Du monde au Balcon: Pierrot Lunaire at the Théâtre Athénée

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I was nervous about this one. An ensemble of twentysomethings staging Pierrot Lunaire sung in French by a man? Would the Sprechstimme sound like Serge Gainsbourg? And could a young troupe like Le Balcon, led by suspiciously hip 27-year-old Maxime Pascale and making their debut as resident ensemble of the Théâtre Athénée, really shed new light on this dark and twisted masterpiece?

The changes they made to language and voice type are apt: Pierrot is a sad creepy French clown after all, and the German texts Schoenberg chose for his 1912 atonal melodrama are translations from the original French poems by  Belgian symbolist Albert Giraud. The male transcription that replaced the usual shrill soprano recitations allows Pierrot himself to stand before us in all his grotesque glory. And so Damien Bigourdan donned the wig, daubed his face with a bit of Rorschach-inspired fluoro warpaint, squeezed the teats of his trannie vest and leered at his audience, all the while singing in a plangent, haunting high tenor.

As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, there were the spookhouse-gone-too-far projections of Colombian video artist Nieto for him to interact with, both on stage and on the large white orb hovering high over the musicians. As part of this nightmarish trompe l’oeil with its occasional black humour, Pierrot ripped open his torso to reveal beating heart, viscera and spleen (the symbolists did love their spleens); grumbled when his head was impaled on a cello spike; smoked a pipe made out of a live bird skeleton, and lurched into the orchestra pit to terrorise the quintet with a handycam, which he shoved into the conductor’s mouth, gleefully extracting a tooth.

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La lune malade really was sick as they come, reflecting by turns an all-seeing eyeball, a nipple, flowing blood mingled with a dash of red wine, the ‘pallid drop of blood [that] stains the lips of a consumptive’… All writ large on a full moon to make you froth at the mouth. And I for one couldn’t look away.

The rich yet intimate interior of the rococo-meets-art-nouveau Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet was the perfect fit for such a richly decadent vision. At interval from the comfort of my private box, while smokers crowded onto the ornate balcon, I frottaged every surface I could: red velvet railings, thick velvet curtains, velvet-upholstered doors, velvet ropes and velvet seats. Wisely, Le Balcon followed the eerie sensation overload of Pierrot Lunaire with Morton Feldman’s radiophonic Paroles et Musique (Words and Music) to sparse text by Samuel Beckett, with the musicians and voice actors (Bigourdan and Éric Houzelot) hidden behind a screen until the very last moment. Apart from a few major themes like paresse, amour, âge and visage, I missed a good chunk of the stammered French translation, eventually closing my eyes and resting my head on something soft (I think it might have been velvet?) as each austere, repeated musical gesture washed over me in surround sound.

Pierrot Lunaire plays until Saturday 28 September, tickets from €7. Photos by Meng Phu.

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Secrets of the Palais Royale: doll fetishes & heritage moustaches behind closed doors

It started like any other weekend in Paris. A glimpse of sky through lace curtains and a rumpled descent from my attic abode to the boulangerie below to check for the rare banana tart they like to trot out just when I’ve given up hope of ever seeing one again.

But I hadn’t even made it as far as the cobblestones when something out of the ordinary came into my stuporous line of vision: a dapper gentleman and his entourage of lookie-lous politely requesting the access code to my building. From under his cape he produced a black-and-white printout photo of my sleepy little block of flats. (I’m not making this up; he was wearing a cape.)

Somewhere between bemused, confused and suspicious, I pressed him for more information.

‘Pourquoi?’
‘Because it’s famous. You’re very lucky to be living here, mademoiselle!’
‘I’d be happy to show you the courtyard, but why would I give you my door code to see it?’
‘C’est la Journée du Patrimoine, bien sûr.’

I never did find out why my building was of particular interest to this odd little Frenchman, but he did turn me on to the Journées Européenes du Patrimoine, when for one weekend a year the city’s major heritage-listed sites fling open even their heaviest, creakiest doors to reveal chambers, dungeons, backstage corridors and other areas usually off-limits to the public. In its thirtieth year this September 14–15, the proud tradition drew 12 million visitors to hundreds monuments in and around Paris.

