A Calmly Daring Operatic Leader Says Au Revoir

Bejun Mehta and Barbara Hannigan in George Benjamin and Martin Crimp’s “Written on Skin,” which had its premiere at the Aix Festival in 2012.

I knew, on my first visit to the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012, that this wasn’t your grandmother’s Aix, a sleepily pretty assemblage of Mozart productions.

Jean Michel Bruyère’s “Une Situation Huey P. Newton” didn’t take place in one of the festival’s spiffy theaters in the idyllic center of this city in the south of France. It sprawled around the grounds of a public housing complex in the scruffy, ethnically mixed Jas de Bouffan neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Billed as an opera, it was a stylized reflection on the Black Panthers and racial activism that was a little bit music performance, a little bit consciousness-raising street fair, a little bit installation art.

Moody, surreal, funny, ominous, it captured the goal Bernard Foccroulle, the festival’s director, set that year for Aix, and for opera in general: to be a “mirror of the world.”

Mr. Foccroulle’s happy tenure ends this summer. During the past 11 years he has made the Aix festival — which runs through July 24 — feel more connected: to young artists, whom it has assiduously fostered; to new work, which it has commissioned in quantity and quality; to the operatic canon, which it has refreshed with provocative stagings and musical visions; to new audiences; and to its Mediterranean region, which it has celebrated with forays into North African and Middle Eastern styles without seeming patronizing.

“You cannot preserve opera just as a Western and European art form,” said Mr. Foccroulle, who is departing to focus, after many years as an impresario, on performing (he is an organist) and composing. (His successor is Pierre Audi, also the artistic director of the Park Avenue Armory in New York.)

“Culture has a large political impact,” Mr. Foccroulle added. “And in Europe, the world of opera could be much more influential, if we were to address more the questions of diversity, equity, creation.”

Aix has done its part. I’ve seen new works there like “Kalîla wa Dimna,” a chamber opera in French and Arabic with a score for a mixture of Western and Middle Eastern instruments. I’ve seen a brutal staging of Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte,” updated to colonial East Africa in the 1930s.

Asked to name the five highlights of his tenure, Mr. Foccroulle first said he could easily give 21. Then he insisted on six.

‘WRITTEN ON SKIN’ The British composer George Benjamin’s tense opera, a collaboration with the librettist Martin Crimp that told the story of a medieval love triangle, was directed by Katie Mitchell. A sensation at its premiere in 2012, the production was created in conjunction with a broad array of companies, and has been seen dozens of times. “It’s been a very important world event,” Mr. Foccroulle said. “It was also, I have to say, the end of a 12-year relationship with George Benjamin. It didn’t come in three or four years. Of course, that increases my emotion and pleasure.”

‘ELEKTRA’ Another co-production, with partner companies including the Metropolitan Opera, Patrice Chéreau’s bleak take on this Strauss opera had its premiere in Aix in 2013. It was conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who, Mr. Foccroulle said, “was crucial to create the transparency in the orchestra that Chéreau needed to make his theater work.”

‘DON GIOVANNI’ The Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov created a claustrophobic, contentious take on the Mozart classic in 2010. “It was very unexpected and controversial, but I think Tcherniakov is one of the best directors today,” Mr. Foccroulle said. “The way he conceives his staging is just amazing.”

‘OEDIPUS REX’/’SYMPHONY OF PSALMS’ This Stravinsky double bill, directed by Peter Sellars, traveled to Aix in 2016. “It was so powerful, so economical, so focused on the music, on the singing, on the meaning of those pieces,” Mr. Foccroulle said.

‘THE MONSTER IN THE MAZE’ This participatory opera by Jonathan Dove combined the London Symphony and Mediterranean Youth orchestras with 300 amateur choristers from the Aix region in 2015. “It was the first time a project with professionals and amateurs was part of the festival,” Mr. Foccroulle said. “The emotion and energy that comes from amateurs is just sensational.”

‘ALCINA’ Another psychologically charged production by Katie Mitchell, a fixture of the past decade at Aix, this time a Handel masterpiece in 2015. “Every time she’s staging a piece, she brings a woman’s touch to it,” Mr. Foccroulle said. “We definitely need to increase that female understanding of the world, and critical look at the world.”

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