22 August 2010

The Festival at Canari, Part 5: Interview with Jacques Scaglia

Photograph by Elizabeth Scaglia©
Used with her sister’s permission.

In writing about Jacques Scaglia, the founder and presiding genius of the Festival International du Chant Lyrique de Canari, I’m reluctant to refer to Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo. After all, I’ve never seen the movie. Moreover, Klaus Kinski isn’t known for play nice, sane people like Jacques. Still, there’s something more than visionary — something outside the realm of everyday imagination — about bringing operatic singing to a remote location like Cap Corse. Jacques didn’t try to carry a steamboat over a mountain, but he’s done just about every other kind of heavy lifting. Not many other men would do as much.

The results are a great success with the public, and, as I hope I’ve made clear, the Festival has provided me with indelible memories and a closer understanding of music.

Were I to write about Jacques the way that I once wrote about Gabriel Bacquier (in Gaby’s own estimation: “The Americans must have loved reading it, all that sentimental stuff”), then I might describe him as a man in a constant process of giving something back: to music, to Corsica, to youth. It says something about a man who reared five daughters, yet who wants to stay involved with the development of young people’s talents.

Listening to him, I’m struck that his experience closely resembles that of the director of an American festival: Jacques must worry about funding, in a way that other European impresarios seldom do, and the pursuit of sponsors occupies a great deal of his time.

At the close of last year’s Festival, I sat down with Jacques on the terrace of the restaurant Au Bon Clocher, in the hope of learning more about how he got this far, and where the road ahead may take him.

Classy Masters: Scaglia and Bacquier
Photo by Rita Scaglia©
Used with permission

WVM: The seventh festival will be ending soon. Are you happy with it?

JS: Very satisfied. The level of the singers was — with regard to many other competitions — very high. Even the singers who came from abroad and participated said, “We didn’t think to expect this level of skill.” I think that they may have come — and this is my own opinion — thinking, “Oh, if we didn’t win over there [at other competitions], maybe we’ll win in Corsica, because it’s not the same thing at all.” And here they found themselves facing competitors who were even tougher.

WVM: And judges who are very demanding, shall we say? Very serious.

JS: Yes, they’re highly competent, and what’s more, they get along well together, even though it isn’t always the same panel. And for example this year we don’t have only singers. We have, first of all, Gabriel Bacquier; that’s a monstre sacré of judging, with real heart. We see it clearly, between rounds: he takes the singers aside to correct their mistakes, which is terrific. But we have a conductor, who has led all the great forces, from the opera in Berlin to La Scala in Milan, all the great forces. He has conducted often at the Opéra de Paris — New York, too. There you have a man of sovereign judgment, intransigent, who has seen everyone, and listened. [Also, there is] Michèle Command, a great vocal technician, and a great lady, besides. At this competition, there have been quite a few of her pupils. But she has judged with an open mind, without playing favorites at all.

And then, for my part, what I have appreciated this year is to have among the members of the jury a phoniatrist. Because, for one thing, this is a man who has sung, who took singing lessons with good teachers, and what’s more who has [as a physician] cared for many great singers. This means that, a great phoniatrist, in hearing a voice, can say, “This one is forcing, this one isn’t flexible enough, this one is too tight.” And it’s true that this is very important, because it’s really the musical judgment of a doctor. Because a phoniatrist is someone who takes care of the sonority of the voice.

WVM: Exactly. The health of the voice.

JS: So I’m very glad that he’s come, because moreover he’s a very nice guy. I know that this evening he’s going to join us for dinner [at the home of Jacques’ daughter Rita and her husband, Pascal Dolémieux].
“When I started out, people said to me quite simply, ‘In Corsica, if you’re going to do this, you must be crazy.’”

WVM: I know that you want to continue the Festival for as long as possible.

JS: Yes. Of course. Even after my time is finished, if that’s possible.

WVM: So what is the future of the Festival, then?

