Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Luminessences Opens in Avignon Aug 12



Les Luminessences d'Avignon, a monumental 360°sound-and-light show at the Palais des Papes, is one of those annual spectacles (as the French call them) that seems to grow more and more popular each year.  This year's show, the 5th annual, opens Saturday night August 12 and runs until September 30th, in the Palace's Honour Courtyard.

The Palais des Papes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was home to nine successive popes, was considered the heart of the medieval Christian world and was the scene of several sieges. It played a very unique and vital role in European history...and Luminessences tells its story. (For more on the Avignon papacy, click here.) The show--the same production as the one shown last summer but with the addition of new scenes--cloaks the four wings of the palace in enormous images and surrounds the audience "in a poetic fusion of architecture, light and music." Mostly everyone stands for the 40-minute show but small folding chairs and wheelchairs are welcome. 

The show will be offered every evening, in French at 9:15 pm and English at 10:15 pm. 

Tickets can be bought online here...or at the Palais des Papes during opening hours... or at the Avignon Tourist Office (see link and phone below). 

Prices are 12 € for adults, 10€ (reduced rate) and free for kids under age 8. Info on group sales, private events, getting to Avignon, tickets and much more  is on the Luminessences website in English here. They're also on Facebook. For info by phone, call the Avignon Tourist Office at +33 (0)4 32 74 32 74. 

Friday, August 4, 2017

Free Classical Concert Aug 12 in the Luberon


Every summer, a group of talented singers from Nice and the UK known as Ristretto arrives in tiny, charming Lumières in the Luberon to enjoy good food and wine, the beauty of Provence and a week of intensive choral singing. The 2017 program will include works by Monteverdi, Bach, Gershwin, Esenwalds, Mundy and Girdlestone. 

And then when everything is polished, they give an open-to-the-public concert. This year it's Saturday August 12 at 6 pm, in the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame de Lumière, next door to the Hotellerie Notre Dame de Lumières, a very-special hotel in a former 17th-century convent. Admission to the concert is free...just show up! 

For a casual dinner afterwards, stroll over to Le Garage, grab an outdoor table and tuck into a terrific selection of tapas, small plates and cocktails. Or head up the hill to La Terrasse, which my local chef friend Giuseppina calls "the top" for light, creative cooking, super-fresh ingredients and great views. Definitely reserve at either place...they fill up.

Lumières is just off the D900, just below the village of Goult...about 15 to 20 minutes from Gordes and the 12th-century Abbaye de Sénanque. 

And if you're planning an event of your own, the highly regarded Ristretto and its musicians are available for weddings and other gatherings. Learn more at RistrettoVoices.com then email or call: choralsummer@aol.com, +33 (0)6-17-71-71-70. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

New Eco-Cabins for Wine & Nature Lovers


An irresistible new vacation compound opens this week just south of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, set to welcome travelers to the heart of Wine Country with beautifully secluded wooden cabins in a unique waterfront setting.

Called The Cabanes des Grands Cépages (cépages are wine varietals), the 25-hectare property is the branchild of Gaspard de Moustier and Emmanuel de La Bédoyère, who describe themselves as “entrepreneurs at heart, passionate about nature and authenticity.” Since 2009, the two men have provided nature-based holidays at three successful eco lodges around France.

At this new property on Lac de la Lionne, just ten minutes from Châteauneuf and 25 minutes from Avignon, ten just-built cabins nestle on the shore, float on the water or perch on stilts. Another ten will open by year end 2018. Designed to let you fully immerse yourself in the surroundings, the cabins were sited and built to allow for maximum sunlight and cooling breezes. Some have 100% eco-responsible Nordic baths on the terrace; most are around 25 square meters (270 square feet) and the largest sleeps five. 

To fund the 2.5 million venture, the partners received grants from the commune (county) of Sorgues (for site rehabilitation), the Vaucluse Fishing Federation and the CPIER Rhône Plan (2015-2020).

The backstory: Eight years ago, Gaspard was working at a bank and studying for a Masters in finance when he decided a life change was in order: he wanted to merge his passions for nature, tourism, and sustainable development by offering innovative, green holiday lodging to like-minded travelers. When an opportunity presented itself in the heart of his native Franche Comté, he leapt at the chance. The idea, he says, was to preserve the natural beauty of the 150-hectare property and contribute to the attractiveness of the region as a whole.  He launched The Cabanes des Grands Lacs (Great Lakes Cabins) in 2009.

