A conversation with French baritone Guillaume Durand

Since the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic, the performing arts have greatly suffered from the shutdown of cultural venues. In addition, the very strict health requirements imposed on show producers have not allowed a real resumption of shows, concerts and cultural activities. For the moment, the French media have mainly interviewed famous opera singers as well as to the heads of major musical institutions, leaving the majority of the profession in the shadows. This is why I wanted to have a conversation with French baritone and stage director Guillaume Durand, who told me me about the impact of the health crisis on his work, his musical training in France, his exciting new recording and live performance projects as well as his political commitment for the environment.

As a lyric artist, how have you coped with the Covid-19 pandemic?

During the lockdown, it was pretty weird because it should have been a period when I was starting to have commitments again, productions that were getting ready, so it was really a sudden stop in the middle of a moment that was to be pretty dense. Then there was the disappointment of dates that I was seeing cancelled. In particular, I had a production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with Malika Bellaribi-Le Moal and the company Voix en Développement, scheduled for the end of June at Hardelot castle. It was a project we had been working on for two years, and it was heartbreaking to see it cancelled. Fortunately, this project was miraculously rescheduled in March 2021. It was really a period of uncertainty.

When we emerged from the lockdown in May, many of us, among singers and musicians, wondered: « What can we do if we can’t give live performances ? ». It turns out that, as far as I was concerned, I was able to make a recording with Iakovos Papas, who is a Greek harpsichordist and is fairly well known in the small world of Baroque music. We recorded our album in July, instead of recording it later, as originally planned. We moved the project forward, and above all we were able to do it in a church. There were 5-6 of us. This is the advantage of baroque music, there is no need for large ensembles. It’s also something you can do while abiding by all the health regulations. It felt good to be able to work.

Then, as far as my work as a stage director is concerned, my colleagues and I have moved forward in our work because this is the part we can do remotely with meetings on Zoom and e-mail exchanges.

Guillaume Durand

Last May French President Emmanuel Macron announced measures that were described as exceptional to support the cultural sector (extension of compensation rights for what is known as what in France is known as intermittents du spectacle – temporary show business workers until the end of August 2021). Do you think that these measures are up to the challenges facing the cultural sector?

First of all, the measure extending the rights of temporary show business workers until August 2021 is really a good thing, even if the decree took a long time to come out (the decree was only published officially on 26 July). This extension will help many artists who were receiving rights at the time of the lockdown in March 2020, and who will be able to continue to receive a monthly stipend. However, we are in total uncertainty as to what will happen after 31 August 2021, because stopping on that date suggests that cultural activities will have resumed under normal conditions. It is impossible for the moment to know whether this will really be the case.

Emmanuel Macron also expressed the hope that artists would invest in the educational field by telling them that the nation needed them in schools. What do you think of this idea of a « learning and cultural summer »?

The idea of a ‘learning and cultural summer’ is one that I found really interesting. In fact, I didn’t understand the reaction of many singers and musicians who snubbed this entrance measure, saying that the artists were not « baby sitters ». I can’t understand why lyric artists would turn their backs on this kind of initiative when opera has become such an elitist and bourgeois art form, which needs to be opened up to the widest possible audience. Personally, I think that the idea of involving singers and musicians in schools is a very good thing, because if we manage to create even one emotion, it is already a very important step in making a more diverse public want to go to the opera. Moreover, it is not necessary to devote a regular scheduled hour in the pupils’ timetables, because not everyone is called upon to practice singing or playing an instrument regularly.

Speaking of music education, what was your training like during your childhood and youth?

I started music very early at the age of 6, with choral and music theory, and I practiced dancing a lot too. I continued singing in a choir throughout my normal schooling, and it so happened that at 15 the choirmaster of the choir where I sang in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburban town west of Paris, started giving individual lessons and I then took lessons with her.