JS: The future is to find someone who will come after me, and become just as crazy about it as I am. Because you’ve got to go the limit. To do things in Paris or elsewhere, it’s almost easy. But in a setting that is — not hostile, you know, but it’s not really the setting where this sort of thing happens ordinarily — you’ve got to believe a little bit that anything is possible. When I started out, people said to me quite simply, “In Corsica, if you’re going to do this, you must be crazy.” And you’ve seen for yourself that now the whole gang is on board. Truly on board.

So that permits me to think that people are going to say, “You’ve got to teach me how to keep this going.” Because once things are underway — it’s difficult to make things happen, but now, things are already in place. So for the future, so long as I’m in good shape, the Festival will continue in the same fashion, and I hope better and better. Difficult though that may be.
“The Festival lasts one week, but it’s a full year of work. And a full year of worries.”

I’ve already got a few people who are open to the idea. But it’s necessary to be not just crazy but also a bit self-sacrificing. Because I can assure you, the Festival lasts one week, but it’s a full year of work. And a full year of worries. Because the dossiers [grant proposals] — without money, you can’t do anything. We looked for sponsors this year, we made requests to very important people … we got nothing. For the past couple of years — and this makes us very happy — some entities have helped us, including Air France. But apart from them, as far as financial sponsors go, we’ve gotten nothing [new]. But on the other hand, the merit of this is that, the proposals being put together, and we submitted them to the [inaudible] officials. So if they answer, “Okay,” for us, it’s the comfort that comes from reliability. Because it will encourage, over the long term, the events to take place conclusively.

We’ve been doing this for seven years now, and this is the first year that I haven’t had any concerns about the funding. There hasn’t been money to throw around, but for the first time I could distribute the prizes to the singers without having to worry. I could even make arrangements here, during the week — while sometimes there were so many prizes — we could nevertheless convince other people to appear before the audience [to present the prizes]. I even escaped, because you know I don’t like compliments, people who say, “Merci, bravo,” and all that. Before, I used to wait for them. But now, it wears me out more than anything. [Laughter] So everybody understood. And I got away this morning. — And you, how did you find the level of singing?

WVM: The level of singing? Very, very high. Very professional, in fact. But just to linger on the subject a little longer, normally, when we speak of the development of a festival — and yours is still quite young — we speak of expanding it, making it bigger. And here, I wonder whether — the church, for example, doesn’t hold many people.*

JS: I’ll tell you, yesterday I got a bit angry, because there were people talking about the setting, and getting a bigger theater, and there we could do things better. And I said, “Well, we have a way of to do things better.” …Let’s say, let’s put on one concert [at the conclusion of the week of master classes], and the next day a second one, for people who can’t make it to the first. If that happens, the students will really get something out of it. They could get back a little of what they put into the master classes. And for the audience, people who can’t attend the Friday concert, because they have to work, they can take advantage of a show on Saturday evening. That, we’re seriously thinking about. As far as the opera is concerned, when there’s a competition, we can hold the finals on Friday, and the Saturday we’d put on a concert with the prizewinners.

We’ve thought about [producing additional concerts] elsewhere. But I’ll tell you one thing. Rita will say, “Papa, you’re always saying the worst.” But, with respect to what I say, or what others say, look, it’s so little, it can’t put a brake on passion. And it winds up costing nothing. Because for me, my dream is that eventually, the competition winners from Canari will put on a concert in Bastia, before a large audience. I’ve talked to a few people, it’s complicated — for now, I’ve let it drop.
“The intimacy is irreplaceable … as soon as we supersize, we’ll lose that human quality.”

WVM: But it’s a way to enlarge the Festival a bit.

JS: That’s right. What’s happening is that, now, the theater in Bastia has taken notice of what we’re doing. They’re interested. Now, to associate themselves with us, even though it’s not the same area, we have different operatic activities, there’s talk of copying us, and that pains me, because, in fact, we were the trailblazers. But it’s true that, if we work there, if we put on a concert there, we’d get a bigger audience than we’d get [with an extra concert] in the next village over. But it would mean a sacrifice.

WVM: In fact, the charm of the Festival is the size, the intimacy. The chance to get to know the singers very well, over the course of the week, both in the master classes and in the competitions. To get to know Bacquier and Michèle Command, et cetera.

