At the Festival Published on 01/07/2022
Stadium de Vitrolles
© Vincent Beaume

LYRIK — As the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence takes over for the first time the Stadium de Vitrolles, abandoned for more than twenty years, Pierre Audi, its general director, shares with us the reflections of an artistic life begun in the 1970s, on the links between the performing arts and the places where they are performed.

First part, from the ruins of Baalbek to the discovery of a diamond mine in a black concrete cube.

I was born in Lebanon, a country that still does not have any theatres – physical buildings for performances – as such. Strangely enough, no large Roman theatres have been found there – unlike in Syria, for instance. Moreover, this country has been marked by non-representational traditions and cultures : Islam prohibits drama. Theatres are therefore stages set up outdoors, among ruins or in bombed-out structures, etc. – mainly ephemeral places.

Then I discovered drama all at once, in one summer. Bayreuth, London, Paris. And everything followed from there. But I still have a liking for the fragility of a performance whose setting is not dictated by dramaturgy or aesthetic choices. Because magic arises from the interaction between the poetry of a place and the energy of a performance, which already has its own dramaturgy that is partly left to chance – just as John Cage was able to create music by giving way to indeterminacy. The possibility of dreaming, also, offered by the natural breathing between a constructed element, a work, interpreters, and a landscape. For it is indeed a landscape – whether it be outdoors at the Grand Saint-Jean, at the Stadium de Vitrolles, in the ruins of Baalbek or elsewhere.

Returning and reinventing

When I created the Almeida Theatre in 1980, it was in reaction against a certain kind of English theatre which took the form either of conventional theatre forms performed in proscenium auditorium, or of "black box studio theatre," which I found very boring, in that it highlighted the shortcomings of a whole production that was hyper-naturalistic, rather wordy, and a bit documentary – attending a play by Beckett or Pinter, authors who at least explored new areas, without any naturalism, thus allowed me to breathe.

This love of abstraction was at the origin of the adventure: finding an abandoned place and using it "in its original state", as a sound box for dance, theatre, musical theatre, and opera performances but also art installations and chamber music concerts. And it so happens that the famous "Almeida wall" is still being used today by the fifth generation of directors. It is a sign that this movement continues to resonate in a very contemporary way.

Off-site opera

During my first season at the Dutch National Opera, I staged Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda in a movie studio, and thus quickly opened the way to musical theatre performances outside the walls of the opera house: a breach in tradition, which would have us believe that all masses can only be celebrated in Saint Peter's in Rome. No: they are also performed in factories, deserted places, etc... Initiated in 1990, the "Monteverdi cycle" in Amsterdam continued in this way, until its conclusion in 2017 with Vespro della Beata Vergine, conducted by Raphaël Pichon, at the Gashouder.

If that was regular when at the DNO, it took a central place when I directed the Holland Festival for ten years: using all the alternative places – outdoors, factories, storage buildings, etc. – was the very spirit of the event. More modestly, the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence’s proposal entitled "Opéra de-ci de-là" is in line with it : "minute operas" are performed in different places throughout the city. The idea, in which I sincerely believe, is that street theatre is still likely to nourish and entertain us today.

Tailor-made spaces

The Park Avenue Armory, which I took over in 2015, is a huge space, the size of a block in New York, in which we are forced to create tailor-made spaces for each event: opera, music, and dance performances, art installations, exhibitions. I have also presented a lot of theatre performances there, even though this was not the original intention – important productions by directors such as Ivo van Hove, Ariane Mnouchkine or Simon Stone, which it would have been impossible to show in a conventional hall.

The Stadium de Vitrolles

Both as an architectural image – this black concrete cube – and as an image itself integrated into the larger background of the pink-red canyon overhanging the city, very close to the arterial road that connects Marseille to Aix-en-Provence, the building designed by Rudy Ricciotti for the Stadium de Vitrolles is magnificent. When we opened the doors, the first thing that surprised me was the height, a very important parameter for any theatre. When I saw that it was extremely generous, I knew, even before moving forward into the building, that we had stumbled upon a diamond mine, that this fabulous place was made to imagine a whole series of new projects.

It became clear very quickly that it was a large open area with a single balcony, and that it would therefore be possible to approach it as a modular venue. This second discovery delighted me, because it meant we could vary the seating capacity and arrangement as well as diversify performances. In any case, we would obviously have to start from scratch every time and, as at the Armory, redesign a new layout for each project.

At the same time, we realized that the building, although dilapidated, was more operational than we had originally thought. So, we launched a study to see how we could quickly bring it within the scope of our activities. There was then this miraculous meeting with Loïc Gachon, the mayor of Vitrolles, and a number of people in his entourage. Then there was a contact with architect Rudy Ricciotti, who was also very benevolent, generous, and open-minded. And that's how, one thing leading to another, we ended up reopening the Stadium with Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony.

A symbolic title

When we discovered that the balcony was passable, and that we did not have to use the lower space for the audience, the idea was born to have a symphony orchestra play in there. The dream, fuelled by the success of Mozart's Requiem staged by a genius like Romeo Castellucci at the Archevêché in 2019, was to take a sacred or symphonic work, and give it a stage existence. I immediately thought of the two people I have known in my life who are most open to such adventures: Romeo Castellucci and Esa-Pekka Salonen.