I had this desire to make music my profession but I wanted to continue my general studies so as not to throw everything away at once. I was very young to tell myself that, at the age of 17, I was going to enter a fully professional music course, especially for male voices. So I trained as an engineer for 5 years, but, in 2009, after graduating, I didn’t end up working as an engineer and decided to do a degree in musicology at the Sorbonne University, while studying at the same time at the conservatoire of the 16th arrondissement of Paris, then in the conservatory of Boulogne-Billancourt, where I got my prize and where I did two years of advanced studies. After that I completed my studies with a sandwich course at the Dijon Higher Music School and then I got my DE (Diplôme d’Etat – State Diploma for teaching in music conservatoire), which helped me get a tenured teaching post at the CRR (Conservatoire à rayonnement régional – a regional conservatoire ) in Boulogne-Billancourt, where I am in charge of young voices as well as choral conducting.

From the very beginning of my advanced training, I had started working, doing backup choir work and auditions for small roles. I have been working a lot with the Frivolités Parisiennes since I attended their academy during the first season of « Les Paris Frivoles », a golden season, where the academy was free of charge and we had a few engagements at the end. I was able to work with them quite regularly. For example, I’m going to sing Normandie by Paul Misraki with them next month.

I have also worked a lot with an association called Voix et développement with Malika Bellaribi Le Moal, the « diva of the hoods » as she calls herself. I started as a soloist singing small roles, and for the last three years I have been stage directing with my colleague Sophie Magnot, which is a big part of my work now. Also, sometimes, I do a few small gigs, like the tour of the musical Les Misérables, and also projects with La Compagnie du JAB, which I founded with Mathilde Rogé. With this company, we staged the Offenbach’ademy, a pastiche of Offenbach’s works, for which we wrote a new story and changed the lyrics, and we also do shows for younger audiences.

As a music lover and regular concert-goer, I have had the impression over the last few years that the repertoire played in concerts and opera productions was becoming more and more restricted. How do you approach the question of repertoire?

As a performer, I always remember what my singing teacher who once told me: « If you sing a hit at a competition or an exam, you have to sing it very well, because the number of references is enormous. Conversely, if you choose something you don’t know or if you are the only one to sing, you are listened to with fresher ears ». When rare works are performed, it is as if we almost only listen to the music, and if it’s good music, going off the beaten track is very rewarding. So I always think that instead of singing yet another hit work, I can sing a Haydn that nobody knows. Same in the operetta repertoire: rather than singing Offenbach, why not choose a work by Audran. And in fact there’s lot of great music to sing.

That’s why I love working with Iakovos Pappas, because he works on lesser-known works, for example pieces by Pancrace Royer or Ludwig Abeille, which are jewels. We have just recorded La Fortune de Royer, which is an incredible work, a sort of huge cantata with surprising effects and harmonies, and a very percussive text. It’s like very good Rameau.

In fact, I always tell myself that music lovers will eventually discover these works if they know other things, but that people who don’t know opera, you can perform a piece by Mozart, Haydn or an unknown composer, and they won’t hear the difference. We shouldn’t refrain from doing pieces that are less well known. And even with the companies in which I work with amateurs, such as Voix en développement, where it’s up to us to decide on the programmes, in consultation with Malika Bellaribi-Le Moal, we try to pull the programming towards less well-known music works. In this case, we’re going to do Donizetti’s La Favorite, which is a slightly less performed work. I’m not a fan of this music, and I dare say so. For me, bel canto is too long, with the repetitions, etc. I’m not a fan of this music, and I dare say it. But in this case you can carve up, split a work into slices. You have to dare. Everything is good when the goal is passing on the love of music. And next year we might even do Camelot, the musical by Loewe and Lerner. But, it is certain that if we play it like Julie Andrews with the big braids, it will get old.

Can you tell us more about your soon-to-be-released recording of Royer’s Fortune?