JS: The intimacy is irreplaceable.
“‘What the audience couldn’t see was what went on backstage, that the rivals were affectionate friends.’”

WVM: The chance to get to know the singers and the art, I find that absolutely wonderful.

JS: And as soon as we supersize, we’ll lose that human quality. I saw an article I liked very much, and it ended by saying that “what the audience couldn’t see was what went on backstage, that the rivals were affectionate friends.” That really touched me. Because he said [the singers] were hugging each other. This year, though, we felt that less. I don’t know why.

I think perhaps there were singers who said to themselves, “After all, [winning the prize money] will give me something to live off of for a couple of months. That would be good.” So there’s a connection — a bit of an anti-connection — with regard to the material needs, too, because [the economic climate] is making it more and more difficult for young people who want to sing. So automatically, when they win a competition, they can breathe easier.**

What amused me the most, yesterday, was that the Canadian — you saw her, she’s adorable — when I said to her, “Karin, I have to write out your check,” she answered, “Oh, that’s right, I won!” [Laughter] “That’s right, I won!” We were very happy that this one won. Already at the semifinal she was excited, we weren’t sure she could handle the thrill. But she was so charming, and her singing was so artistic and so musical. She looked good onstage, too.

WVM: I’m looking for my words in French, but if there’s a downside to intimacy here, there are times I suppose when, if an artist doesn’t win the competition or doesn’t perform well in the master classes, it can be difficult. Because we get to know them so well. You have to find something to say, try to be nice. Many of them are very nice, and we know that. Is that hard for you?

JS: No. In the master classes, for starters, we take twelve singers. Which means they all come to the convent. They’re all in the same place, and they’re all studying together. That stimulates conviviality. They can also get together to raise a glass of rosé in a toast from time to time. A few years ago, a Mexican soprano came to the master classes, and at the end she said to me, “What I really didn’t expect was this conviviality among us all.” In spite of everything [stresses, competitiveness, differing critical perceptions of other singers’ work], there’s the sea, the mountain, people who take care to shake everyone by the hand when they run into you. We’re not quite like what you usually find in other places.
“We’re not quite like what you usually find in other places.”

And you can appreciate that. From sunup to sundown, [the singers] have the same enthusiasm, which is perfect. And what’s more, each time we hold master classes, they ask me, “Can you send me the list of the singers, with all their names.” And they correspond with each other. Recently, I received an e-mail from Jean-François Borras, the tenor, who was singing in a production of Verdi’s Giovanna d’Arco in Rouen. I got such a kick out of it, because it was one of those mass e-mails where you can see all the other people’s addresses — and there were all the singers from the master classes [in 2006]. Really, that’s a holy communion! [Laughs.]

WVM: Let’s say — I’m thinking of one singer in particular from this year, who was eliminated early. She seemed fairly bitter, not very happy with that decision. You didn’t feel any awkwardness around her?

JS: No, because, for starters, nothing’s perfect, but I like people. And above all, I like to help developing singers. Because I know how much singers suffer when they run into a failure. Let’s not even talk about a vocal failure, where you can really feel a singer falling into the abyss. But say a failure where they didn’t win but they felt they did well; they really knocked themselves out. The mistake for them is to say, “This competition isn’t really a competition; there were certain people in collusion, judges — conductors or impresarios — who had an interest in promoting certain other singers.” But it’s true there have been people who felt extremely bitter, and who deserved better than their lot.
“You have to start with what you really are, and then to deepen that by being coherent about it.”

Beyond that, I know the person you’re thinking about, she had a hard time choosing her arias for the elimination rounds. Because you have to build to a crescendo. But in my opinion, you have to start with what you really are, and then to deepen that by being coherent about it, by giving a linear performance. And not by making massive leaps. It’s enough afterward to sustain the impression made at the beginning, to enlarge and to embellish it according to one’s vocal comportment and technique.…

WVM: But they’re judged on their performances throughout the competition, and not only for the finals.

