History of the Festival

Pelléas et Mélisande, 1966 © Henry Ely
© Henry Ely /// Pelléas et Mélisande, 1966

At the start, an individual adventure

The situation in France after the war was a fertile breeding ground for an artistic renaissance, as the setting up of the Cannes and Avignon festivals, in 1946 and 1947 respectively, demonstrates.

If the seventh art and the theatre took the honours with the establishment of two festivals entirely devoted to them, the world of music had still not answered the call in 1947. Gabriel Dussurget (1904-1996), an art enthusiast and a knowledgeable lover of music, decided to make up for this omission. But his insatiable curiosity and determination were not enough to bring into existence the ambitious project he was developing in this mind. So he had to call on the financial support of Countess Lily Pastré, a great friend of the arts who belonged to the haute bourgeoisie of Marseilles.  

The countess, however, had not waited for Gabriel Dussurget to start sponsoring the theatre and music. A founder of the charitable association “So that the spirit lives”, during the war she surrounded herself – totally scorning the danger – with Jewish and poor artists with the “lack of awareness and heroism of a sleepwalker”. Her country house in Provence became a permanent place of welcome and refuge for musicians on the run.

Endowed with a passionate temperament, Lily Pastré was immediately enthusiastic about the idea of helping to establish a music festival in Provence. In addition to the financial resources she made available for the project, she did not hesitate to offer her château of Montredon to host the event. Such a cultural location, she thought, would contribute to the recovery of the city founded by the Phocaeans. Gabriel Dussurget was far from being in agreement with her: this place and the town of Marseilles in general were not appropriate locations, he thought.

“It’s at the end of the world”, explains Edmonde Charles-Roux, a friend of the Pastré family who also took part in setting up the new festival:

For me, Lily Pastré has always recalled a Chekhov heroine. The estate at Montredon is the Cherry Orchard

Edmonde Charles-Roux

Gabriel Dussurget and Lily Pastré criss-crossed the region looking for the ideal location to hold the festival. They finally agreed on the town of Aix-en-Provence. Gabriel Dussurget set his heart on the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace, a real revelation that, paradoxically, he describes as an austere if not decrepit place: “peeling walls, a fountain that naturally had no water flowing, and a tree that raised itself like a hand towards the sky”. Irène Aïtoff, the choir mistress attached to the festival since 1950, recalls his first impressions:

He sees the Cours Mirabeau, all those beautiful hotels, the Place d’Albertas, Maynier d’Oppède, and then one arrives at the Archbishop’s palace. When Dussurget sees this courtyard which was very beautiful, very well proportioned, with a fountain and a plane tree, he clapped his hands: “the acoustics are marvellous. It is here that I shall hold my festival”.

Irène Aïtoff

Once the location had been chosen, Gabriel Dussurget managed to get the financial backing of the Aix Casino, thus enabling the Festival to get off the ground.

The Festival was born only three years after the end of the war in a France that had suffered the defeat of 1940 and the Occupation and which, more than ever, wanted a fresh start, wanted to send out a worthy image of itself. The Festival answered this ambition, if only at the cultural level.

1948: the courtyard becomes a theatre…

At the start it was the courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace, a service area where the carriages stopped. Thanks to the involvement of a group of men and women revolving round a visionary artistic director, this courtyard was soon raised to being a major location for the festival.

The first Festival took place in July 1948. The concerts and the recitals followed one after another in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace, in the cathedral of Saint-Sauveur and various other places in the town.

In parallel with these musical events, an opera made its entry: Mozart’s Così fan tutte, a work that was not known to the French public, its last performance having taken place on the stage of the Opera Comique in 1826.

To put on the opera, Gabriel Dussurget employed very artisan methods. He got together a cast that he himself rehearsed, he hired Georges Wakhévitch to create the small decor at the back of the stage and managed to get the services of Hans Rosbaud, the resident conductor of the Baden Baden Sudwestfunk orchestra. It was under his baton that the festival orchestra played until 1962. Edmonde Charles-Roux, a French literary lady and a loyal supporter of the festival remembers with emotion this first production:

I think that the power of this first performance at Aix was that it was a success, displaying great taste and fine musical quality, but a performance by amateurs.