Iakovos Pappas only works on French Baroque. His way of working is to focus on the text, which is a torture for the singers. When you working with Iakovos, you start with five or six sessions where the work is painful, because he interrupts the singers all the time. We work on the text, we work on the consonants, we don’t tamper with the vowels. The objective is to make every syllable understandable. We round off where we can. At the beginning it’s extremely disturbing, there’s a sickly pressure un the voice. But in the end, this music, which seems unsingable, because it is virtuosistic, because it is made up of interminable phrases, ends up flowing naturally. There is a kind of revelation. And you find yourself doing things vocally that you didn’t think you would, singing long phrases, trills. It’s really very formative.

The recording to be released has a programme with two cantatas, one for baritone, one for soprano, as well as an ode by Bousset for two voices, and as a bonus two extracts from Royer’s opera Almazis. It is a very coherent programme. It is a cantata that requires a small number of players, a basso continuo, a bow base, a harpsichord, two violins, and a few numbers with sometimes a flute and sometimes a bassoon. We recorded a good hour of music in 3-4 days. I am very much looking forward to the release of this album.

Previously we had given together a concert of Masonic or Masonic-inspired music at the BNF, and also an erotic programme around the erotic tragedy of Alexis Piron, Vasta, Reine de Bordelie, a Rabelais-like work, a form of chic and raw pornography. For the recording of La Fortune de Royer, the challenge was to work around the libretto, which is by Rousseau, not Jean-Jacques, but Jean Baptiste. It’s quite incisive. La Fortune deals with issues such as the honor of heroes, but also egos, lies, virtue. It is a work that points the finger at the powerful, which was quite polemical for its time, and which, even today, strikes a chord with modern audiences.

You are also politically committed to the French Green party EELV, and are now deputy mayor of the 14th arrondissement of Paris. We know that the world of classical music is based on an economic model that pushes artists and ensembles to travel constantly in order to build careers and reputations, even if there is a beginning of awareness of environmental issues. What transformations should be implemented, in your opinion, to make the world of music and the lyrical world more eco-responsible?

Classical music is not the worst environmentally-speaking compared to contemporary music, where there is a lot of plastic, catering with no vegetarian alternatives, nothing recyclable, and lots of electricity reinforcements. This is not eco-responsible.

The awareness currently comes mainly from artists, who traditionally are a little more left-wing, a little more urban, and a little more environmentally-aware. And there’s a real thing with lyric singers due to the attention we pay to our vocal chords, our body, what we eat, which is a real gateway to ecology.

Then on what we could do to transform, there are things that are going to be simple and that we can adopt immediately: we can stop using plastic, we can put water jugs, and so on. As for catering in opera houses, we can try to cook on location, we can offer alternatives to meat dishes… We know how to do all this, and there are other places where this already exists, such as school canteens.

What will be more difficult is, for example, the question of transport and travel. We have to hire local people, because inviting a foreign artist who comes by plane is really not possible. It’s a much more disturbing question, even though it would foster a kind of « green protectionism » and the employment of French singers. But I don’t think we’re ready for that. If we say this to a theatre director, it won’t be accepted, because it is not economically viable at the moment.

And finally, on the eco-responsibility at the opera, there would be something to be done about the staging. Very pitifully with this company Voix en développement (Developping Voices) we have very little budget for staging. Basically, we have 1,000 euros to make a staging, so the costumes and sets are more likely to be found on websites such as Amazon or Alibaba. Unfortunately, our global economy makes it cheaper to buy on the internet, sometimes on the other side of the world, than in a shop in Paris. And the extent to which we put environmental conditions on set production and costume making when there is no budget is a political issue. So, could we consider environmental and social requirements on the productions of the big opera and theatre houses? I think it is conceivable, but it needs to be progressive and accompanied. You can’t say overnight to the Paris Opera House, « we’ll reduce your subsidies if you don’t meet certain conditions ». This will eventually happen, as it will for any company, but it requires support.

Guillaume Durand on stage

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