Emma Beddington visits La Monnaie, Brussels’ groundbreaking, award-winning opera house – which flies in the face of tradition

to create thoughtprovoking, technologically innovative productions that reflect modern life in the 21st century Photography Alys Tomlinson

n August 1830, the Belgian revolution started with an opera. The audience at Brussels’ La Monnaie was so inflamed by the powerful patriotic sentiment in Daniel Auber’s La Muette de Portici that they ignited a wave of rioting and violence in the capital that culminated in the declaration of an independent Belgian state. That’s simplistic, of course, and the underlying causes had nothing to do with musical theatre, but surely opera can’t inspire such visceral reactions today? It’s hard to imagine how opera could be central to the public life of a city or a country in 2013, but the enthusiastic team behind the success of La Monnaie believes just that. In the heart of the city, near the garish neons of the chain stores of Rue Neuve, La Monnaie certainly doesn’t feel like a cosseted irrelevance. There’s a cheerful buzz in the cluttered corridors, busy with a steady stream of school tours and chorus costume fittings. There are props everywhere you turn: a ceiling is hung with swaying crinolines like outsize light fittings, and sets of wings hang casually on a coat rail on the staircase. The company has just opened a modern dress production of La Traviata, where Violetta’s courtesan colleagues are shown in shop windows, very similar to those that line the streets a few hundred yards away at the Gare du Nord.



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Clockwise from top left: a bull-on-wheels, used in Carmen, stands at bay in the props department; a frothy row of ladybird-dot tulle skirts; set-building on a massive scale; wardrobe mistress Regine Becker, who has worked here for 17 years; rich embroideries and appliqués on the costume team’s mood board; shelves of shoemakers’ lasts ensure a perfect fit; La Monnaie’s imposing 19th-century portico; Peter de Caluwe, the company’s passionate director Previous spread: painters gild an oversized crown, one of the props for next month’s production of Lucrezia Borgia

The reviews are in and they’re mainly very good. It’s another boost after a lavishly praised season opener: Berg’s Lulu, a stark, graphic production from Polish director Krysztof Warlikowski with video projections, iPhone messaging and visual references to Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan. Later in the season, the company is premiering a brand new opera by Belgian composer Benoît Mernier, around themes of infidelity. You’ll have got the message by now: there’s nothing cosy or traditionalist about La Monnaie, apart, perhaps from the building itself, a bijou 19th-century gem with exquisite gilding and frescoes. “Our public is really with us, and they really understand what we do” explains director of five years Peter de Caluwe, a lanky, boyishly approachable figure, with an impressive 26-year pedigree in the opera business. We meet in his office in the eaves of La Monnaie. “They are very critical, but incredibly impassioned about our work, so we have a

guarantee that we can put on a programme that is daring and innovative”. It’s that kind of daring that was rewarded in 2011 when the company won Opernwelt magazine’s coveted Opera House of the Year award. De Caluwe feels that it’s part of his job to push the audience towards more challenging works, to put together a programme that forces them to think. “I abhor entertainment,” he says with an edge of steel to his amiability, then qualifies slightly. “Entertainment has its place, but we’re not in the entertainment business. Society is investing in us, and we have a moral duty to react to what’s happening around us. When Verdi made La Traviata, he wanted to say something about his society, and it’s our job to do the same. When that happens, suddenly opera is not only the playground of the rich. It becomes a place of political and social discussion.” Certainly, the demographics of the audience are shifting. Thanks to initiatives that include an under-30s card giving

huge reductions on ticket prices, and A Night at the Opera, where pop and rock figures give their perspective on an opera before a performance, La Monnaie has a far more youthful profile than many of the staider European houses. “La Monnaie is not inaccessible, it’s not expensive,” emphasises de Caluwe. “The lowest ticket price is never higher than €10.” The company is savvy in its use of new technology too, with a lively Facebook page and Twitter account and free live web streaming of all productions. There’s a real will to reach out to new audiences: La Monnaie’s education initiatives touched 46,000 young people last year, from primary school children to university students; an extraordinary investment in the future. “I don’t think you learn to know opera when you’re 45,” says de Caluwe, himself a veteran of youth initiatives at La Monnaie. “You learn to know and appreciate it when you’re young”. For him, the company’s vocation is as much social as

artistic. “We go into prisons, we go to old people’s homes, we do singing and music-making with people who are less well off. We take our social responsibility very seriously.” Keeping La Monnaie relevant and engaged in the life of the city it inhabits may be the company’s biggest challenge, but it’s not the only one. The constant budgetary pressure, aggravated by the current recession, is a huge preoccupation – and with only 1,152 seats, it’s harder for La Monnaie than for other opera houses to balance the books. Keeping a disparate team of over 400 permanent staff happy in those conditions is a priority for de Caluwe. “They’re already sacrificing enough: we have to give them something back, which is wellbeing at work, the feeling that they are respected and that their opinion counts.” Touring the company, it certainly seems as if that commitment has paid off. From the wardrobe department (an enormous dressing-up box of shiny top hats, bishops’