Edmonde Charles-Roux

Another member of the audience recalls:

The first night, with a north wind blowing in July, the people of Aix were rather cautious about attending. The boldness came from Marseilles and Paris had sent a few observers. The performance received an ovation that went beyond France’s borders. Mozart stirred our spirits, an ancient repertoire was waking to a new era on the radio waves and in old record grooves. It was in 1948.

The Aix Festival quickly acquired international fame, in spite of its modest beginnings, that were described by Gabriel Dussurget:

The singers were, let’s admit it, no more than honest. Georges Wakhévitch (the artist who painted the scenery of the 1948 Così fan tutte) was an old friend […] and agreed to draw a canopy, a few feathers… in short, a small decor to allow the performance to take place. We had put benches in the courtyard and some very low, tiered, steps and the decor was plonked in the angle of the old shed that served as our backstage. Wakhévitch, to give a backdrop to the stage had painted the walls himself.

Gabriel Dussurget

And Edmonde Charles-Roux added a comment about this first effort:

The courtyard of the Archbishop’s palace [was] transformed into a sort of… one can’t even call it a stage, it was more a platform because of the lack of space. One couldn’t sing on it with more than three people at a time. Georges Wakhévitch had simply made, by way of backdrop, a sort of tent decorated with a few bouquets of flowers. It was exquisite, but improvised. And definitely very charming.

Edmonde Charles-Roux

And the charm did not take long to get working…

1948-1972: the era of Dussurget, the magician of Aix

It was with the production of Don Giovanni, put on in 1949, that the full splendour of the Festival was revealed. This new impetus can be explained in particular by the arrival of the decorator and poster artist, Cassandre, a friend of Gabriel Dussurget. He was given two important tasks: firstly, the design of the decor for Don Giovanni, and secondly, the building of a theatre to replace the rudimentary installation that had been used for the performance of Così fan tutte in 1948.
Kept on for 24 years, this theatre and the constraints that stemmed from it, proved to be decisive for the programming of the festival. Its small dimensions (seven metres in depth) meant that it could only host orchestras with a small number of players (baroque or classical chamber orchestras). So, from the start the Festival placed itself under the sign of Mozart, virtually all of whose operas were performed in the first years: Così fan tutte in 1948 and 1950, Don Giovanni in 1949, The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1951, The Marriage of Figaro in 1952, Idomeneo in 1963 and La Clemenza di Tito in 1974. While this choice of programming may seem quite ordinary today, Edmonde Charles-Roux reminds us that it did not lack audacity at the time:

In a South of France where the Italian stone masons, on their scaffolding, sang Verdi, where theatres only offered Verdi to the public, practising a dyed-in-the-wool Italianism, putting on Mozart’s operas could seem revolutionary.

Edmonde Charles-Roux

So, the Festival devoted itself to getting the public to discover unknown works, giving it back a taste for Mozart’s operas, and revisiting the early repertoire with Monteverdi, Rameau and Gluck, as well as opera buffa and starting on comic opera with Cimarosa, Grétry and Haydn, Rossini and Gounod, but also contemporary music through commissions for composers such as Arthur Honneger with La Guirlande de Campra in 1952.
The Festival also attracted the presence of the most eminent personalities of France’s artistic and literary life. Musicians, painters, writers and theatre folk gathered in Aix full of an enthusiasm that was perpetually renewed. How can one forget the words of François Mauriac who was so moved by his memory of the “Don Juan under the stars” in 1949:

For the first rendezvous that Don Juan gave us in Aix, we had come full anxious curiosity […] Now, we hurry to the second rendezvous, certain of our pleasure.

François Mauriac

A great discoverer of voices and imbued with nostalgia for Russian ballets, Gabriel Dussurget planned to make the Aix Festival a special place for creativity both for composers and promising painters. So, artists like André Derain, Balthus, André Masson, Jean-Denis Malclès, and Jean Cocteau harnessed their talent and creativity in the service of the Festival’s productions, as did Aix composers such as André Campra et Darius Milhaud.