My daily run from Montparnasse to the Louvre was dotted with crowds and security guards at even the most seemingly unremarkable street corners — though I’m starting to suspect that there is no such thing as an unremarkable street corner in Paris. But how to choose which queue to join? The most popular seems to be the one outside the palais présidentiel de l’Élysée, where a three-hour wait in the wind and drizzle might earn you a handshake from Monsieur Hollande himself. Somehow the prospect just didn’t appeal.

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Instead I called in at the Odéon, one of the five national theatres of France, a neoclassical marvel opened in 1782 and tucked away behind the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement. As with many of the smaller venues airing their dirty laundry over the weekend, turns out the Odéon’s guided tours of 30 people apiece were completely booked out as far back as July. (N’inquiétez vous; larger sites around town from the Lido cabaret to the Hôtel de Ville are more-the-merrier and don’t require reservations.) Luckily, some theatrical batting of eyelashes got me into one of the plush velvet seats directly under the abstract plafond painted by André Masson in 1965. The charming guide pointed out the private box from which Marie Antoinette failed to comprehend the revolutionary undertones of Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro at its 1784 premiere. It couldn’t have helped that hers was one of the theatre’s most restricted views of the stage — likely she was too busy admiring her own bling to notice.

From there I rushed to the Comédie Française in the 1st arrondissement – where again I was disappointed to find their visites guidées booked out weeks in advance. ‘Maybe next year!’ the concierge said chirpily. Since I was already in the neighbourhood, I joined the queue snaking around the gardens into the adjoining Palais Royale.

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2013-09-15 13.42.47The labyrinthine 17th-century complex once home to cardinals and kings is now home to a whole lot of French bureaucrats from three major organisations: le Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, le Conseil Constitutionnel and le Conseil d’État. The French certainly know how to do bureaucracy in style (presumably there was a memo about keeping their desks tidy for the weekend’s mass viewing), with little excuse for Monday-itis under baroque chandeliers and the perennial blue sky of a frescoed ceiling.

In addition to an exhibit of medallions given to chevaliers de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (don’t get too excited; Shakira has one), the Ministry of Culture seemed to have borrowed some Proust manuscripts for the weekend and stationed a librarian from the Bibliothèque Nationale at the display case to answer any burning questions.

We filed through 38 areas usually closed off to tourists, including a lavish chapel, a salle à manger where the president of the Conseil Constitutionnel can listen in on actors rehearsing at the neighbouring Comédie Française while he sups, and the recently restored Salle d’assemblée générale with its immense, gold-lined murals by Toulouse-born impressionist Henri Martin, gilded angels spreading their wings over tableaux denoting areas within the purview of the general assembly, including Beaux Arts, Finances and Code Pénal. With issues as important as mariage pour tous on the agenda, it’s encouraging to know the legislation-changing discussions take place in such inspiring surrounds.

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While everyone was oohing and ahhing over the trompe l’oeuil  of the Grand Escalier d’Honneur, I was assuring this very obliging attendant that the camera loved him and his mo.

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2013-09-15 13.54.11My favourite room, though, was the office of Jean-Louis Debré, president of the Conseil Constitutionnel, whose collection of heroic female dolls (or mariannes) from the French Revolution to the present has to be one of the most adorable things I’ve ever seen presided over by security guards. ‘Mais il n’y a pas de Brigitte Bardot,’ one of the watchmen told me regretfully.

All patrimonied out for the day, I headed back to my 20msq studio in an apartment block whose claim to fame I still haven’t worked out. (Apparently Marguerite Duras lived next door briefly?)

But at least I didn’t have to queue to get in.

Dream team of screams: John Zorn in Paris, Jazz à la Villette

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While most Australians were downing chilled beers with an eye on the vote-count, awaiting the anointment of our next Prime Minister, I found myself thrashing about in a former abattoir-turned-arena in Paris, listening to Mike Patton screaming for two hours straight. A timely alternative to following the federal election back home.

The late-night screaming match came towards the end of a marathon trio of concerts celebrating the 60th birthday of John Zorn, a major event at this year’s Jazz à la Villette. The festival’s logo is a mort-vivant, a mummy in motion — rushing to a concert, judging by the names of musicians printed on the bandages streaming behind him. The slogan is borrowed from Frank Zappa: ‘Le jazz n’est pas mort, il a juste une drôle d’odeur.’