JS: Exactly. But sometimes, you know, at a competition like […], for example, they don’t even get to sing an entire aria. As soon as the judges have heard enough, [they stop the singers]. One juror told me, “Two minutes is enough.” But you’ve also got to feel everything that’s going on, not just the voice. There’s everything in the background.

WVM: The action, et cetera.

JS: Everything else that’s going on. But this year, there were perhaps some singers who deserved better than they got. In my opinion. But there were also some others who surprised me. I used to have a colleague who often said about a particular project, “It’s a big world, and you can’t please everybody.” [Laughs.]

WVM: Ultimately, every judgment is personal.

JS: It’s simplistic, but that doesn’t bother me.
“I like people. And above all, I like to help developing singers.”

WVM: You also used to sing, and I’d really like to know whether there are moments when your experience as a singer helps you in managing the Festival.

JS: I’ll tell you, I think you already know this, I’ve had a highly atypical life. When I was young, I was able to find some good teachers, such as Vladimir Karavia, who was the partner of [legendary Russian bass Feodor] Chaliapin, who was a formidable man. He expressed admiration for me when I was 18. That’s crazy, somebody who inspires admiration at the age of 18, that doesn’t happen. So I had that to start out with, and then there was a Romanian tenor called Emilio Marinescu, who sang with the opera in Marseille. By then I was 19, and he said, “But it’s incredible. The voice is beautiful.” I had been to Conservatory [in Marseille], but that doesn’t mean anything.

And then what made up my mind was that I came back to Corsica. [The local people] helped me out, so that I could study in Paris or — and then, my poor mother, who was a widow by this time, and my brother said, “But after all, why not give Milan a shot?” I left for Milan, I studied for three and a half years at La Scala, where I acquired a technique typical of the 1950s.
“During the rehearsal, I had my head stuck between [the soprano’s] breasts, and I really thought I had no business being there.”

After that, circumstances demanded that, first of all — this was the era of Gabriel Bacquier in 1958, at the Festival d’Aix [en Provence], when he made his big splash. One of the directors was Gabriel Dussurget, who heard me and said, “It’s an interesting voice.” And his friend, a great specialist, said, “Yes, but Gabriel, he’s a midget!” [Laughter.]

That had no effect on me, but the second trauma, as far as my height goes, was also in France. I had some friends who were taller. And this was at the Opéra de Marseille, when I auditioned to sing Silvio in Pagliacci. The Nedda was a soprano who was as tall as this. During the rehearsal, I had my head stuck between her breasts, and I really thought I had no business being there. I thought, “I’ll never get out of this.”

And I won’t try to hide it, I had stage fright. Every time I had to sing, I’d get sick two days before. Sick, but so sick — you can’t imagine the stage fright. Was I insecure about myself? It’s possible. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had that stage fright.

So, I quit singing, I abandoned it to pursue something completely different, you know.*** Then, by the time I turned 53, it was time to think about my retirement. I thought, “What’s going to happen?” The retirement age is 55. And then I had the idea to take up singing again, after all. So there I was, in Paris, in front of a mirror. And two sayings came back to me.
“It was time to think about my retirement … and then I had the idea to take up singing again.”

One is when we singers were working with the maestro in Milan. And when I dug into a song, it wasn’t horrible, but physically, it didn’t make me happy. Discouraged, I thought of José di [?], who said this to me — I was 23 at the time — “You’re 23, but you manage your voice like somebody who’s been in the business for 20 years.” So that encouraged me for a while.

And then my wife, Evelyne, was saying, “But it’s crazy, don’t you realize? You never wanted to [sing] before. How are you going to manage?” You see, on the one hand there was the part of me that wanted to sing, and on the other, it seemed as if the moment had passed. Then, by accident, one day in Paris, I was singing “Eri tu” from Un Ballo in Maschera. She opened the door and said to me, “That was wonderful! I thought you’d never do it.”

Jacques Scaglia found a pianist in Paris to accompany his lessons, and in turn he started to give singing lessons to her boyfriend. One thing led to another, and soon, he had 20 students.

JS: …And that’s how I met Michèle [Command, who teaches voice at the Conservatoire de Paris]. She said, “Who is this baritone that I keep hearing about all day?” And so we became great friends.