We quickly had our hearts set on Mahler's masterpiece, whose title made sense, not only in relation to the opening of the Stadium, but also because of its connection with Requiem – it could be considered as the second part of a diptych –  and finally because, since the first visit to the Stadium, we have gone through a pandemic, and a conflict of extreme gravity has broken out, with worldwide impact. In such a burning, serious, and moving period, returning to a place like this cannot be a stylish cultural act, but must also consider the world we live in, the reasons why we do this job, and the people we address.


Second part : towards the renewed possibility of a ritual

Using alternative venues has always created very beneficial short circuits in the development of the programs I have been leading: by opening up the possibility of new repertoires, new audiences, and new energies. My instinct, when I begged our technical director, Josep Folch, to show me around the Stadium de Vitrolles, was that the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence had to partly change course, to renew its DNA and its mission, which were, of course, focused on the Théâtre de l'Archevêché and the Grand Théâtre de Provence.

It was self-evident to me: the Festival needs a wide range of tools to be an inspiring event for artists and audiences. And local authorities are proud to see that by arousing interest and debate, their heritage gains a place in the cultural discourse. Part of our mission is also to create a living culture from elements of architecture, places in the city, in the countryside, or in the region. Performing L'Apocalypse arabe at the Luma Foundation in Arles last year was the first milestone. You could already feel a different energy, a change of scenery compared to our traditional theatre productions.

The word immersive is so fashionable that I am reluctant to use it. It's not just a matter of making the audience immerse themselves in a show, as if it were a dance party; it's also a way of stimulating the mind of the opera or musical theatre spectators by drawing it out of its comfort zone, by making it work differently from a "dramaturgical" perspective. It is also a way of freeing artists from the obligation (which sometimes slows down the creation process) to create a completely artificial world within which a staging proposal unfolds. I bring a lifetime of experience in this field, and a long-lasting enthusiasm for this type of work. Thanks to the Stadium, the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence adds a string to its instrument, a colour to its palette.

An answer to the opera crisis?

In order to attract new audiences, we need a place exclusively dedicated to musical theatre and opera, but that can also be used differently. A space – not necessarily considered as the modular venue of a noble institution central to our cultural heritage – which is a separate creation cell. Such a tool does not exist yet, but could bring convincing results if it is well conceived.

It would come to mixing classical projects – but in an unusual format, entrusted to artists capable of creating something special and unexpected – and more popular works (such as West Side Story) – presented to the audience anywhere but in proscenium theatres, in more adventurous productions, likely to bring a different perspective.

Trying to revitalise opera is not only about proposing interpretations based on new dramaturgies; it is also about shifting the lines between the audience, the performers, and the content. This question also involves, as it has for 400 years, the transformation of the performance space, and of the relationship between the audience and what they see and hear. Certain principles must be broken, opened, reshaped.

Presenting a stage or video version of Mahler's Resurrection at the Grand Théâtre de Provence would not have made any sense. And this is also true for other projects in the next few years. Having a place like the Stadium – and a completely different atmosphere – opens up a whole new world of possibilities for composers and artists, in terms of repertoire and creation.

A ritual for the 21st century

I believe in the relationship between ritual and theatre. Figures like Pier Paolo Pasolini, Peter Brook and Romeo Castellucci, who are among the most influential to me, have all, in one way or another, given a central place to ritual. And I am still convinced that it is a universal way of being, to which all generations are sensitive. Going to a disco, participating in a techno event or a rave party, is like going to church: we get together, we dance, we drink, we take drugs; sensuality is expressed, but we remain in the register of ritual – even if it is very pagan.

When he created the Bayreuth Festival, Wagner argued that proscenium theatre was only worth considering if it was changed into a mystical box. This he achieved by "physically" transforming the tool: by hiding the orchestra, by improving the acoustics, by protecting the integrity of the stage image – since the stage was protected from the light of the mystical abyss that is the pit – ; in short, by creating an environment in which the audience is invited to concentrate, to listen in a different way, and to think.

In Wagner, as in Monteverdi, the two composers who have had the greatest impact on me, ritual is essential. In contemporary music, many creators have certainly freed themselves from dramaturgical and narrative traditions, but there is one dimension they have not touched, and which they have even contributed to reinforcing, and that is ritual – whether it be Arnold Schoenberg, Luigi Nono, Wolfgang Rihm, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Harrison Birtwistle, Manfred Trojahn or Philippe Manoury. One only has to consider the multiplication of recent re-readings of the myth of Orpheus to be convinced.

Basically, I have always been in search of places where the ritual can happen again. It takes a certain openness for this to take place, "spiritually speaking". You need air for the incense to evaporate: no "walls", no diktat of dramaturgy, no locked-in visual or staging proposition. It is a question of seeing how the ritual has survived in the contemporary, or how the contemporary has gone back to the source of the ritual to create a new modernity, a new "communion" between audience and performance.


PIERRE AUDI, General Director of the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, based on an interview conducted by TIMOTHEE PICARD, dramaturge and artistic advisor to the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence

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