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Zappa’s words ring true for his successor Zorn, the New York saxophonist/composer who wears his free jazz as loose as his army cargo pants. Over six hours, braving queues several hundred metres long at the Grande Halle de la Villette, audiences were subjected to the full force of his schizophrenic acid-bop, with its fits of death metal, psychedelia and chaotic klezmer.

The first of the three sessions, kicking off in the Cité de la Musique at 4pm, exposed fans of this hardcore Zorn to his softer side (though no less potent or complex) as avant-garde composer. Nice to open these Parisian concerts  with a French connection: Illuminations for piano, bass and drums is an atonal jazz tribute to Rimbaud, from Zorn’s 2012 album named for the symbolist poet. The Holy Visions featured Australian soprano Jane Sheldon in an a cappella female quintet, each singer armed with a discreet silver tuning fork to navigate harmonies that slip from Hildegard von Bingen into Berio and back again via the occasional doo-wop detour. The group ended not on a chord or cadence, but on the gesture that usually opens a vocal work: a collective drawn breath – here a self-contained, silent rhapsody; a feather on the breath of God. The Arditti Quartet maintained this meditative mood in The Alchemist, with that special blend of impassioned abandon and pinpoint-focused sound that places them among the greatest interpreters of contemporary music for strings. For their efforts, founding violinist Irvine Arditti earned an appreciative kiss from the composer atop his Einsteinian shock of white hair.

phpThumb_generated_thumbnailjpgIn the 7pm session, The Dreamers explored Zorn’s distinctive take on Jewish jazz with excursions into surfer rock and Sephardic melody. Like a volleyball coach seated on the sidelines, he directed his eccentric septet with wild gestures, excessive spirit fingers and eyebrows dancing well above spectacle line. You could almost see the resulting live wire pass fiercely but playfully from him to vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen (mallets flailing in a blur), to guitarist Marc Ribot as he whiplashed his head about in rhythm, to drummer Joey Baron, whose explosive energy came tumbling out on the toms. Zorn at last picked up his saxophone in the Acoustic Masada quartet, duelling in close combat with trumpeter Dave Douglas. ‘They told us to stop at 8.15 but we’ve got too much music to play! We’re gonna go til 10!’ he yelled out extravagantly. In other words: it’s my party and I’ll jam for as long as I want to.

In the final concert’s Electric Masada, Ikue Mori’s computer and synth textures (she’s listed mysteriously in the French program as playing machines) and the spectacularly bearded Jamie Saft’s swirling keyboards created an eerie intensity that was still buzzing in my ears as I descended into the métro at 1am. If extreme crooner Mike Patton sounded at times like a squealing pig led to the slaughter, Zorn on sax often looked and sounded as if he was trying to strangle a flamingo that had no intention of becoming foie gras at the birthday dinner.

Throughout the three concerts, the quality and diversity of collaborators demonstrated that this is a true musicians’ composer. He may be 60, but Zorn is as hyper and innovative as ever. Jazz isn’t dead; it just smells like teen spirit.

Jazz à la Villette continues until September 15. Australians can catch John Zorn’s 60th birthday program (isn’t it always the case that touring composers celebrate major milestones over two years instead of one?!) at the Adelaide Festival in March 2014, tickets on sale October 29.

So you think you can busk in Paris? Eight trade secrets from a pro (not me)

Melissa Accordion 6I’m ashamed to say it. My 48-button pearlescent-red accordion — a beauty purchased three years ago on a previous visit to Paris — is lying dormant in the fireplace and has not left the building since I moved here 1 July. Apart from the odd Yves Montand or Henry Purcell cover eked out as far as the end of the first chorus, she’s a woefully neglected squeezebox in need of a good squeeze from a more talented owner. If she were a French poodle, the la SPA would be sending me threatening letters.

This post is for her, for me, for la vie bohème and for wannabe buskers all over the world, especially debutants here in Paris.

Desmond Huîtres, busker extraordinaire, has agreed to share the secrets of his success as a hapless street musician, so you can prepare to audition for this year’s Musiciens du Métro scheme. I’m already inspired, and solemnly swear to report back as soon as I’ve roused my accordion and taken the plunge.

Busking in Paris: the world’s second oldest profession in the city of light

SamIt’s the middle of August in Paris. Your English-language students have gone south for some sun and the city has been left to the tourists. Thinking of supplementing your summer income with some busking? Maybe it’s time to test your mettle on the streets of Paris. Follow my top eight tips and you can profiter de your busking experience!