When I got to the village [in Corsica], I had a student who sang very well, but because she was my daughter, as soon as I said anything, she’d contradict me…. I called Michèle, and I said, “I’ve got a girl with a superb voice, a real musician. But she’s so stubborn, we wind up arguing over nothing for an hour at a time. Can I send her to you?”

She said, “Listen, what the heck do you expect from her?”
“She said, ‘What are you waiting for? Why don’t you start a singing competition?’”

In those days, I didn’t have the cats.**** I had my voice lessons, I had students who were coming from Bastia, and I’d go to Bastia. I wasn’t bored….

[Michèle Command] said, “What are you waiting for? Why don’t you start a singing competition? If you start a singing competition, Gaby and I will come.”

In the meantime, the mayor had asked me to come before the town council.… The convent had just been restored, and he said, “Do we have any ideas?” I said, “I’ve got an idea: a singing competition.”

WVM: So it was really an evolution —

JS: A number of things that came together. The restored convent — do something that could be promoted, but there wasn’t much space. We needed to find an event sufficiently interesting on a cultural level, so that we could obtain the necessary funding. That’s why we’re funded by the Centre Culturel.
“From the first year, we were in luck.”

So then, from the first year, we were in luck. Even at the town council, a guy said to me, “I believed in it. If we can’t do this, we can’t do anything.…”

It takes a lot of work, you’ve really got to throw yourself into it. You’ve got to enjoy it. In these cases, the grant proposals have to be very reliable, they have to signal professionalism, so that they don’t give the impression you’re just somebody putting on a village fair. And here I think that, from the beginning, we’ve been lucky — a bit crazy though I may be — in our commitments, in everything I commit to do, I’m very meticulous, very careful. That takes a lot of time, because I’m slower than somebody whose skills are more directly related than mine. But in the end, by applying myself, it’s working out. This year, for example, they gave us funding even before it was brought up at the meeting. And the Conseil Général gave me money even before I submitted my proposal….

So I said to myself, “Hey, this is good.” It gives me peace of mind. …I’m talking a bit about the technical side of things, but it’s to tell you what kinds of difficulties when you want to create something of this kind, and you’re in a small village, and especially when it’s something new.

WVM: The idea of a festival here is at once perfectly logical and crazy.

JS: With regard to what you have to do to make it happen.

WVM: It’s fascinating to hear this. And frankly, I didn’t know what to expect, the first time I came here. I didn’t know you in those days, and I said to myself, “Hmmm, a singing festival in a little village like that?” It’s true that Bacquier’s reputation inspired me a bit.
“In the competitions, each member of the jury brings something important … and that adds more and more.”

JS: Among other things, what pleases me very much, in the competitions and the master classes, Gaby and Michèle are brilliant. But in the competitions, each member of the jury brings something important. They’re expected to bring something, and that adds more and more.

WVM: It’s really not just some little festival or other, at the far end of the world. Not at all. As I say, it’s simultaneously logical and crazy.

JS: Yes. There’s something magical about it.

WVM: Yes — but without the improbable aspect [of magic].

JS: An integrated mixture of [musical] material and setting. And tomorrow, we’ll have a change of scenery. Yesterday, I was worn out, I went home. What was funny, I said to myself, “Good, tomorrow we won’t have any kind of reception.” But everybody followed me. My wife, and all these people. So I didn’t really get away from anybody. Just as well. [Laughter.]

WVM: Congratulations, and thanks for speaking with me.

*NOTE: In fact, the Church of Saint-François is often packed to the rafters during the Festival, particularly for both the end-of-week concert of master-class students and the final concert of the vocal competition, when prizes are announced.

**Scaglia’s implication was that, until the competition was over, the singers were perhaps too tense or too wrapped up in their own work to make connections among themselves, as they had done in previous years.

***Scaglia was for many years an executive with the Pari Mutuel Urbain (PMU), the entity that oversees betting on horseracing in France.

****Nowadays, nobody is really sure how many cats Jacques Scaglia has in his home; it’s the household equivalent of a wildlife refuge.

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