Emmanuel, meanwhile, had been working at a merchant bank for seven-plus years when he decided, in 2010, to chuck it and take over his family’s farm.

The two men met in 2012 and realized they shared the same passions: for tourism and adventure, for preserving the land and respecting the environment, for deeper human connections.

Together they created the Cabanes des Grands Chenes (Great Oak Cabins) in Picardy, 60 km from Paris at the Château de Raray in a forest of 100-year-old oaks.

Buoyed by the success of these first two projects, they hatched a plan for a third, opening the Cabanes des Grands Reflets  (Cabins of Great Reflections) in 2016, in the heart of the Belfort territory, close to the Swiss border.

The owners say their lovely new lodgings are ideal for solo travelers, couples, families and business groups. To discover the region, guests can book wine tours, winemaker meetings, bike tours, nature walks and more. While there's no restaurant on the property, dinner and appetizer baskets highlighting regional products can be delivered to each cabin.

The website is currently in French only but English is coming by late August. 

For more info or to book: cabanesdesgrandscepages.com, info@cabanesdesgrandscepages.com, +33 (0)3 44 58 39 08.

Photos: (1, 2) Les Cabins des Grands Cépages opens this week near Châteauneuf-du-Pape with ten wooden cabins at the lakeside, built on stilts or dug out of the earth. Ten more cabins will open next year.  The Douglas-Fir cabins were designed to let guests fully immerse themselves in nature and the beauty of the site; you can swim, fish, hike, bike, drink wine, stargaze and finally get at that book you've been planning to write. For the moment the cabins have no WiFi but the main building does. (3) Owners Emmanuel and Gaspard have three other eco-lodges around France. (4)  Interiors are soothingly minimal; the largest cabin sleeps five. (5) Room with a smashing view. (6) Bathroom vignette with natural materials and fabrics. (7, 8). A cabin under construction and good to go. (9) Some cabins have Nordic tubs on the deck. (10) Food can be delivered in a pretty basket and all cabins have coffee makers. (11) Not a bad view to wake up to...

Monday, July 10, 2017

Drone Photography in Provence













This gorgeous shot of a Provence lavender field at harvest time, taken by London-based French photographer Jerome Courtial, has won 1st Prize (Nature category) in the 4th Annual International Drone Photography Contest He calls it "Summer Trim" and you can click to enlarge.
The contest is organized by Dronestagram, the France-based drone-photo sharing website, in partnership with National Geographic. They received 8,000 entries this year, with submissions split into four categories: Nature, Urban, People and Creativity. You can see all the 2017 winners here.

The shot was taken near Valensole in mid July last year, using a Phantom 4 camera drone. "We were just driving without a specific destination in mind," Jerome tells me, "and I was looking for nice compositions. I was especially keeping an eye out for tractors as they would provide a focal point. A lavender field from above would just look like a purple carpet without something else on it. That’s when we found this beautiful field and two tractors that looked like they were about to start work on it. I just had time to start the drone and follow them until they had achieved the composition I wanted!"

You can learn more about Jerome on his websites here and here. The first focuses on his main business, which is taking photos and videos for hotels. The second site provide lots of great tips for taking better drone photos.  You can also find him on FacebookInstagram and TwitterTo reach him directly: jcourtial@yahoo.co.uk.  

Interested in learning to fly a drone yourself? A small group of drone pilots in St. Remy is offering two-hour lessons for beginners, in a field adjacent to the hotel Château des Alpilles. According to licensed drone pilot and instructor Nathalie Freysz, drones are being used by farmers to check their fields, crops and animals; by property owners who want video for insurance or tax purposes; by homeowners to promote rentals or sales...and most of all, just for fun. The group uses Hexacopter DJI 550 drones equipped with GoPro video cameras; a two-hour lesson for two people costs 200€ and includes a souvenir photo or video. The classes can be booked on demand, year round, with group prices and multi-lesson packages are available. For more info: natfreysz@yahoo.com.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Rencontres Photo Fest Starts July 3 in Arles