1. Go for it!

Don’t be afraid! Putting yourself out on the street and exposing yourself to the scrutiny of passers-by, competing with other street performers, beggars and monkey-stick-wielding organ-grinders is a thrilling but terrifying prospect. If it’s your first time – or your first time busking in a new city – the only way is to jump in the deep end. A ‘nothing to lose’ attitude will hold you in good stead. And remember: they can smell fear and desperation.

2. Ask yourself: ‘Why are you busking?’

The English word ‘busk’ comes from the Spanish verb buscar ‘to seek’ (i.e. fame or fortune). But what are you really searching for? Whether it’s emergency beer money you’re after (la vie bohème doesn’t come as cheap as you might think), an audience for practising your special skill or just for fun, being clear about your motivation (or at least open to thinking about it as you go) will help you hone your act and make the most of the experience.

3. Location is everything!

This busker extraordinaire’s best advice is to find somewhere you feel comfortable with plenty of people around and not too much background noise. Some popular locations in Paris include tourist hotspots such as Montmartre and Notre Dame as well as the Paris Métro. Here are the pros and cons:

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Stars have been discovered on the Paris métro, but if you are a debutant and feeling a bit shaky you might like to think twice about like to think twice about bursting your equals in a crammed carriage. Regardless of your expertise, make sure you choose a good line (1 and 2 are recommended) and a good time of day (rush-hour 5-7 weekdays is not a good idea — especially not on line 13 — unless your act revolves around impersonating a soggy crêpe). Playing in the metro stops is also a possibility, and you will often see performers in large stations such as Châtelet, Opéra and République, although these areas are more stringently policed so take care.

The Pros: Playing on the métro is a real test of your act! It can also be a beautiful spot – on line 2, you can watch the city roll by as a captive audience watches you.)

The Cons: Your captive audience may turn on you. Aside from the risk of finishing your number on your arse on the wobbly line 11, there are some other technical challenges, too. For instance, after you perform you will need to pass around your hat (which takes a lot more guts than leaving one in front of you on the ground — do you have the guts?). Technically, you also require a permit (auditions for 300 spots are run by RAPT and start in September) and although nothing like Henry VIII’s decree to ‘whip unlicensed minstrels and players, fortune-tellers, pardoners and fencers, as well as beggars’ (which I believe is still on the books in London) is enforced in the Paris métro, punishments range from a stern telling off (in French) from the gendarmes to confiscation of busking paraphernalia, including money-hats and monkey-sticks.  Even fines are not unknown. You might also get robbed on the métro. Keep that in mind.

Tourist spots

Mime MontmartrePopular locations are around Notre Dame and Montmartre (a classic for accordionists and mimes). The streets around the basilica are full of little nooks and crannies and enterprising performers might rally a crowd in front of the church itself. You could also try in front of the Centre Pompidou or on the Île Saint-Louis (formerly known as Cow Island).

The Pros: These places are always packed. Also they are large so you can find a spot you like and make it your own! Often they are also quite beautiful.

The Cons: People live around Montmartre, so you may be abused by residents about noise if you get too far off the tourist trail. Also be aware that, like in any city, many buskers have their favourite spots and if you’re on someone else’s turf expect to learn some dirty French!

4. Smile and dance and sing!

Whatever your act you must be charming. This applies to busking in general but especially to busking in Paris, where smiles from strangers can be hard to come by. ‘Where does my charm lie?’ you must ask yourself.  If you’re a walk-by busker you really only have a few seconds to impress people. Dancing is always a winner. Especially in boots. And especially if this is not your skill. Know your act and play to your audience!

5. Be prepared for anything! To get the best of the experience, say yes to everything. If you get a song request try your best even if you don’t know the second verse. If you are approached by fellow buskers and invited to form an impromptu group, pourquoi pas? If you are asked directions and don’t know the way, give ’em anyway. If you are mobbed by a group of elderly German tourists, dance a polka for them. When you busk, you’re throwing yourself over to the unexpected. Embrace the wonderful surprises that come your way and you’ll make the most of it.