january 2013

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january 2013


Emma Beddington visite La Monnaie, le remarquable opéra de Bruxelles Au cœur de la ville, non loin des néons clinquants des magasins de la rue Neuve, se trouve La Monnaie : un joyeux dédale de corridors, souvent envahis d’étudiants en visite scolaire et de costumes de scène. La compagnie vient juste de produire La Traviata dans une version contemporaine. Une nouvelle réussite après un début de saison très acclamé avec Lulu de Berg, une production saisissante où domine l’esthétisme de l’installation vidéo et des messageries d’iPhone. Plus tard cette saison, la compagnie présente en première mondiale un tout nouvel opéra dont la ligne dramaturgique explore les thèmes de l’infidélité. Donc rien de conventionnel ni de traditionnel à La Monnaie, à part peut-être le bâtiment, un joyau du 19e siècle. « Notre public est très critique, mais hautement passionné. Nous savons que nous pouvons programmer des créations audacieuses et innovantes, » explique le directeur Peter de Caluwe, en poste depuis 5 ans, et qui compte à son palmarès 26 ans dans le secteur de l’opéra. Cette audace a été récompensée en 2011, par le Prix annuel du très prestigieux magazine Opernwelt. De Caluwe considère que cela fait partie de sa mission d’orienter le public vers des œuvres plus difficiles, qui forcent à réfléchir. « Nous ne sommes pas dans le business du divertissement, » explique-t-il. « Nous avons le devoir moral de réagir à ce qui nous entoure. Lorsque Verdi a composé La Traviata, il voulait dire quelque chose sur la société de son temps. » Certes, l’âge du public est en train de changer : grâce à des initiatives comme les réductions pour les moins de 30 ans, et A Night at the Opera, une rencontre avec les figures de la pop rock qui donnent leur point du vue sur un opéra, La Monnaie attire bien plus de jeunes que bon nombre d’institutions en Europe. Tout le monde désigne La Monnaie comme « la maison », soulignant l’identité propre du lieu fait d’idées et de passions. Et malgré la disparité des gens qui la composent, l’opéra est leur maison, et la nôtre aussi, par la même occasion. Manon Lescaut de Puccini s’ouvre le 24 janvier. lamonnaie.be Clockwise from top: Gina Villani, head of the make-up, hair and wig department, amid the stock of 1,000 wigs; set-painters’ brushes hang on a paint-splattered wall; this flamehaired, larger-than-life clown will appear in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, opening at La Monnaie next month

Fr Notre Maison

Emma Beddington brengt een bezoekje aan La Monnaie, het adembenemende Brusselse Operahuis La Monnaie bevindt zich in hartje Brussel, vlakbij de felle neonlichten van de winkelketens in de Nieuwstraat. Sinds kort speelt het gezelschap La Traviata, een moderne productie en de recensies zijn vrijwel allemaal lovend. Alweer een duwtje in de rug na de veelgeprezen seizoensopener van Berg’s Lulu, een strakke opvoering inclusief videoprojecties en iPhone messaging. Later dit seizoen brengt het gezelschap de première van een gloednieuwe opera met ontrouw als centrale thema. La Monnaie is dus lang niet saai of traditioneel, behalve dan misschien het gebouw zelf, een 19de-eeuws pareltje. “Ons publiek is bijzonder kritisch, maar tegelijkertijd ook bijzonder gepassioneerd. We zijn hen dan ook verplicht een gedurfd en vernieuwend programma aan te bieden”, aldus regisseur Peter de Caluwe. Het gezelschap werd beloond voor dit soort stoutmoedigheid en ontving in 2011 de veelgeprezen Operahuis van het Jaar Award van Opernwelt magazine. De Caluwe beschouwt het als deel van zijn job om het publiek meer gedurfde werken aan te bieden. “We zijn geen entertainmentbusiness”, aldus de Caluwe. “We hebben de morele plicht om te reageren op wat er rondom ons gebeurt. Toen Verdi aan La Traviata werkte, wilde hij iets meegeven over zijn samenleving.” Uiteraard verandert het publiek voortdurend en dankzij initiatieven zoals prijskortingen voor -30-jarigen en A Night at the Opera, waar pop- en rocksterren hun visie geven over een bepaalde opera, heeft La Monnaie een veel jonger publiek dan veel van de andere Europese operahuizen. Iedereen verwijst naar La Monnaie als “het huis”, alsof deze bonte verzameling mensen, ideeën en passies een eigen ziel heeft. Het is hun huis en uiteraard is het ook ons huis. Manon Lescaut van Puccini gaat in première op 24 januari. lamonnaie.be

NL Ons Huis

vestments, masks and evening dresses peopled by quietly industrious tailors, shoemakers, and seamstresses), to the electricians testing new underfloor lighting, to the ladies carefully knotting wigs in the make up department, there’s a tangible sense of pride and engagement. “We all love what we’re doing, even after all these years,” says Regine Becker, the wardrobe mistress, in her 17th year at the company, holding out a huge box of antique ostrich feathers, carefully interlaced with yellowing newspaper, for me to admire. “It’s not a job for bureaucrats,” says Marc Geens in scenery (26 years with La Monnaie), as he jokes with the painters busy hand-gilding a vast crown. I’m struck how everyone, from the apprentices to the veterans, to the two men carefully sanding a giant polystyrene torso, bandies the names of operas around like old friends: Lucrezia, Manon, Medea. They are as involved, as committed, as any soloist or director. “The house is a real team,” confirms de Caluwe. I’ve noticed, too, how everyone refers to La Monnaie as “the house” as if this disparate assocation of people, bricks and mortar, ideas and passions has a spirit, an identity of its own, which of course it does. It’s their house, and as much it was in 1830, it’s our house too. Puccini’s Manon Lescaut opens 24 January. lamonnaie.be


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