The photo featured on the 2017 Rencontres d' Arles poster was shot by Karl Heinz Weinberger. The international festival (the 48th annual) lasts all summer but opening week (July 3 to 9) is considered the most important. 
The big Annie Leibovitz show, sponsored by LUMA Foundation, launched in late May...and it's a must-see.  It was pretty amusing asking one of the premier portrait photographers of our time to pose for my little iPhone pic at the opening...but she was totally willing and gracious. The show continues at La Grande Halle in the Parc des Ateliers until September 24...and you can buy a book based on the show.
Two iconic images by Joel Meyerowitz: New York City, 1963, and Cocktail Party, Wellfleet, 1977.
Photo by Clementine Schneidermann
Photo by Mathieu Pernot: The Gorgan Family, Arles, 1995. The artist met the family while studying photography in Arles. Until then, he says he "knew nothing about these communities, and was unaware that this line of Roma had been in France for over a century..."
Photos by Leslie Moquin: Hasta Abajo 02 and Hasta Abajo 05 
from the show "Territorio: Arles in Bogota." 
Installing the show "Levitt France." 
Photo by Julie Balague, one of five photographers featured. 
Photo by Shadi Ghadirian, Qajar, 1998.
Two photos by Gideon Mendel from the "Submerged Portraits" series, in the show "Drowning World." Pictured are Jeff and Tracey Waters (Staines-upon-Thames, Surrey, UK, 2014) and Victor and Hope America (Igbogene, Bayelsa State, Nigeria, 2012).
A postcard courtesy of the Claude Ribouillault collection, from "Proportion Observed: Dwarfs, Strongmen and Giants." 
Architecture of Density by Michael Wolf, from the show 
"Life in Cities." 
From Mathieu Asselin's show "Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation," taken in Van Buren, Indiana in 2013.
An untitled image from "The Kogi Indians: The Memory of Possibilities," 
with 40 photos by Éric Julien.
Photo by Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian, whose work is featured in the show "Iran, Année 38" and in the Les Nuits program "Iran Now,"  to be held in Arles' Théâtre Antique on July 8 at 10 pm.


The 48th annual Rencontres d'Arles, the large international photography festival, runs from July 3 to September 24 in Arles. 

Overlapping dates with the Rencontres, another photo festival called Voies Off (which most people just call "the Off") is also ongoing in Arles, with a wide range of photo shows in galleries and other sites. Most if not all are free and tickets are not required.  To learn more about Voies Off, their website in English is here

As in years past, the Rencontres stages themed and stand-alone exhibits (this year's count: 40 exhibits), panel discussions, lectures, book signings, open-air screenings, evening events, workshops for kids and adults, guided tours and more. Last year, more than 100,000 people attended at least one festival event. 

Most but not all of the exhibits stay up until the end of the festival. Sometimes co-produced with French and/or foreign museums and institutions, exhibits are staged in various galleries, museums and purpose-built sites around the city; the festival will use roughly 30 different venues this year. Some sites (for example, a 12th-century chapel or 19th-century industrial building) are open to the public only during the Rencontres. 

This year, the Rencontres has two new sites, both at the edge of Arles' historical center on Boulevard Émile Combes. Called Crosiere and Maison des Peintres, they were created from derelict houses, old shops, warehouses and urban land. Open to the public for the first time, they’ve been reconfigured as exhibition sites and walkways specifically for the Rencontres. 

As in years past, exhibits and activities are grouped by theme. This themes for 2017 are Latina, The Experience of Territory, World Disorders, Platforms of the Visible, I Am Writing to You from a Far-Off Country, Mise en Scene, Rereadings and Odd Collectors, New Discovery Award, Emergences, Grand Arles Express and Associated Programs.

A list of all 2017 Rencontres exhibits is here.

Top shows this year are expected to include: 

*   Joel Meyerowitz. Called "Early Works," the show at the Salle Henri-Comte will include 40 original prints from the New York-born master photographer. "The work in the gallery space was selected by Rencontres director Sam Stourdzé and is all vintage work in color," Joel told me by email. "Sam felt that with all the modern printing we see these days, it would be good to show what prints looked like just 40 years ago." The show runs July 3rd to August 27. On Thursday July 6th from 4:30 to 5 pm, Meyerowitz will give a guided tour of the show, open to anyone with a pass (ticket).

