Tall, slightly stooped, with his distinctive mop of grey curls, Bernard Foccroulle is a familiar figure on the central European opera circuit. As head of Brussels’ La Monnaie opera house for a decade and a half, he enjoyed a reputation as both a gentle innovator and a man of taste; his background as an organist, composer and conductor ensured widespread regard for his artistic integrity.
When he was handed the reins of the festival in 2007, the decision was greeted favourably. Foccroulle is not flashy, does not court controversy, is not known as a money man, and overtly prefers discretion to glamour, yet few leaders in the business are more respected by their peers.
The transition in Aix was a smooth one. The festival had always favoured innovation and emerging talent alongside high quality, and Stéphane Lissner’s eight years as director had led it in a direction that Foccroulle was likely to follow – a fact evinced by the number of co-productions the two men had shared.
And indeed co-productions have been the hallmark of Foccroulle’s Aix directorship, with major stagings often shared by six or even eight partners around the world. What is demonstrably a cost-saving measure in a time of generally straitened funding is sometimes criticised as a chain-store development in high culture. Wherever you travel, you can see the same production; local houses lose the chance to put their distinctive stamp on a staging.
Not surprisingly, Foccroulle demurs. He cites last year’s world premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin in a Katie Mitchell production that has won almost universal acclaim in every port of call since.
“The financial aspect is secondary; it is the idea of circulation that is important. Look how many operas have been created in the last decades, given only a few performances, and then forgotten. Some of them deserve a better future.”
Foccroulle freely admits to a sense of mission, particularly in terms of his wish to expand the cultural reach of his festival’s work. Projects such as his Choeur multiculturel Ibn Zaydoun, conducted by Palestinian singer Moneim Adwan, Boras – Berceuses with Comorian immigrants from Marseille, or Jean Michel Bruyère’s 2012 suburban homage to the founder of the Black Panther Party, Une situation Huey P Newton, have tugged the festival well away from its conventional mandate.
“These things are not exactly what the authorities are expecting from the festival, but I see them in a wider frame. We have to give meaning to opera; we cannot reduce it to a purely artistic project. I don’t want to become a French Salzburg, as it is now. In no way.”
The authorities, Foccroulle explains when pressed, expect prestigious opera productions – a commission he is happy to fulfil, but not exclusively.
“Sometimes I have the impression that Salzburg is more about money than about art,” he says. “We do not work with the star system, and I’m happy about that. It’s not only about money; it’s also a question of availability. Stars are difficult to schedule into rehearsals. Young singers are more ready to develop.
“But it’s more than that. We need to regenerate opera through new forms. If we don’t do that, we will end up in a world of consumerism, where you buy things – singers, directors, and so forth – but with no real creativity. If you take only the surface, you lose the core of it. So it’s also our mission to convince our partners that the most important things are not always the most prestigious ones.”
Hence, also, his push for a more multicultural approach to opera.
“I love classical European music. This is my own background, and I want to share that with as large a community as possible. Not only with people born, like me, in western Europe – the inhabitants here are much more diverse. I want to give them access, but at the same time, I envy them their own cultural backgrounds. To give them and us the possibility of a better understanding of other cultural backgrounds enriches everybody.
“I don’t run a multicultural institution, but I’m in an opera festival at a time when globalisation is changing many things. How do we integrate that into our world? There used to be a strong republican model which said, ‘OK, everybody is welcome, but this is our culture.’ It worked very well during the revolution and in the 19th century. Today I don’t think it can be effective if it’s not transformed. I think we have to say, ‘OK, this is our culture. You are welcome, but please also bring us the best of yours.’ Then you have the principal of reciprocity, which I think must be absolutely central.”
This year’s festival is accompanied by workshops, masterclasses, open rehearsals and youth projects; the main programme includes an intercultural concert in collaboration with Cairo, led by Fabrizio Cassol, who was head of Foccroulle’s non-classical projects at La Monnaie.
With Aix’s cultural clout – built up steadily since the festival’s founding in 1948 – and nearby Marseille’s status this year as a European Capital of Culture comes an obligation, Foccroulle says, to concentrate more on the Mediterranean region. Yet for much of its history, the festival has tended to look northwards.
“It’s not my music, but if I have the opportunity to live in the same city as a very good Arabic musician, why shouldn’t we share that?” he asks. “We are now creating bridges. It’s a question of confidence, of pleasure, of emotion, of sharing things, and it radically changes our attitudes towards each other.” Over time, he says, a new community will find its way into the festival.
“There are several other people in the world of opera working in the same direction. I think we have the beginning of something new. Opera has to be a living art form. If we work on making something growing, integrating new elements, then we have a chance for it to be experienced by people as something important.”
Festival ends July 27, www.festival-aix.com
For Shirley Apthorp’s Aix reviews, visit www.ft.com/music