6. Really: be prepared for anything.

More specifically be prepared for being harassed by angry neighbours, angry buskers, angry children, angry commuters, angry policemen, angry restauranteurs, and perverts who are not-so-discreetly taking photos of your crotch… Unfortunately, this stuff happens. Chin up. It’s part of the fun. That being said, Paris has gained something of a reputation as a city unfriendly to buskers. Really, this is based on the high number of buskers, schemers and scammers chasing tourist euros and les flics trying to control the situation. But realistically, you’d be unlucky to have a problem. In several months this busker extraordinaire has had zero run-ins with the authorities and only one with a pervert taking photos of his crotch.

7. Think about your act.

Spending a little time thinking about your act will help your chances. Ask yourself if it will it work in the space you are performing in. If you are playing an instrument and/or singing will you be loud enough? Will you be visible from a distance?

Eugène_Atget,_Organ-grinder,_1898–998. …But don’t think about your act too much!

Unless you are really a pro who can comfortably manage a large group of people surrounding you and you have a specially trained monkey that goes around collecting money at the end of the show, you’re probably going to be pretty unprepared. But that’s part of the fun. The best way to improve your act is by trial and error! If it’s not working out, try to pinpoint the reason. Maybe you need to move? Maybe it doesn’t matter; just play and enjoy the beautiful view of Paris (See No.3: location is everything).

Best of luck, fellow buskers — see you on the streets of Paris!

Cendrillon does the Charleston

Bal du Centenaire
Tous Dehors, Bart & Baker

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 5 July

View photos here

Theatre Champs E Centenaire poster w J Baker

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had its first succès de scandale a hundred years ago just weeks after it opened, when the world premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring incited the most infamous punch-drunk riot in the history of classical music. In 2013, concert halls and theatres the world over are commemorating that seismic moment, but Parisians haven’t forgotten where it all started, judging by the crowd that turned up dressed to the nines for the venue’s Bal du Centenaire in the first week of July.

No brawls or virgin sacrifices on this balmy Friday night: the theatre celebrated its birthday with a very different danse sauvage from the annals, tipping its top hat to Josephine Baker’s 1925 Paris debut (and riding on Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby coattails) with the salle de concerts transformed into a roaring twenties music hall for one night.

To make it all about me for a moment, as all good bloggers must, I felt a particularly personal sense of occasion: after all, it was a sort of premiere of my own in the city’s most elegant Art Deco theatre. There I was, barely unpacked a mere five days after relocating from Sydney to a 20m2 studio in Montparnasse, and my French marraine fée was whisking me off to a ball — more Cendrillon than La Baker, a debutante stepping out in Parisian society.

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That said, admittedly, I stepped out with two left feet, and if I scandalised anyone it was by tripping over them. Doing their best to give me a wide birth as I stumbled to and fro, Parisians of all ages twirled, shimmied and rumbaed their way around the planche de danse constructed on the stage. One fleet-footed, silver-haired fox took pity and dipped me — that is, turned me dramatically upside down. Pearls, fringed hems and Edith Sitwell turbans brushed up against me. (Sadly, no banana skirt in sight.) I fanned my sweating man-bag with peacock feathers as he sank into a plush velvet seat; my heart sank when I spied two girls of around ten years old apiece who were not only better dancers than me but also more chicly attired.

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The band was so taut and energetic that it hardly mattered. Windman Laurent Dehors’s nine-piece Tous Dehors had us kicking up our heels in authentic 1920s style, from the inevitable In the Mood via “un petit tour de Carmen” to Zez Confrey’s novelty charmer Kitten on the Keys (the latter’s piano cascades played by tubaist Bastien Stil, alternating comically between keyboard and hulking brass). On the other end of the size spectrum, I was delighted by Damien Sabatier’s solos on what I initially thought was a tiny tin whistle but turned out to be a “graille” (catalan oboe).

During a late intermission, waiting for the deuxième danse DJ set to get underway at midnight, revellers took to dancing in the street while front-of-house staff in top hats and capes sashayed across the marble floors inside. But the elation didn’t last long; Bart & Baker’s jazz remixes were old-fashioned (and not in the good way), Véronique Hubert’s video projections lamentably amateur. It was unclear what age bracket the theatre hoped to attract. Dancers dragged their feet. This Cendrillon promptly turned into a pumpkin. All night, the spotlight from the Tour Eiffel remained fixed on the theatre, one icon illuminating another. Joyeux anniversaire.

Things have calmed down a bit since The Rite of Spring premiere, then, but the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées remains one of Paris’s classiest and most beloved.

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More centenary events at www.theatrechampselysees.fr