*   Annie Leibovitz. This show opened on May 26 in La Grande Halle of the Parc des Ateliers and stays up until September 24. It comprises some 8,000 images and spotlights Leibovitz' earliest work (1970 to '83), hung chronologically in separate "rooms" in a huge, wonderful space. You'll see iconic shots you'll recognize immediately and many you've never seen before. The show is sponsored by LUMA Foundation, general admission is 7€ and all the info, in English, is here.

The careers of Meyerowitz and Leibowitz will also be celebrated through special evening events at the Theatre Antique; both artists will be present and more info on that appears below. 

*   Iran, Année 38 at the Eglise Sainte-Anne, features the work of 66 Iranian photographers 
capturing the artistic, social and political upheavals of their country. It runs from July 3 to August 27. 

*  Audrey Tautou. Her show,"Superfacial" runs from July 3 to September 24, at the Abbaye de Montmajour. (Note, the Abbey is 5 km north of Arles, not in the city itself. It's a fantastic site, a Benedictine monastery built between the 10th and 18th centuries.) More info about the Audrey Tautou show is here.

As in year's past, the opening week of the festival (July 3 to 9) is always the busiest...and it's the week that many industry professionals attend. To see the opening week schedule in French and English, click here.

Highlights of opening week include:

*   Photography Nights...during which the Roman-era Théâtre Antique, city churches and old industrial sites will become unique night-time backdrops for special evenings of projected images and accompanying talks. These evenings under the stars tend to begin with an award ceremony...and then move on to a screening of photos or film designed specifically designed for the stunning, 2000-year-old venue or other sites. Three examples:

On Tuesday July 4 at the Théâtre Antique, following a photo book awards program and Part #1 of a presentation on experimental photography by Marc Lenot, the Rencontres welcomes Joel Meyerowitz. "My evening talk and show will be an overview of my 50+ years as a photographer with the emphasis on color," he says.

On Thursday July 6, after another awards presentation and Part #2 of Marc Lenot's experimental-photography presentation, Annie Leibovitz will take the stage to show and discuss her work, with the loose topic of "what makes a photo iconic."

On Saturday July 8, the program in the Théâtre Antique is "Iran Now," which echoes the show Iran, Année 38. 

Separate tickets for these "Les Nuits" events are required; to see the full program schedule in English, click here.

*   The Night of the Year ("Nuit de L'Année") takes place on July 7, from 6 pm onwards at Papeteries Étienne in Trinquetaille. Visitors are invited to wander across the Trinquetaille Bridge, from La Roquette to Trinquetaille, and on to the abandoned paper mill, which is open to the public for this event only. This year,  40 artists, photographers and institutions "that the festival has discovered or fallen in love with" were given carte blanche and their work will be projected in loops on six screens. This is also a chance to see "Byopaper!" with images by another 30 artists. More than 4 000 visitors came to the 2016 edition of this free-access, evening event.

*   During opening week, many exhibiting photographers will be on hand to present their work.  Then from July 10 through September 24, a team of mediators/photographers will offer daily 90-minute guided tours at various exhibition sites. These tours require no reservation and are free for pass holders. Info is available at all ticket offices and in the "Plan your visit" section of the Rencontres website here

For the ninth year, a satellite event called Cosmos-Arles Books puts the spotlight on photography books. This year, 80 international publishers will be represented, showing new books, rare books and limited editions. Cosmos-Arles Books offers experimental exhibitions and publication projects, conferences, pop-ups, book signings, talks with artists and a host of other events featuring photo books. For example on Wednesday July 5 at 5:30 pm, Joel Meyerowitz will have a one-one-one discussion with Le Point and a book signing at Cosmos (at #2 rue Condorcet), which is where all the publishers and book events will be held during the festival's opening week. This event is free and open to the public. For all the info about Cosmos-Arles Books, click here.

The Rencontres also offers photo portfolio reviews by appointment...and hosts spring, summer and weekend photo workshops; info on these programs is here.

