Jean-Stéphane Bron

Peek behind the curtain of The Paris Opera in Jean-Stéphane Bron’s new documentary.

Peek behind the curtain of The Paris Opera in Jean-Stéphane Bron’s new documentary.

The new documentary, The Paris Opera, by filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Bron takes a fascinating and sometimes humorous look at what took place behind the scenes during 2015 within this iconic art institution that was founded in 1669 by King Louis XIV. 

As its new director, Stéphane Lissner tries to put together his first season, which includes ballet and opera performances. The camera follows him as well as others involved in the productions, giving the film audience an education in the complexities and politics of running one of the great performing arts institutions in the world.

Living Out Loud – Los Angeles poses some questions to Bron regarding the creative process that brought this project to light, as well as how it was to be in Paris during the Nov. 13, 2015 terrorist attacks that included the murder of 89 people at the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan theater.

LOL-LA: How long did you spend shooting the documentary? And how did you determine where and when to start, and where and when to end it?

JSB: After a few months of research, I started the shooting in January 2015. But until September of the same year, I filmed little. It was, above all, a way of meeting people to do the “casting,” a way of getting to know my protagonists, including Stéphane Lissner, the director. For someone uninitiated like me, the opera can have something impressive, there is a barrier of coral to cross. Therefore I was looking for a figure that I could identify with, someone who has everything to discover. That’s how I met Micha Timoshenko, the young baritone-bass selected to enter the Academy, born and raised in a small village in Russia. The actual shooting lasted during the entire ’15/’16 season.

LOL-LA: What was the reason for you to undertake this project?

JSB: My previous film, The Blocher Experience, was a portrait of the multi-billionaire and leader of the extreme right in Switzerland, a kind of dark painting of democracy. After that disturbing two-year experience, I wanted to shoot a documentary about a large institution, with a profusion of characters, to film a society. Philippe Martin, my producer, told me about the upheavals at the Paris Opera: A new director had just been appointed, and a new team was to be set up there. It seemed to me an interesting situation. Everything was to discover, and it is always a good starting point: the desire to know more about something.

LOL-LA: Did you know some of the issues, such as the possibility of a labor strike and the exit of Benjamin Millepied, before you started filming?

JSB: The Paris Opera is a place of excellence where only the final result counts, that is to say, representation, the show, what will be seen and heard by the public. Of course that’s not what I was interested in. I wanted to show the work, this moment when the difficulty and sometimes the conflicts are expressed. Basically, my quest stopped where the show started.

Of course I can’t foresee what will happen, but a strike, you could have smelled it. Above all, I’ve tried to keep a kind of freshness in my way of looking at that world, to let me ceaselessly be surprised. The formal framework of the film quickly established itself: to not film the shows, to attach me to the work that precedes them, to choose a limited number of characters, follow them. And, through them, try to show this institution like a society, studying its hierarchy and its components.

LOL-LA: Does your background include working in the world or opera, dance or theater?

JSB: No, not at all. My background is to have grown up in a rock club in Lausanne, called La Dolce Vita very far from the opera. But I’m always guided by what I do not know and by an intimate question I want to solve.

LOL-LA: How did you choose some of the subjects that you followed? Were there others that did not make the cut?

JSB: I try to be inspired by the world that I invest in to find the form of the film. If I make a film about the opera, then I try to make the film become an “opera” itself with the idea that the film will be carried by music, by its energy, while following the path of characters, as different pictures of a larger narrative without following the chronology of the season, but according to a temporality proper to opera, with its ellipses, its contractions, its “editing effects,” by successive paintings. And I always follow my guts and my intuition without losing the idea of filming a society. When I start to film a protagonist, I always follow him to the end, and I leave no one on the floor of the editing room. I left some sequence of course, but no protagonist.

LOL-LA: Does the music of the soundtrack relate to the works being performed in the film?

JSB: Yes, indeed. I limited myself to using music played during the season, and I started very early to edit the film with music. The directors of opera always talk about images: What is my first image, the second, and so on. It is also a way of organizing work by organizing time. We proceeded in the same way, as if each sequence was an image in itself. The whole film is built on these footbridges between the stage and the backstage. Sometimes there is a break. Sometimes the link is made by sound, or by encounters. Each painting is constructed as a variation on the theme of the backstage, those that are in the shadow, those that are in the light, what binds, what separates the actors from this society.

LOL-LA: Did the film start and end as per your original idea, or did it change and/or evolve as things happened?

JSB: Yes, I had the idea to film a collective. The show must be perfect, the season must be successful. All these objectives are incarnated in pain and difficulty, but they are carried by a deep desire. Now, the desire that animates this ivory tower seems to me precisely what is cruelly lacking in the “outside world,” in our societies which are no longer capable, or with much difficulty, of inventing a common future. In this sense, a theater is quite an inspiring place.

LOL-LA: What was the impact of the terror attacks of 2015, specifically the one on the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan, on the filming, mood and/or outcome of the film given that that attack took place in a theater?

JSB: For me, the attacks were a turning point in the film. In this terrible and solemn moment, endured by French society, the opera, through the voice of its director, but also by the presence of artists on stage, declared, “The show must, must go on. The only answer we can give to terror is to play and play again.” A way to assert that living art is also political, with its own universal values.

LOL-LA: What would you like for people to take away with them after they watch the film?

JSB: A profound joy. And that despite difficulties, it’s possible to share something in common.  

The Paris Opera is in theaters Oct. 20.

Humberto Capiro is a Contributing Writer for Living Out Loud - LA, covering lifestyle and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter: @HumbertoCapiro

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