In 1959, Gabriel Dussurget was appointed artistic adviser to Georges Auric at the Paris Opera and occupied this role until 1972 when he also gave up the management of the Aix Festival. It has to be said that the arrival in the mid-1960s of a new managing director who was concerned about profitability, to head the Aix Casino, then the main financial sponsor of the Festival, triggered Gabriel Dussurget’s resignation. This departure marked a transformation in the appearance of the Provencal Festival and brought into question its aims and purpose.

1974-1982: the era of Bernard Lefort or the triumph of bel canto

Singing will reign there as the absolute Master, and every performance will be devoted to it or at least partly so

Bernard Lefort

That was the motto of the new director of the Festival, Bernard Lefort, who planned to make the Aix Festival a great celebration of singing. A new era started, during which Mozart lost his "privileged" place in favour of bel canto. If Bernard Lefort decided to revive the taste for this repertoire of the early 19th century, it was that it was still not very well known by modern music lovers.  

Two major productions of Rossini marked the start of the new director’s mandate; first, there was Semiramis by Rossini in 1980 with an exceptional duo made up of Montserrat Caballé and Marilyn Horne; and then there was Tancredi that brought together Marilyn Horne and Katia Ricciarelli in 1981.

This great celebration of singing was also the occasion to organize lyrical recitals and the awarding of a prize. Thus, established singers like Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Gabriel Bacquier and Teresa Berganza were awarded the "Golden Cicada" prize.

Bernard Lefort also wanted to make the Festival an expression of inclusiveness. The events of May 1968 had highlighted the elitist and Parisian character of the festival, which was something the new director tried to remedy. To do this, he included on the programme, for six years running, opera buffas like Mozart’s The Impresario, Pergolesi’s The Servant Mistress, and Donizizetti’s Don Pasquale that were performed in the Quatre-Dauphins square. He also committed himself to celebrating singing and vocal expression in all their forms and thus reach a wider public. This celebration took the form of jazz concerts with Ella Fitzgerald, folk music with Joan Baez and Spanish and Berber songs.

Lastly, he initiated the “An hour with…” recitals at the end of the afternoon in the cloister of the cathedral of Saint-Sauveur that enabled the public to discover young singers in a more intimate and less onerous way than in the theatre of the Archbishop’s palace. So the mid-1970’s were characterised by a real desire to make the Festival more democratic.

1982-1996: Louis Erlo, eclectism from the baroque to the contemporary

“Loyalty and innovation” were the key word of Louis Erlo who expanded the baroque repertoire considerably with Lully, Campra, and Rameau, but also Purcell and Gluck.

The new director of the Festival gave Mozart back his pride of place, which led Edmonde Charles-Roux to say:

It’s no use denying it, Mozart is secretly present in person at Aix-en-Provence.

Edmonde Charles-Roux

The major works, as well as the less well known and less frequently played youthful works of the Austrian composer, found themselves together on the posters for the Festival. Louis Erlo also offered masterpieces of the 20th century by Prokofiev and Britten. In line with Gabriel Dussurget’s plan to promote young talent, the new director offered the people of Aix a whole host of young singers, sprinkled with some “stars” and announced when he took on the job:

In taking over this festival, my primary wish is not to disturb the mysterious balance which is due to so many factors and that leads everyone who comes to Aix to say that the music there is not quite like music elsewhere.

Louis Erlo

The theatre of the Archbishop’s palace, in its turn, underwent some alterations in 1985. The architect, Bernard Guillaumot, gave the stage the standard dimensions and improved its technical facilities, all of which made it easier to host outside performances and carry out co-productions. Louis Erlo was well aware of the danger of standardisation that this implied, but he said he would provide “the guarantees that were needed so that the performances did not lose their identity when they transferred”.

When Louis Erlo left, the Festival was having to deal with inextricable financial problems.

1998-2006: Stéphane Lissner and the renewal of the Festival

The year 1998 was marked by the arrival of Stéphane Lissner and the complete renovation of the Archbishop’s palace’s theatre. The Lissner era was inaugurated with a production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni by Peter Brook. The mingling of the worlds of theatre, dance and opera was the keystone of this new programming that brought together famous artists such as Pina Bausch, Trisha Brown, Anne-Teresa de Keersmaeker, Patrice Chéreau and Luc Bondy.