Practical Info:

Tickets to all Rencontres events may be purchased online here...or at five ticket offices:

*Festival Office: 34 Rue du Docteur Fanton 

*Espace Van Gogh: Place Félix Rey 

*Place de la République/Église Sainte-Anne: Place de la République 

*Ground Control: next to the main Arles train station 

*Parc des Ateliers – Grande Halle: access is from the Chemin des Minimes

Exhibit tickets may be purchased individually or in multi-day passes.  Info on all passes is hereFree entry is granted to anyone under age 18, all citizens of Arles and the disabled. Groups of 10 or more get special rates as do students, job-seekers, large families and companions to the disabled. Please note that some shows/venues are not included in pass prices and must be purchased separately. 

Make sure to get a map to all exhibits when you stop by a ticket office; they should also have them at the Arles Tourist Office and elsewhere around the city. There's a map online here.

For comprehensive info about the festival, all the photographers and shows, see the press kit in English here.

The festival office/headquarters is located at #34, rue du Docteur Fanton in Arles and remains open throughout the fest.  For questions, email: info@rencontres-arles.com
. Help in English may be available by calling:  +33 (0)4 90 96 76 06.

The full Rencontres website in English is here ... while their FacebookTwitter and Instagram are being continually updated with photos, videos and more.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Invite: Another Fine French 4th of July Fête!


Last week I told you about a 4th of July party in Provence for American expats who are Democrat...or leaning that way.  Today I’ve got another holiday invite for you...but this one is open to everyone.  One love, baby!

The American Club of the Riviera (ACR) will host a Musical Evening and Dinner on Tuesday July 4 at Castel Plage restaurant in Nice.

While enjoying a three-course dinner, you’ll be entertained by French-American soprano Amy Christianna Blakepraised by the New York Times for her beautiful singing, strong energy and stage presence.  Amy is a West-Texas native now living on the Côte d’Azur.

My peeps at the ACR tell me that Amy and her quartet of “cream of the crop” musicians will be doing Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Gershwin and more, “to carry us into that chic and svelte ambiance of the Great White Way.”  And because no "Broadway Classics" evening is complete without a few numbers à la Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly, dancers from the Nice Jazz Off Dance Academy have been invited to perform.

The party starts with an apero at 7:30 pm and the dress code is smart casual. Tickets are 75€ pp for ACR members and 85€ pp for guests. Please confirm your reservation as soon as possible, before Tuesday June 27th, as the event will almost certainly sell out; 80 guests are expected. Reservations can’t be confirmed without payment and there's no "pay at the door.” To book and get more info, click here. Questions? Call +33 (0)6 48 62 39 72 or email: co-president@americanclubriviera.com.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Fourth of July Fête for American Expats


To celebrate Independence Day, Joan Jarowski--the new chair of the Avignon Chapter of Democrats Abroad--and her husband Charlie are hosting a poolside potluck buffet and BBQ at their home near Cavaillon on Sunday July 2nd, from 12 to 5 pm (rain or shine). 

The idea, Joan tells me, is to share a festive holiday afternoon with fellow American expats but also to spread the word about Democrats Abroad and reel in some new members; there are also chapters in Marseille and Toulouse. The party is free to attend but donations to the group's treasury will be welcomed.

For the buffet, Joan suggests bringing meat, fish or veggies for grilling; a side dish, salad or dessert to share with others; and a bottle of something to drink. 

To RSVP, email Joan (joandarcnyc@gmail.com), tell her how many in your group and what you'd like to bring. She'll reply with directions and a map. Don't forget swimsuits and towels...and all your American expat friends! 

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Insiders' Guide to the 2017 Festival d'Aix

The 2017 Festival d'Aix takes place July 3 to 22.  Can't wait? The program called "Aix en Juin" offers free or low-priced musical and cultural festivities throughout the month of June...a prelude to the main event. The guest post below--by my favorite opera aficionado in Aix--gives you all the info about both. 

Archevêché, where the opera season opens and closes

The Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, photographed at home at the Bolshoi, by Damir Yusupov. They'll play Eugene Onegin in Aix in July.

Stravinski's "Le Rossignol" from 2010, with beautiful staging by Robert Lepage (they flooded the orchestra pit).

