Dons, divas and ruff types

July 14, 1995

A new exhibition at the Paris Opera has triggered a reappraisal of academe's relationship with the grandest of the performing arts. Stella Hughes reports

The grand central staircase and the public galleries of the Paris opera house, the Palais Garnier, were built at a time when "the spectacle", as the French put it, was to be beheld as much in the audience as on the stage.

While the 125-year-old stage and auditorium get a facelift, the areas designed for parading one's finery, for seeing and being seen, have been made over to an exhibition on three centuries of opera costume.

The opera's cultural director, Martine Kahane, selected the costumes and wrote the accompanying catalogue which, she says, marks the start of what will probably be another three years' research into the social history of this pillar of state culture. "I don't know of any other country with an opera with three centuries of history. In France moreover, it is state culture, exemplified in the two national cultural institutions, the opera and the Comedie-Francaise," says Kahane.

Centralised bureaucracy fosters burgeoning archives. Although most of the early costumes were pilfered during the lean years of the Revolution, original drawings of costumes have always had to be handed over. Rule books and regulations over the centuries, fines and punishments for their infringement, are all carefully recorded.

Kahane traces the economic role of the opera as a showcase for the luxury goods export industry, which first emerged at the court of Louis XIV. During the first Republic, this role was written into the opera's charter, which notes in 1801 that this "unique spectacle in Europe . . . gives a frequently useful impetus to the fashion trade and luxury goods business, attracts to and retains in Paris a host of foreigners . . ." To aid this function, the Opera's directors were required to ". . . maintain it in the state of luxury which distinguishes it from others".

Researching the labour history of the opera workshops, which had few industrial disputes to record, is, however, proving a far harder task. Kahane believes the small size of the workshops may have discouraged the type of labour dispute that makes the social history of the Imprimerie Nationale, the government printing office, so much easier to trace.

While Kahane sought out the history of the petites mains, the anonymous seamstresses who created the glitter and glamour for the luxury goods "showcase", stage director Alain Germain designed the exhibition to bring out a sense of the "creators of the costumes as well as the divas who wore them".

Dissatisfied with the usual stiff presentation of clothes exhibits, he has staged the costumes on models to create the illusion of a swirl of movement up the grand staircase. Germain has also displayed a series of half-assembled costumes and particularly lavishly beaded and embroidered garments to show the creative work involved in making them.

"I wanted to show in my own way that when you applaud the artist, you also applaud the person who made the costume, the dressers and the lighting technicians who bring it to life - it's the costume which allows the artists to transcend themselves," he explains.

Germain's concern to bring out the composite nature of a stage performance is matched by his composite approach to staging opera, music and drama and to teaching theatre in workshops. "I make no distinction between dance, music and theatre. It is a problem in France, where the ministry of culture has three separate departments and the newspapers have separate columns for each performing art."

Germain has been in demand on United States campuses since the early 1980s and has taught at the University of California at Los Angeles, and the Columbia, New York and Pennsylvania universities. Laughing, he explains that in the US system, he is seen as a money-spinner. "A lot of students come to my classes and pay a lot of money for it, so I get invited back again and again," he says. His workshops are open to participants from the university theatre, music and dance departments. Young students rub shoulders with seasoned professionals.

Germain finds the mixing of non-professionals with performing artists particularly productive, especially in improvisation sessions. "Non- professionals have a better instinct for it. The professionals have to cleanse themselves of cliches from time to time."

The fact that well-known actors or dancers turn up in his classes in the US impresses Germain and has set him thinking about the relationship between universities and the performing arts. "What they are doing is collecting credits towards a degree, so that they can retire from the stage into academia later on," he says. "The US system does not set a time limit the way European universities do, so even busy working artists can collect enough credits in the long term."

This university teaching experience has convinced Germain that it is crucial for performing artists to find a place within academia. "It gives them intellectual security and academic status. The problem of performing artists is that they belong nowhere and if you don't have a clear place in society, you can become marginalised." Germain himself is a highly qualified artist and architect and has always had the academic background to stand up to the kind of incomprehension that used to lead people to ask him, once they knew he was a stage director, "Yes, but what do you do for a living?" "For most people, only the top ten most famous artists hold their own, get real recognition. If artists' training was university-based, it would give them clearer professional status," he argues. Conservatories and drama schools, he says, give a training with little intellectual content and, above all, fail to bring the different disciplines together. "It is incredible. Musicians never have contact with dancers, who don't have contact with singers . . . it is the same everywhere, during their training, then in rehearsal for a performance."

The key, according to Germain, lies in courses at universities with their own theatre, in which would-be artists can learn how to move, to use light and space. "Now, an opera singer gets put on to the stage without ever learning to move, but Cose fan tutte is theatre before it is singing."

The other advantage of university-based training is a good audience -another essential ingredient for a performing arts education. "University theatre performances are always sold out, because all the students come."

Germain acknowledges that the formula also has its risks - university performing arts departments can too easily be staffed by failed artists or has-beens. It happens, he says, because people without enough talent to be artists take courses to hide behind an intellectual approach. "In fact, it should be the opposite - those with a great deal of raw talent can most benefit from an academic foundation," he argues.

One solution would be the increased channelling of raw talent into university courses. The other, he says, is to use large numbers of guest teachers who are active in their profession and who can give the students contact with the real world. Germain is again impressed by his US experience as a guest teacher. "There, heads of department will turn up with their students to join one of my improvisation workshops. It is unthinkable here, academics would see it as exposing themselves in front of their students."

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