The Festival also became a place of intense musical creativity with numerous commissions being handed out to composers: Festin by Yan Maresz; The Balcony by Peter Eötvös, based on Jean Genet’s play, in 2002; Kyrielle on the feeling of things by François Sarhan on a text by Jacques Roubaud in 2003; Hanjo by Toshio Hosokawa after Hanjo; by Yukio Mishima in 2004; and Julie by Philippe Boesmans, based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg in 2005. Reopened in 2000, the Jeu de Paume theatre, with its intimate dimensions, was an ideal place to put on some of these new works.

The Festival was infused with a new dynamism with the establishment at Venelles, a few kilometres from Aix-en-Provence, of workshops to build scenery and make costumes. This enabled the number of international co-productions to be increased and made the Festival more self-sufficient.

Lastly in 1998, Stéphane Lissner set up the European Academy of Music, that was conceived as an extension of the Festival into teaching and fostering young talent (instrumentalists, singers, directors, conductors and composers), helping them meet the public through numerous concerts, conferences and master classes.

2007: Bernard Foccroulle, looking at today’s world and tomorrow’s

The arrival of Bernard Foccroulle to head the Festival of Aix coincided with the opening of the Grand Théâtre de Provence that was inaugurated with Wagner’s The Valkyrie, played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. The new director also launched himself on a frenzied ride, convinced that the world needs opera, an art that provides it with an understanding of itself today and tomorrow, here and elsewhere. A clear-sighted man, Bernard Foccroulle did everything he could to firmly establish for the long term, and add dynamism to, the Festivals’ public, its repertoire and numerous participating artists. The Aix Festival took on the form of an opera laboratory that allowed the public “through the voice of artists to decipher the constantly evolving world”.

Searching for a new equilibrium between the repertoire and new works, Bernard Foccroulle privileged creativity, both in terms of commissions for new works and in the interpretation of works in the repertoire that needed to resonate with the present times. Although anxious to keep the Mozart tradition going, he favoured an eclectic programming that was likely to respond to the expectations of a wider and more diversified public through the exploration of new methods for collective, and even participatory, creations. He did not hesitate to come back to the very cradle of opera with a production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and offer works in the repertoire that were frowned on by some of the big names in opera such as La Traviata played by Natalie Dessay and Elektra staged by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, as well as taking artistic risks through commissions like the one for Written on Skin by George Benjamin – a work described by the press as “the first lyrical masterpiece of the 21st century”. The “living” character of the choral art finally made complete sense when, in addition to its numerous commissions and creations, the Festival of Aix co-produced the Monster in the Maze by Jonathan Dove, an opera for a semi-professional orchestra and 300 amateur singers, all under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle.

On the initiative of Bernard Foccroulle, the Festival invested unreservedly in the younger generation, both in terms of audiences and artists, the future players of the musical life. Particular attention was paid to raising awareness among the young and potential audiences from among the socially vulnerable. This was done through a vast teaching programme for schools and local associations. The development of educational and socio-artistic services (Bridges) helped to firmly root the Festival in the local region. The Festival also engaged with the musicians, singers and composers of the future through its Academy, a centre for training and for helping musicians find work.

In 2013, the audience inclusiveness policy has been widening with the launch of Aix in June, an introduction to July's operas programme closing with a great outdoor and free concert on the Cours Mirabeau before over spectators.

The transmission of know-how and the widening of the Festival’s public was accompanied by a policy of sustainable development through a number of significant environmental initiatives.

In 2014, the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence is awarded Best Opera Festival by the International Opera Awards in London.

The desire for inclusiveness, diversity and living together, for which Bernard Foccroulle has made himself the standard bearer, has given rise to several intercultural projects that aim to give a particular cachet to the Mediterranean region.

After having contributed to the Marseille-Provence 2013 - European Capital of Culture project, the Festival is now opening up to the Mediterranean basin that is both so near and so far away. The Mediterranean Youth Orchestra, which since 2014 has been a part of the Festival Academy, is the best proof of this. That said, the Aix Festival is planning to take a further step towards “the other” and start a constructive and lasting dialog. And, just as the world is changing, the Festival is continuously widening its horizons, as can be seen with the launch in September 2015 of Medinea, the network of Mediterranean artists and composers.