"Pelléas and Mélisande," staged by Katie Mitchell in 2016

A free Parade[s] concert on the Cours Mirabeau. 

"Written on Skin" made its world première in Aix in 2012.

A Master Class Concert 

"The Abduction from the Seraglio," staged in 2015.

"Iolanta," staged by Peter Sellars in 2015

Concert on the Cours Mirabeau in June 2015, as part of  
the program called Parade[s].

Opera lover Anne-Marie Simons left her native Holland after college, headed to Paris for a year of intensive French and then to Brussels to work for the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) where she was offered an opportunity to work in the United States. There she spent the next 32 years, working as a translator, language teacher, journalist, sports writer covering Formula One races, and director of corporate communications. She retired in Europe and has been living in Aix-en-Provence since 1998 with her Argentine husband Oscar Rodriguez-Rozic, who left a career in international development banking to become an expert on Provençal cooking. As Oscar took over the kitchen, Anne-Marie began to record her experiences and impressions of France  its attractions, its quirks, its quality of life  which resulted in her delightful 2011 book Taking Root in Provence.  In her blog Provence Today, she reports on political and current events in and around France. Having attended the Festival d'Aix for many years, Anne-Marie knows all the ins and outs. So I asked her to give us the scoop on this year’s festival (July 3 to 22)…and this is what she sent. 

True opera lovers seem to have one thing in common: they won't let money or distance keep them from seeing their favorite singers or conductors. This may mean planning their summer vacations around some of the opera festivals in Europe, such as Bayreuth, Verona, Salzburg, Glyndebourne or Aix-en-Provence.

Wagnerians put up with a waiting list of five to ten years for the chance to get a seat in Wagner's very own Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, where they'll happily sit through five-hour afternoon performances, in formal dress, and have beer and sausages during intermission. Glyndebourne, an English country house in Sussex, is more relaxed and allows for picnic dinners on the lawns. And then there is Aix, perhaps most accessible of all, with three different venues in town. Unfortunately, the lovely Domaine du Grand St. Jean in nearby Rognes, where some of the smaller operas have been performed in a bucolic setting, closed last year for extensive renovations and is not expected to reopen until 2019. 

Founded in 1948 as an all-Mozart event, the Festival d'Aix still presents one Mozart opera every year but has long since widened its scope and today covers opera from its earliest beginnings (Monteverdi) to the present. (For the history of the festival, click here.)  It also has established an Académie Européenne de Musique, where young musicians get a chance to work with great teachers in Master Classes for Voice, String Instruments, Piano, Composition, etc. and perform before a live audience in evening concerts. The participation of these Academy students, winners of an international competition, adds an element of youthful enthusiasm to this opera festival. 

One of the most attractive aspects of the Aix festival is the rich menu of daily musical offerings throughout the city, with opera, concerts, Master Classes, conferences, interviews, and, at the end of the day, performances by the Academy singers or instrumentalists in the intimate setting of city squares and courtyards. 

As always, this year's festival program in Aix  (July 3 to 22) will feature five operas, including one commissioned work, performed in three different theaters:

Don Giovanni by Mozart 

Carmen by Georges Bizet

The Rake's Progress by Igor Stravinsky

Erismena by Francesco Cavalli

Pinocchio (commissioned) by Philippe Boesmans

Also, an orchestral version of Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky.

The “Preludes,” educational introductions to each opera, are held at the respective venues, one hour before the opera begins.

In addition, ‘’Aix en Juin,a lead-in to the operas in July, offers a program of free or low-priced musical and cultural festivities throughout June, culminating in ‘’Parade[s],”  a major free concert on the Cours Mirabeau, this year with the Orchestre de Paris and six soloists and a choir who will perform extracts from Carmen.

Master classes, as well as concerts and recitals by the Académie students, will start on June 23 and run until July 20. The disciplines may vary from year to year but always include voice, chamber music and contemporary creations. The final details (teachers, venues for Academy performances, date of live televised opera in a public park, etc.) will be announced later on this month. All these events (more than 60 in total) are open to the public with a €15 Pass (€5 for a single event).

Tête-à-tête” with the artists of the Festival is held every day at 6pm in the presbytery courtyard on the Place de l’Archevêché.

So much for the programming. Now, let's take a peek behind the scenes.

Bernard Foccroulle, present Director of the Aix Opera Festival, will be leaving us at the end of the 2017 season, after ten years at the helm. A renowned organist, he wants to return to performing, teaching and composing organ music in his native Belgium. He will be succeeded by Pierre Audi, currently Director of the Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam.

Foccroulle is credited with bringing the Aix Opera Festival into the 21st century, and it was under his leadership that in 2014 the Aix festival was named Best Opera Festival in the World at the International Opera Awards in London. He has rejuvenated the repertoire, favoring new creations, and brought opera to a wider public by introducing pedagogic programs in local schools and inviting students to some rehearsals.

His choices of "modernity" have not always been felicitous, however. In 2015, for instance, Austrian director Martin Kusej chose to politicize Mozart's lighthearted "Abduction from the Seraglio" by turning the 18th-century love-conquers-all story into an ISIS kidnapping of Konstanze, not by a love-struck pasha Selim who holds her captive in his palace, but by a bunch of black-clad, turbaned, machine-gun-toting jihadists who hold her in a tent in the Sahara and end up killing her in a simulated beheading on stage. When a shocked Foccroulle saw the rehearsal in Aix he told Kusej this was unacceptable and pleaded for a rewrite, but Kusej refused and claimed artistic license, granting no more than a final scene with a heap of bloody clothes on stage rather than a simulated beheading. The production was panned by critics (excepting the singers) and roundly booed by the audience.

Another misfortune befell Foccroulle when in 2014 he was faced with a strike by theatre temps (les intermittents du spectacle) who threatened to close down the festival in protest against the government's announced cutbacks. These temps work only when called upon but have year-round salaries covered by unemployment insurance. As always in France, public opinion was with the strikers and accommodations were found to keep the Festival open. As British mezzo soprano Sarah Connelly wrote in Limelight magazine, it was disheartening to be greeted by angry shouting and pot-banging by demonstrators who delayed the start of Haendel's Ariodante (in which she sings the title role), forced her and some colleagues to stay in their dressing rooms,  finally allowed her back on stage only to interrupt the performance two more times… and then to find her wallet stolen from her dressing room afterwards. She called the episode a frightening experience but says she "will try to remember the beautiful moments as well."

And so will we, because not only have we enjoyed some of the best summer opera anywhere here in Aix, but we feel confident that the new agreement reached between the government and theatre unions will hold. So whatever your plans are for the summer holidays, you can be reasonably sure that the cultural festivals will not be disturbed!

Tickets to the 2017 festival are now on sale online, by phone and at the box office (located at the Palais de l'Archevêché).  Priced from €30 to €270 they sell briskly, especially the less expensive ones. The website is now in English and very easy to navigate.

Until June 12 the box office will be open Tuesday thru Friday; after June 12 it’s open daily. And if all else fails, try your luck on the day of the performance when the box office sells same-day tickets at half price (usually the more expensive ones). Or go directly to the performance venue in hopes of finding people selling their tickets.

The €15 Pass can be purchased at any time, even just before the Master Classes or the Academy concerts, which you can attend on a space-available basis (expect long lines). Ever since the creation of the Académie Européenne in 1998, the Master Classes have been extremely popular since they provide a unique opportunity for a wide public to see established musicians teaching the finer points of their art to music school grads who are just beginning their professional careers as singers, instrumentalists and composers. It's the up close and personal observation of a master at work as he/she fine-tunes the technique and interpretation of a young artist. 

In reflecting on the many attractions of world-class opera on my doorstep, so to speak, I do not only remember my favorite music or singer, but some of the great artists who have conducted master classes. Imagine seeing star violinist Isaac Stern teaching a class, or Pierre Boulez (composition and percussion), or meeting Pina Bausch and Tina Brown, masters of modern dance, and Patrice Chéreau, film maker and stage director -- all gone now. Their art will live on in those they taught and new stars will rise, because, as Nietzsche said: "Without music, life would be a mistake."

For all the info: festival-aix.com. For more in-depth info about the festival, the artists and performances, along with day-by-day schedule, the press kit (in French) is here.

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